Have you ever stopped and thought about the incredible number of sensations and experiences you have, even in a single day? Our brains filter out the majority of the information we take in each day, because most of it is unimportant and would only overwhelm us. But even those sensations and thoughts we ARE conscious of in a given moment are rarely committed to memory. At the end of each day, you can probably recall most major events of the day. Those with better memory might be able to recall many of their feelings and thoughts, and notable sensations (feeling comfortable, cold, in pain, et cetera)… but there are still innumerable experiences that are never recalled.
If you’re someone that likes to share with family or friends about your day, you may be accustomed to sharing the highlights on a regular basis… but even if you shared for an hour or two each day, it would barely scratch the surface of your total conscious experience. We can barely remember the majority of our experiences beyond several days or weeks. But those tiny moments are what make up the majority of our lives.
I was thinking about the incredible “weight” all of those experiences have in someone’s life. Conscious or not, they are often the moments that define who we become. And it’s something that is uniquely ours, and impossible to completely share with someone else.
It hit home to me when one of my neighbors passed away earlier this year. I barely knew my neighbor, but I knew that even in his relatively quiet life he had had a staggering number of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. His family obviously knew far more of that than I did, but even they probably knew only a small fraction of his experience. What wisdom, secret pains, profound thoughts did he have that he never shared?
When my paternal grandmother passed away several months ago, the realization became even more acute. I had heard many stories from her in person, and heard many more from friends and family during the funeral… but for some reason learning all these stories only made me realize how little I truly knew about her inner life, her past, her experiences. I suppose that’s true of all of us… being limited by time, we have only so much to spend on sharing our experiences with another… assuming we could even find the words to do so. A detailed biography of thousands of pages may still portray only a highly condensed retelling of a single person’s life. Few of us would find the desire to learn that much about only a single person, even someone who is famous, or had a huge impact in our lives. And yet each human being, from your significant other to the clerk at the supermarket, has a huge story that is uniquely theirs.
In my grandmother’s case, I felt that I learned so much about her in only a few days, and yet so much remained a mystery. A person’s life has intrinsic value, far beyond the weight of their experiences (otherwise we would view the loss of an elderly person as a far greater tragedy than a child), and yet that weight cannot be discounted or brushed aside either. I could only begin to imagine the slightest bit of the entire life experience of my grandmother. My dad and his siblings have a much better idea than I, but still only a tiny part. What thoughts did she have that she never shared? Wisdom that she feared was irrelevant, or was superfluous. Stories of some of her struggles that she never shared with anyone? Secret pain that she hid from those around her, that taught her lessons she never shared.
For instance: when I was little, I remember that Grandma had a distaste for cats, so I always assumed she simply never liked them. But as we were going through old photographs, there was a picture of Jeanette holding a fluffy white cat when she was a girl. My aunt told me that Jeanette had had a beloved cat when she was a child, but one day she found out the cat had pooped all over the floor under her bed. To an impressionable child, this distasteful act had permanently soured her previously harmonious relationship with felines. How many of us have had experiences or thoughts that have changed the way we lived, but we never shared with anyone? Things we think that we would never want anyone else to know… yet thoughts many people have likely had before. How many of us have been touched by an innocent word or action of another, and they never could have imagined how it impacted us?
Even beyond the weight of experiences, thoughts, and emotions, how can you quantify what a person’s life is worth? My grandmother Jeanette was not famous. Her name will never be known outside of her family and friends, most from her tiny rural North Dakota community. Most of the world moves on without her, not knowing who is missing from it. Just another fleeting name in the obituary. How many of us have lost loved ones and had a similar experience: “How can the world continue moving as if nothing has happened, when we feel such a keen sense of loss?” Instinctively, we know that a single life is of inestimable worth, and yet we struggle with how to reconcile that with the transience and fragility of life.
Somehow, the weight of a person’s life experiences serves as a more tangible reminder of the weight of a person’s soul. We have difficulty grasping the meaning of a human life, and so we gravitate toward those things that we can sense and understand. Through that rough comparison, we catch a glimpse of the true value of a life, if only for a brief moment, and it can create in us a sense of awe and wonder. It’s not necessarily comforting, either… the more we consider how much a missing person means to us, the more we are beset with stinging regrets. Things we should have said (or not said), time we should have spent, questions we should have asked. And yet, we all share that experience in some way. Loss forces us to take stock, and being finite, imperfect beings, we will never fully live up to our expectations.
Lest we be crushed under the weight of this regret, though, remember that none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, we all fall short of the expectations of others, as well as ourselves. My grandmother was not perfect, and made many mistakes. So have I. So have you. She lived through some difficult times. Life on the Dakota prairie was not easy, and she struggled with health issues most of her life, while also raising a large family on a farm. And yet, through all that hardship, something beautiful emerged. Through it all, she lived a life of grace and love, and left a legacy of a family that she loved dearly, and that love her dearly.
My grandmother’s faith gave her strength to continue living her life, in spite of its hardships. In light of that faith and the grace that sustained her, she became a living testament to God’s love and saving grace. In addition, she had not only hope in hardship for this life, but for the next. During her last few years, she was so tired of the physical fight, and she longed to rest and be with Jesus, her Savior. Sometimes she would awaken in the morning, and be frustrated that she was still here, and not in glory, but she never failed to continue to live out God’s grace by being a beacon of kindness to those around her. I also believe that her suffering and hardships in this life had been creating a “Weight of Glory” that she now enjoys in heaven.
So what, after all, is the “Weight of a Life”? For some reason, we tend to evaluate things that weigh more as more valuable. Gold is very heavy, after all. Something made of plastic is lighter, and “feels cheaper” than something made of metal. It’s somehow more exciting to receive a weighty box than one that feels empty.
My Grandfather asked me to serve as a pallbearer for Jeanette’s casket, along with five of my cousins. As we carried her body to her final resting place, I was struck by how light her casket and her body was. It seemed so wrong that such a life of significance, that meant so much to her family and friends, should be carried with ease. And yet, I was reminded that the physical weight of a life means little. Her body may have been light, ravaged as it was by age and disease, but her LIFE was meaningful. Spiritually, she was a giant. Her life touched so many others around her, and continues to do so. No, she wasn’t famous. In the eyes of most people, she didn’t even accomplish much of note. But to her friends, her family, and especially her husband, her life was of inestimable value. That’s the kind of legacy to strive for.
I love you, Grandma. I miss you dearly. I miss your letters, and the cards that you sent on every holiday, even when you had dozens of grandkids and I was an adult. I miss your stories of how you watched the Dakota wildlife from your window, and how you survived the difficulties of rural prairie life with faith (and just a bit of Swedish stubbornness). I miss your laughter and smile as you shared in the joy of family. I miss how you always had something on hand to feed hungry grandkids (yes, even lutefisk). We are thankful that your suffering is over, and you can rest, but we miss your presence in our lives. They seem just that much emptier without you, and we look forward to the day we can see your smile and twinkling blue eyes again.
Beautifully written, Michael! A great tribute to your grandmother and an insightful glimpse into the “weight of a life”!
I’m still in awe of your thoughtfulness in your writing and how you are able to bring light to something that most of us don’t really think to much about. Thank you for bringing this to our collective consciousness. How does one “weigh” a life? Brilliantly written.