“Some are bearers of peace and trust
in situations of crisis and conflict.
They keep going even when trials or failures
weigh heavily on their shoulders.”
~ Brother Roger of Taizé, A Future of Peace
Ever since my youngest childhood years, I’ve befriended my most elderly neighbors. Perhaps beginning with the patience of my grandmother, and on through my school years I could recognize how my eldest teachers could listen best, and also tell the most captivating stories. And this was common between playgrounds, neighborhood stores, and- when I began working- the customers I served. One of my grocery delivery stops, when I worked for a market in New York City, was the home of a retired teacher. In my gratitude for the wise anecdotes and gentle encouragements, I would give her drawings I made, which she cherished. As I advanced into art school, one of my very rare fortunes in those days was to have landed in an elderly illustrator’s final class before he retired. He had apprenticed with Edward Hopper, and I would divert him from critiquing my work with requests for more stories about camping in the woods of Brooklyn in the 1920s, watching Zack Wheat play for the Dodgers, and the horse-drawn brewery vans in Bay Ridge. This man must’ve been in his 80s, and he taught us plenty about rendering and gesture-drawing. To this day, I remain fascinated with eras that long preceded my birth.
Getting through an enormous hardship, about 14 years ago, and deciding to rebuild my life by focusing all my forces into graduate school, it was an octogenarian neighbor who gave me words of faith. I went to visit him with the good news about beginning graduate school in Boston (to study medieval history and archival sciences). “You’ve been through a lot, for your age,” he declared, adding “but you have a brilliant future,” with his hands gripping both my shoulders. This gentleman passed away shortly afterwards, and so these were his last words to me. At that time, I had so many doubts about my abilities and needed those words. Too much uncertainty to presume far ahead.
These times are replete with indefinitely grim forecasts, all following litanies of harsh news to which we have grown accustomed. And with reason. Added to a general societal apathy are swelling tides of discouragement. Decreases in employment, commerce, and economic opportunities are well entrenched in this culture. In recent months, I have seen friends and neighbors numbered among the disenfranchised. In our conversations, we wonder where the road turns. Have we yet seen the depths of this current duress? Having surpassed the winter’s epicenter, it seems easier to imagine the harshest of generally difficult times is past. But numerous commentators broadcast the worst is still to come. Downsizes, cuts, outsourcing, the “elimination of redundancies,” and references to “the pauperization of the middle class.”What to believe, and where to place that proverbial grain of salt? Beyond that, to be as hopeful as one is realistic- perhaps even more so. Confidently going forward, even as we walk through streets of “closed,” “for rent,” and “foreclosure” signs affixed to empty spaces.
When I first met Brother Roger, in Taizé, he was 88 years old; two years before he published the words quoted above in an essay. He addressed present-day society with references to the ancient Jeremiah, “God has plans for a future of peace for you, not of misfortune.” We must not let ourselves “be caught up in a spiral of gloom,” as some of us have been called to encourage others and be “bearers of trust.” With courageous hearts “we must keep on going,” in spite of the heavy burdens of trials and losses. Brother Roger’s words speak to that antithetical resolve- that determination to persevere when one’s conviction is the only persuasive evidence. Then we really do become creative bearers of stability in the midst of despairing souls. And it is a confrontation of the challenge of that easily spiraling gloom, bearing a shared burden of trust.
We cannot predict where, or when, or if this somber road will turn a corner. Listening to so many grim personal stories and being immersed in this society, my perspectives are put to the test. And listening, saturating as it can be sometimes, is often my wisest response. We all wish to be heard. My recollections only comprise one severe time of recession- that of the early 1990s. The current economic decline brings to mind those years of closings, job losses, and an exodus out of this region. I had been only a few years out of college, and saw most of my friends leave, while I worked two jobs to survive- and be able to stay here. It meant living alongside a lot of misery, investing in what many told me were lost causes. One of the most infuriating things I’d be told, mostly by evacuating acquaintances- and it happened countless times- was “you’re still here?” I developed some good responses, such as “and you’re visiting here?” Brother Roger reminded me that Jeremiah invested in a field that was located in a disaster area, a place from which his friends had fled, as he became certain of his purpose where he lived. But it’s always easier said than done. The necessary ingredient is to trust that assurance of a hopeful future, of bright days ahead, of consistently seeing spring though the winter.
This is an era of hesitancy. Yet we are ever enjoined to go forth, as our days advance in linear succession, even when details and timetables are elusive. Even when what we believe conflicts with what we see. I've lost jobs through layoffs twice, and during one of those ugly processes a coworker of mine blacked out faces on a corporate group photo- respectively with the dismissed employees. He wrote across the top, "who's next" with his marker, in a pained show of gallows humor. When his turn came, after he packed his effects, he returned to the common room, and blacked out his own face in the picture. For those who must bear witness to these things, there must be a reckoning of our own approach to life when there are so many justifiable reasons to be pessimistic. Evidently there will always be trials for us to contend with. And just as fears can be dispelled and stood down, so can ideals be put to the test, and constructive reinforcement can be founded upon reality.
When our tangible sources run thin, our precarious fulcrum points upon which our lives turn become apparent. How to stay inspired, and how to proceed with a realistic positivism, instead of gravitating into that ubiquitous spiral of gloom? Drawing nearer, and depending more upon the wellspring of life, my thoughts can dwell on the hopeful things I can count. Health, abilities, and prospects are stock-taking ingredients. The inadvertent and invaluable investments of rich friendship. Reflect upon the life-giving. Recall the finest words we have received; these things remembered have no expiration date, and are worth committing to memory. Save the good words for the gold coins they truly are. Good-tasting nutrients help too, I have learned from an elderly friend. And it's all needed, since getting through these times requires a lot of energy.