The Gift of a Wise Man
by Janet L. Factor
myrrh n. An aromatic gum resin obtained from trees and shrubs of the genus Commiphora, valued in the ancient world as a perfume and as an embalming agent. Traditionally, gift of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
This set down / This: were we led all that way for / Birth or Death? -T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”
Not so long ago I found myself an inadvertent party to a conversation at my health club. A woman was complaining about a video she had recently rented for her daughter. The movie was Old Yeller, and she had rented it because it had been recommended to her as a classic, something that every child should one day see. Her daughter had been very upset by the story, and the mother was indignant.
This movie is the tale of a stray yellow dog that is first rejected and then adopted by a farm boy on the frontier. The two grow to love one another and become inseparable. Then one day the boy’s family is attacked by a rabid wolf. The dog successfully defends them, but is badly bitten by the wolf. The boy’s mother warns her son that the dog is doomed and must be put down, but the boy cannot accept this verdict. He quarantines Old Yeller until one day, the virus wins and the maddened dog turns on him. Then he recognizes his mother’s wisdom, and reluctantly he carries out the now clearly merciful sentence.
The angry woman summed up this plot scornfully: “A boy loves his dog and then he has to kill him! What kind of lesson is that for a child to learn?” At the time, I had no ready answer, although I felt a passionate desire to defend the movie. I had seen Old Yeller when I was perhaps 8 years old, and had anyone asked, I should have said that it was one of my favorite movies. Yet I was just as upset then as her daughter was now. Although it has been decades since the one and only time I saw the movie, I can still vividly see the climactic scene and feel the bitter anguish I felt then. But I loved the story and have always valued my experience of it. What profound lesson had it taught me, that I should even now feel so strongly about it?
After much discussion and soul-searching, I have come to the conclusion that the lesson of this story is a stark and yet a very necessary one. What I learned from Old Yeller without ever consciously realizing it was this: the price of love is loss. No matter how happy, no matter how perfect and true the love, it will one day end in tears, for we cannot escape our own mortality. It is a lesson about the fundamental nature of the human condition that we all must master to become truly adult. In the movie, it is the mother, mature, who foresees death, and the young boy who seeks to deny it. In accepting at last its inevitability and indeed necessity, he takes a step forward into adulthood. And I, watching, took that painful step with him.
Why, then, did this modern mother object so strenuously to her daughter’s experience? Perhaps she was like the other parents of whom I recently heard, who, when it was time for the old family dog to be put out of his pain, told their children instead that they were taking him to live with a family on a farm, where he would have lots of room to run and other dogs to play with, a place where he would live happily ever after. Love can sometimes lead our hearts astray. For while it is natural to wish to spare our children pain, in doing so too assiduously, we deny them indispensable knowledge.
I believe that acceptance of one’s own mortality is the root of all wisdom. In both Eastern and Western cultures, the precious gem symbolic of wisdom is the pearl, for in converting the grain of sand within its shell into a pearl, the oyster takes inescapable pain and uses it to create a shining beauty. Likewise, it is only because our time is short that anything we do in our lives truly matters. If we do not see an end to life, we remain always children, living in an eternal world of make-believe where nothing makes any real difference because the play will go on and on, and can always be re-imagined another time.
Without the understanding that we are mortal, we cannot appropriately value our own lives. Unless we know that life is fragile, and brief even in its luckiest prolongation, we will not treasure each moment of joy that comes our way; we will not hasten to seize precious opportunities before they pass beyond our grasp. We may not always cleave to those we love, not thinking how our time with them is limited. Until we understand that we must die, we cannot begin to live.
Many times I have turned these thoughts over in my mind, for on July 20th of the summer of 2000, my father died. As I sat upright in the front pew at his funeral and listened to my older brother tell the tale of Dad’s life, I thought to myself that if the pain then in my heart was the price I had to pay for this man’s love, I would gladly pay it again, a thousand times over.
My father was not a rich man, he was not a famous man, he was not especially handsome nor at all proud. Yet there was a greatness in him, for Dad was wise as few men are ever wise. Of all the people I have known in my life, and I have had many beloved teachers, he is the only one I would honor with the ancient title of Sage. Thoreau says, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” This my father did, from childhood through the moment he died, suddenly, unexpectedly, but as befitted such a wise man, not unpreparedly. For what is death but the greatest problem of life?
Dad was born into rural poverty in South Dakota in 1919, the youngest of three illegitimate children at a time when that status was still a curse. At the age of two, already scarred by his drunken father’s abuse, he was abandoned along with his siblings at the grim State Public School in Owatonna, Minnesota; his desperate mother had found a man willing to marry her but unwilling to support another man’s children. The searing experience filled Dad not with bitterness, but sweet compassion. “Kindness is the most important thing in the world,” he told us. “I learned that at a very early age.” He resolved to be a better man than those his mother knew. He had no patience with macho posturings: a real man to him was one who had the fortitude to stand by his wife and support their children. Correspondingly, he was a vocal supporter of feminism and of reproductive choice.
At five he was taken from the orphanage to live with a farm couple; when he was nine they adopted him. He was forever grateful for and returned the love they gave him. Later when Grandma, aged and long widowed, was no longer able to live on a farm, it was Dad who took her in.
Growing up in that tiny town, conscious of his outsider status, Dad set to work to discover who he was and what he could make of his life. Long before he finished high school, where he was a star athlete, he had read and re-read every book in the local library, seeking a broader view of life’s possibilities than could be had from the dirt roads that converged there. “There is no such thing as a good role model,” Dad told me. “I knew as a boy that we are all unique individuals and there is no reason to try to be like anybody else. I only wanted to be the best me that I possibly could.”
After graduation, in the midst of the Depression, he joined the farm crews that migrated from South to North and back again, working the plowing and the harvest, earning money to help keep the farm, which was saved only by FDR’s moratorium on farm foreclosures. (That made Dad a lifelong Democrat.) When World War II came, he joined the Navy, wanting to serve but also seeing it as a passport to the wider world. His intelligence, skill, and cool head-when mental maturity tests were given in training, the results caused officers to exclaim “God! Factor was born old!”, which made Dad laugh-earned him a position as pilot for those trickiest of airborne vehicles, the blimps that ran escort missions with convoys off the coasts, spotting U-boats from on high.
After the war the GI Bill offered opportunity, and Dad seized it with both hands. He attended the University of Minnesota, earning a degree in chemical engineering with such distinction that his professors urged him to stay on and attend graduate school. But Dad refused, for he had met and married my mother. “Life is short, and I am already over 30,” he told his teachers. “I want to have time to raise a family.” Raise us he and Mom did, sending all four of their children not only through college but on to graduate school. Dad also continued his own education, for he remained an inveterate reader, with a special fondness for history, which he studied for the light it threw on human nature. Books were the only material possessions he cherished.
Throughout his adult life Dad worked for his community. He served on the school board, sat on the city council, headed campaigns to pass school tax levies, led the United Way fund drive. One of his last acts at the PPG factory where he worked was to plant the seeds of a project that has since reclaimed to nature large areas previously laid waste by the industry’s by-products, while simultaneously cleverly recycling the city’s treated sewage.
Always Dad loved jokes, especially puns, and was known for his good humor and joie de vivre. “It’s a great life!” he frequently exclaimed. Yes, it was, we agreed, and well-lived; and we made that the theme for his funeral.
As my family rallied to cope with his death, almost everywhere we went, we found that Dad had been there before us. It began even before he was officially dead. As we sat in the dim waiting area of an unfamiliar tourist-town hospital, the emergency room physician came to ask our permission to cease efforts at resuscitation. There was still some small amount of electrical activity in Dad’s heart, he told us, but it had been more than half an hour since he had had a heartbeat, and there was certain to be major brain damage even in the unlikely event that they should succeed in their attempts to restart the beat. Did we still want him to go on? My mother, my oldest sister, and I all said with one voice, “No! He would never want that. Stop! Let him go.” We could speak then without hesitation or guilt because Dad had made sure we knew how he felt. He had foreseen, and smoothed our way.
Once we were home and the dreadful duty of making phone calls to my brother, other sister, family friends and relatives was over, we turned to the more prosaic problems and found most of the work already done. His important papers were gathered together. His will was there, though he had taken care to arrange that his financial assets would pass automatically to Mom. All information my mother needed to claim pension and other benefits at his death was placed in an envelope labelled in large letters “Louise-Important.” His grave and marker, and one for my mother beside him, were long since bought and paid for.
The only omission, which at first I found puzzling, was any expression of wishes about the conduct of his funeral. It seemed a strange lapse. Mom struggled with the decision, then chose to have a traditional funeral at the church, with family selecting the music, and anyone welcome to speak in Dad’s memory. As my siblings and I scattered to find Dad’s favorite books, then settled down to peruse them for appropriate quotations, we found that there too he had gone ahead of us, trusting that we would follow.
In all the books, appropriate passages were carefully marked. In the anthology of poetry that my mother had given him at their marriage in 1949, he had inserted two bookmarks with the name and page number of the poems also written on them (they might have fallen out, you see, and in important matters Dad was always careful to prepare for any eventuality). One piece was Edwin Markham’s great elegy for Abraham Lincoln, Dad’s hero, which I read at the funeral. The other was a love poem, a last farewell left for my mother. Late the night before the service, I found that in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he had highlighted the ode to Death that occurs in the midst of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” and written clearly beside it “A perfect eulogy.”
Whitman’s ode is perhaps the most eloquent expression in the English language of the adult attitude toward death: understanding that this is the price for the beauty of life, and willingness to pay it. As my husband stood at the lectern and read the lines that Dad had chosen, my heart was torn with the beauty of it and the irony. We sat in the church where my father had been a member for some 50 years, where he had taught Sunday school in the prime of his life and served on the church council into his late 70′s. The pews were full of friends and members of the congregation who had grown old sitting there beside him. Yet almost none of them knew what both the struggling speaker and I knew, knew what depths of Dad’s soul were being expressed in these lines of poetry about accepting mortality, for Dad, devoted family man, staunch friend, amiable co-worker, pillar of the church, and scrupulously ethical public servant, was a lifelong atheist.
I do not mean for a moment that he was a man devoid of reverence; no, he was filled with it. But Dad revered the real world, the one in which we all live and die, this place that is relentless and terrible even as it is beautiful beyond all hope of expression. Humble indeed he was, but when Dad bowed down it was not before some omnipotent autocrat, but before the powerful wonder of this world. He was what is sometimes termed a modern pantheist, one who believes that the Universe and God are but one and the same thing, that life and non-life are united in this overarching order, and that anthropomorphic conceptions of a personal divinity are but primitive and petty imaginings compared to the sublime glory of the real.
I knew these were the beliefs that shaped Dad’s life, because I shared them. I came to this view through my scientific training, even as Dad came to it through the application of his own meticulous intellect to his vast knowledge and experience. He spoke frankly to me about his philosophy many times. But he confided in very few, only those that he could be certain were spiritually akin to him. It was not until his funeral that I finally understood why.
As I followed the formal ritual of the service and listened to the pastor’s predictable homily about the gift of eternal life, what struck me most about these mythological trappings that I well knew my father had never believed was just their childishness. What a transparent fantasy! How was saying that Dad had gone to heaven where we would all rejoin him someday (provided we were good) any different from telling a child “Rover’s gone to live out in the country. Maybe someday we’ll be able to go visit him, but not right now?” It seemed to me insulting that I should be offered this juvenile fare, like a lollipop, to assuage so deep a pain, as though the death of one’s father were a mere pinprick.
There is no pain like the pain of grief, for its cause can have no remedy. Death is final. It must simply be borne. Sitting there on the unforgiving wood, I thought “There is no consolation possible for this.” Yet many in the church seemed to feel consoled. How could this be?
I saw then what I had never seen before, understood the appeal that religion holds in a new way. For this minister was not, as I had thought, offering us a patently inadequate anodyne for our mortal agony. No, he was inviting us instead to turn our heads away, to deliberately spare ourselves the fearful prospect of the coffin that stood before us, and so avoid suffering altogether. “Let’s pretend,” he was saying. “Let’s all pretend that Don isn’t really dead, that nobody ever really dies. Then we will never have to pay the full price for the love we have enjoyed.” His words were but denial writ large: if it seems unbearable, refuse to bear it. Don’t look; turn your face away.
But closing his eyes to the truth, however fierce its aspect, was the one thing that my father would never do. The sage will always look straight into the tiger’s maw. Dad loved a passage from Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm, one of the books that shaped him as a youth: “All things on earth have their price; and for truth we pay the dearest.” The road to honor is paved with thorns; but on the path to truth, at every step you set your foot down on your own heart.”
Yet he was never hard-hearted nor cynical. To live such a life, a life spent with open heart as well as open eyes, requires courage of the first order, a courage that many of us find hard to summon when pleasanter prospects are dangled before us. It is so much easier to remain as children, playing only in the sunshine, afraid to face the dark.
That in itself, I finally realized, was a truth to which Dad did not close his eyes. That was why he had confided his views only to those who already shared them. Dad knew, because he knew his fellow humans, that not everyone, not even all of those who loved him, would be willing or able to follow where he led. Because he loved them too, he would not cruelly force them there. Dad would never deny to those who loved him, and whom he loved, the comfort they derived from their religious beliefs. Having himself walked through fire, he grudged no one any wellspring.
That was why he had made no requests as to the conduct of his funeral. Eight decades of experience had taught Dad well that funerals are for the living, not for the dead. A man so brimming with compassion would have seen it as selfish to insist on a simple, secular service, and Dad would never have his last act be a selfish one. Instead he refrained from saying what he wanted, so that those who mourned him could have what they needed.
But those of us for whom this was not what was required had to find the means to answer our own needs, even as Dad had always done. So to that hallowed platform where so many nativity scenes and passion plays had been staged, we brought our own. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we stood up, one by one, and spoke our simple truth.
My brother told Dad’s story: This was a great man, he said. I read Markham’s poem: Great men are born of the Earth, I said. My eldest sister read the final passage from Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers, a lyrical homage to our planet: He will return to the Earth with love, she said. And last my husband rose, coming before us in my father’s stead to read Whitman’s glorious ode: We are mortal, we are mortal, we are mortal, he said. We are all mortal, but be not afraid.
Be not afraid, for behold! this knowledge is a precious gift. It is that myrrh borne by the wise man to the cradle of the infant he adores. Sweetly it perfumes the sheets of lovers; gently it secures the shrouds of the dead. The joys of life and the pains of death are not two things, but one, and can only be wholly grasped together, even as the full glory of Spring can only be known to those who choose to endure Winter.
We are mortal, and Dad did not fear the fact. Instead it inspired him to live his life with vigor and joy, to make what difference he could while he could. “Birth is a death sentence,” he often said philosophically. He needed no divine disciplinarian, no fear of hell nor hope of heaven, to keep his feet on the narrow path of righteousness. Dad was virtuous because he loved virtue, and for no other, no lesser, reason.
We all face a choice. We can go on being children all our lives, even after our parents are gone. We can even pretend that there is an eternal and perfect father, an omnipotent father, up there somewhere where we can’t see him, and that he will always take care of us and tell us what to do. Or, mature, we can accept this difficult gift, though our fingers tremble in the opening. We can willingly anoint ourselves with this essence that unites us with all those who have gone before, and will come after. We can carry it in our turn.
I do not wish to think of Dad as residing in a far-off heaven when he is alive inside me here and now. I do not need to pretend that there is an ideal Father hidden somewhere above the clouds when I have a wise and loving father within my very heart. Knowing that he could not stay, Dad deliberately gave to me everything I would need to face life without him. He showed me how the perils of this world are part and parcel with its loveliness.
Wisdom is indeed a pearl of great price, for the truth of our mortality is the hardest truth of all. But can we not choose to make this understanding the seed for our own pearls, each of us wrapping it about with the shimmering substance of our own lives, so that when we come to die, it will be a thing of beauty that we leave to our loved ones in the treasure house of their memories? Such was the gift that my father left to me.
Janet L. Factor is a Contributing Editor for Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she delights in exploring the unity of opposites in her column, Heart & Mind. A student of biology and history, Janet believes that the epic of evolution frames the short stories of our lives. She is Founder and Organizer of the Springfield Area Freethinkers.