Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
April 25th, 2013

Resurrecting My Tendency Toward Death into New Life

 
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life-and-deathThe Christian narrative is, to borrow the cliché, a matter of life and death.

I do not mean this in a Bible-thumping, accept-Jesus’-death-to-save-your-soul-and-find-life sense. Rather, I am talking about the possibility of the most gruesome, violent of deaths giving way to the most dramatic and powerful of new lives.

A few weeks ago, my Jesuit Volunteer community shared dinner with a group of Sacred Heart nuns. Before the meal, a Spanish woman living with the nuns and discerning a call to religious life led us in a series of activities reflecting on resurrection. In one instance, she pointed out that Jesus’ female followers were the first to learn of His resurrection. She suggested that this is because women, who after all bear children, are more open to life.

I found her take fascinating. For the past 3 1/2 months, I have been the only male in a community with up to six women. Whatever insight I have gained from this leads me to affirm that women — or at least the ones I have lived with — are indeed very open to the beauty of life and all it entails.

During the activity, I was the only man in a room with eight women. Our Spanish friend seemed concerned that I might feel attacked by the inherent implication of what she was saying: namely, that if women are more prone to life, men must be more oriented towards death.

I have no idea if this is true of all, or even most, men, but I think about death all the time. This is odd, as I am only 24 years old and (knock on wood) of sound mind and good health. Death, nevertheless, has been a surprising theme throughout my past year and a half living in the Peruvian Andes.

Musings on death

On the surface, my preoccupation with death can probably be attributed to three people I have at one time been close to dying unexpectedly while I have been in Peru. Nothing reinforces an awareness of the fragility of existence like a life cut short.

That said, my musings on death go beyond the loss of certain individuals. One way in which these thoughts have manifested themselves is in how I view time.

When I first arrived in Peru, the 2-year commitment that lay ahead of me seemed like an eternity. My eventual return to the United States felt like something that would happen in a future life.

Sometimes, my experiences here feel like an incredibly concentrated study in failure. I struggle with the language barrier, my inexperience as a teacher, homesickness, physical sickness, cultural faux pas, and a host of other inadequacies that should be well known to any expat.

St. Ignatius spoke extensively about consolation and desolation, and in the face of my faults, my tendency is typically towards the latter. I feel angry, scared, confused and frustrated that despite my best efforts I cannot seem to achieve my goals as well as I would like. In short, I am upset that I am imperfect.

Now that I am well past the halfway mark of my service, I am aware, to borrow another cliché, of how much time flies. It only feels like a short time ago that I landed here. The notion that I have less than a year left is difficult to grasp.

Coming to terms with how the briefness of my remaining time involves accepting that I will leave with countless goals unfinished. There are many places I will not have the chance to visit, many subjects I will not have the opportunity to explore, and many projects I will not have the occasion to realize.

This is true not just of my time in Peru but of life in general. Nobody’s time on this planet is boundless. While I hope to lead a full life, I know I will die with many possibilities unrealized. Limitations involving my trip to Peru have led me to think about the limitations in my life as a whole.

Time is, of course, far from the only constraint I have encountered in Peru. Sometimes, my experiences here feel like an incredibly concentrated study in failure. I struggle with the language barrier, my inexperience as a teacher, homesickness, physical sickness, cultural faux pas, and a host of other inadequacies that should be well known to any expat.

St. Ignatius spoke extensively about consolation and desolation, and in the face of my faults, my tendency is typically towards the latter. I feel angry, scared, confused and frustrated that despite my best efforts I cannot seem to achieve my goals as well as I would like. In short, I am upset that I am imperfect.

Death is perhaps the greatest sign of human imperfection. Just as none of our endeavors — as hard as we may try — will ever reach flawlessness, so are we completely unable to avoid death.

As I indicated, our reaction to this news can be feelings of desolation — sadness, fear, etc. On the other hand, we can also respond with humility. Knowing we are broken beings that can only do so much and will often mess up in the process is, I would argue, a requirement for living life honestly and realistically, as well as for being open to the idea of a graceful God. If one does not acknowledge that some of one’s weaknesses are beyond human effort to change, believing in a higher power is hardly necessary. For me, thinking about God does not mean praying for a life without failure. Instead, it involves believing that I am loved, not in spite of the ugliest aspects of my personality but including them.

This is something else my time in Peru has taught me. No matter how lousy a teacher I am or how many mistakes I make in Spanish, my friends and students like me and are genuinely glad to have me here.

Because unconditional love begets more of the same, I have found this affection to have a transformative impact on my ability to love others, resurrecting my tendency towards death into something that feels like new life.

 
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The Author : Brian Harper
Brian Harper is a freelance writer and musician, and community outreach coordinator with a small business. After graduating from Marquette University in 2011 he worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in the Peruvian Andes. You can find his work at www.brianharper.net.
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