by Father Mark Goldasich
The oddest thing happened last Sunday afternoon. While searching for some local news on TV, I stumbled on a car race in Las Vegas. Although I’m not a racing fan, I stopped because I noticed that there weren’t any cars speeding around the track. In fact, things looked eerily quiet.
When I turned up the sound, I discovered the reason why. There had just been a horrific, fiery crash involving some 15 cars. As a result of it, one racer — Dan Wheldon — had been killed. The officials decided to call the rest of the race off. In honor of the fallen driver, the cars that were not damaged then did five laps around the track. I stayed with the broadcast as those cars made their slow progress. I sat transfixed as the camera panned over all the racing crews standing silently and respectfully along the entire route. I was surprised that I even found myself doing what I saw on TV: standing and quietly weeping.
I found out that Dan Wheldon was married and had two very small children. I wept for his family. I couldn’t believe that I was crying, but I let the tears flow. When words and reasons fail us, tears say it all.
Afterwards, I dug up a story that I hadn’t thought about for a while. It’s told by a man named Walter Wangerin Jr. and concerns his son Matthew. Apparently, as a kid, Matthew was “willful and determined . . . and did what he wanted to do without thinking too much about the consequences.”
Once, the dad went into Matthew’s room and found him sitting on the bed surrounded by a stack of comic books. Puzzled, he asked where Matthew got them. The kid said, “I took them out of the library.” By “took,” Matthew meant “stole.” The dad marched his son down to the library with the comics. There, the boy apologized to the librarian and got a lecture about stealing.
The following summer, though, after vacationing in Vermont, the dad went into Matthew’s room and found a pile of comics in his dresser drawer. Matthew admitted to stealing them from a small general store during the vacation. This time, the dad destroyed the comic books — one by one — and reminded his son each time of the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
A year later, the kid stole more comic books. This time his dad put him over his knee and gave him five whacks with his bare hand. After the spanking, Matthew’s head hung down, but he didn’t want to cry in front of his dad. Knowing this, the dad said he was going to leave his son alone for a few minutes. The minute he entered the hallway, the dad could hold it back no longer: He himself began to sob.
Years later, when Matthew was a teenager, he found himself in the car with his mom, and they were reminiscing. Matthew recalled his comic stealing phase and said, “You know, Mom, after that incident with Dad, I never stole anything again.”
“I suppose it was because your father spanked you,” replied the mom.
“Oh, no,” said Matthew, “it was because, when he stepped out of the room, I could hear him crying.” (Adapted from William J. Bausch’s “A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers.”)
Yes, tears are powerful things. And sometimes in the face of life, all you can do is cry. Matthew’s dad tried everything to get his son to see that stealing was wrong. But lecturing, teaching and even spanking had no effect. Only when Matthew heard his dad cry — seeing not only how hard it was for him to discipline his son, but also how important the lesson was that he was trying to convey — did the boy change his life. The tears reminded the son of how much his dad loved him.
And maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us. There’s certainly plenty of sadness to go around: loved ones experiencing sickness; relationships disintegrating; the sexual abuse of minors in the church; declining church attendance and fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life; a general loss of faith in leaders and one another; economic woes; seemingly insurmountable polarization . . . and the list could go on and on.
It’s not as if we haven’t tried to “fix” things. It just seems that no matter what we try, it’s pretty ineffective. That might be where the tears need to come in.
Tears are not necessarily a sign of weakness; they can be a sign of wisdom and strength. They humble us and remind us that there will always be things outside our control. Tears can help us to eventually turn things over to God, who always hears and answers when we cry.
And maybe through our tears, if we dare to let them flow, lasting changes for the better can occur . . . for ourselves, our families, and our world.