Late in my senior year of high school, as I was getting ready to transition into college and all that went with that change (including leaving my home forever), an important adult in my life offered me advice for my journey.
“Always remember, Kelly,” he said, “nobody is indispensable.”
“Okay,” I replied.
I then shuffled off, stunned – no, numbed, really – with the immense coldness and inscrutability of this bit of fatherly-like wisdom. I puzzled over it for three decades.
In my darker moments, the advice came up as a taunting reminder of how unimportant I am, how meaningless my existence. If nobody is indispensable, then everyone is dispensable. I am dispensable – easily discarded – as is every other person in my life. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
When on an even keel, which (thankfully) has been most of the time, I figured he was talking more about the functions other people play in my life, people like himself. I guessed maybe he meant there would always be another mentor, leader, coach, teacher, friend to come alongside in the journey. Maybe he meant, “Don’t be sad, Kelly, don’t grieve about leaving all you ever knew. You will find others to fill the place of what (and who) once was.”
Maybe. Even now, I don’t know what he really meant. I am sure, though, that he meant well. If he were to offer that same advice to me today, I know I would respond differently. First, rather than walk away in stunned numbness, I would ask him what he meant. One of the bennies of adulthood – you’re no longer afraid to ask.
I would also say no. No, sir, I do not agree with the dispensability of persons. Functions are replaceable, sure. You can easily get another alto to sing in the choir, but if Phyllis is not there, whose laugh would we hear from the far right pew when the tenors are off a half beat? There’s always another accountant to do the books, but John was the only one I knew who always thought to bring back fresh peanuts from his trips down south. He loved it there, and he loved sharing a bit of old Williamsburg in a can with his office mates.
Invite some other guest to bring the guac, another intern to fix your website, someone else to drive you to the airport. Life will go on. But the moment to connect with another living soul will also pass.
I will risk caring too much, saying goodbye too often, throwing flowers on the grave of another moment. I will grieve the passing of seasons, because grief comes from deep gratitude. It is how we say that this time with another human is critically important. It is how we say that you exist and I exist and that our existence matters very much indeed. This I believe to my core:
We matter to God. We should matter to each other.
Goodbye is how I acknowledge the importance – the indispensability – of the other. And when I do that, I am more likely to say hello again.