“You have to live your life forward, but you can only understand it backward.” (Soren Kierkegaard) I have now my full share of years and am perhaps close to port. Sometimes I think about my life as just another fleck of life, a speck amid the billions of history, who has his own small importance as an individual for a brief span of time.
Sometimes I wonder if it can be true of me what the Scriptures say about Paul, Jeremiah, Isaiah, that I was known by God “from the foundation of the world,” as Paul says, or as Jeremiah has God say, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”? Was I really someone God thought of from all eternity, before time was?
I’m at a time now when I have an urge to look back at my past and wonder— wonder what it might be telling me about myself. I try to listen to my life and attempt some sort of assessment.
There’s a First Communion photo of me. In it is a lad of seven dressed in preposterous navy-blue knickers with a navy-blue jacket, white shirt, large white bow tie, with navy-blue shoes and long navy-blue socks. Clutched in his hands is a white covered prayer book and a white rosary intertwined through his fingers. He’s a handsome enough boy, but that boy looking out at me from the photo has sad, frightened eyes. Sometimes I think of writing a letter to the boy I once was. I sort of liked that kid.
How they live on in me, those giants of my childhood—the people who loved me and whom I loved, the people who taught me things. I wish I could have known my father when he was nineteen. I wish I could have been his friend.
When it comes to adolescence, a couple of scraps of memory keep rising up: shopping at Kresge’s, taking dates to ice cream parlors. I vividly remember the time when my bare knee touched the knee of a teenage girl on the Canarsie pier.
During those formative years when we, generally speaking, become lifelong readers or not, a kind of heaven opened for me. Reading became one of the greatest graces of my life. Books are my narcotic.
In adulthood, the world made a niche for me, and I found a place in the scheme of things. I was more a plugger than slugger, indefatigably tenacious. Early on I saw I lacked the smooth self-oblivion required for a public career. I had little talent for administration, and I knew it. I was called to fight inward battles instead. Alone, working among my books, was where I felt most at ease. I was never bored. I was self-entertaining.
I have been afraid of too many things. I was never not afraid, my mind turning to illness, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. I cannot remember a time when I was not dreading something. My nature was always to expect the worst, generally ready to receive bad news. I yearn to be more at ease in life, but I continue to worry my worries.
Reflecting on my past, I think of all the happiness behind me, the many waltzes that have ended, the brightness and beauty that could not last. There’s a sorrow for chances missed. There are things I regret and would like to undo, tears I would like to dry. Remorse bites at me. I’m aware of some weaknesses that seem to be inescapable and ineradicable. Looking back, I see some of the roads not taken, and long for all I have not known, for all I have missed. There are things I did not do when I could and should have, and they come back to shame.
But there were times when, now and then, I displayed a little courage, was at my best and bravest. Some things were done in wisdom and love. I came to know certain sorrows, certain estrangements, my mother’s early death. The central wound in my history was the death of my wife. How I loved her, and how I lost her. I often wonder over her attraction for me.
I have developed a lively awareness that we do not have a lasting city here (Hebrews 13:14). I recognize that we ourselves are our primary problem.
When I look back at the way my life has unfolded, I have a conviction that my life was not haphazard. I even begin to think of my life as a sacred journey. We have a history, He and I. I think I can be aware of myself as a person who is known and loved by God. I even think I’ve been close to God a few times. Right now I have no doubt that I am in the place where Providence wished me to be.
However, I’m just not that interested in myself anymore. But the voyage continues and I must continue to put up with me.
Thomas Hicks is a member of St. Theresa Parish in Trumbull.