My priest recently said in one of his homilies something that struck me as rather profound. He stated that the most important symbol engraved upon a tombstone is neither the date of birth nor the date of death; rather, it is the dash between those numbers that is the most meaningful. It is what we do with that dash, that time between our dates of birth and death that gives meaning and significance to our life. And this is true regardless of how long or short of a life that may be.
With the passing of my beloved wife last November, this struck me to my very core. I have been reflecting on Jenny’s life and have come to realize all of the people she had touched, how many lives she changed for the better, and how many people she comforted with her love when they felt despondent and alone. With all of the medical issues my Jenny had, she could have easily retreated into her own self and cried “woes is me”! She was not one to play the victim though, and I always admired and respected her immensely for that! Whenever she was physically able to do so, and indeed sometimes when even that was questionable, she lived her life by caring for and loving others. It was something I saw her do again and again and again for the 25 years we were together.
I am rather slow on the uptake most of the time, but she taught me a lesson that I didn’t even pick up on until after she was gone. You see, most of the time the people that Jenny helped showed her great gratitude, affection, and love in return. But there were some people that only wanted more from Jenny, even when she could give any more. Those few people became bitter and spiteful towards her when they couldn’t “get more” accordingly. Those broken relationships injured Jenny deeply and left her feeling betrayed, and yet she never gave up on people. She remained vulnerable enough to put herself out there to try and help and love others yet again.
Now many people when you ask them what they think vulnerability means will respond with the answer that it is weakness. That is sure as heck what I was taught. Most men in my and preceding generations were brought up with that same notion, I think. I was taught that big boys don’t cry. My boyhood heroes certainly wouldn’t show signs of vulnerability. You certainly didn’t see John Wayne throw his feelings out on the table like so many cards. He absolutely wouldn’t cry. Stoicism and strength were something to be admired, particularly in men. And that is how I was raised and how I lived most of my life to date. (Never mind that most of the time these days I have become a great big wuss!)
But what Jenny and the example of her life showed me was that REAL strength doesn’t come from living a stoic life. It doesn’t come from holding one’s self aloof from others. Vulnerability is not weakness at all. Indeed it is the very antithesis of weakness. It takes great courage and strength to be vulnerable and live your life being open to others, even though showing such vulnerability might get you hurt.
My brother-in-law, Jenny’s brother, came to live with us a year and a half ago. (This was because once again Jenny was showing great courage in her vulnerability in reaching out to her brother who didn’t have any place else to go at that time.) Jeff likewise showed great vulnerability in agreeing to come live with us. Jeff has lived a difficult life, and he would be the first to tell you that it was largely due to his own doing. Jeff is a fighter and is exceptionally tough with his street smarts, and yet he is like his sister and indeed his whole family, as he exhibited that same kind of strength in vulnerability. Jeff, despite being a man’s man, was never afraid to tell me that he loved me. He has put himself out there literally giving his last dollar in his wallet to try and help someone else that was worse off than him. He too has been hurt in his attempts to help others at times because of that strength in vulnerability, and yet he perseveres also.
So now I am taking a new look at how I live my life this past year. I am struggling, mightily at times, to put myself out there more and more for others. I am trying to shed my more stoic and self-centered exterior. I am trying to find the courage to be vulnerable especially with my family and dear friends. While frightening and difficult at first, it has become easier as time progresses.
I have a friend whom, along with his wonderful family, has more or less adopted me this year. They have filled many of my weekends with laughter and happiness, not to mention wonderful meals. (Being a fat man, that is something very dear to me!) I am very grateful for their friendship and told them so last time I was at their home and that I loved them all very much. At first there was an awkward moment. After all, guys just don’t do that these days, but then they each responded that they too loved me.
I am not going to go through life holding back anymore. If somebody has touched my life or allowed me the privilege of coming into their lives and touching them, then I am going to respond with gratitude and let them know it! I want to find and hold on to that courage to live my life in the strength of vulnerability.
Living in my own shell certainly was not a life. It was an unsatisfying and unfulfilling existence. My choosing to love God and to love my neighbor as myself by being open and vulnerable to others has proven to be a much more rewarding life. I know that is what Jenny did and what she would want me to do.
Indeed, her wish for me was that if anything ever happened to her that I would fall in love and get married again. She said that I had too much love to hold that inside of myself. Well, I don’t know about all of that, as she always brought out the best in me. I will leave my path open to what God wants me to do whether that is marriage, should the right woman come along, or perhaps taking Holy Orders and entering the clergy. Perhaps I will remain single and simply live my life loving God, my fellow man, and his creation as best as I am able.
Regardless of the path that the Good Lord places before me, I am going to make dang sure I try living my life with the strength and courage of vulnerability. I intend to try to follow the example Jenny lived. It has taken me far too many years but I have concluded that it is the only way to truly live that dash between my birth date and my eventual date of death… to live a life of meaning and significance. By doing so, I will hopefully have lived a life that will make my daughters reflect upon with smiles when my time comes to leave this earth, just as it has been for me with the fond memories of their mother’s life. Jenny definitely lived the dash.