The photo is sepia, circa World War II, framed in maple, and the gathered family is somber with one exception. The father sports a full head of think wavy hair and stretches his double breasted jacket; his hands rest on the shoulders of his wife seated before him. Her eyes trained on the camera, her suit modest with a ruffle collared blouse, she grasps the outstretched hand of the pouting three year old girl standing next to her. The tension is palpable, but to their left stands a charming boy of 10 in a sailor suit with a huge smile and, somehow, a twinkle in his eyes. For years, I saw that picture and wondered at the story behind it. Just recently, in an unexpected unfolding, I discovered there was tension: the father was leaving NYC for a World War II project in Hudson Bay. It was an unprecedented opportunity, and the mother was afraid he would not return. The photo was to be both a farewell and a reminder of all he left behind. There are stories buried in every photo, every image, every person. Circumstances may conspire to confine the story, but compassion and empathy can come from its revealing.
Learning the story means gaining an insight into the life of another. And gaining that means discovering the sameness that cements human beings to one another: the father’s hope and ambition, the possibilities; the mother’s fear and uncertainty; the little girl’s resistance and reaction to all the stress; the boy’s go-with-the-flow optimism. There are always ways to connect, to transcend difference and discover again what being human means at this moment, to this person in this place. It means wresting the old labels and learning to sense that we are each part of something greater than self.
“Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.“
That final line captures of a vision of humanity that defies prejudice and discrimination, invites serious reconsideration of experience and interaction, empowers awareness and enables goodness, kindness, hope and gentleness, ensures a focus on what really matters in life. The Gospel echoes that sense and explores human powerlessness with the parable from Luke and its unremitting focus on the inevitable brevity of human life.
Then he told them a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
The day or the hour is unknown to us, beyond human control; it is a common denominator of human identity. And all the more reason to dare to live what really matters most. Each life unfolds in a story format, and the tapestry of human life and history is shaped by every thread of those stories. Richness surrounds us in one another; living that is about constantly learning and appreciating that everyone is doing the best they can at the moment and there is probably more to the story to be discovered. As for the sepia photograph, the Hudson Bay project fell through, and no further formal portraits were needed.