Someone else has left. Friend, family member, online acquaintance. It’s shocking but at the same time not surprising at all. They’re leaving by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands. He’s found another path. Time will tell if she was called to this other path or if he was simply called away from our community, anywhere but here. You get that. You think daily about doing the same. He’s still there, of course. She hasn’t died. Well, he has died, but she found a way to live again. A different kind of resurrection. But he can no longer identify as one of us. That’s okay. We’re still figuring out what it means to be “one of us.”
A friend once wisely commented that when someone experiences the death of a loved one or a loss of faith, ideally the community would show that there is no gap or hiccup in their love and acceptance. We are still here should you choose to return. We are always here for when you need a roof fixed, or a meal delivered, or a shoulder to cry on. We know you’d do the same for us. And those beliefs and hopes about your once-accepted sense of the world that now are shattered? We are holding them in trust, preserving them, discarding the ones that hurt, refining and polishing the ones with potential to redeem, should you ever be ready to receive them back again. Communities don’t usually do this, of course. But they should.
Consequently, our questions cannot be: Why did she leave? How can we get him to come back? What can we do better in the future? Oh, these questions will still there, but only because they inevitably intrude, obscuring what is more important. We will get to them eventually. But they are distractions from what must be done first, above all else, before we can attend to them humbly and honestly.
What if, instead of gazing outward from the snug interior at the uncomfortable No-Man’s Land of self-imposed Exile, asking academic questions about causality and communal loyalty, we instead take upon ourselves the responsibility to become a sacred archive of trust? We take and catalog those scarred and broken objects that he or she once lovingly held close to their hearts, those beliefs and hopes that were once meaningful but have become too painful to hold, or too useless to implement. We tinker with them, polish them up so they work better than they did before, put our own names on them, tack them on to our own precious beliefs and hopes, make them shine a little brighter, function a little more imaginatively, and, hopefully, much less destructively. We hold them and preserve them as pearls of great price, so that if and when they should ever return we are ready to give them back, labored over and spit-shined, ready to be put to use again, but in different ways, for different purposes, as reawakened memories that bond and redeem instead of alienate and damn. Such a work requires knowing and loving the other person well enough to understand what she thought about them, how they looked to him, what secrets they held, what feelings they provoked.
It would be narrow-minded in the extreme to assume that because they have left and we have remained, that we ourselves will never have need of delivering our own worn-out hopes and beliefs to the archive, our once-precious treasures that we seem to have outgrown and out-loved, to be held in trust by others when we can no longer carry their burdens ourselves. Sometimes these objects are sufficiently bruised and battered that, even if we stay, we need to put them down for awhile, leave it to others to restore them and make them better, to think of grander, more creative ways for them to work and not break so easily.
One sign that we carry objects around like this that have in fact broken long ago, is when we say that we are grateful for our certainty of timeless truths, appreciative of our status as the very elect who have not been deceived, relieved that we have done nothing to put ourselves in the position of these poor wayward souls who couldn’t accept joy or see truth. Instead of recognizing that some of our belief and hope objects have been broken or scarred beyond recognition, and that this inevitably happens over the course of a lifetime, we insist to ourselves and others that every object, entity, and thing is perfectly and timelessly fine, perpetual motion belief and hope machines that are in no danger of slowing down or corroding. Then we wait until nearly every object in our world has shattered, and there’s nothing else to hold on to. When that happens, there is often nowhere else to go except anywhere but here. Or, worse, not being in a community that can archive and repair these worn-out objects, others insist that nothing is broken, that nothing could break, and when something does we are to blame for carelessly mishandling them. Ironically, though they were certain every object was unbreakable, now they happen to have the solution: don’t touch the objects.
Instead, if we are fortunate, there will be those willing to be that archive of trust for us, those who understand that perhaps we will one day be able to believe all things and hope all things and endure many things–but not all at the same time. Here, please take this; I cannot speak of it anymore. It’s very name causes me pain and sorrow. But it’s a part of this world, of this community, for better or worse; perhaps someday we will all collectively discard it. But if not, I trust you to hold on to it for me, to understand what I thought about it and felt for it, perhaps figure out a new name for it, plant it in a new landscape where it can grow in different soil, be set against a different sun in a different sky, and become something I can touch again and speak about, if not fully shoulder and claim as my own.
When people leave we are forcefully reminded that there is work to be done. There are hurts to attend to, teachings and rules to carefully reconsider, purposes and goals to rethink. It’s not a matter of who is right and who is wrong, or what is true and what is false so much as a more focused attentiveness to to where there is suffering and why. The work is to pay attention to the ways in which shares objects might be scarred and broken in order to heal the scars and fix the breaks, or perhaps discard them altogether.
They may one day return. Or they may not. We may one day leave ourselves, even if only temporarily. Or we may stay forever. If our religion is real and not fantasy, we’ll take seriously the proposition that if we truly love them, and if we are truly loved by others, there will be those that will be joyfully prepared to give us back what was once ours and much, much more. If we can’t sing for them, this will be our song. If we can’t preach, this will be our sermon. If we can’t finally die for them, this will be our final act of love.