In the past year, I saw my daughter turn two years old, experienced the birth of my son, dealt with the death of my wife’s grandmother and, just 10 days ago, grieved my own grandfather’s death. As the last 12 months have unfolded, the circle of life has been very evident to me, especially after completing a week-long service-learning trip with a dozen students while being with the Lakota people of South Dakota. Since I have returned from the Pine Ridge Reservation, I keep contemplating God’s role in my flurry of emotions. In the midst of this continuous circle, I have been reflecting upon how my experiences renew my desire for a more just and loving world.
The birth of my children and every celebration that has taken place thus far in their lives brings me great joy, but the deaths I have experienced lately, especially my grandfather’s recent death, has focused my thoughts even more upon the person that I have become and how I can participate in the continual creation of this world. God has given me many gifts—a loving family, a supportive wife, two healthy children, and a community that supports, encourages, and challenges me—to name just a few. And yet, in the midst of all that good, I have to deal with suffering and death—seeing my wife’s grandmother slowly fade away and my grandfather suffer in pain until it was his time. We all go through these highs and lows in our lives, but what should give us pause is how we use these moments to make ourselves more faithful to a God that loves us and more aware of that loving God in all that surrounds us.
Are we asking ourselves: how do I treat people? How do I let others know, with both word and action, that I truly love them? What do I do when I fail at being loving? Do I seek God in all that I meet and all that I see, especially the poor? These questions should be the center point of self-reflection and prayer when we are determined to make God’s presence evident on earth.
Some of the answers to these questions are difficult for my heart to hear. Sometimes I treat people poorly. Sometimes I forget or am scared to tell people that I love them. Sometimes my humanity slaps me in the face and I have to come to grips with the fact that I fail and fail miserably. Sometimes all I can see is suffering. I could be overwhelmed by this and throw in the towel, but what these questions do is lead me back to life.
I see life when I forgive or am forgiven. I see life in the courage that it takes to tell someone that I love him or her (even though the thought of voicing that love nauseates me). I see life in the love shown to and by my grandfather in his last days. I see life in a Lakota child who is smiling and hugging my students in spite of the cigarette burns on his legs. Within suffering, there is life.
When faced with such suffering, my first inclination is to always ask: why is this happening to this child? Why are some people poor? Why are people without a home, food, clothing, clean water, recognized dignity? Why are certain structures unjust? These questions are critical and justified, but without reflecting upon our own hearts and our own interactions we will always fall short of the answers.
We want to fix the problems we see, but the first problem we have to fix is ourselves. We have difficulty looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of God and the responsibility that holds. If we begin to see God within ourselves and in those around us, we start asking: how did seeing that child make me feel? How did I treat him and those around him? Where did I see God within him? These questions change us and, in turn, allow us to change the evil that is in the world.
Mitakuye oyasin is a Lakota prayer that means, “All are related.” It’s all about the circle—we are intertwined, we are inseparable, we are blood. Life and Death, Love and Suffering—all of it. You see, I am that child and that child is me. I am you and you are me. I live, I suffer, I love, and I die with you and with my God. If we all just looked within the depths of our soul, the Kingdom of God would be a little bit closer.
Sam Deitch is the Director of Ignatian Service at Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, PA.