Thursday, June 05, 2014

Posting in the Face of Futility

Can't really say I feel like posting anything. Just learned that our longtime, much beloved reader Ben's wife, Patti, died in her sleep yesterday morning at age 57. I wish we could offer more than our thoughts and prayers, and I wish words didn't always fail me under these circumstances. Maybe it's because I rely too much on words -- expecting them to do too much -- but there is always that point that they just bounce off the target, Death being the worst offender of all.

Is there anything one can say beyond expressions of sympathy and support? Not to minimize the latter, but all of us want to know: WTF?! At times like this, life seems almost calculated to break our hearts, and the more we invest in it -- the more we love, care, and treasure -- the worse the heartbreak. Is this any way to run a cosmos?

They say that one of the biggest differences between men and women is that women will tend to just empathize and "be there" for someone in emotional pain, whereas men try to find practical solutions. To which I'm sure Ben can testify! A fellow might think he's come up with the Perfect Solution, and the next thing he knows, he's having the conversation with the flying plates (metaphorically speaking. At times).

I've mentioned before that in graduate school, students had to be involved in mandatory group psychotherapy. A female student was going on and on about some sort of problem with her marriage. I chimed in with what I thought was some choice advice, to which she responded with words to the effect of, "no, jackass, I don't need advice. I just need to express myself and feel understood."

Right. Got it.

Even so, the first thing I want to do is Consult the Elders and try to wrap my mind around it. In short, I can't help being me, jackass or no jackass.

I pull down a volume of Josef Pieper, and open to a couple of chapters called The Art of Not Yielding to Despair, and "Eternal Life" (quotation marks in original). The former touches on the persistence of Hope in the face of the End.

We all know the end is coming one way or the other, so by all rights we should always be in a state of despair, for it implies that "everything we do in this corporeal existence is deprived of value by the fact that in the end we all must die." Thus, "the ability not to yield to despair when confronted by the fact of death... is a matter of great practical concern to us all."

So there it is: we have every rational reason to feel hopeless and bereft of meaning.

But that is not what life is like. Indeed, life itself is a kind of audacious expression of hope, is it not? I say this because by definition it is always reaching beyond itself to an unknown future state, in defiance of all reason.

But it is the same with our spiritual life. Like life, our souls have a "not-yet" structure that points to a fulfillment that cannot occur on this plane, in any "here" or any "now" this side of death. It is very much as if our spiritual life points through and beyond death, to another reality, despite the evidence of our senses. For this reason, despair is the exception, not the rule.

So, our spiritual life is oriented to a future life, which we would say is the real object of our hope. In other words, the "not-yet" alluded to above is precisely the object of spiritual hope. We are attracted to it, just as we feel its pull. "Hope" is just the name we give to this process -- again knowing that the Hope cannot possibly be fulfilled on this side of death. Thus,

"the man who truly hopes, like the man who prays, must remain open to a fulfillment of which he knows neither in what hour nor in what form it will finally come."

In another chapter, Pieper cites the last canto of an obscure and somewhat awkwardly translated early 19th century poem that reads,

When my eyes their final tears have shed / You beckon, call me to divinity. / A man, a pilgrim, lays down his weary head, / A god begins his passage instantly.

Which I take to mean a new life in the orbit of the object that had previously been only darkly known via faith and hope.

And please forgive any unhelpful jackassery.


Van Harvey said...

" Just learned that our longtime, much beloved reader Ben's wife, Patti, died in her sleep yesterday morning at age 57."

Ohhh... Ben, I'm so sorry. I wish I could travel with my words to you... they can't but fail on their own.

Gagdad Bob said...

My sentiments exactly.

Rick said...

Bob, thanks for doing this.

julie said...

Yes, exactly. This is one of those times I wish our virtual community were a real neighborhood; at least then, we could actually be there. Words seem so futile.

mushroom said...

I kept reading what Ben wrote yesterday thinking I had misunderstood it, thinking it couldn't say what it seemed to.

You have to hurt with people. We can only feel a little bit of the pain that Ben feels, but maybe it's that much that he won't.

John Lien said...

Nice post, Bob. And Ben, I hope that your knowing that friends scattered all over this country care about you and your family helps ease the pain -even if just by a tiny amount.

Magister said...

Ben, sympathy here, too. I know I'll be devastated, flattened, hammered in the guts if my wife precedes me, so just know another guy out there really feels it. It's personal, yes, but you're not alone.

And I'm sure you know we're all saying prayers for your wife, you, and your family.

Magister said...

"no, jackass, I don't need advice. I just need to express myself and feel understood."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that ...

Magister said...

Oh and Bob, the darkness comes every night. We still light candles. If we didn't, we'd be in the dark.

Posting in the face of futility doesn't conquer death. Nothing does. But doing so is a reminder that we're alive, however vulnerable. If you didn't post, you'd probably feel impotent and frustrated. Now you merely feel inadequate.

It's okay. Aren't we all? You've pulled us once again into a common circle, and that means a lot.

Gagdad Bob said...

In Vanderleun's sidebar there is a timely quote from Tolkien:

"I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a long defeat -- though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."

Magister said...

Precisely. The universe is tragic.

But reality isn't.

Don Johnson said...

Death is such a cheat, and shocks every time. We are not made to accept it.

Godspeed, dear Patti. And our arms around our Ben.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Yesterday, before the paramedics left, the senior one, a very nice lady asked, "do you have any family you can call to be with you before we go so you won't be alone?"

"Well, no. But I'll be ok," I replied.

But she wouldn't leave unless I had someone else there with me. So one of our neighbors and the Chaplain filled in.

I realized it was all too true, other than Patti, and our two daughters I have no family, which may seem odd for a guy in his fifties.
Plus, out daughters are in Kentucky and North Carolina.

Haven't felt quite this lonely for 33 years, I thought, as I talked to our neighbor and the Chaplain.

Don't get me wrong, they were good company and all, it's just...I dunno.

However, I was mistaken.
After, reading today's post, and the comments here and on my blog, I now gno I have a lot of friends and family right here!

Patti is smiling right now knowing how blessed I am to have brothers and sisters like you guys! :)

Thank you all for your prayers and friendship. I feel you in spirit, and that is truly not futile in my book!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I reckon what I'm tryin' to say is you guys kicked futility's ass today.

Paul Griffin said...

I have thought of a thousand things to say, and none of them suffice, so just know that you have my prayers, as well as those of my family.

Alan Baldwin M.S. said...

Thoughts, prayers and tears for you and your girls.

Leslie Godwin said...

Ben, I posted on your blog, and will continue to pray for you and your girls.

I do suffer from what Bob described -- feeling despair at times because of the cruelty and evil in the world and watching our country lose her moorings in love of freedom and truth, personal responsibility, and fear of God.

I was flying home the other day from visiting my mom in FL and some wispy clouds were passing underneath the plane. It reminded me of how a movie producer might show God's presence. Not sure if you know what I mean. But I asked God, "Why are we here just to suffer and eventually die? Just saying." And I felt Him respond, "You came from me and you will come back to me." It seemed to answer my question, but didn't remove my angst about it very much. But I felt a glimpse of something to hold onto and try to understand better. Part of my problem is that those who are left behind when one of us goes back to God suffer so much.

I also think that mothers more than fathers are always aware of the possibility of something bad happening to their children. They might express it in ways that aren't helpful, like worrying about their child catching a cold or putting out an eye with a stick, but I think it's because they are made to protect their children. So the worrying is similar to a watchdog always scanning their environment for something out of place or a potential threat, but ending up barking at the UPS guy delivering a package.

So when Bob tells me to fight against those urges, I no longer call him names (that wasn't me he referred to, although I was in that group at school which is actually how we met.)

I second what Julie said...I wish we could all be there with you and would love to hear your stories about Patti when you are ready to tell them, and meet your girls, and just be there with you without saying anything at all.

julie said...


Part of my problem is that those who are left behind when one of us goes back to God suffer so much.

Exactly. And in Ben's case, the added worry of health and the fact that he's alone. I was glad to see his daughters will be there tomorrow.

ted said...

The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity. -- Seneca

Ben, my prayers to you and well wishes to your family during this time.

Brazentide said...

Words fail indeed.

It's impossible to fully comprehend the death of someone so close until you actually experience it.

My prayers are with you and your family.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for sharing that, Leslie.
Patti suffered from the same acuteness to cruelties, injustices, and unfairness (not that I'm not immune to despair at times but not to the same extent as she was).

That's good advice from Bob. Generally speaking I think it's harder for women to deal with despair because of the natural affinity to nurture just like it's tougher for guys to just listen and not try to fix everything.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thank you Magister, Paul and Alan and everyone I haven't yet thanked at my blog.
Your prayers have helped and your concern really gets to me.

And thank you, Bob.

Jack said...

Ben- You and your daughters are in my prayers.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Ted and Brazentide.
I cooncur.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Jack.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Ben, the J.R. and I will keep you and Patti in our prayers.

Thank you, Bob, for this virtual shiva, rending our hearts with a shared grief and an eternal hope.

Julie, is there an address for Ben that can be shared privately?

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Joan and JR.
I'm at if you guys wanna talk sme more.

julie said...

Hi everyone,

As already noted, many of us would like to be able to do more for Ben than offer prayers and caring words, even knowing the words do give comfort. With that in mind, we are in the process of setting up a memorial fund in Patti's name, to help Ben and his daughters to get through the difficult days ahead. As soon as it's available, a link to a youcaring page for making donations will be listed here, at my blog, on Ben's, and anywhere else folks might like to post them. (And fwiw, this was in no way Ben's idea, though we do now have his permission to get this all set up.)

Alternatively, if you'd like to contribute, but don't feel comfortable donating online or with a credit card, send me an email and I can give you Ben's address, and you can simply mail him a check. Or even just a card, or a jar of kimchee. Maybe some treats for his dog, Skully. You get the picture.

Thanks in advance - I know it will be deeply appreciated.

julie said...

(I guess I should give my email:
juliecork ~at~

Tusar Nath Mohapatra said...

Reading a page from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri is perhaps the most appropriate response in the face of death. Reposing faith on those words and lines is the minimum we can do as helpless human beings.

Teri said...

Maybe the view from 5 years past a loss will help a bit. I lost my husband of 37 years in 2008. We didn't have children, I'm an only child and my mom had died several year before. I truly felt alone. I was stunned by the response of my friends and online friends that I'd never met. So accept the love and sympathy from all of us. Know that Patti is now in a place of pure joy and that you will be reunited some day. Life will continue to carry you away from the time you had together. You will need to find a way to live out the rest of your life without the woman, the marriage, and the life you had together. But not today. This is the time to deal with the grief and the loss that has left a huge hole in your life. May God comfort you and your family, Ben.