One of my favorite places in the world is a little donut shop in Coldwater named Dutch Uncle. By any ordinary standards it isn’t a very nice establishment: The bathroom door only sort-of closes, they serve water in sketchy styrofoam cups (which they have to go back into the kitchen to get because the soda fountain is broken), they only take cash, and the benches give you a crick in your back if you sit in the booths for too long. But their donuts are delicious, and on weekends, they stay open all night. At Duncle (as the regulars call it), time works differently than outside. The night before commencement my freshman year, I went on a trip to a Duncle with a few of my closest friends. One of these friends was graduating, and she’d orchestrated this trip as a capstone to her time at Hillsdale. A tenderness pervaded the night as we came to a bittersweet recognition of the passing nature of our situation. We toasted our graduate and honored her for the ways she’d invested in our little community. We lingered in Dutch Uncle until 3:00 A.M., long after the other patrons had gone their ways. Our driver took his time on the road back to Hillsdale, taking forty-five minutes instead of the usual twenty-five, as we listened to a carefully crafted set of songs that encapsulated and colored the moment. “The Road Home,” “Red is the Rose,” “You Can Close Your Eyes,” and “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” still bring me back to that night when I listen to them now, years later. As the meditative words and haunting melodies washed over us, our senior wept, and we sat mostly in silence. But there was a sweetness to the moment too, for we knew that the sadness we felt was caused by real ties that we’d made, and that those ties had been worth making.
Later that weekend, when the time for final goodbyes came, I found myself stammering in an awkward attempt to comfort both myself and my graduating friend. “Ya know, goodbyes are just so darn awkward. No matter how many final conversations and hugs you have there’s always that moment where you say, ‘alright, see ya.’” She objected, saying that goodbyes are not just awkward, but wrong. I’d failed to emphasize the gravity of goodbyes by placing them in the same category as small talk and mismatched socks, rather than that of existential problems. She articulated something that I was trying to express but had only intuited. The awkwardness I described and the wrongness she emphasized in turn both pointed to the same element of the human experience: Ultimately, we are not meant to say goodbye. And yet there inevitably come times in our lives when we must say goodbye. Even as a freshman, with my whole collegiate life ahead of me, I recognized this cruelty. For the many and close friendships we make during our time here, we know just as well that we’re bound to leave. We know that, as much as Hillsdale can feel like home, it can’t be so forever, at least in the way that we experience it now. (Even graduates who choose to stay in Hillsdale and invest in the community here after graduation do so in a very different way than they did as students.) And as much as we would like to hold onto every friendship forged in late-night study and early morning coffee, experience reminds us that many of these friendships may well sputter out as the miles, years, and life’s toll work to divide us. We are meant to invest in relationships and build friendships while we are here. Yet there comes a time when we must leave. This is the problem of goodbyes.
One response to this could be that of cynicism, to take at face value C. S. Lewis’ ironic suggestion in The Four Loves to avoid love, because “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” The pain of goodbyes can be avoided if there’s nothing to say goodbye to in the first place. It would be fair enough as an initial reaction—what kind of person would intentionally invest so much time, energy, and love, even, into a thing so elusive and fragile as a community, only to leave so soon? It’s a recipe for pain and loss. The Psalmist makes seventy years (or eighty if you have the strength) sound like a short time—try four (or five if you don’t have the strength). In many ways, it would be a lot easier not to invest in these relationships, to put your life on hold until you graduate and move to a place where you plan on staying for a more significant length of time. But this does not seem viable as a long-term solution. If you accept that relationships are worth investing in in the long term, then it’s only logically consistent to do the same in the short term. (How else would you ever develop long-term relationships?) Avoiding the pain of goodbyes by avoiding any real connections in the first place does not address the problem of goodbyes; it ignores it.
In her prayer book, a series of reflections written during her years in graduate school, Flannery O’Connor hits on this very element of the human experience, writing, “I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God.” I had intuited as a freshman only part of O’Connor’s insight—the paradox that human connection, while working against loneliness, can actually create or reveal loneliness, because we understand that whatever unity we find here is incomplete. In the moments where we feel closest to those around us, when we acknowledge that we have made ties, we realize just as acutely the fragility and temporality of these ties. But in O’Connor’s formulation, this loneliness-in-communion, the hole we feel inside ourselves even in moments of great unity, actually reminds us of God (though we may not explicitly understand this). It is He who will ultimately fulfill our loneliness, who will be our home, and in whom we will no longer need to say goodbye. The sense of wrongness we feel at saying goodbye indicates to us that we are not made for saying goodbye.
The fact of goodbyes is a direct effect of the Fall, coming as a necessary consequence of sin and death. Each goodbye we say in our day-to-day lives is a foreshadowing of the ultimate goodbye that we say to our loved ones upon their (or our) death. But death has been conquered, and we have hope for Heaven, which could be described simply as the place where you don’t have to say goodbye anymore. For the Christian, all goodbyes are temporary. This truth was grasped especially well by Thomas More. Having been perjured against in court and condemned to death on account of treason, More speaks to his accusers:
Here indeed is a pace of discord, dissension, and tumult, but I go now to where the root of all strife and dissension is removed, where love, peace, concord, and tranquility will live in all. But still I have great hope in the divine clemency and goodness that, as we read that Saint Paul persecuted Blessed Stephen, but they are now together in heaven, so all of us, though we disagree in this life, will nevertheless agree in another life with perfect charity. I therefore pray the great good God to guard the king, conserve him, and make him safe, and send him salutary counsel.
More’s situation is reversed from the one I have been describing—the men he says goodbye to in this scene are his enemies, not his friends. The king for whom More prays is the same one who has condemned him to death on a dubious case of treason. But even so, he expresses an understanding beyond the reason of this world, that, though they disagree in this life, they may find unity in the next. More has a proper understanding of the transience of his relationships with his accusers. It is precisely because he does not see this present way of relating to them as eternal that he is able to forgive them and look forward to a day when they may not be enemies, but friends. He can thus forgive them in the here-and-now because he hopes to be with them in the there-and-then; he looks with charity upon those who would have nothing more to do with him if they got the choice.
To invest in relationships, to make yourself vulnerable to others, is to open yourself to the potential for great pain and suffering. All of our relationships in this life are temporary and passing, as we understand them in their current form. But our response to this should not be to draw back in fear of pain, but to invest all the more. To invest in transient relationships is an affirmation of the goodness of being, even as we recognize the transience of this goodness as we know it. Goodbyes are as unavoidable as they are wrong. But they are also temporary, and for that we may be grateful.
Dominic Bulger is a senior staff editor studying music and English.