Recent reading brought my attention back to a book of Celtic wisdom that I read years ago called, “Anam Cara,” written by John O’Donahue. In that wonderful collection of words, O’Donahue explains the meaning of the phrase like this:
“The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul.”
So many of us spend a great deal of time searching–hoping to experience such a friendship–and even when we do, we don’t always recognize it right away. We often have expectations and interests that divert our attention away from that recognition at first. Friendship usually takes time to unfold under the best of circumstances, but “anam cara” is a relationship that is born long before we appear on the planet. Some may call it destiny, some might prefer a term like “kindred souls,” but no matter how we arrive at such a recognition, when we do arrive, we often find ourselves confronted with the most perplexing of mysteries; we know there are forces at work in such an arrangement that do not fit neatly into our temporal existence, and yet we still know somehow that as O’Donahue says, we are “joined in an ancient and eternal way.”
In one lifetime, we may encounter and come to recognize such individuals only rarely, and there are no restrictions or limitations as to the circumstances that might lead us to them, or where and when our recognition might occur. After the loss of such a soul in my own life, I found myself confronted with the perplexing mystery, and had an unusual experience which gave me a rare insight, and I wrote about it in my journal:
“Unable to sleep this morning, I sat out on the back porch and watched the sky brighten with the morning’s first light. It was a spectacular morning sky, cloudless and deep blue. What sounded like hundreds of birds were already busy with their morning conversations, chirping in a cacophonous symphony, and I wondered momentarily, what they could possibly find so compelling to talk about at such an hour. Reflecting on what I had lost, rather than what I had gained by their presence in my life, I nearly missed realizing what all the fuss was about. The realization came to me suddenly, when I understood that the dawn of each new day brings with it, the awakening of all life–truly cause for celebration! We are, each of us, birds, people, everything that lives, blessed with the chance to begin again, to renew ourselves, and to say “yes” to life.
The famous philosopher, William James, once told the story of man who found himself at night, slipping down the side of a steep slope toward the edge of a cliff. To his surprise, he managed to catch a branch which stopped his fall. He remained clinging to it, in misery, for hours. But finally, his fingers let loose their hold, and with a despairing farewell to life, he let himself drop.
He fell just six inches.
The man in this story, because he was unable to see, had clung to the mistaken idea, that there is a way to hold off the inevitable. What he was unable to appreciate under the circumstances, was just what that inevitable event might hold for him. Had he given up the struggle earlier, his agony would have been spared. We cling to life in a completely understandable human way most of our lives, suffering terribly when it is lost too soon, and sometimes despair even when it dwindles slowly in the latter part of a long and fruitful life. There is no magic formula for coming to terms with the many varieties of loss we can experience in our lives, but eventually, as difficult as it is, we must find a way to move forward, as best we can, until the sorrow fades.
Recently, on the way home from a long week at work, I was so struck by the setting sun in the sky that I had to pull over and snap a photo of it. What appeared to be a long swath of darkness was actually receding to the left, leaving the startlingly beautiful panorama on the right, and it occurred to me while I was standing there staring at the sight, that what has felt like a long swath of darkness in my personal life, needed to be viewed as receding as well. It’s not that the darkness won’t ever return, nor that it seemed to hold its sway with me for such a long time, that made me think of the sunrise and sunset as a metaphor for life. We are born into this life in a miraculous awakening that holds an infinite variety of possibilities, not all of which are filled with light and joy, but it is rather a sequence from the realm of infinite possibilities that transpires over a lifetime, no matter how long or how short that lifetime may be.
As I stood alone on that remote highway, staring off into the sunset, I was struck by both the beauty and the majesty of existence, as well as by the painful realization of having endured a swath of sadness, neither of which could be viewed in the same way, never having stood on the edge of darkness, or clung to a branch in despair, or having endured the changing seasons of life. Our gift of life, embodied in the sunrise and sunset, promises only to illuminate the path of possibility, but it does not direct it.