I started at Hope College in 2000; newborns from that year are appearing in my classes now. My three daughters have grown up in Holland, and my oldest is attending Hope. I’ve stayed in Lubbers Hall long enough to watch many colleagues complete their careers and retire, and I have seen a remarkable number of other colleagues die at a relatively young age.
Students may notice the painting at the western end of the Lubbers third-floor hallway; it was made by Susan Atefat-Peckham, who died, with her young son Cyrus, in a car crash while doing research in the Middle East. Or they may consider the two framed photographs and artwork near the department office: they commemorate Jennifer Young-Tait, our beloved assistant professor of African-American literature who died in childbirth, and David Klooster, our revered English department chair, who died of brain cancer within months of Jennifer’s death.
I am not sure that we ever will recover from those losses. And now we are grieving Jonathan Hagood, whose energy for the thankless work of administration seemed boundless. He departed unexpectedly, at age 43, just a few weeks ago.
There are few in Lubbers Hall whose lives have not been by impacted by grievous personal suffering: some of those burdens are public; more are carried in solitude.
In times of sorrow and loss, I have sometimes looked to the Book of Job. He has lost everything—possessions, health, and family—and he cries out to God for an explanation of why that has happened to him, when he is such a good man. God replies, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
It is not, of course, for us to question the mysterious workings of Providence. Everything, as some say, happens for a reason.
But such cold resignation finds a reassuring complement in the Gospel of John, where we read that “Jesus wept.” The Lord was, in that moment, responding like any suffering human to the death of his friend, Lazarus. Job might have asked, “What can an omnipotent God know of our pain, what it means to lose someone you love, to lie on a heap of ashes, despised and hopeless?” The pain of Jesus suggests that God is not an aloof, indifferent creative force, but a consciousness who understands our suffering and seeks to heal it.
I have spent much of my scholarly career contemplating the life and works of Walt Whitman. The Civil War changed him from an arrogant nationalist, who urged his country to fratricidal war, to the “Wound Dresser.” Whitman faced the blood and screams of the hospitals, and over several years, he learned to extend his empathy to the soldiers of the South as much as to those of the North: “Was one side so brave, the other was equally brave,” he wrote.
As the war came to end after the culminating sacrifice of President Lincoln—with 800,000 already dead—Whitman struggled to salvage a larger meaning from such loss, and to make a final peace from which the nation could move forward:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
In this poem, “Reconciliation,” Whitman steps outside the conflicts of the American present, defined by transient political and economic interests, into a larger realm of self-transcendence and cosmic forgiveness.
Great losses can provoke a profound and needed shedding of the manacles forged in the first half of our lives, as Richard Rohr suggests in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. To lose everything—or at least many things—is to finally address the broken self you have become. Do you even feel confident before your own judgment? Are you now the person you hoped to become? What stops you from realizing that self in the time you have left?
This year is the anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, brother of an assassinated president, John, both brothers of Joseph, lost in World War II. By the time of his own run for the presidency in 1968, Robert was a man transfigured by pain, whose empathetic imagination had expanded far beyond his elite upbringing, and personal ambition, to include the poor and discriminated against, and the dispossessed of all kinds.
In his most memorable speech, following the murder of Martin Luther King, Kennedy paraphrased Aeschylus: “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Robert Kennedy was assassinated within two months.
None of us can say what the future holds, but we—as a campus, and as individuals—can take some consolation in the unshakable truth that from pain comes wisdom, and that from loss comes renewed dedication to shared values and beliefs.
In that sense, the larger function of teaching cannot be fulfilled by any single person; it is the task of a community struggling, always, to reform itself, to reconcile its differences, to feel empathy across divisions, to embrace humility, and to collectively seek a higher purpose than the knowledge of our disciplines.
We teach by who we become more than by what we know.