On the way to work one morning I decided to avoid the off-ramp congestion of the freeway so I drove an extra block east to Greenville Avenue, a street that always evokes fond memories of my father. His office - a small building with a large paved area in the back ideal for vehicles and equipment of the construction business - was once a fixture on this well-travelled street. But the property was sold several years ago and the new owners built a rather industrial-looking apartment complex on it. Things change, life goes on.
The local area rapid transit tracks bisect my route to the office. On this particular morning the lights flashed and the warning arm went down. And although this non-event is part of the daily rhythm of urban life, as I waited for the train to pass it was the passengers - especially the ones riding backward – who caught my attention.
For those who ride backward, the view is what those who face forward have already seen. And though the scenery is the same, the backward-facing view somehow looks a little different – maybe it’s the angle, maybe it’s the light. Those riding backward can't see what's ahead until it's already passed them by.
Whether we like it or not, when we grieve we're the ones riding backward. Our view is understandably focused on what's passed by - we're familiar with what’s behind us, we know the landscape of life from the safe perspective of hindsight. It’s entirely normal to prefer this view because it inevitably includes our loved one. And if we’re honest, until we're really ready we’re not particularly interested in what lies ahead - it's strange and uncomfortable, perhaps even a little frightening to consider life without the one we love.
What's interesting though, is that it takes more than a little intestinal fortitude to ride backward, especially on the journey through grief. I've always been susceptible to motion sickness - I get queasy just thinking about the disequilibrium of moving forward and riding backward at the same time. But what I've learned on the ride that begins with the lurch of sorrow and pain is that grief requires exactly the same iron stomach it takes to ride backward. When we grieve, we take our place in the backward-facing seat of life. In this act of courage we express our fortitude and determination to survive the push/pull of backward and forward, of past and present.
To arrive safely at our destination, for a while we must experience the discomfort of riding backward - we stop along the way at fear, anxiety, and worry. But the moment comes when we change seats, face forward, and move on toward acceptance, hope, and joy. From our new view we glimpse our life ahead with all its unimagined beauty and wonder. We’re near the end of our journey - we get off at the right stop because we know where we’ve been and where we're going. We're no longer riding backward.
He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Ecclesiastes 3: 11 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the certainty of your direction. Amen.