There’s a Crack in Everything

June 2014

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering. /There is a crack in everything, / That’s how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen

Recently, a friend passed, a dedicated educator who began his career in 1950 and died this past Thursday morning still in service to a school he helped to found. To meet him was to meet joy. A seeming walking contradiction–he was both the head of a Quaker School and an honorably discharged Marine–he poured his heart and soul into education. Over a 64 year career in education, he taught thousands and educated even more: there are too many educators who owe their starts and careers to him, and that has allowed David Burnham not only to shape the present, but also, as Henry Adams opined, touch eternity.

I met him when I interviewed for the Head of Paul Cuffee and worked with him in that role, as he was the founding board chair and dedicated friend of the school. Even though he had been Head of Moses Brown for 16 years, David might claim founding and working with Paul Cuffee School as his greatest work and love. I appreciated his guidance during my time as head, but toward the end of my career there, I felt some distance grow between us. As I left, I never had the occasion to talk with him about those differences, so his sudden death both saddened me and disquieted me, for I felt as if I never made full peace with a friend who did much for me.

His death reminded me of the importance of making sure that we are at peace with each person in our lives. Often we bicker and fight over meaningless things, and we don’t know if those last, bitter words will be our last ones exchanged with that person. That is the reason that I want to be sure that what I say improves, not destroys; supports, not denigrates; uplifts, not denudates.

David and I both loved Shakespeare, and often quoted lines back and forth. One of my favorite finishing lines are Hamlet’s: “the rest is silence.” These poignant words reminds us that when we venture to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, we lose our opportunity to share our thoughts, our feelings, our words–the rest is truly silence. Make sure that all the people in your life know the love and the respect that you feel for them, for we know not when they, or you, will shuffle off this mortal coil.

Hamlet, when discussing his father’s passing’s with Horatio, says, “’[He] was a man, take him for all in all, /
I shall not look upon his like again.” No one of us is perfect, but there is beauty in all of us. We should focus on the beauty and seek to embrace the imperfections. That was my work, and I feel as if I failed it a bit. This parable, helps me, I hope, to focus on the good going forward, and to remember that it is through the cracks that the light shines in:

A water bearer in China had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After 2 years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to leak all the way back to your house.”

The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

Moral: Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots. But it’s the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding. You’ve just got to take each person for what they are, and look for the good in them.”

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