Oh how I love you Mary
It was for the children, it was for better times
Oh how I love you Mary
- Diana Jones, "Henry Russell's Last Words"
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Henry Russel died in a mine explosion in West Virginia in 1927. In the last hours of his life he wrote to his wife, Mary, on scraps from a torn cement bag as he faced his death. He'd been a miner in Scotland. He was a miner in America. He folded the scraps of paper and tucked them in his lunch pail and laid down and died.
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Devotion seems archaic, part of a time and place closed off to us. We, so bright, so clever, so awash in our certitude that we are both bright and clever, cringe at the word devotion. It smacks of religiosity, narrowness, a shutting out of possibility. There is nothing expansive about devotion. It constricts, chokes off, turns a blind eye. It simplifies to the point of ignorance. Or so we have made it be. If devotion were called by another name, perhaps, fidelity, or authenticity it might sit easier. We tend to like the authentic and usually believe ourselves to be the real deal while others stumble through inauthentic lives.
I vote for something else: sacrifice. That, too, is out of step with our times, yet I cannot help but believe that the problems we find ourselves in - both individually and collectively - are sourced in the absence of devotion, the absence of sacrifice. It is easy to re-arrange events to fit a narrative that holds you together, that justifies your choices and we all do it. That's fine. For awhile. Maybe a long while. Maybe to your grave, but it would leave out the parts where your actions fell short of what you were capable of and so omit essential parts of your story. The places we gloss over, the memories we don't dig at, or retro-fit are those places where our devotion to a cause, our cause, the cause took a back seat to expediency and going along to get along. We stay married to jobs, to spouses, to places that do not support us, our interior life, our hopes, or finances and we call such self-abnegation sacrifice. It is nothing of the sort. It is hiding. It is a refusal to become who we are.
The martyr gene is strong in my family. There is nothing more useless than a martyr: a showy display of great feeling and the gnawing sense it is the show not the feeling that matters. Telling everyone you will now fall on a grenade is not the same as smothering a blast to protect others. It mistakes the arrogance of talk for the sacrifice of doing.
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We, clever and bright as we are, are also empty in those places we hide from, the places where our actions failed our intentions. It is possible to reclaim that part of the story. Not as an exercise in self-flagellation, the martyr's mea culpa, but as an act of devotion, sacrificing some ego to re-balance our experience. This is less than easy to do, but that is what makes it devotional: I will have my name or die trying to know it.
Viktor Frankl wrote that happiness could not be pursued, but, in fact, could only ensue because one has devoted one's life to a cause other than the self. Happiness is the natural by-product of devotion and devotion can only take place when you choose to live for something other than the story you tell about yourself. It is when you live for the story held in others, in those you love, in those you'll never meet, but might somehow reach through the acts of your story that life takes on purpose. You have crafted meaning out of thin air. Your sacrifice isn't a penalty, something to mourn, but is, instead, a threshold you pass over to a new way of knowing your life and its capacities.
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From Wendell Berry:
The best teachers teach more/than they know. By their deaths/they teach most.
I thought of this poetry when I heard Henry Russell's Last Words. It struck me that we live our lives unaware of what our deaths will teach those who still have their lives to live and how our deaths will effect the hour of their own. It is easy to believe that we live an equivalent life to Henry Russell, that we, too, go into mines (metaphoric and otherwise) with the hope of better days. We see such work as sacrifice and a grace note of nobility shines within us for doing so. But if all we are leaving behind are days worked, bills paid with none of Henry Russell's devotion to his Mary, then what has our unhappiness been for?
Work can be inequitable, unsafe, unjust and seek to drain what is best in you for someone else's profit. It can also be righteous, kind and fortifying. That isn't what matters though, if, and if is doing a lot of work here, you know the how and why of your actions, if you know the cause greater than yourself that your actions are devoted to. If so, then you are free. If not, no matter how rich you become, you are lost.
Know what you are doing. To get there, know the entirety of your story. Then give it away for another.
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May you always have a scrap of cement bag nearby.
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