You Had to Be There

Posted on April 23, 2011


I laid on the floor of her bedroom and played with my granddaughter today when I was supposed to be putting her down for her nap. Her smile was transforming, her laugh made me feel like the world was right, and her eyes when they would search me out to grin assured me that we were the center of the universe. It was like a walk in the past, lying on a little college apartment floor, playing with her mother, the two times overlapping and fading together as I stepped smoothly back and forth, touching both of their hands. Perhaps you smile indulgently as you read this, because I sound like every parent or grandparent, and sadly, I can’t make the vision yours. I guess you had to be there.

This past few weeks I’ve studied intensively the lives of people long gone, trying hard to feel their hearts, to imagine their worries, and to share in their wisdom, hard won through their experience. It’s awkward, because the story is too well-known, and too easy to skim over, gathering gold dust above and moving on without searching for the vein beneath. I’ve had windows of understanding, when for a moment I understood as if looking through their eyes what it meant to be them. Poignantly I recognize … you had to be there.

This life is such a personal gift, with what we take from it defined and cataloged by the experience that is bordered by our own face. When I was young I used to stare at things, sensing peripherally the edges of my vision that my nose and cheekbones gave my view, and I used to wonder what things looked like through other people’s eyes. Were the blues as blue, the movements as smooth, and was everything the same shape? I still wonder, sometimes very keenly. That border seems important, the constant framing of life’s truths, profoundly personal. To get it, we have to be there.

Empathy may be an under-sought gift, not just because we are busy and distracted, but because it takes a very concerted effort to see a picture with someone else’s framing. Like the yearning young man in the vintage movie who eliminates everything in his present view and concentrates with all his soul on another time and another person until he transports himself there, to approach true empathy, we must become for a moment someone else to see through their eyes. It is the price to be there.

This weekend I have felt with much greater emotion than in my past the borders of the experience in Jerusalem over two millennia ago. It’s just a window that opens for a moment, but it’s been overwhelming. I don’t have the capacity to empathize with God, who felt everything in long moments of agony, but I have fleetingly felt the connection between us as I have recognized that he felt me. For moments I’ve sensed the brush of his soul against mine, saving me, loving me. It’s a different kind of wonder to realize … I didn’t have to be there.

“Being there” for someone has taken on a sort of bravado, a double chest thump and a casual wave. Lately I wonder if that is more holy ground than we generally acknowledge, that making that kind of promise is writing a check we can’t cash. That kind of statement probably doesn’t make sense. Perhaps none of this does.

Nevermind. I guess you had to be there.

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