At times we have left others behind.
At times we have been left behind by others.
The question I have spent time reflecting on recently is: Which of the two tends to be more difficult for us to grieve through?
The answer might not end up being universal. I will not pretend to have infallible revelation on a topic that resonates so deeply in our hearts. As we will see in this essay, there are various circumstances and factors that need to be considered. However, for the sake of a compelling read, I will argue that it tends to be more difficult for us to be left behind than it is to leave others behind (most notably in the life of a missionary-disciple). I will compare the difficulties present in both circumstances while I try to fathom some of the most intriguing mysteries of the human person, citing Scriptural evidence along the way.
First, I will go on record and claim that both the experience of being left behind by those we love and the experience of leaving others who we love behind evoke a need to mourn. We are relational beings and breaking ties with those we love will always be difficult to certain degrees. We can be assured that if it is not difficult to say goodbye to someone close to us (either by leaving or being left), we are either refusing to acknowledge the pain we feel, we did not truly love the person to begin with, or we have some sort of wounded-ness (perhaps from our upbringing) that prevents us from loving deeply and meaningfully. By emphasizing being left behind I am not trying to make light of leaving others behind in any way or suggesting that it is therefore easy to leave others behind. For instance, I would argue that it can tend to be easier to break up with someone we are dating than it is to be dumped, but it does not follow that it is therefore easy to break up with someone.
Second, I wish to address what I noted earlier, namely that there are so many circumstances and factors that influence a reaction to a goodbye. For instance, “leaving” could be moving twenty miles away or it could be moving on to the next life. In such a case, it would be unfair to compare you leaving your friends because you’re moving twenty miles away as opposed to being left behind due to a friend’s death. Another factor is that you’ll have different levels of affection and attachment to those you leave behind or are left behind by. It would be unfair to compare you leaving a job where you were treated poorly by people you never fit in with as opposed to your best friend from high school moving halfway across the country for college. You can probably think of a lot of other variables that could bring forth exceptions to this observation I’ve made. For the sake of this essay, you may want to consider scenarios which have similar levels of attachment and other notable circumstances.
Now we can take a closer look at what happens when we leave others behind. In the context of discipleship, leaving others behind is generally expressed in terms of obedience to God’s will: “I am leaving this wonderful group of Honduran kids because God is calling me back to the US to finish my education.” “I am leaving behind these incredible parishioners because God, through my bishop, has called me to be the pastor of a new parish.” When I can follow what I believe to be God’s will, there is some sense of “doing.” In these moments I realize that I’m in submission to His providence and it gives me a sense of powerlessness, but at the same time God invites me to cooperate in His plan for my life. Thus He gives me some sense of “doing.”
Contrast this with being left behind by others where there is much more passivity involved. Powerlessness and passivity is painful for us. It’s true that in both leaving behind and in being left behind there is some experience of passivity. Yet in being left behind we realize just how little control we truly have not just in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. We encounter our interior poverty. We come face-to-face with the reality that we are not the center of the universe, the only character in this play called “Life.” We realize that God has a will for the lives of every other individual we meet and many of them are being called to only be in our lives for a relatively short period of time before they (or we) move on. In addition, there can be much more psychological distress involved when it comes to being left behind as we consciously or unconsciously relate feelings of abandonment to feelings of inadequacy, repressed memories of a broken upbringing, or various other ways to misconstrue the objective truth behind the reason for the departure. On the bright side, it is in these times that we understand more clearly that Jesus is the one constant in our lives, the one Person who will never leave us. We can find comfort in the fact that He “is with us always” (Matthew 28:20)
How do we see this difference played out in the lives of the apostles and in Jesus Himself? (You will, I hope, forgive me if I inadvertently misinterpret or take anything out of context in the upcoming passages.) Let’s first attempt to observe what it was like for both of them to be left behind. John 14-17 (John’s account of the Last Supper) is a beautiful scene in which Jesus brings comfort to the apostles He will soon be leaving (in His physical body) for three days and eventually for the rest of their lifetime. Consider a few passages spoken by Our Lord which could possibly be read as an attempt to comfort the apostles who were about to experience the symptoms of being left behind:
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.”
Perhaps Jesus, who knows the innermost depths of our hearts, could sense this forthcoming pain present in the hearts of the apostles that night and it prompted him to say, “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”
It appears as though Jesus revels in providing consolation to those who are experiencing the feeling of being left behind.
Now consider when Jesus was (or at least seemed to have felt in some way) left behind. Obviously any attempt to psychoanalyze the Son of God will come up short, but we can see instances where Jesus must have felt, in some sense of the term, “left behind.” On the Cross, we believe Jesus felt some sort of sense of what sin is like (“separation from God”) as He took our sins upon Himself. In His dark hour He lets out the famous line from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know that He was left behind by most of his disciples throughout His Passion and we know a large crowd left Him after His Bread of Life discourse in John 6. We don’t seem to have a record in the Gospels of Jesus’ reactions to these events, but we may be able to assume that in His human nature there was some sense of suffering in being left behind (though, as is alluded to in an earlier passage, in His divine nature He was always in communion with the Father).
It’s a whole new ballgame when we consider the apostles and Our Lord leaving or being exhorted to leave others behind. Consider the various ways in which Our Lord reveals the conditions of discipleship as He extends the invitation to, “Come, follow me”:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
“Let the dead bury their dead, you proclaim the kingdom of God.”
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”
Look at the times where the Lord “left behind” others in obedience to the will of His Father. We know He left behind His carpentry trade and His friends and family as He began His public ministry. We can guess that doing the Father’s will was at the center of His life and any heartbreak He may have experienced in leaving others behind would have been somewhat relieved by His complete trust in the Father’s providence. The most notable instance of Jesus leaving someone behind, in my mind, is when He stays behind in the temple at age twelve and remarks to Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?”
It is for these reasons that I am inclined to believe that it can generally be more difficult to accept others leaving our life than it is to have to leave others behind. I believe this is an essential observation that must be reflected on as we seek to better understand this great mystery of our hearts. The only solution to the pain that comes from leaving others behind and being left behind by others that will make a lasting impact in our lives is a fuller trust in the Providence of our loving Father and a deeper relationship with Jesus who is with us always.