Head of School’s Notebook: Balance

March 24, 2023

My father passed away over the Break, finishing his life on the 7th of March, the day before he was to celebrate his 87th birthday. Leave it to Dad to complete the circle of the year before quietly bowing out. He was my hero and always will be.

As news of his death has spread, people have shared all kinds of thoughtful sentiments, offered support, and expressed condolences. Many have sent poems, vignettes, words from scripture, song lyrics and other articulations that somehow capture the elusive mystery of mortality.

One of those shared excerpts is from Francis Weller, the author of The Geography of Sorrow.  “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”

I find wisdom in those words and in the balance of two very different but complementary sensations. And while this language came to me because I am mourning, it is not specifically about grieving. It is about balance, expectation, yin and yang, that which we anticipate with every fiber of our being and that which we dread. It is about finding peace when nothing in the world seems peaceful. It is about endings and the complicated feelings that come with leaving or being left.

Our seniors are beginning to know those very feelings. Most will express their sensations through a series of apparent contradictions, “I am ready to leave Cate, and I am afraid to go.”  “I’m really happy, but I’m also kinda sad.”  “Why do they even call it commencement?  It’s an ending right? I hate endings.”

I often tell seniors that their divergent feelings are evidence that they are ready for the next step.   It is what is supposed to happen. They are being “stretched large” by their grief and their gratitude. But that does not make leaving any easier. It might make it even harder.

Ginger and I know this conundrum as well, for we too are grieving our coming departure even as we are grateful for all we have known here and all that awaits us. I wonder, sometimes, if we lose sight of the necessity of such grief. It is painful. It brings us to tears at odd moments. Our feelings overwhelm us and we struggle to control them.

We can’t always. That’s the lesson. Sometimes we shouldn’t. If compassion is only enabled by a heart that has been exercised and made supple by sorrow, then we should not be afraid of giving in to our sorrow. To hurt because it is okay to hurt, and to trust: in our strength, in our resilience, in our ability to feel the most extreme emotions and to find our way back to our center.

How much sorrow can we hold? More than we know. At least as much as we can return in gratitude. How fortunate we are to live and be human and to feel all that we feel.