September 24, 2021

The Comforting Shelter of Each Other

by Lloyd Den Boer

Suppose you were to meet the word “comfort” standing alone on a page. What images would come to your mind? Would you imagine yourself relaxed in a reclining chair, tranquil in a shady spot under a favourite tree, or snug in a warm room with a crackling fireplace? If you read “comfort” as a noun, you probably thought of pleasant conditions like these, conditions that help you feel at ease.

On the other hand, if you read “comfort” as a verb, you probably imagined reaching out to ease the distress of a relative, a dear friend, or even a stranger whose plight has moved you. In contrast to naming a pleasure, this meaning of comfort names a response to suffering, loss, and grief, touching a weighty feature of our lives. When comforting or being comforted, we face a discomfort — evidence that we are fragile creatures. Among the comforts and joys in our lives, there will also be losses and sadness.

In the past two years, most of us have relearned this lesson. As the pandemic rose, spread, and upended our lives, it left losses behind. Some losses, like being physically separated from the people we love, seem less severe than others. Yet who can measure the cost of separation, especially to the young and the old? While most of us have lost at least this much, some of us have lost much more, particularly if there will be an empty chair at our next holiday table.

Thinking of loss, I remember my grandfather’s words on his seventieth birthday. He responded to my birthday greetings with a paraphrase of Psalm 90:10, saying, “People have been given 70 years of life. If they live to be 80, the extra years are sure to be filled with sorrow.” My grandfather was born in the early 1900s. At 70 years he had lived through the First World War, the Spanish Influenza, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Second World War, and the untimely deaths of several relatives younger than himself. He had more than a passing acquaintance with fragility and loss. Though I would not want to adopt his melancholy disposition, after the pandemic, I understand it better than I did before.

When we pass through loss, what comfort can support us to reclaim confidence and joy as we look to the future? One option is to rely on ourselves, calling forth the inner strength that we need to tamp down sadness or grief and stand upright. Another option is to look beyond ourselves. At one time, the church denomination in which I was raised taught its youth using a catechism written in the sixteenth century. The catechism’s first question asked in part, “What is your only comfort?” The answer — which we were expected to memorize — stated in part, “That I am not my own.” Deep comfort comes from belonging to something larger than oneself. Some people will agree with the catechism that we belong first to a loving Creator. All people can accept a corollary that we belong as much to each other as we do to ourselves. We are, as Mary Pipher argued in her book, The Shelter of Each Other, a source of strength and comfort in the lives of others, just as they are a source of strength and comfort in ours.

These days, my image of comfort has a table at its centre. The table is weighed down with delectable things to eat. The food, however, is not the point. The point is the people gathered around it. Even more, the point is that the people gathered there belong to each other.

Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator who lives with his wife in Edmonton. Together they are already making plans for a lively round of autumn holiday meals.