Daily Archives: August 8, 2008

Memorials and the healing of the spirit

I was at New England Yearly Meeting over the weekend.

While there, I had my first chance to see the AFSC’s Eyes Wide Open exhibit, or a piece of it. They have a collection of military boots of the soldiers killed in Iraq, in addition to a memorial to the Iraqi civilian casualties. The number of boots has become large enough that the boots no longer travel as an exhibit together but now appear in regional form, and I saw the boots from the New England soldiers.

Each boot listed the soldier’s name, military rank, age, hometown and state. Some of the boots had notes written by the families, or an American flag stuck in a boot. One had a teddy bear. Another, a member of an Eastern religion, had a little shrine to the soldier’s god. Some boots were pristine. Others muddied and scarred. It was a somber reminder of the horrible costs of a war that we never had to wage that has disproportionately taken the lives of “volunteers” with fewer other economic options. I took in the boots in prayerful silence and the shame for national bellicosity that has condemned so many innocent Americans and Iraqis to die.

One of the NEYM participants spoke later in a meeting for worship of a recent visit to Virginia Tech (Viriginia Polytechnic Institute), site of the horrible massacre in April 2007 by a student, Seung-Hui Cho, who took 32 lives and wounded many others before taking his own. The campus in Blacksburg, VA, sits close to a quarry and many of the buildings are made with hokum stone from that quarry.

The speaker told how she learned that in the days following the Va. Tech tragedy, mysteriously overnight a makeshift memorial appeared with 32 hokum stones in a semi-circle, with a ribbon for the name of each person who died in the shooting spree. Then a few days later, a 33rd hokum stone appeared with a ribbon for the perpetrator, Cho Seung Hui. There ensued some debate among the Va. Tech community about whether the perpetrator should have a stone at the memorial or not. Some argued that the stones should be only for innocent victims and ultimately the 33rd stone was taken away. The speaker and others discussed the Quaker view that there is that of God in every person, Cho included, and how this could have been a time for still deeper healing. Another wondered where the mother or father of Cho can now go to mourn for the loss of her son and the tragedy.

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

I recalled Randy Pausch’s view that everyone has their good side, but it takes longer to emerge in some people than others. (Incidentally, Randy didn’t make much of his religion but was a Unitarian Universalist who came to this faith as a member of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh; I don’t know, for example, whether he believed in God.) In any event, the NEYM experience and the Va. Tech memorial debate evoked a narrative that played out among comments in this blog surrounding Randy Pausch. De Selby (whom I have never met) was very critical of Randy Pausch in blog comments, claiming that Randy was not sick and was using his claim of pancreatic cancer to sell millions of books. At some point I cut off debate between De Selby and supporters of Randy since it no longer seemed constructive. De Selby asked why I was no longer posting his rants; I said I disagreed with his views, knew Randy and that Randy was a decent person, but that he was entitled to his anger and his views. I urged De Selby to channel his energy into leading his life in way that he thought was inspirational if he felt Randy wasn’t. There were many nasty posts of blog readers against De Selby which I chose not to post since it seemed unconstructive. Then Randy died. Some readers posted nasty blog comments mocking De Selby for his earlier views that Randy’s cancer was a fraud. I didn’t post those but I did post the blog comments of a few who gently asked whether De Selby wished to comment now and another who said alas De Selby’s claims of a fraud apparently had not been true. De Selby took this opening to apologize for his comments and noted that they came from having had family members who died from cancer who appeared far sicker than Randy. He thought Randy (who looked in good health) was just using cancer to get publicity. A circle of support opened around De Selby after his admission of wrong to show how he was proving Randy’s point that people do show their good side if you wait long enough. I don’t know what De Selby will go on to do, but I hope it will be worthy of Randy. You can read the original post here and the comments here.

These incidents made me reflect on when death and memorials are healing and when they are embittering. I’m reminded of the wise words of a cousin who said that she wanted the death of a loved one to be a point of growth, not the beginning of a drawing in, a calcifying depression and a disengagement from others.

Faith is the bird that that feels the light and sings

When the dawn is still dark.

— Rabindranath Tagore