Monday, August 16, 2010
I thought I was in heaven, but it was only my high school reunion - Boers
I don’t know about you, but there was much about high school that I hated. I was a nerdy, studious fellow, disdained by jocks and other “cool” people who knew how to dress fashionably. And, truth be told, I disdained them as well. I was very, very glad when those tough years ended and it came time to go off to university. I never stepped within the halls of Niagara District Secondary School (NDSS) again, not for thirty-plus years.
But when NDSS decided to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary – in the year as it happened that I turned 50 too – I felt drawn to attend. It would be my first high school reunion. I approached with mixed feelings. I was excited about seeing friends that I’d maintained contact with. I was interested to meet folks that I’d been fond of back then. I was curious about what had happened to many people. But I also wondered: How would I respond to those I found cruel and off-putting years ago? Would I feel centered out and isolated once more? Would being there reawaken old anxieties? How long could I last? How many hours – or minutes – would it be before I reverted into an ill-at-ease adolescent again? Even so, my excitement also increased as more and more people signed up on the website and I noticed that people important to me were planning to attend.
My first surprise was how much I’d forgotten. I pride myself on having a good memory for names, faces, conversations, facts, and events. But many people who spoke to me seemed unfamiliar. I could not place them, even when they told me their names. Sometimes when they told me who they were, I realized that I had not thought of them even once in all the intervening decades!
My next surprise was how eager folks were to sum up entire lives in a few sentences. We all had particular themes about marriages and divorces, number of children, jobs, accomplishments, set-backs. Hard to believe that all those years of living could be condensed to a paragraph or two.
But two epiphanies in particular brought me up short.
First, many fellow schoolmates talked about the hardships they endured during those high school years. We recalled a classmate who committed suicide after his parents’ divorce; both divorce and suicides were rare in our experience back then. One told of sexual abuse by her father. Another acquaintance spoke of the physical and emotional abuse he received from his dad. Another talked about how her mother’s mental illness forced her to drop out in Grade 13. And here I thought that I was the only one in high school that was hurting.
Hearing these accounts reminds me of a favourite saying by a famous ancient philosopher, Philo of Alexandria: “Be compassionate, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
And, second, I also visited at length with people that I actively disliked back in high school. And here too I heard about their struggles. Those were good interactions. We were all hurting back then and lashing out at each other from our woundedness. Like the old cliché goes: hurt people hurt people. Now, however, we had mercy for each other. We understood and even forgave one another.
I decided that that’s what heaven will be like. Here on earth, in the midst of heated battles, conflicts, misunderstandings and dealing with disappointments, it’s sometimes hard to know what to make of the decisions and actions of others. But when we get to heaven, we’ll visit each other with defining stories and see how all of us in our limitations and brokenness were fighting great battles. Our compassion and forgiveness will be full and complete.
Before the reunion if you’d asked me to label high school, I might have been tempted to compare it to the realm of brimstone, wailing, and gnashing teeth. But the anniversary celebration was a foretaste of heaven. I’m looking forward to that reunion too.
Arthur Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.