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As the congregation moved from Mikell Chapel to the post-quinceañera reception, the young woman whose service we had just celebrated said to me, “Padre Bill, estás entre mis abuelos,” or, “Father Bill, now you are among my grandfathers.”
Each week I can be found on the Cathedral Close of the Cathedral of St. Philip, where I have been an Associate Priest for the past 18 years.
Some days I see patients at the counseling center, and on Sunday I serve in one of the many services offered throughout the day in this wonderful, sacred space.
Among those services is Catedral de San Felipe, our Hispanic ministry held in Mikell Chapel each Sunday.
My learning curve is rapidly ascending both in terms of my language skills and my role in relation to the congregation.
They have several names for me, including “Padre Guillermo,” and more recently, “Abuelo,” meaning “Grandfather.”
The latter is perhaps my favorite name.
As of Christmas Eve 2018 when our granddaughter Sophia was born, joining our twin grandchildren Jack and Alice, who call me “Granddaddy,” I am now un abuelo multiplicado por tres or, a grandfather times three.
Our grandchildren Alice and Jack, now 3 ½, live in Billings, Montana, and we visit as often as we can.
Since travel has been limited due to the pandemic, we have gotten creative with Zoom, Portal, packages and phone calls.
During this season of our lives, I am now “abuelo en cuarentena,” or grandfather in quarantine.
Thus, all of these connections have been strained in this season of Covid19.
So, how am I living into this new normal of being a grandfather, and how has it changed my ministry, my perspectives on life—and perhaps my sense of self and being in the world, or dasein, as Heideggar called it?
And, in particular, how has being a grandfather informed my experience of life amidst this pandemic and the social distancing it has created?
Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development included “generativity versus stagnation.”
Typically, this stage takes place during middle adulthood between the ages of approximately 40 and 65, so becoming un abuelo is, in this sense, right on time for me.
During this developmental stage—if one reaches it at all, the alternative is “stagnation”—adults strive to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by parenting grandchildren (National Grandparent’s Day is this Sunday), and contributing to positive, “generative” changes that benefit the common good.
Vicky and I spent much of our married life raising our two sons, and now, to see them have careers and children of their own gives us a deep sense of joy.
We’ve had deeply satisfying careers, but these cannot compare to the delight in bearing witness to the unfolding of the lives of our sons, and, now, to see our grandchildren being born, grow and develop their own wonderfully distinctive lives.
And this is not all.
A subtext in Erikson’s developmental narrative is that we become more connected to those aspects of our world that allow for a transcendence of self.
We become more deeply aware that we are part of something larger than ourselves, a kind of operational theology of abundance.
Wendell Berry hints at this when he says:
“Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest…practice resurrection.”
In this season of Covid-19 and social distancing we are struggling with our grief in relation to the real, immediate losses we are experiencing, as well as the anticipatory grief—the “not-knowing” aspects of whatever the future may bring.
In our churches, schools, healthcare and justice systems—in society at large—life as we know it will not be the same.
The Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman once said “Grief that is not transformed gets transmitted.”
In my experience as a clinician, I have found this to be true.
Unaddressed grief often gets “depressed” with predictable results in our physical and emotional health, and in the “family systems” within which we live and work.
David Kessler is among the world’s foremost experts on grief.
He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss.
His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.
Writing recently in the Harvard Business Review, Kessler says:
“We’re feeling a number of different forms of grief. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed… The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level. You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that. Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. 1
There is yet another, perhaps deeper level of awareness at the intersection of my experience as a grandfather and this season of our lives.
How we are connected and attached to the lives of others, and the deepening nature of these attachments, makes us increasingly vulnerable.
This grows as we get older.
The absence from so many family, friends, colleagues, and parishioners—including those in my beloved Catedral de San Felipe—over these many months now, has been difficult.
Our family in Montana seems much farther away these days, in part because we miss them, and have not been able to visit due to concerns about travel.
Our younger son Andrew is a first-year resident in Internal Medicine at Emory Medical School.
This means 12-14 hour days at Grady Hospital and the VA Medical Center. Our daughter-in-law Margaret is an Epidemiologist at the CDC, so both are on the front lines of healthcare during this pandemic.
This makes them vulnerable, and our granddaughter Sophia is at risk too.
And so we worry.
An annual summer trip in the Rockies with dear friends from Vanderbilt was canceled, as was an epic hike planned for the Northern Cascades with my older son Justin.
The cumulative loss of these connections adds to the grief, uncertainty, and the poignancy of knowing that, as one gets older, such opportunities are more precious.
Finally, as a healthcare professional, I have seen anxiety and depression increase significantly in this season of Covid19.
The economic slowdown and loss of jobs, with concomitant financial stress and, in some cases, evictions, have exacerbated mental health challenges.
I have seen my clinical practice pressed to the limits, as have many of my colleagues.
All of this has revealed fissures in our justice, healthcare and educational systems.
Our churches have struggled with new realities as well, with both real and anticipatory grief amidst these stressors.
Ed Farley, one among many remarkable professors during my years at Vanderbilt Divinity School, wrote about what he called the “Interhuman sphere” of the human condition.
Following in the tradition of Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (and the “intersubjective” thread within phenomenology) Farley suggested that we are vulnerable precisely to the degree that we encounter the mystery of others, and allow ourselves to engage the wide range of attachments available to us in this sphere of relations:
“Something happens in human being-together that is not just negotiating agendas or calculating how self-interests might be met. Something is going on that is irreducible to the negotiations of power and status. Levinas’s thesis is somewhat startling. When we experience the Face of the other, or when the face occurs in conjunction with being-together, we experience a summons, a claim, a call to commitment and responsibility…a summons to compassionate obligation.”2
This is what the “philosophers of dialogue,” Farley among them, refer to as the “mystery of the Thou.”
And, we encounter both joy and suffering as we engage this mystery, what Farley refers to as our “co-discerned fragility.”
All of our attachments, including mine within my various “grandfatherly” roles, have been strained in this season of Covid19, and the breadth and depth of those connections, their concomitant intimacy, contribute to this vulnerability.
As one poet said so well:
Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
~ Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012) “A Few Words on the Soul”
Ignatian Holy Indifference is a spiritual discipline one might think of as an early version of the “serenity prayer.”
That is, it’s the capacity to let go of attachment to what doesn’t help us to love God and love others, including those things over which we have no control—while staying engaged with what does—and recognizing where the limits of our control may lie.
It also means keeping an eye on the transcendent.
In his recent book “The Second Mountain,” David Brooks says this about the cultivation of generative moments of transcendence:
“The universe is alive and connected, these moments tell us. There are dimensions of existence you never could have imagined before. Quantum particles inexplicably flip together, even though they are separated by vast differences of time and space. Somehow the world is alive and communicating with itself. There is some interconnecting animating force, and we are awash in that force, which we with our paltry vocabulary call love.”
Becoming a grandfather has indeed made me more aware of the sometimes harrowing beauty of non-binary, liminal spaces, where we greet the other with dignity and respect, and where, as Emmanuel Levinas said, we welcome the infinite mystery of the Face of the other.
There, our “co-discerned fragility” deepens and enriches our lives inestimably, opening the way for compassion and empathy. In becoming un abuelo, I see artificial borders become diffuse and disappear.
As one of my Hispanic parishioners said to me, “Padre, quiero sentirme vivo,” or, “Father, I want to feel alive.”
As the abuelo in me comes alive, and deepens my capacity for both joy and sorrow, my connection to all of Creation comes alive as well, with more clarity, urgency and meaning.
In living as “abuelo en cuarantena” I have been aware of new levels of grief and vulnerability, mixed with a deep joy for our growing family, and a longing to reconnect with all of my grandchildren, biological and adopted. It is ultimately in relationships, including my own growing status as un abuelo, that we discover, as the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott said, our true selves, and we may become fully alive.
William “Bill” Harkins, M.Div., PhD, LMFT is in his 20th year of teaching pastoral theology and counseling in the various graduate programs at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he directs the Th.D. program in pastoral psychotherapy shared with Emory and ITC. He is a Priest Associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, where he has served for 18 years. Bill practices psychotherapy and marriage and family therapy at the Cathedral Counseling Center in Atlanta. He joined the faculty of Episcopal CREDO, a wellness program for clergy, as Psychological Health faculty in 2012. He has also served as faculty on CPG Planning for Wellness and ECF Boot Camp conferences for clergy. Bill was appointed in 2015 by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts-Schori to the ECUSA Commission on Impairment and Leadership. He enjoys consulting with parishes, businesses, and institutions experiencing conflict and transition.
Bill is an Approved Supervisor in AAMFT, a Diplomate in AAPC, and holds degrees from Rhodes College (B.A.) and Vanderbilt University (M.Div., Ph.D.) Bill is married (39 years) to Dr. Vicky Harkins, an advanced practice nurse leader, professor and healthcare administrator. They have two sons, Justin (35) an environmental litigation attorney in Billings, Montana, and Andrew (32) a first-year Resident in Internal Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine. Twin grandchildren, Alice and Jack, were born in Billings, Montana in March 2017, and a granddaughter, Sophia, born on Christmas Eve 2018. Bill is the veteran of 44 consecutive Peachtree Road Races, and completed the Asheville Marathon, his 11th, in March of 2015. He enjoys outdoor recreation, writing, and spending time with family.