Shadow and light.

Watching the mysterious interplay between the sky and the grass, the trees and the flowers, I found myself thinking about the way shadow and light makes its way through life for every one of us. We live amidst both glories and ruins, all day long having to make sense of the very beautiful and the very broken… and the metaphor of shadow and light reflects that reality in its own limited way.

Two phone calls today reminded me of a time a few years ago when three good friends and I were invited to speak together in a city far from here. We were from different parts of America, with different backgrounds, each of us occupied with different vocations— and yet, we shared some things in common, very deeply.

I remember the joy of those couple of days. Long friendships marked by unusual respect and affection, good food time and again, and then too soon, we all got on planes to go home.

My conversations this morning were about heartaches that have come to two of my friends. Both are health-related, one so debilitating he hasn’t worked for months, and one so devastating that he is unlikely to ever work again. The stories are complex, as they must be, and I could say more but won’t here— only that each one of us have been wounded by the world over the last few years in ways that we never imagined, and in our different ways we each bear its scars.

Years ago, in my late thirties, I was faced with a heart-wrenching tragedy— and I remember wondering if all that I had long believed about life and the world was just not enough. In fact, in the days that followed I seriously began to think about giving up on what had for years made most sense to me, of who I was, of what the world was like, of my most foundational beliefs about God and everything else.

But over time, the days becoming weeks becoming months, as I sat silently in my sorrow, I began to rebuild, slowly by slowly asking myself questions that I had never allowed. It was not easy, but over those hard months I began to see in ways that I had never seen, to believe in ways that I had never believed.

Of course most of that meant having to rethink the reality of sorrow, and joy. Why were they different? How were they different? Did it matter if they were different?

I knew that Buddhism, and every variety of pantheism, was not satisfying to me; in the end, asking me to believe that everything is the same— justice and injustice, good and evil, happiness and hurt, joy and sorrow. That was never going to be enough. And I knew that the hard edges of materialism had never drawn me in, seeing an endgame that required a nihilism that would never be mine.

But if not that, then what?

Long ago I rejected cheap beliefs, cheap ideas, cheap convictions. Human beings that we are, we long for more. Somehow we have to make sense of true good, true beauty, and true love, even as we take into our hearts the consequences of being broken and living amidst the brokenness. Is it possible to find honest joy in the face of real sorrow?

As I talked with my friends today, I remembered to remember the good gift of their friendship. We delighted in our days together, committed as we were to a deeper vocation that made sense of being together in the same place for the same reasons. But I also grieved today, knowing that my friends have suffered, deeply and terribly.

If this was a rare day, an unusual one, then it might be different. But these are my days, and this was my day; beyond my four friends and their sorrows, I have spent the hours responding to more anguish than I had imagined, waking up with the sun early as I did. On the one hand I could hardly wait to see the morning glory of the tiger lilies in the light of a new day; and on the other I knew that this too would be a day of more weight than I wanted, of more burden than I was ready for— and this is only my small life. And as always is, each of the stories I have heard have been institutional too, misdirected desires in universities and healthcare systems, governments and prisons, bringing their own compounded wrongs. As we listen to the world all over the world all this is only more intense, aware as we are of griefs and wounds for everyone everywhere.

Yes, shadow and light, all day long, day after day after day.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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