My brother, Patrick, my cousin, Bill, his brother, Patrick, and I were a few feet from my mother’s casket, talking about the party my mother had insisted that we have after the interment. We were talking about the goodies that were planned, in particular the cake, cookies, ice cream, and candy. I said, “I’ve developed quite a sweet tooth since I stopped drinking.” My brother looked at me quizzically. We’d never talked about that subject as far as it concerned either of us. Bill and his brother looked at me, too. We were having one of those unspoken male conversations that drive women crazy. Without words we were remembering our fathers, and sharing the struggles of our own adult lives. We were still musing when Bill said, “Yeah. Some cop is not going to arrest you for driving under the influence of Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Even as he said it, I thought that there was more than flippant Irish humor in Bill’s remark. He was talking about doing whatever it takes to stay sober. He was talking, more generally, about using what might be seen as less than healthy to stay healthy. I later thought that could be broadened to our caffeinated, sugar-saturated American mass culture and the ways we can use it, rather than just reject it. There was something about Bill’s remark that reflected the rush of the last year of the Clinton era. And about 18 months later, on September 11, 2001, more than 3,000 people were murdered in the name of destroying that secular culture.
When I was a young altar boy, one of my favorite services was the Easter Vigil, which would start about 11 p.m. on Holy Saturday. By the time we were past midnight and into Easter, the priests would be singing the Exsultet, a long hymn about the joy of the Resurrection. In this hymn, Adam’s sin is called a “happy fault,” felix culpa, because it meant that God became one of us to redeem us for that sin. In a more secular vein, I find that our bodies, the bodies that fail us and get sick and die, those bodies are also a source of comfort even in a time of great loss. I’m not just talking about the ability to take refuge in hugs and comfort food. Nor about the ability to escape through drink, drugs, and physical pleasure. Not even the distractions provided by our sugar-saturated, caffeinated, media-hyped society, which the high-minded and the holier-than-thou so loftily and mistakenly disdain. I’m talking about simple tears. We cry. We can cry because that’s the way our bodies work. The things that make us cry make us feel sad, but tears give us relief, even a kind of pleasure. Why else do we like sad music? And while we’re on that subject, for the benefit of the high-minded and holier-than-thou, without the physical world, without our bodies, there would be no music, nor laughter. In schools of Buddhism widely practiced in East Asia, those who truly learn to open do not try to escape this vale of tears, but stay present in the here-and-now in order to bring openness to others. True opening is not an escape from this world, no more from its joys than from its sorrows.