Tragedy            The Wisdom of Gravestones



The old man in his seventies – at the very end of his life - sitting by the side of his hospital bed would look strangely beautiful. Ravaged by serious heart problems and a stroke, the old man was stripped of pretence and looked somehow naked. He looked humble. He looked open. He looked vulnerable - like a child in some ways. His ‘weakness’ somehow made him look peaceful and grateful. The old man remembered kindness showed to him going back years, indeed decades. Like when, as a 12 or 13 year old very poor village boy, he first walked several kilometres barefoot to another village to start his cobbler apprenticeship. The first thing his Greek-Cypriot boss did was measure his feet so that the new cobbler’s apprentice could at least have a pair of shoes! Oh, how many times did he recall this story! 

We often think the problem is poverty. The problem is not poverty! I know that it is often said that actions speak louder than words, at least in English. Of course our actions, our behaviour, are clearly crucial. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of people’s words very clearly not matching their actual behaviour. For example, people who talk of honesty, or talk of kindness but aren’t themselves particularly honest or kind in their dealings with others. Indeed, I’m sure you’re aware of the Turkish saying: “Do what the mosque teacher says, not what he does!” 

In actual fact I’m being indirect, what I want to talk about is love. I am not thinking of romantic or sexual love in particular, though I don’t exclude them. Maybe I’m still not being direct enough, what I really want to write about is the expression of love. Do you express your love to the people you care about? Often? Sometimes? Hardly ever? How do you show your love? Do you show your love honestly or directly? Do you focus most of your powers of loving into food? Or do you leave others hoping and guessing that you may love them? I mean, do you show your love to your loved ones to the extent that you actually feel the love in your heart? Or do you show your love in a muted, half hearted way?  

It is true; it would be wonderful if our hearts were more full of kindness and love. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a heart richer with tenderness, affection and love. But for me the tragedy is not that our hearts are poor or lacking in love, rather the real tragedy is the love we feel that we do not openly express. Unexpressed love is itself a kind of action, both actions and non-actions are actions and as such both have an effect on ourselves and the world. 

Who amongst us doesn’t value words of appreciation? Words of praise? Words of encouragement? Words that say I care about you, I love you? Especially of course when these words come from the heart. In this connection I love the quote by the English writer Samuel T. Coleridge (1772-1834): “What comes from the heart goes to the heart.”   

It is said that love is a power which produces love and indeed this is my experience. It is a little strange but for many of us – and I include myself here – showing and expressing our tender feelings, our affection is scary, a kind of threat to the ego. We often need to take a scary step into the unknown to connect with someone in an atmosphere of loving kindness. In other words, we need to be courageous and extend beyond ourselves, become bigger to affirm the being of another, even if we and they feel a little embarrassed or vulnerable. It is after all a sign of emotional maturity to be able to bare our vulnerability.  

(Of course, expressing love is only one side of the equation. What about receiving love and affection? If someone expresses their love to us directly, can we or do we, allow this to enter into our hearts and not indulge in false modesty or minimise the value of what we’ve been told. Accepting someone else’s kind words or compliments can be seen as an act of generosity itself. We can take a deep breath and graciously say, “Thank you.” And whenever we want to, or feel a bit down, we can recall these words. Haven’t you noticed that when you tell people that Mehmet or Ayşe for example really likes them or has spoken really well of them (behind their backs) that they often naturally and sincerely say how much they like and appreciate Mehmet or Ayşe in response. This observation delights me, it encourages me.)  

The old man in the opening paragraph was my father. A few years ago he spent about six months in hospital, mostly in intensive care, in London. Whilst I was visiting London, for several weeks I went to see him almost everyday. I can’t say that I had an easy relationship with my father and communication wasn’t easy or straight-forward but in the last 5 or 6 years of his life I made my peace with him.  

Visiting him almost every day (in intensive care) was at times a kind of religious practice and it wasn’t always comfortable – aging and death aren’t comfortable - and I would definitely have some resistance and unpleasant thoughts and feelings to acknowledge. But at its “best” the whole thing was a process of stripping back the inessentials and going deeper into life. It was after all a very real reminder of the universality of death, that my father, like all men and women – like myself - is impermanent. When we are looking death in the face, what is and is not important, often comes sharply into focus.  

My dad during those days I visited him sometimes, even often - as I said - would look strangely beautiful and this couldn’t but fail to touch my heart. During those days, I experienced more affection and tenderness towards my dad than I have ever felt in my life and I did my best during my visits to lovingly tend to him. 

Eventually I decided to return to my life back here in Istanbul. And it was in Istanbul one day that on the phone for the first time in my life I said to my father – still in hospital - as the phone conversation was about to end, “I love you” and for the first time that I can ever remember he said, with a depth of sincerity, in direct response, “I love you very much.”  

Two or three weeks later he died.