Measured By Loss: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
A few years back, I was talking to a friend. I was explaining that I was feeling “unsettled”. He asked what I thought might be the cause of my anxiety. I told him that as I looked at the road in front of me, I did not want the remainder of my life to be “measured by loss”.
That sentiment has remained with me and, if anything, has actually grown stronger. Last year I turned 65. Throughout most of my life, I have been very ambitious.
Owing to this, in most situations in which I found myself, I was the youngest one in the room and the vast majority of my friends and colleagues were older. There is a price to pay for this. Recently, it seems as though hardly a week goes by without learning of the death of an older friend or colleague. I feel the loss. Recently, my mother, now approaching 92 years of age, moved into an assisted care facility. We are the last two left of our nuclear family. My father is gone and both of my brothers died young. Barring something happening to me first, I realize that sooner, rather than later, the nightly phone conversations will cease and the visits through the week will come to an end. The loss is inevitable.
This, of course, is not even to speak of some of my contemporaries. My songwriting friend Jim who died of a heart attack. This last week I learned of the death of a slightly younger friend – a brilliant concert organist and harpsichordist. The loss is painful, making you feel that a part of you is gone and cannot be retrieved.
I had always prided myself on being able to engage in hard physical work. I was a pretty fair carpenter in the day and built additions to my home. When I designed a new patio, I mixed and poured the fifteen yards of cement myself, before laying 5,137 bricks (yes, I counted them!) for walls and walkways. This last week the orthopedic surgeon informed me that a knee replacement was likely in my future, as he gave me a shot of cortisone with, what appeared to me to be, a very large needle! The pain can be momentarily relieved and, in time, a bit more mobility can be achieved, but I was informed that there was no going back to what I was formerly able to do… and the loss is real.
Once, I read three to four books a week. In the last few years, I read three or four books a month. Worse than that, my recall is not what it once was. Looking over the books and articles that I wrote thirty years ago, they seem to me to have been written by a different person. Entering a new doctoral program, it is a struggle to bring various languages to a point of competence. Additionally, where I was once able to focus like a laser on the task at hand, my attention these days is prone to wander. Now, others do not notice these changes, but I sense the diminishing, the loss of what once was.
This last year, I went through the large chest of drawers where I keep my vestments. Through the decades I had accumulated far too many cassocks, surplices, stoles and the like. I decided it was time to pass the majority of the items on to others who had need of them in their ministries. So I began to pack the boxes. Here was a cassock I bought in Rome, here was my first surplice, here was a set of stoles given to me as a parting gift from a parish that I served. One by one the items went into the boxes along with the memories they contained. There was joy in knowing that others would make use of these vestments, but there was also an almost undefinable sense of loss.
Now, I do not consider myself singular in these experiences. I would guess that to a lesser or greater degree they are common to the vast majority of us. Perhaps if my wife and I had children, I would feel a bit differently. That being said, most of our good friends are twenty years younger than us and we watch their lives and accomplishments with a mixture of pride and occasional amusement. One we have literally entrusted with our future.
Oddly, the ultimate loss for all of us will be the loss of our lives. Yet, for those of us who have embraced Christ, that loss will be will actually be gain as Paul writes to the Philippians. It is the getting from “here to there” that’s the problem, for all the other losses will continue apace. Yet, perhaps that is the way it is supposed to be. While we don’t exactly know the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (there are many theories) we do know the lesson that Paul learned from his particular affliction – “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Once again we have yet another paradox of the Christian life. These are the paradoxes that that fill the pages of the New Testament. If someone wishes to lead, let him be the servant of all. If you want rest, take on a yoke. If you have nothing, you’ll possess everything. If you submit to servitude, you’ll be free. If you lose your life, you’ll find it. It is a world that is turned on its head. It is the seemingly contradictory nature of the Christian life that is nonetheless true. Yet, these paradoxes cannot be found to be true merely by reading about them or by intellectually assenting to their veracity. The only way to know the truth of these paradoxes is to live them.
This is not a “how to” Christianity found in a self-help book. This is not a “doctrinal” Christianity that says if you have all the theological answers, all will be well. Rather, this is a lived Christianity, but it is a faith lived out in paradoxes.
So, I will live out my life, but I will live it out in the assurance that if the years remaining to me are measured in loss, they will also be measured in gain; but it will be a gain that others may not readily see or understand, for what I will gain in this particular paradox is Christ.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD