When I was a young priest at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was blessed to have an old grizzled priest as a supervisor. He had served as a Navy chaplain but wound up as the director of a halfway house for drunks in Atlanta, St. Jude’s House. He said he learned a lot about life on the battlefield of war and on the battlefield of addiction. Both are hell, he would quip.
He was from Texas and had wonderful stories of life there that led me to a romantic view of the state. His stories of Del Rio, of rough and tumble living in the hard scrabble plains appealed to the romantic in me. I was still discovering my Texas roots and he was a good saddle pal on the journey. In his latter days, he joined the staff at the Cathedral and was cast in the role as the wizened old priest. His name was Herb Beadle.
With his down and dirty experience, he was my supervisor as I came on the staff as the lay pastoral assistant, working with the indigents who stopped by the Cathedral in their game of Peachtree pinball, going from church to church, seeking funds. It was a tough job of discernment, trying to determine who had a real need, who could be helped, and who was trying to con you. It was a good place for me to learn about the reality of the street, both good and bad. Perhaps that’s where I learned about “the gray”, the not black and white.
My job also entailed providing pastoral care specifically to the elders of the parish…..that’s a euphemistic term for old people…..like me, now. Old. Aged. Ancient. Experienced. Seasoned. Oh heIl…OLD.
I provided programming for the elders of the Cathedral in a gathering called The Prime Timers….again a euphemism, I got the job by answering honestly in an interview, in which I was asked by an elder professor, why in the world did I want such a low-paying job, given my credentials. My answer was truthful but beyond my wisdom at the time: I want to learn how to be an Episcopalian. These folks can teach me that.
I got the job, over many more stable and qualified folks. I heard later that it was this answer that turned the tide. Call me Deacon Blue.
Part of the joy of my work was tending to the people in the residential high rise behind the Cathedral known as the Cathedral Towers. It was one of the last cooperative projects between the government and church where funds and land were shared to create a space for elders to live in community. As it was just down the hill from the Cathedral, there were a majority of the residents of the Towers who were members of the Cathedral.
I was an immediate hit, beginning a wine and cheese gathering every Friday in the community room, just to get people together. Imagine a former Southern Baptist plowing the fields of salvation with the wedge of cheese and wine! If it was good enough for Jesus…..
When I arrived, the Towers had experienced a rash of suicides which I was not so subtly charged to address. In the past, I had used my doctoral work to get people to begin to talk about their life’s story. I did this with some creative writing, some journaling, and even some exercises that would be called mindfulness exercises today. I wanted them to talk with me, to reminisce.
This is the primary work of old age, said Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst who schooled me with his notions and images of human development. This is the same guy who came up with the term “identity crisis” for young adults. When he turned his attention to old age, he talked about the process of life review. According to Erikson, one gets to the end of life and does the work of reviewing the events of one’s life experience. If one can find a thread of meaning running through one’s life, there is a sense of integrity, your life literally “holds together”. That is good news. However, if there is no sense of integrative meaning, resulting in a kind of randomness, there emerges a sense of despair. This is one of the reasons, clinicians conjecture, for the rise in the rate of suicide among older population.
My therapeutic intervention was in small groups of people gathered to share stories. These gatherings spun off into individual sessions, often revealing the struggles of meaning and faith. One particular man revealed his past failed attempts at suicide. He joked “I can’t even be a success in killing myself!” He allowed me to intervene as his therapist. Truth was, the loss of his wife had been unprocessed, and with just a little work on my part, and stunning courage on his part to face his pain and grief, he took up his paralyzed life, rose up, and walked again, enjoying the life he had left on this planet. Being a single man in a building full of widowed women has it perks….
There are many stories like Don’s, some more dramatic, some tragic. But it was the stuff of life that I was blessed to share with these people, who did, in fact, teach me about being an Episcopalian, but more importantly, taught me about being a human, fully alive.
Back to Herb. One Friday, after a particularly hard day of work, dealing with folks looking for assistance, counseling with folks getting married, and leading groups of older folks getting a hold of their stories, I came to Herb’s office and literally poured myself into his captain’s chair situated in front of his desk.
I looked across the desk at Herb, who was leaning back in his green leather desk chair, a chair that I would later occupy.
I offered up a sentence that was more of a cry for help than it was declarative: Damnit, Herb. I’m depressed on my ass!
Herb replied without a noticeable pause: Ah, lad. Glad to see you are in touch with reality!
Perfect. Truth, unvarnished. No bull, nor horse, or any other excrement. Pure T Texas Truth.
Herb did not launch into a pep talk, a Hallmark card plate of platitudes, nor a coach’s half-time inspirational speech.
Life is hard, at times. It sucks, at times. It can seem unbearable, at times…until you do.
That was the gift my broken down, priest supervisor gave me on that late Friday afternoon.
I have that moment emblazoned in my memory, and I have remembered it, with a laugh and an acknowledging nod throughout my career. Life is a tough go. Let’s get real. As the old song expresses our deep wishes that life could be sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and everything that is wonderful. And it is, at times, a veritable wonderland. But, and there’s a “big butt” here, boys and girls, sometimes life is hard, really hard.
My experience of human beings is that we have a profound tendency to go binary in our thinking, in our processing of what in the world is going on. It’s appealing. It’s more simple. No fussing with complexity. Keep It Simple Stupid, KISS, the advice goes. Either/or, yes/no, black/ white thinking. The fifty-cent word is dichotomizing thinking. All good, all bad. In my mind, I see this image of Frankenstein, bellowing “good”, “bad”. “Fire bad” the green one would opine loudly, that is, until he wanted to barbecue.
And most of us, if we take a moment to reflect, to think about it, realize that life is “both”.
For me, in my moment of despair, Herb was there to re-mind me that life is bad at time, tough sledding, tough stuff, a cluster, FUBAR as my military trained colleague says. What’s your expression to describe how it feels when it all goes sour? Being in touch with reality is not a bad thing. It’s like my Scottish grandmother was known for calling a spade a bloody hoe. Sometimes, admitting how bad it is becomes the first step to recovering.
Truth is, it’s hard to hold two contrasting truths together at one time. We tend to focus on one side of the equation or the other. So how do you keep the balance? How do you keep both sides of the reality in view if you don’t have a Herb Beadle to collapse in front of?
For me, journaling helps. Sitting down, writing down my feelings, owning them, good and bad, happy and sad, joyful and angry, helps me to remember that life is full of both sides. I want to be in touch with reality. Not in denial as to the rough spots, and not forgetting the fantastic parts of merely being alive and aware. Abiding in silence grants me the time and space to “center” in the moment to feel the really good and the really bad. It what works for me. How about you? How do you maintain that balance, staying in touch with reality.
As an older person, I am clearly doing the work Erikson said was the particular work of old age, the work I used to help others do: life review. But this critical review is not the exclusive domain of the elders. It may come to a crescendo in later years but it’s work that we do all along the way. It’s part of life.
I find myself incredibly grateful for having had people like Herb Beadle in my life who taught me some important lessons on the lay of the land in this place we call life. And I am also thankful for the gift of being Herb Beadle for other travelers on the way, helping them to find that balance, assisting them in staying in touch with the wonder of this ride, this long strange trip.