Agents of Ourselves: Part Thirty-Eight

The members of our weekly writing workshop, Finding Your Voice, met again this past Wednesday. Yvonne Jones, Laura Staley, Maribel Cardez, Tom Dietzler, and I ended up discussing matters of life and death — people suffering at length from incurable diseases, children dying from terminal illnesses or accidents — inexplicable things we can’t control and to which we can’t reconcile ourselves.

Laura told us she struggles to find her place in situations like that, to embrace her humanity and her need to grieve while battling compulsions to contribute to the situation and the feeling that she might — or should have been able to — exert some control over it.

Later in the week, she wrote this, which she generously allowed me to share here:

My inner children persist in asking: Why do people die? Where do people’s personalities go when they die? Why do children die? Why am I going to die? Why are there diseases like heart disease, cancer, and accidents that stop people from breathing, eating, peeing, thinking, feeling, laughing, crying, sitting, standing, walking, running, dancing, lying down, writing, coloring, crafting, drinking water? I find I don’t have many answers. I don’t know. I don’t know … Any made up stuff I tell them, my inner children seem to know I’m inventing things. I’m imagining things I cannot access from direct experiences of living.

I’m imagining things I cannot access from the experiences of living. Please just sit with that sentence for a while. I did. And I’ll sit with it again and again. It’s such a beautifully powerful statement on the inexplicability of the human condition.

Laura went on to cite what people often say when a young person passes away: “Well, I guess God needed another angel.”

Yvonne, serenely peaceful Yvonne, was shaking her head, even as Laura was saying that. “No,” Yvonne said. “God can make angels. He doesn’t to take them from among the living.”

Then she said, “I’d like to read something to you from Ecclesiastes 9:11.” And she read this:

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance happen to them all. Please just sit with that sentence for a while, too. I did. And I’ll sit with it again and again. It’s a much-needed reminder that there are forces beyond us, beyond our misguided impulses to control them. And if we’re willing to take it to heart, it’s a subtle reminder that humility is more constructive than hubris, that surrender is more rational than control, that modest acceptance is more realistic than foolish notions of omnipotence.

On June 27, 1971, the Allman Brothers Band played the last concert ever at Bill Graham’s legendary concert venue, The Fillmore East. The Allmans played all night. Afterward, one of the band’s drummers, Butch Trucks, recalled this:

We played for roughly seven straight hours with everything we had … the feeling was just so overwhelming that I just started crying … And when we finished, there was no applause whatsoever. The place was deathly quiet. Someone got up and opened the doors, the sun came pouring in … nobody moving until finally they got up and started quietly leaving the place. I remember Duane [Allman] walking in front of me, dragging his guitar while I was just sitting there completely burned, and he said, “Damn, it’s just like leaving church.”

That’s what the end of our conversation last Wednesday was like. It was just like leaving church.

I love Yvonne, Laura, Maribel, and Tom with all my heart.

This is for them:


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Wow. Very intense. I sure don’t have an answer to any of Laura’s questions. I have been told we have a purpose in this life and when that purpose has been completed, our body dies but our spirits lives on. I have been struggling for over 60 years with why my cousin Bobby, my childhood hero, survived an auto accident while he was in the Navy or to die in a plane accident the very next year. What was his purpose? Why did these two disasters occur? What was it supposed to teach us or show us? Who do we go for to get answers? I wish I knew. I would be at his/her door in the morning asking why.

    • That’s why the passage from Ecclesiastes struck me as so powerful, Frank. It’s like the Biblical version of “shit happens”.

      And I love this quote from the end of the video: “Learning to sit with ambiguity can be a very important start at a life liberated from anxiety – and the way to do it is to resist the urge to chase answers to questions that may actually be unanswerable.”

      Thank you for joining the conversation.