On Grief and Gratitude
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, lines 399-406
Only a couple of days after graduating from Hillsdale College this spring, I found myself staring out the unfamiliar window of my best friend’s guest room, gazing over a pitch-black Indiana landscape, with only a few scattered, silent trees and a new-planted field. My parents had absconded with my gown and the remains of my dorm room, and my diploma would not be arriving for months. I had stayed behind to attend the first wedding of the summer. A day or two earlier, I had attended my last Mass at St. Anthony’s, the church that had raised me from an infant convert to a full, if still toddling Catholic. I had sent out as many thank you notes as I could write, made my final visits to beloved professors and friends, and shaken hands with Dr. Arnn, the man who five years previously had opened my eyes (as he has with so many others) to new possibilities for human meaning through the classical tradition.
Yet, unlike the day I first set foot on Hillsdale’s campus and (something like the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza) found there an interpreter for the fragments I had previously tried to piece together on my own; unlike the late night only days later when my family and I began the journey that would lead us to the arms of the Catholic Church—unlike these moments, when the future dawned brightly after years of anxiety, May 8, 2021 did not seem like much of a new beginning. Though the festivities of graduation had been occurring sporadically for weeks, commencement felt far too short to memorialize the works and joys of four years of rigorous growth.
There was not time to see everyone. There was not time to sit in each nook of campus and recall life-changing lectures, endless studio sessions, office hours with professors, 2:00 am study sessions, movie nights in classrooms, dances on the quad, long shifts at the library, freezing visits to town, lunch dates and tea gatherings, late-night rosaries, early-morning walks to church, weekday Masses, and seemingly infinite conversations with friends who had become as close to me as family. Day by day, the richness of these moments altered my perspective and disposition until I owed myself almost as much their handiwork as to that of my own parents—who were themselves amazed at the changes they saw in me. Almost unconsciously, I had fallen in love over and over again: with authors, with ideas, with classes, with friends, with mentors, with colleagues, with college, with the Church. But in the last days, there was not time enough to say goodbye.
The grief has come slowly, in brief moments that recall what I have left behind without yet revealing towards what I am travelling. I pass by the local university and see myself wandering around Hillsdale, dropping off a paper to a professor’s office while the trees bloom or trekking to class in the morning snow (both highly romanticized occasions). I stop in a library and recall the desk where I worked and studied. A particular angle of the historic downtown reminds me of happy, solitary walks to the local flower shop or café. A passage of The Iliad takes me back to Great Books I, and I suddenly realize that I am interpreting it much the same as my professor showed me years ago. Hovering over these moments is a near constant sense of confusion. My heart does not travel as fast as my car; it cannot separate itself from the network of roots that nurtured it.
And yet, I count myself more blessed than many who have had an easier transition into professional life. My grief is intensified by having so much to grieve, but it is tempered by the deeper sense that God would not have given me such a beautiful experience only to let it wither away. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded (Lk 12:48, RSVCE)—as much a warning as a promise that one day I will have the opportunity to return to these roots and reap their harvest.
While I stared over that Indiana field the night before the wedding, the inevitable separation protracted and looming, I remember thinking about how closely linked are grief and gratitude. This side of heaven, you cannot have one without the other. Of course, there’s the old saying, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” That is certainly true. But it is equally true that you cannot grieve for something without recognizing the beauty in it. Accepting and ultimately overcoming grief requires that you step outside yourself and acknowledge that the thing you lost—even if only temporarily—was for the time you had it good.
As St. Paul says, “Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Php 4:11-13). While I am far from such complete surrender and even farther from claiming to understand an Apostle’s disposition, the simultaneous pain and promise of my parting with Hillsdale has taught me a bit more about what it means to be truly content with little and with much. If you lose a tooth, you will unconsciously run over the space again and again with your tongue, as if your body were trying to comprehend the lack. Our minds like to do the same thing when we grieve. But grief is more than recalling a lack. It is affirming the good of the “tooth”, knowing more fervently it is good because we no longer have it. At times, it can even lead to a different kind of gratitude: gratitude for grief itself as an opportunity to recognize goodness.
I am learning now that grief can itself become a consolation and reminder of God’s goodness even in difficult times. It can also become training towards a higher love for God. Eliot’s “awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract,” seen in this way, can become a call not only to embrace the earthly darkness of asceticism better to see the light of God, but a call to allow God to convert the darkness itself into light.