Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Returning, Reflecting

Absence is revealing; reunion is revealing. One is away; one returns--to what, to whom?

I have returned from nearly five months away from home and work. I wondered how I would be greeted and how I would greet. Some coworkers acted as if I had not left at all, walking past wordlessly or giving a perfunctory grunt. (These I did not know very well; and I did the same to a few myself, of course. But they had not left; I left them. Does it matter?)

Some responses surprised me. A person I know mostly from brief conversations at her work in a supermarket--but not entirely so; we have met on a few other occasions and I have written brief notes--seemed positively overjoyed. I had never seen this melancholy soul look so happy. But the post of overseeing the scanning devices did not allow for much conversation. The machine and its obedient people must be attended to. Do we ever leave our machines?

Another person with whom I have only had brief, usually perfunctory conversations with over fourteen years at work, smiled broadly and asked questions. It felt good.

I have yet to see many of my students, the souls that (for good or ill) bear my imprint most deeply (outside of close friends and family). Being a one-man department, I had to be missed to some extent (all matters of affection aside). How much of a hole does one leave when one leaves? Students usually leave me (all too often before finishing their degree). But I left them for a sabbatical--left the entire state.

Think back to "It's a Wonderful Life." George Bailey is supernaturally led by an angel into a counterfactual world in which he was never born. Usually I can remember the lines verbatim (having seen it so many times), but will have to approximate Clarence's declaration, "Each man's life touches others in so many ways. When you are gone, you leave a terrible hole."

Of course, absence can be blessed. John Wesley was once asked if a preaching campaign resulted in many additions to the church. He replied, "No, but there were some blessed subtractions." Perhaps much of the meaning of one's life under the sun and before the Son is weighed by how much one's absence hurts and how much it heals (like the blessed subtraction of a painful tooth or the silencing of a constant dripping)--and by how much anyone notices one's absence at all.


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