My friend and colleague Bishop Jerry Roy passed away unexpectedly yesterday. He was quite likely the most interesting man I have ever known, with a diverse background that created a man who was kind, but not weak; strong yet gentle, and he an instinctive compassion that seemed to arise from the core of his being at the slightest hint of someone in pain or need. Such men are often forged in lives of service and sacrifice that are not always easy, but you seldom hear them complain about it. I suspect, but do not know, that the Jerry I knew was a very different man than the young Jerry. I suppose that’s true of most of us.
Unexpected death is always shocking, of course. I have noticed, however, that no matter the circumstances of someone’s passing those left behind tend to express a desire that it was otherwise. I suspect that is a very natural resistance to the whole idea of the passing of someone who is loved. Even when death is slow and drawn out, it still comes as a shock to those who care about the person. Our clergy group had our regular biweekly zoom call on Saturday and Jerry was in attendance, full of vigor and stories – including one in which he shared with us that his neighbor, through acts of kindness after finding out that Jerry was seventy-two years old, had decided Jerry was frail and so extended acts of kindness such as shoveling Jerry’s sidewalk. Jerry chuckled as he told us he wasn’t sure how he felt about being treated like an old man. If there was one thing Jerry was not, it was decrepit.
I spoke much of the day yesterday with other friends and colleagues about our loss. Some of the most poignant comments began, “I wish I had told him…” On the one hand, such comments should serve as reminders to not leave important things unsaid. Even if we are young and healthy, there may be a city bus outside with our names written on it. With that being said, I think Jerry was aware of everything that was left unsaid – not because we become omniscient at death, though we might. I believe Jerry knew because he had a way of knowing what the people around him felt and experienced. That compassion of his that ran so deeply placed him in an equally deep communion with the people he encountered, their struggles, and their feelings.
For me, Jerry’s legacy will be that compassion and his patience. When I was (not much) younger, I suffered from a profound lack patience. It often amazed me how patient Jerry was. He had the gift of making people feel as if he always had time for them, even when I found myself in the corner muttering in frustration. Jerry understood that the greatest gift was time. I know in my life it is easy to feel as if there isn’t enough time, but I am learning that is a misperception rooted in our own sense of self importance. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerry. We all should.
I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.
My parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.
Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.
Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As we learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.
People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.