Sweeping up broken glass, it’s all I can do to stop laughing through tears. At my feet, a broken wine glass. The party responsible, now making a marked effort not to drop her stemware, having made the blunder twice in about 15 minutes.
It’s August and the cool night air is a welcome after the days intense sun. A hint of a breeze can be seen at the top of the ancient oak trees that make up a 4 acre estate in east Grand Rapids. Across from me is the owner, Rachel, a 25 year old mother of two and recent resident to West Michigan.
Having moved a few weeks ago from Orange County California, she is tanned and vibrant, standing 5'3” with long blond hair and intelligent green eyes that sparkle like polished emeralds. She has all the hallmarks of a young woman in the prime of her life. Her smile, and casual demeanor, coupled with an athletic California body would be enough for anyone to do a double take.
Not 12 hours earlier, I was at my favorite coffee shop, latte in one hand and danish in the other, navigating my way through the crowd of people waiting for their morning caffeine. The shop was unusually thick with people at this early hour and I found myself faced with either sitting with an intimate group of bankers in monkey suits, all talking in rapid fire sentences, or the girl by the window reading a tattered copy of War and Peace -- she had me at Tolstoy.
As is the case with most initial interactions, I sat nursing my latte and danish while struggling to say something relative or witty. With no burst of genius, my eyes slowly wandered down beneath the long countertop thinking that I would even settle for something as mundane as an untied shoe -- no luck.
However, a few minutes later she took out her purse and grabbed a business card from her wallet to act as a makeshift bookmark (something I do myself on a regular basis). While inserting the card into her book, her purse dropped from the counter spilling out credit cards and a California driver’s license. I performed my act of chivalry immediately and scooped up her things. As I handed back her dropped clutch I muttered as casually as I could, "You’re from California?" That was all it took. Within 5 minutes we were both laughing and any uneasiness I felt melted away into sparkling conversation.
Neither of us could have known the future, or that in only 3 days time the same girl I had been laughing with would suffer a massive stroke and die, leaving behind 2 little boys.
I’ve been struggling with the "whys?" and "what ifs?" for 5 months now. Though I may not share the same views or be of the same mindset as many of the religious (so certain are they in their knowledge), I am not deterred from looking for meaning in life, and yes, even death...or asking questions that I know can never possibly be answered, like "What is the point in caring for someone that is deceased?". What could possibly be gained from that?
We now know that the bonds formed in personal relationships, whether romantic or platonic, maternal or sibling, are the direct result of a chemical released in the brain called Oxytocin. New mothers are found to have high concentrations of Oxytocin. We know this is evolution’s way of safeguarding the species, compelling a mother to feel a strong attachment to her child. For example, the odds of the infant being fed when it cries go up, thereby assuring through sheer numbers that most will survive...a genetic insurance policy if you will. But why should it remain after they've departed? What is the social utility in loving somebody that isn’t alive anymore?
We are not the only species to have a profound attachment to the dead. Elephants, K-9's, felines, and most primates display this peculiar behavior. A cursory glance at the elephant is a prime example. Some elephants have been known to not only weep at the death of a loved one but to make a pilgrimage (in one isolated incident over 300 miles) to the bones of the departed. The exact reason for this mourning is not known within elephants anymore than it is within humans. Though speculation on this topic is vast, no definitive answer can be given either way.
After 5 months of asking myself this question I don’t know that I’m any closer to solving it than when I first began. But I recently posed the question to a friend asking, "What is the social utility in loving someone that’s not even alive more?," and to my surprise he thought for a second and gave me a rather poignant and insightful answer. He referred to his own experience losing his grandfather, someone he respected and looked up to, and how after his death, though he was going through the grieving process, it inspired in him the desire to be a better human. I thought long and hard about what he said and realized that he might just be right.
If extrapolated to include all of us, it’s easy to see how that might be a net benefit to the species as a whole. And the more I thought, the more convinced I was that it was true. The vast majority of humanitarian foundations are erected in the name of a person no longer here. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, The Fred Hollows Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, etc.. More times than not it was the life and memory of a singular individual that inspired these altruistic causes to spring up after they were no longer even here. So, a lot of humanitarianism can be said to stem from the love someone had for a person that had passed. The "social utility" increases and the species benefits.
It doesn’t have to be true for every person all the time, as I’m sure you've noticed. But even if just 1 in 1,000 people feels the call to better themselves as the result of the death of a loved one, that’s enough. And if there’s 7 billion people on this planet, that means 7 million people would benefit as a result. Our species reaps the rewards.
I would never claim to have all the answers, but the memory of that enigmatic smile, the animal magnetism she seemed to exude from every pore, and her carefree kindness, are all attributes I can only hope to reflect in my own life. I am better for knowing her.
So, another grand cliche turns out to be true: loving your neighbor really is the job of a lifetime-- and it starts now. I wish you way more than luck.
-Jonathan D. Pell