Life Without Regret
By Charles Rush
October 12, 2008
(mp3, 6.6Mb) ]
“Absalom, Absalom… how I would have loved you”
is is one of the saddest lines in scripture and it beckons to mind a conversation that I had with an elderly woman that has haunted me for quite some time. From time to time, people ask me to talk to their relatives right around the time that they are going to die. It sounds morbid, but actually it isn’t. Usually people know that they are going to die soon and usually they want to talk about their life so that they can think through for themselves exactly why their life was worth living and how it is that their families will carry on after them.
These conversations are usually
refreshingly blunt. There is neither time, nor need for the niceties of normal
discourse. I visited a woman once that I didn’t really know at all at the
request of her children. It was a conversation that echoed with me ever since.
I asked her to recall some things from the past- high moments, low moments. At
one point I asked her the meaning of her life…
She started to
recount the broad outlines of things that I’m certain she never told her
children. She was married for a very long time and it was unfulfilling. She
followed her husband’s career and didn’t really develop her own career, despite
being well educated. She had hoped for material comfort to make up for her
spouse who never met her needs for romance. And that went along fairly well but
her husband never quite developed the money that should have followed his
career path, so there was no brag factor in retirement. She had hobbies and
interests but her story started to stray after a while and she was really
uncomfortable, despite the fact that it was important to her to actually talk
about this subject with a stranger… She became pensive, looked out the window.
She said to me, “Apart from the wonderful gift of my children… I think I missed
the point of my life…”
We just sat
together in silence for a while. If there is a religious platitude for a moment
like that, we never read that chapter in divinity school. That conversation
The bible tells
the story of the life of David in much this same way (a decidedly male version
that is). He was a great leader and pulled Israel together when they were a
tiny nation, teaching his army to fight guerilla war style. He founded
Jerusalem 3000 years ago, built the first Temple. He had the same raw genius
that Thomas Jefferson had when he founded this small country that later grew
into such an amazing society.
But his life
got away from him at mid-life and at the very end of his life, he has this one
sad line about his son: “Absalom, Absalom, how I would have loved you” But he
didn’t and he won’t.
David’s life is
recounted as a morality tale and surely it was more complicated than that. But
he ends up, exactly where you don’t want to be in old age- bitter and
make a lurid film of how it all went wrong. And the opening scene would grab
your attention. It is mid-life. The battles are mostly over, David has 10
wives, a big palace, and the foundations of a city-state emerging around him.
He is bored.
One day, he
looks out and down, from his palace, the highest point in the city, and sees a
woman bathing. He sends his people to fetch her. She is a woman, he is a man in
a patriarchal society. She is a commoner, he is the King. In a moment of poor
judgment, he sleeps with her. Today, we would call this rape. Then, it was
remembered as an unfortunate incident.
It turns out,
she is the wife of one of his soldiers. Today, his actions would have gotten
him a dishonorable discharge for this reason alone. This woman sends him a note
with what is probably one of the oldest lines of really bad news in human
history. It says simply, ‘I’m pregnant’.
David tries to
cover his tracks. He orders her husband home for leave immediately. He hopes
this soldier will have sex with his wife once home, no one will know or
question the paternity of the child, problem solved.
soldier won’t sleep with his wife. He has integrity and won’t take leave while
his men are in battle. He won’t visit his wife, just the King as he was ordered
to do, but then he sleeps with the other soldiers. David is befuddled.
He calls the
guy back, gets him drunk, hoping his personal discipline will break down after
intoxication. But he is wrong. The soldier goes back to post like a good
Now David makes
a really poor judgment. He orders this soldier to the front lines and he has to
get one of his generals involved. No officer ever wants to be involved in this
kind of sorry request but he does it. The soldier dies. David marries this
woman who has his child. Wife number 11. It is the low point of his adult life
and the story suggests that he tried to bury it from his memory as best he
could but it didn’t work very well.
A few years go
by, David’s actual children are now becoming adults. His oldest son Amnon gets
the same preferential treatment that most oldest sons of aristocrats are
indulged in for the same reasons of vanity that have haunted from the
foundations of human civilization us to the present.
One day, Amnon
is bored, in the way that teenage sons are still bored. He has been pining
about the house for weeks on end, lusting after his half-sister. Today, we
would call this incest. Actually, even then, they called this incest.
But Amnon has
grown up his whole life as a spoiled rich kid. He didn’t really watch his
father come up through the ranks. He only remembers life with power and assets.
He calls one of his staff and gets the staff to call his Dad and ask him if his
sister can come personally and alone to his room and feed him some homemade
soup so that he can get better faster. Does this sound familiar? Some things
haven’t changed nearly enough.
thinking, not really engaged, says ‘sure, why not’ and orders the daughter of
one of his wives to visit the brother of another wife. The daughter shows up
with her attendant. In patriarchal societies, aristocratic girls have
attendants to make sure they steer clear of trouble.
The kid, Amnon,
requests that all attendants leave the room. Reluctantly they do. You can’t
push the future king but so far. They leave. He grabs his sister. In a poignant
scene of powerless love and loveless power, she asks her brother to think. If
he even asks for her, the King will give her to him. But if she is raped, she
will become an outcast in addition to the rape. The kid won’t listen. He rapes
her and sends her away. Revolted at himself, he can’t stand to be around her
She leaves and
becomes depressed, locks herself up in a room, and won’t talk to anyone.
brother, also one of David’s other sons,
comes to see her. She finally tells him what happened. He is furious. He wants
justice. He wants revenge.
This sad story
eventually comes back to David. I used to say to my children on Friday night as
they were leaving for the party, ‘Remember, I may not hear about this on
Monday… but eventually I hear about everything…’
this story. It makes him upset but… for reasons that are never detailed, he
doesn’t do anything about it. He doesn’t comfort his daughter. He doesn’t
confront his son. Probably, he can’t face in his kids the same things he can’t
really face in himself. This seems to be a cardinal symptom of dysfunctional
families in every generation. But the bible doesn’t do a lot of psychological
reflection since the academic discipline of depth psychology won’t be invented
for another 2500 years. So we don’t know why and probably David took this to
the grave with him.
of action, particularly moral action, is never without consequence itself. And
David’s life starts coming apart at this non-event.
He doesn’t do
anything, so this son, Absalom gets more and more enraged at his brother Amnon.
Apparently, David doesn’t see this coming. Absalom plots his own revenge. There
is a convention in Jerusalem. I find it amusing how little has changed in 3000
years at this point. There is a convention in town and David is supposed to be
the ‘guest speaker’, like the Governor would be today. Only he can’t make it,
so at the last minute, he asks his oldest son to fill in.
Absalom, gets wind of this. He gets his guys to be the waiters that night at
the event. They have the speeches and then they start in on the heavy drinking.
Wine after wine is brought around. Everyone is relaxed and making some whoopee.
Amnon, son #1 is drunk. The waiters surround him in a scene right out of the
Godfather and they stab him to death in public. Take that you scum.
Absalom, flees town. This story is reported to David… Trust me it was page one
of the Jerusalem Post, probably pretty much like that picture of Paul
Castellano 15 years ago, gunned down in New York at his favorite restaurant,
lying on the sidewalk, cigar still clenched in his teeth.
Now there is a
big committee meeting. What to do? How do we handle this? A lot of advice is
given to King David. He mulls it all over. Again, we don’t know his inner
thoughts. But he looks a lot like one of our neighbors in the South when I was
a kid. They had this room in a pretty big house that no one went into. So
naturally, I asked why no one goes in that room? The answer was, ‘because that
is where it happened’. I never found out what ‘it’ was. But it seems to be a
perennial symptom of dysfunctional families that there is one ‘room’, one
‘subject’, one place that we ‘just don’t go there’. We just don’t. David acts
nothing actually. Absalom is on the run. David’s guys know where he is. David
just lets him be… and this goes on… for years.
Absalom has aspirations of his own. He is very popular in the country side. He
is in touch with the people. He goes to the places where they gather to settle
disputes and offers to arbitrate. He does a good job over a good period of
time. The people actually start seeking out this arbitration rather than taking
everything to Jerusalem. He develops friends. He is smart and handsome and a
people’s man… just like… his Dad.
month, and again, we don’t have his inner thoughts, he hates his father more
and more. He can’t respect his father. The man is weak. He was probably saying,
‘the Man was yesterday’ ‘His time is over’, ‘turn the page.’
day actually arrives when Absalom has enough friends and alliances that he
decides to start a coup d’état. He pulls a guerilla style army together… just
like his Dad did. He attacks when no one is watching Jerusalem… just like his
King David is
awakened by his generals. Trust me, these officers do not find this episode the
least bit amusing… They tell King David that he has no choice but to flee his
palace, regroup and hope for a counter-attack later. David, the inventor of the
guerilla warfare tactics, finally acts quickly and flees.
Now we get one
of those truly tragic moments, where young men with way more power than they
can handle, have an unchecked ability to exercise it. Absalom takes over
Jerusalem. He takes over the palace. And he decides in his first executive fiat
that all of David’s ten wives should be brought to the palace and each given a
temporary tent to live in. He decides that he will rape each of them in turn,
not in public view, but everyone will know what is taking place, and presumably
who is in charge. If you are wondering how this story got into the bible, the reading
is more interesting that you knew.
judgment with really tragic results… He not only orders it. He does it. That
must have been quite a week to be a reporter. Now, and I’m sure this the reason
this terrible tale is in the bible, the dysfunction of David’s personal life
takes on social and political consequences. This is an all out civil war and
law and order have just been sold cheap to hubris.
David is in the
field, doing what he is best at doing, even if he has retired for over a decade.
He has his military gear back on. He is moving from cave to cave at night. He
is still one of the best at guerrilla warfare. It takes the guys a couple
months to get organized, but they counter-attack, take the city back and
Absalom is on
the run. The generals know where he is. Once the city has a semblance of order
restored, another meeting is called. What to do with Absalom? David is given
much advice. What he decides to do is… nothing.
abhors a vacuum. People just can’t live that way. So the general in charge
takes matters into his own hands. You cannot allow law and order to be ignored
with impunity. It breeds revolution. They know this. The general has Absalom
chased and chased and chased.
riding through a forest. He was a beautiful boy with these long locks of hair
down to his shoulder. As he is going through a bunch of scrub oaks his hair
catches on a branch, pulls him off his horse and he is dangling without a
The general has
him cut in half with his head delivered to Jerusalem.
the news to David. He rips his shirt in half and sinks into true despair and
bitterness. He cries out, “Absalom, Absalom, how I would have loved you.”
His oldest son
is dead. His oldest daughter is never heard from again, since women bear the
shame of rape in patriarchal societies, so unjust, so not right. His second son
is dead. His wives are… we aren’t told how they reacted since women were not
considered to be important enough to warrant their voice in this story… but we
know how his wives reacted.
world, at least everything important to him personally, just unraveled. And as
an old man, he has to live with this. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…
Don’t end up
like this. Real bitterness is more difficult than death itself. What are you
At the very end
of the movie ‘Jerry McGuire’, the sports agent comes on with this advice: “Live
your life, love your family’ and I would add ‘lead with integrity’.
Just before his
untimely death, I was listening to Tim Russert talking about his father ‘Big
Russ’ and the men of his generation from World War 2. They were reflecting on
how that generation had simpler values and goals. And even if we can’t recreate
them, some are worthy of consideration. Apparently Big Russ or one of his
friends said that the point of life is not about a cushy retirement and it is
not about how much you were able to collect. It is about being able to sleep
with yourself as an old man.
are you waiting for?
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