How often do we grapple for words and come up empty? How is it we resort to “There are no words” when we’re most in need of saying them? Why do we leave so much unsaid, or wait too long in attempting to say it?
As we bid goodbye to 2012, it seems appropriate that author Bruce Feiler takes up the issue of our final farewells in his article on the New York Times, “Exit Lines.”
Tackling the dilemma of a proper goodbye from the perspective of the terminally ill, Mr. Feiler draws on examples from his own life. He also references the late Nora Ephron, and reviewing duo Siskel and Ebert.
In essence, he challenges us to consider the power and manner of our most significant departures.
Might he also be highlighting the value of clearly communicating while still engaged in the prime of life?
Saying “I Love You” – When it Counts
The pressure to say something meaningful and profound is part of conundrum for those who know they are terminally ill. Perhaps that’s true to a lesser degree in any number of circumstances: the parent sending the child off to college, or the long-term lover ending an affair.
And if the words are more straightforward than we realize?
Last words have an almost mystical significance in both Eastern and Western cultures, in part because they hold out the possibility of revealing a deep insight or lifting a veil on the meaning of life.
Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale and the author of “Death,” said the odds are so “vanishingly small” that you’ll know when you’re in a final conversation, you should avoid any possibility of regret by initiating interactions earlier.
Mr. Feiler advocates for simple messages delivered with sincerity and timeliness – “Thank you,” “I love you,” and “Forgive me.” Aren’t these the words we most crave hearing? Aren’t these sometimes the most grueling to pronounce? Why do we tolerate this cultural reluctance to speak our minds, discomfort with plain talk, an unwillingness to admit fault – long before we’re at an “end?”
The Complexity of Goodbye
Dr. Steven Scholzman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes of his struggle with saying goodbye in Psychology Today, and does so in the context of the December holidays. He describes the seasonal frenzy of traveling to visit family, the inevitable encounters with the ghosts of childhood, and when it’s time to depart he imagines his “fantasy self” who would walk out the door with ease.
And yet –
… the true self? Hell, it barely makes it out the front door.
Aren’t these goodbyes pained as we perceive our parents’ aging and thus our own? Doesn’t nostalgia kick in with the recognition of time passing? As we exchange our teary or cheery farewells, aren’t we wondering if and when we’ll next see each other?
Then again, aren’t some goodbyes mixed with mirth, with relief, and with excitement as we brace for change but feel ready to take it on?
A collection of articles on Psychology Today suggests that saying goodbye is about coping with transition and recognizing our dependence on other individuals. But isn’t it much more complex? Aren’t we also facing fears, assessing our own vulnerability, or second guessing resolve on key decisions like do I leave this job, this city, this relationship, this marriage?
Are we steeped in these emotions because it serves us to prepare in some way? Are these rituals or helpful responses? Are these triggers to say the words we ought to tackle before major events send us marching or scurrying in new directions?
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Acknowledging that actions may speak volumes, shouldn’t we avail ourselves of “doing” as well as “saying?” Mr. Feiler’s article states as much. We can easily make time for the routine visit, the gesture of consideration, a couple of shared hours over coffee or a movie though these are precisely the opportunities that are too often neglected, leaving us not only with all that is unsaid but all that is irretrievably undone.
In my life, my parents passed with no warning or farewells. My father was killed in a car accident while still young and healthy; my mother died in her sleep in her late 70s. In my father’s case, all that needed to be said was said in the last few years of life; I felt loved, and I expressed love. The consequence is that I have closure. As for my mother, perhaps it is fitting that there were no expectations of last words; the tangle that is remains the tangle it always was.
Naturally, we weather all sorts of unexpected departures. We lament the unspoken, the unraveling, the unacceptable: the end of a relationship, the breakup of a home or marriage, the death of illusions – and among the lessons we may take to heart is that we will regret our silences more than speaking plainly and often.
Saying Goodbye to 2012
2012 has been a devastating year for many in this country and the world; we have only to glance at our newspapers and online sources for their variations on twelve months in review.
Some of us are incapacitated in the shadow of senseless goodbyes and unfathomable losses. Transitioning from the “old” to the “new” is a monumental task, and the fact that endings pave the way for beginnings seems trite, and of little consolation.
Yet the human spirit is persistent in its manufacture of resilience, meaning, and hopefulness. Seeing out the year and looking ahead to the next, Mr. Feiler reminds us of the origin of the word goodbye – a contraction of “God be with you,” and he concludes with a lesson that may apply to our leave-taking as well as our daily lives:
As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Goodbye is the emptiest yet fullest of all human messages.” So maybe it’s best to forget that word. Perhaps gratitude is a better emotion.
Personally, I prefer the term “appreciation,” subtly different and encompassing a broader range of experience and emotion. Yet I understand the need for more formal goodbyes if we can bear them, farewells that serve to prepare us, the hope of fewer words left unspoken and in place of that unseemly void, expressing ourselves more frequently, more truthfully, more civilly, more consistently, more bravely.
Perhaps then we would all part with greater clarity and less regret.