I didn’t know Becky DeNardis. But many of you, so many of you, did. And many of you loved her. Some of you performed a song at her memorial service, a tribute from her friends and neighbors in Round Table. You played a soaring cello, a mournful tuba and an evanescent flute whose melody poured forth over the gathered crowd. Six of you sang, gathered in pairs at microphones. Your voices washed over everyone at the service like waves landing one after another on some far-away shore.
I had never heard of the song you shared, “Night Still Comes” by Neko Case, but now I will never forget it—because you said that Becky loved it. One line of the song still echoes in my head: “The tide smashes all my best-laid plans to sand.” An inspiring friend, a brilliant student, an adventurous soul—gone. All of her best-laid plans, smashed to sand one morning in Florida. The tide snatched her away.
If you stood with the huddled crowd at the memorial service, you heard Becky’s roommate speak from the podium on the Duke Chapel steps. She spoke with eloquence and humor; she spoke with sweetness and sorrow. She said something that lodged itself in my mind. “The price of love,” she said, “is grief.”
Grief is all-consuming, like a Colorado wildfire that reduces homes to ashes. It swells in our souls and threatens to surge over the storm barriers that we build around our hearts. It shakes our world like an earthquake that sends crowded apartment buildings crashing to the earth. Grief is unadulterated pain, bereft of a silver lining.
In public policy classes they teach how to do cost-benefit analyses using some farcical unit of subjective value called the “util.” Knowing how much utility a person derives from something, you can build probability-based decision trees. Does the possibility of massively negative outcomes outweigh the probability of moderately positive outcomes? If you come to love a friend, you’re likely to develop a rewarding connection. But maybe something catastrophic will happen, leaving you with nothing but grief. Friendship is nice. But damn, grief sucks. Cost-benefit analysis might tell us that coming to love someone isn’t worth the risk.
Detachment is not a new idea. The Epicureans of ancient Greece built a philosophy around the idea that life’s purpose is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The Stoics also thought that happiness meant avoiding pain and, thus, avoiding worldly attachments. The “Baghavad Gita,” an ancient Hindu epic poem, holds up desirelessness as the key to escaping the wheel of rebirth. The world only brings pain, many people say.
More recently, the folk duo Simon and Garfunkel sang about the safety of isolation in their 1966 song “I Am a Rock.” “I’ve built walls/A fortress deep and mighty/that none may penetrate./I have no need of friendship. Friendship causes pain.” It would be safer to remain aloof from the sea of humanity that surrounds us, since “a rock feels no pain/and an island never cries.” Everyone who loved Becky knows what Simon and Garfunkel meant when they sang, “If I never loved, I never would have cried.”
Someone came into my life recently. We found one another just days after the accident. The painful news was a reminder of the catastrophic part of the risk-benefit equation. I can’t know that she won’t be snatched away by a cruel twist of fate—a drunk driver or a falling tree limb or a stray bullet. She can’t know that she won’t lose me to some sudden illness or a slow disease. There’s a real risk that this will lead to overwhelming grief.
We lack even the most basic guarantee about the days and months and years to come. Except that someday, we will lose each other. Of dust we are made, and to dust we shall return. Today, tomorrow—any day—we could be returned to the dust without a moment to say goodbye.
Loving someone is the greatest risk we can take, she tells me. It carries the risk of a catastrophic loss that smashes all our best-laid plans to sand. It comes at a terrible price: the knowledge of certain grief, grief that we could have avoided if only we stayed within our deep and mighty fortresses. But I believe we were fundamentally made to love others. It follows that we were fundamentally made to pay the price of love, without regret if not without sadness. At Becky’s memorial service, you could feel the price that love was exacting from her loved ones. But I don’t think anyone there would wish they had never loved her.
Loving someone is the greatest risk we can take. Yet, she tells me, it’s the most important risk there is. Accept the inevitability of grief. Don’t buy into the all-too-common philosophy of detachment that appears at Duke in relationships where lovers fight to see who can care less. Pour your heart and soul into the relationships that matter. Choose the guaranteed grief over running from the possibility of pain. We are not rocks, we cannot be rocks, and we should never want to be rocks. It’s time to bid farewell to our fortresses and to leap off our islands.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.