David Carlson: A thank you, not a goodbye


Being in my mid-70s, I am facing what everyone my age faces — the increasing number of my close friends dying.

The past few years have been particularly marked by grief. Some of my friends died after long illnesses; others died suddenly.

It is common to describe all these deaths as “losses,” and, of course, there is a sense in which that word is appropriate.

I miss greeting some of these friends at church; I miss having lunch with others; I miss seeing others at community or college events.

What has helped me grieve these deaths is remembering that each of these close friends changed me for the better. As I remember some of them in the following comments, I invite you to remember with gratitude the friends you have who have died recently.

I am thankful to Judith who, despite being terminally ill, shared her childlike spiritual hunger and curiosity.

I am thankful to Jim for sharing his love of nature, particularly fishing, gardening and berry picking.

I am thankful to John who always teared up and spoke tenderly when he mentioned his son.

I am thankful to Jimmy, who, having survived a traumatic head injury, nodded and smiled whenever we saw one another. We both knew what that smile meant, that he was thankful for the extra years he’d been given.

I am thankful to Bill, who shared his love of poetry and his love of a beautiful sentence.

I am thankful to Dave, whose instinct was always to help anyone in need, and sometimes I was that person.

Did these friends face challenges and setbacks in their lives? Of course.

Some of them endured difficulties and tragedies that would break the spirit of most people.

Were these friends stronger or more naturally optimistic than other people? Were they born to see the glass as half-full? I don’t think so. I’m sure that life seemed dark to them at times, but they were never fatalistic. None of them suggested that the glass, their life, was half-empty.

I miss these friends every day, but what each of these friends gave me is something I will never lose.

Each of them, perhaps without even knowing it, taught by the way that they lived their lives.

If life can be compared to a glass of water, these friends taught me that there is another way to view life other than being either half-full or half-empty.

The crucial insight that my departed friends taught me is that the water in the proverbial glass doesn’t represent the amount of happiness we have in life.

Instead, the water represents how much meaning we find in the experiences life gives us.

If I were to summarize one lesson my friends left with me, I would say it would be, “Live life fully.”

But what constitutes a full life? If we equate a full life with endless happiness, then we have set ourselves up for disappointment.

Happiness is usually fleeting and often out of our control.

I remember my friends with gratitude and respect because they understood that the glass, each person’s life, is always full — full of experiences that contain meaning for those determined to find it.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].