“Nobody knows how to say goodbye.
It seems so easy ’til you try.
Then the moment’s passed you by;
Nobody knows how to say goodbye.”
Nobody Knows, The Lumineers
What would you consider a truly complicated word? A stumbling block of language? A genuinely confounding piece of vocabulary?
I have become firmly convinced that the most complicated word in the English language is not onomatopoeia or antidisestablishmentarianism. There are plenty of odd words available for pretentious writers to throw about. There’s no shortage of long or unwieldy bits of verbage. The truly difficult words are the ones we like to use every day, in all manner of contexts, without considering how remarkably complex they are in meaning. It is one such word that I wish to visit today.
It’s a deceptive little word. It finds its way to our tongues nearly every day, in simple partings and when hanging up the phone. It seems casual, simple, nonchalant. But it also finds its way onto the ends of emotional letters, or screamed angrily as relationships shatter. It slips from quivering lips as tears are shed over a fresh grave. It can mean nothing, or it can mean everything. It is a true chameleon of language, and if we are to use it well, we owe it to ourselves to wrestle with this tough and slippery word. What secrets lie in the paradox of goodbye? What can we learn on the journey that we must take to find the meaning on the other side of farewell?
Friends, that’s one heck of a difficult thing to write about.
You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This isn’t because I haven’t had anything to write about. On the contrary, I’ve had too much to write about. My own personal journals have been filled with more reflections in the past few months than in any other period of my life. But every time I’ve sat down to write a lesson for us all from these experiences, I’ve come up against a wall. I haven’t been ready to share what I’ve learned. I haven’t fully processed these feelings yet. I haven’t come out the other end of this tunnel, and I haven’t felt equipped to teach others how to make this journey.
Today, I’ve decided to share anyway. This post is not a lesson on the complexities of saying goodbye from an expert who has figured out all the tips and tricks. It’s not a motivational piece designed to inspire you to look at your life differently. It’s simply my reflections on the journey that I’ve been on, because I believe the most I can offer you is the experience of a fellow traveler. For those of you who walk this road with me, I pray only that we can lean on one another. I’m not a leader or a guide; I’m just another wanderer with a story to tell.
My story today is one of goodbyes. That word has become all too bitterly real for me in recent months. I’ve said goodbye to a former home; I’ve said goodbye to the life I’ve known so far; I’ve said goodbye to loved ones I no longer live with; I’ve said goodbye to familiarity and traded it for new and alien things. Now, unexpectedly, I’ve said goodbye to a beloved family member who passed away with no warning. It was inevitable that I would eventually be knocked to the ground by this tide of farewells; and now I am forced to confront that penetrating little word which has offered me almost no reprieve.
As is nearly always the case, it was an encounter with the words of God which caused me to stop in my tracks and take a closer look at goodbye. Consider the words of the Holy Spirit through the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
The book of Ecclesiastes gets a lot of bad press, probably due largely to its very different tone in comparison to the other Biblical wisdom literature. It certainly isn’t an easy read, nor does it tend to produce the warm-and-fuzzies which one might desire for emotional comfort. But the challenging message of Ecclesiastes is precisely the kind of practical, raw analysis of emotion and experience needed to properly understand the goodbye paradox. This, then, is where we will begin.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, traditionally believed to be Solomon but identified only as “the Preacher,” is writing from a place of experimentation and vast experience. This is a man who has truly lived. He has seen it all, felt it all, touched it all. He knows the world and he knows its fruit. He is jaded by his pursuits of pleasure and meaning. He could be called an experimental philosopher, and he writes to us at the end of his grand experiment. This thing we call life contains every emotional peak and valley: the grand and the grave, the beautiful and the broken, the dreamy and the desperate. There is a time for every one of these and more. Seeking the ultimate thread which ties together all of these scattered pieces of reality is and ought to be the great quest of every man. This was the quest of the Preacher which led him to discover so much vanity. Only the fear of God and execution of His commandments can lead to a harmony between the bewildering parts.
It is in this frenzied mix of elements both pleasant and painful where we find the great paradox of goodbye. Goodbye is not merely a word; it is a state of affairs, a process, a kind of reality. It is not merely a moment, but a season. And the season of goodbye contains both poles of experience in its small confines. A goodbye is a time both for breaking and building, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing. These opposing forces must sit together in a goodbye, and their coexistence is the source of complication and discomfort which we find there.
When we say goodbye, we express joy and love. We acknowledge our love for that which we must now be separated from. We recall fondly the joy that has existed in our unity. We smile because of the blessing from which we now part. As Winnie-the-Pooh wisely said in A.A. Milne’s novel: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” The goodbye is only felt because it is founded on love and joy, laughing and dancing.
A goodbye, however, is also a painful separation from the source of that smile. It pulls us from the dance and seats us in the place of mourning. The smile is accompanied by tears, which must occupy the same face. This is the goodbye paradox; it produces no sorrow without song, nor any tears that are not founded on laughter. It necessitates the marriage of antithetical emotions, and easily confuses the heart with this bizarre dance of opposites.
Seeing now the complex world of a goodbye laid out on page, I can identify its impact on my life and my heart. I have rapidly spun between emotions in the grip of the goodbye paradox for months, and have felt it most acutely in the past weeks. It’s an odd place to live, and it has not been easy for me. It has blocked up my pen as I have sought to articulate my emotions, and made processing difficult for a man of words like me. But it is also a valuable season of contemplation, if I can only interact with this tension in a productive way.
I’m still figuring that out myself, and I expect that the whirling dance of goodbye will continue to mold me and confound me in the coming weeks. I pray, however, that I will see the only harmony between these scattered pieces: my Lord and my God. I pray this also for you. As we navigate the choppy seas of the goodbye paradox, we have an opportunity to draw closer to the one who calms the seas both without and within. God bless you as you draw closer to him in the dance of your goodbyes.