Living with leaving

I grew up in a small, rural church with a pretty stable membership. Then I spent most of my twenties in a small congregation with a high percentage of college and seminary students. Those years formed my first experience of what it means to live in a community where comings and goings happened much more frequently. We became friends with students and then often said goodbye a few years later. On one occasion, as the congregation was farewelling the year’s grads, I turned to a friend, one of the “stayers” and close to a married couple about to depart, to find her in tears. “It’s too hard,” she said, “I can’t do this again.” I understood the dilemma. How does one continue to invest time and energy in relationships that are bound to be diminished or even fractured as students’ studies come to an end? In subsequent years, I learned, of course, that settings not heavily influenced by the academic year are certainly not exempt from this pattern of arrival and departure, of embrace and release. To be fair, I’ve occasionally been the one leaving--three times in thirty-three years, to be exact. An old (now) Caedmon’s Call song suggests that humanity has been caught in this pattern since Eden: “I come from a long line of leavers / Out of the garden gate with an apple in their hands.” The song goes on to lament this seemingly inevitable tension between our desire for connection and our fear that at some point those we’ve come to love will betray us by leaving us behind.

When I considered the offer of a teaching position at Briercrest, I consciously reflected on what it would mean to once again commit myself to a small, closely knit community in which such comings and goings would happen with predictable regularity. This time, however, I knew I would be much more deeply embedded in the cycle: each September, I would meet a cohort of new students in my 100-level English courses, and each April I would bid farewell to a group of students who I’d gotten to know, but who would not be returning in the fall. Before I came to Briercrest, I had been teaching compulsory first-year writing on a campus of 17,000. My courses were small by design, and I became well-acquainted with the students; for many, I was the only one of their professors who knew them by name. However, once they left my classroom, I rarely saw them again, even in passing. When I thought about teaching at Briercrest, one attraction was the opportunity a small campus would provide to get to know students, to build relationships over the course of a few years, rather than have students disappear from my classes and my life after one semester.

Nine years later, that opportunity continues to be important to me, one of the reasons I give when people ask me what I like about teaching at Briercrest. I’m deeply thankful for the ways in which students have invited me into their lives; I value the time I have with them, both inside and outside the classroom. Those connections with students, however, mean that their eventual departure has a greater impact on me. Perhaps my most memorable graduation at Briercrest was the one four years after I arrived, the grad at which, for the first time, I had to say goodbye to students I had welcomed in their first year (some of whom I’d come to know well), students who had been in and out of my classes and my office for several years, but who would not be smiling at me in the hallways the following September. The leave-taking proved more difficult than I expected, and I knew that subsequent grads would be no easier.  

I still find this cycle of welcome and farewell challenging. In my more philosophical moments, I tell myself that in one sense, my role as a teacher is to equip students to leave; I should feel gratified if I’ve prepared well for their departure. And yes, I can share in their anticipation of the next stage of their journey, or pray with them as they face decisions about the future. But all of that does not prevent the sense of loss each year when the goodbyes are said at grad, and I confess that I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be safer to step back, to maintain my distance from students. However, having lived for the last nine years with the ongoing tension between the joy of welcoming students and the sadness of farewells, I am gradually coming to understand this rhythm as dialogue rather than dialectic. The feelings of loss shouldn’t be guilt-inducing; they aren’t evidence that I’ve forgotten that God is not leaving with the students, or that I’m not celebrating fully with them over the completion of their educational journey at Briercrest. Rather, the difficulty of leave-taking suggests that I have welcomed well, and—perhaps more importantly—students have, in turn, welcomed me into their lives.    

More recently, I’m rather reluctantly realizing that I need to do more than simply accept the inevitable sense of loss without feeling guilt or seeking to protect myself against it. I’m reminded of Henri Nouwen’s words: “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives . . . requires hard spiritual work.” Yet, he continues, “we are only truly grateful people when we can say ‘thank you’ to all that has brought us to the present moment.” Those who hunt down the origins of words think that the roots of the word “grateful” may go back even further than the well-known Latin “gratus” to an earlier word that means, among other things, “to welcome.” That connotation adds another dimension to gratitude, suggesting that it involves risk: the risk of throwing one’s arms open wide, the risk of making oneself vulnerable. Can I say that I welcome hard goodbyes? How do I embrace lament at students’ going as fully as I give myself to anticipation and welcome at their coming? Challenging questions, indeed, ones that call me to an ongoing commitment to the discipline of gratitude.

But I am also learning that an active practice of gratitude has a way of opening my eyes to the gifts of grace that can only be fully appreciated when they are illuminated through the lens of loss. In a few days, I’ll be saying goodbye a second time to one of the first students I taught at Briercrest, a student who has become a dear friend and valued colleague over the last four years. I’ve already been left behind once, when she moved to Ontario to complete an MA. Her return gave us an unexpected opportunity; these years of living and working in the same place geographically have enabled us to build a relationship that would have been difficult to duplicate at a distance. Of course, I knew when she came back to Caronport that her stay would not be permanent. Now she’s getting married and moving—once again—to Ontario to pursue a PhD. This farewell will be significantly more difficult than the first one, but the much deeper sense of loss enables me to see even more clearly what a rich gift of grace our time together has been.

Even as I release my friend to her new life and future, the cycle begins anew. In a few short weeks, students will arrive on campus and my classes will be full of new faces. Comings and goings will continue; once again I’ll be given the opportunity to welcome fully with the knowledge that in a few years, I will be called to embrace loss as I say farewell. As I live within this rhythm, I will remind myself that, as Nouwen says, “all is given as a gift of love,” all is grace, and because that, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

Through my time at Briercrest, my relationships with others are richer, more meaningful, genuine, authentic and real. I am thankful for all I have learned, but most of all growing in my walk with Jesus!
Erin Wiens