For a long time I’ve wanted to write a eulogy for my former self. At a certain point in my life, my paradigms shifted and I started seeing the world very differently than I had before. I’ve often likened this to a kind of death, one that is to be both mourned and celebrated.
A Eulogy For Myself
It’s difficult to say precisely when he died, but it was likely sometime in 2004, sitting on a chair in the kitchen at 3:00 a.m. with one of his infant twins, who just would not sleep for another endless night. He was a husk by then, more dead than alive, in part because his resignation and submission were never fully complete. He willed his heart to keep beating, long after Hope had abandoned him with a sardonic smile, hanging by a noose in the desert, his toes just touching the sand, keeping him aloft and barely breathing. Something broke then, and he stopped being able to weep for a long time.
That kind of death doesn’t occur as a solitary, unconnected event. There were precedents and precursors, sure signs of deterioration and decay that could only be seen and understood retroactively. As a teenager he had a precocious wit that more often got him into trouble than recruited followers. He was reaching, testing, searching for those who could love him where and as he was–in a state of unrest and evolution, like most teenagers, and not content to follow by rote and rhyme, but certain at the time that there were no other authentic alternatives. It was immature, to be sure, but it was his way of being honest in a social and religious environment that only favored honesty when one could be honest about feeling the same as everyone else.
His mission was a test of endurance, and he didn’t endure very well, though he had his small victories: conversations of searingly painful openness and vulnerability with a companion; a private conversation with a Catholic who loved his Catholicism as much as his own life, and deciding that he could only do this Catholic’s humanity justice by not trying to persuade him to give up his cherished religion; writing in a journal nearly every day, and sometimes– rarely–with unflinching honesty; witnessing the miracle of one’s own eyes changing, seeing people with love and concern that he once saw with frustration and disdain, though nothing about them ever changed. But he was never a flag-waver for missions or their presidents and when he adopted the behaviors that were meant to signal his loyalty to his leader-peers or his mission president, they felt hollow and false. He felt enormous guilt for how relieved he was to leave and never have to go back.
Like a lot of returned missionaries he fancied himself a teacher and wanted to teach seminary. But almost immediately he became enthralled by theology, and a short while later its sister, philosophy, and when he ran to his beloved Institute teacher and told him both of his plans and the literature he was reading, he was warned that philosophy and theology were a dark path from which he would never return. He was devastated, but he abandoned his reading and tried to be good, tried to do and say the right things, tried to bear his testimony in order to have a testimony, tried to feel the right way when his religious leaders spoke. And sometimes he thought he did, and who can say otherwise? Sometimes he was on the same train as everyone else, happily riding toward the same destination.
He married and had children, and the first two were twins. The experience ultimately resulted in his death, but he had been dying most of his life, so who’s to say it wasn’t a natural death? And here we are today, to mourn him, to grieve the person he was and can never be again, for better or worse.
What is it precisely that I mourn? I mourn the loss of a certain innocence and naivete about the world. Naivete about how long the darkness can actually descend and no help appear, but also about how thoroughly flawed and human even the greatest among us ultimately are. Some will say that this loss of innocence is nothing but a gift and a blessing, a passage to adulthood, a sign of maturity and wisdom, but we know that those who are expelled from Paradise–where they were given everything and the world fit together and made perfect sense–must work by the sweat of their faces in the thorns and thistles until they return to the ground. And this is good. This is the price that must be paid for developing the capacity to appropriate and create truths, and manufacture harmony out of disharmony, and worlds out of chaos.
But it is also something to genuinely be grieved. If you’ve lost this first naivete, and feel nothing but an enlightened moral smugness, it’s because you do not understand the painful and often unrewarding work that lies before you. Naming the things of your new world–like Adam did–carries a terrible responsibility. In the Paradise our former selves inhabited we inherited truth merely by virtue of our first birth (whether as an infant or a new initiate). This enabled us to feel certain things–to feel the truth of truth–but we were mostly helpless to engage the world outside of Paradise, to incorporate and reproduce the goodness and beauty we found there. There is a subjective element of truth that requires that we work to make ourselves a part of it, and it’s a process that will painfully sacrifice parts of us that are untruth. There are no secret tunnels that will deposit us at the truth faster and more efficiently than anyone else, no sudden awakening from the myths we can no longer believe, no accidental births into exceptional communities where truth is simply a package to be accepted and opened. No one could ever be so chosen–by their birth or their “enlightenment”–as to not have to start at the beginning, a beginning that must have myths and stories and symbols and deeper meanings if a new world is to survive. Our relationship to these sacred objects might change, but a thorough reckoning with them is ongoing and relentless.
He’s been trying to re-name the objects in his world and do justice to those stories that shaped him before he died. Sometimes he even succeeds.
I mourn the ways he interacted with others, especially loved ones, how he laughed at funny stories, played sports, walked down the street, shared his vulnerabilities and secrets. They weren’t better or worse than these same things post-death, but they were different before he died. His mode of speech, his sense of humor, even his posture during quiet moments of reflection–I lament that these have passed quietly into a personal history that few if anyone could ever recount. Traces remain, for sure, and in some cases there has been genuine transference from one self to the other, but these ways of moving and being belong to a different time, and to a different person.
I mourn the ways in which his family and friends have had to adjust, often subconsciously, to his death. We rarely die at the same time, and even if we do, we die in different ways. It’s hard for those who have no yet passed on to know how to deal with the death of a loved one. They’re different now. They don’t respond to the same physical, emotional, cultural, religious stimuli they once did. They see the world differently. Sometimes they loudly proclaim how superior and liberating the afterlife is. Sometimes they’re afraid of this new world, and don’t fully understand how to go on living after death. I hope his loved ones can have patience with him. I hope they can come to some genuine realization that they might die one day as well, long before their actual bodies are wasted away and turning to dust. I hope they understand that death can be frightening and lonely, and all that is expected of them is that they show genuine love in response. Such love need not signal lack of confidence in their own world, or hesitancy about their own beliefs. But hopefully they will also understand that trying to commune with the deceased is different than speaking to them when they were alive. The old familiar categories and concepts won’t work anymore. Speaking with the dead requires a new language and will take time to master, but because it is a work of love, it is a language that can be learned and shared, no matter how long it takes. Work for the dead may, in fact, take on a more profound meaning.
But I celebrate his life and death, I don’t just mourn them. Sometimes he hid behind conformity, but sometimes he also stepped into the light and proudly performed his own inwardness. Still other times he felt genuine unity with others and could authentically say that he testified with one voice the truths of their community. He made an indelible mark in profound, though usually subtle, ways on the many places he lived and the people he met.
His death did not bring thorns and thistles alone. He planted and grew new, hard-won truths out of their seeds and has often found respite beneath the shade of their canopies. He found his voice for the first time, as one of many speakers for the dead, and learned to love other voices that were vastly different from his. He became more curious about the world and its peoples and ideas. Having died, he became more aware of the fragility of the self, and how easily we can injure others by living in a way that requires no self-awareness. His death made him, on the whole, more receptive to the injuries and traumas of other people and taught him the critical importance of learning how to mourn with others. He also learned that all of one’s potential lives are fragile, and not to be too taken with the current iteration of a life, because it could profoundly change at any moment, and that with a new life come new and creative opportunities to profoundly screw up, as well as bless and heal.
I think about him, sometimes, in quiet moments on the train or in the early morning before dawn. I knew him intimately, and no longer really do, but he often shadows me, like a ghost, in a hallway at church, or on a baseball field, or when visiting a place I used to live, or a book that I read a lifetime ago. He wants to tell me things I once thought I could no longer hear. But I’ve slowly begun to listen. He’s not trying to resurrect himself anymore, like he once was; he knows that he’s dead and he’s not coming back. He’s not trying to reanimate truths about God and the world I no longer believe. He’s simply been trying to tell me that he loves me, and it’s okay for me to love him back. He’s been trying to tell me that his life–and all that was constituted by it–was not a mistake. And this new one isn’t either.