January 13, 2017 column
Signposts on the Journey of Life
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
This past summer, I discovered Louise Penny and her marvelous novels featuring Inspector Gamache. Her novels are set in the fictional town of Three Pines, in the eastern townships just south and east of Montreal, along the border shared with Vermont and New Hampshire.
I couldn’t get enough of Penny’s characters and writing. Thankfully, a friend of mine loved her books too, and lent me them so I could read them in order. I fell in love with these characters. I laughed with them. I cried with them. I delighted in their successes and mourned their failures.
I cannot recommend these books to you highly enough! Go out and find them and read them!
The main character is Armand Gamache, an inspector in the Sureté de Quebec—the provincial police force. Each book revolves around a particular murder which he has to solve. But there is also an ongoing supporting cast of characters who are equally important in these stories. If it were a television show, it would be called an “ensemble cast”.
Near the end of Penny’s latest book, “The Great Reckoning”, Gamache addresses the graduating class of the Academy, men and women about to become police officers. He says,
“‘We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give in to that temptation. Not because we’re bad or weak, but because we’re human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this.’
“He stood in complete silence for a moment, the huge auditorium motionless.
“‘There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it, and take it. I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know.’ He paused again. ‘I need help. Those are the signposts. The cardinal directions.’”
“And then he smiled again, the creases deep, his eyes bright.”
I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.
It strikes me that if those four sentences were to become more commonplace in our lives, then our life together would be stronger and more whole for everyone.
I’m sorry. We all have done things of which we are ashamed. We all have hurt other people, either intentionally or unintentionally. We all have done or said things which we wish we could take back. We all have been mean or cruel at times.
And there is only one way to get past that. You can’t bluff your way out of it. You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. You can’t ignore it and hope it goes away. You can’t just sweep it under the rug. If you try, it will fester and erupt and make life a whole lot more ugly.
The only way to get past it is to admit fault. I’m sorry.
I was wrong. It’s a mark of humility to acknowledge that you made a mistake. Each of us, as human beings, has done so. It’s inescapable. We can’t avoid making mistakes.
And again, you can bluster and try to get around it. You can try to bluff your way out of it. You can try to ignore the mistake.
But again, the only way to get past it is to admit what we’ve done. I was wrong.
I don’t know. We are all finite creatures. There are some things—many things—which we do not and cannot know. Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk, famously wrote a prayer which begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” There is so much we don’t know, and complete certainty about anything is virtually impossible.
Again, the only way to get past it is to acknowledge what you don’t know, and trust others to help you learn what you need to learn. As we live together with that kind of humility, we will come ever closer to being a community in action as well as in name.
I need help. For me, this is the crux of it. I am not a self–made man. I am who I am because of the help others have given me throughout my life. My family, my friends, teachers and doctors and nurses, and strangers—all have helped me.
As an example of this last signpost, Bell is sponsoring “Let’s Talk Day” on January 25. It’s a chance for us to talk about mental illness. It’s a chance to say “I need help”, and to do so without shame or embarrassment.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2000. I made a plan to kill myself. I learned to say, “I need help”—and I did it with the help of countless people who loved me enough.
I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.
Louise Penny describes these as “the cardinal directions” in life. They are the north, east, south and west of our lives. They are the touchstones which can make our lives more whole, more complete, and more healthy. We need these signposts, these cardinal directions, to help us learn to live with the fact that we “are a crowd of faults”, and not to let it get in the way of our journey to wholeness.
I am grateful for having learned this.