Pietas was one of the chief virtues for the ancient Romans. We might translate the word as duty, devotion, or filial piety, but no single expression captures the universe contained in that word for the Romans. The person who practices pietas and embodies that virtue honors his or her family, offers the gods due reverence, and performs his or her duty to the state. Naturally, each of those elements is pregnant with meaning and great thinkers like Cicero and Catullus could hardly write enough about pietas. I don’t consider myself a particularly virtuous person but I try to keep myself on a trajectory of becoming better at the business of living and being human, and by some mysterious grace many of my failings and blunders, my apparent deviations from that trajectory, have ultimately allowed me to better chart my course. I imagine this experience rings true for other people, as well.
I have sometimes wondered what it might be like to encounter beings from some distant place in the universe. Presumably I would seem quite strange to them and they to me. If we were able to make ourselves understandable to one another, what would we have to talk about? Once we’d got past the novelty of the situation, what meaningful points of connection would we find? I think family would probably be one of them. They might understand family somewhat differently, based on their experience, their social conventions, and their biology. Perhaps they reproduce asexually. Perhaps they have genders that are somehow different from ours. Perhaps sex, reproduction, and mating have a different relationship for them than they do for us. Perhaps they come from a place where they live alongside other closely related evolutionary variations of their own kind – as if we might today walk out the front door and meet Australopithecus or Nalendi. But even with all those possible variations, I’m sure they would value the continuation of life as much as we do, and isn’t that fundamentally what family is about?
The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever
Today is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. She remains the most important person in my life, more than my parents, siblings, and friends – as important as all those people are. In a way it feels odd to say that, since I can hardly remember what we talked about, even though we had countless long conversations, and the sound of her voice, like the soft touch of her cheek or the scent of her perfume, exists now only faintly and tenuously in my memory. I wept a great deal at her passing, though I tried to be private about my tears. That’s how it is with young men – their insecurities force them to wear many masks. I still cry sometimes when I think of Grandma Carol, and I think about her a lot despite the years that have passed. Only recently have I understood that when I was young I wept out of pain for my own loss, for the void created by my grandmother’s absence. I also wept because she died in a horrible, painful manner – by fire. But what moves me to tears today is her love. There’s still sadness, that’s undeniable, but more than anything I’m aware how much she loved me.
Love is the surest source of strength and also the place of greatest pain. We can’t dwell in love and remain unwounded. Perhaps love has the power to transform all our pain and suffering, to give meaning to meaningless situations, to engender hope in dire circumstances. I’m still figuring life out, quite honestly, and the love of my grandmother is one of the few things of true and lasting value that I’ve found on my journey thus far.
November 23, 2015