The space between

Many years ago I learned a definition of the word happiness and a definition of the word joy that made clear the distinction between the two: happiness is focused on the self, joy is focused on the other. As someone who hangs onto words, I have always kept these definitions close to my heart. And especially for what follows: that in the space between the two — where one person’s happiness becomes another person’s joy — the feeling echoes and strengthens, making joy the more powerful of the two.

In the years since I learned that, I have wondered if there is a similar distinction with the word pride. Is pride in the self the same thing as pride in another? Too much pride in the self becomes the hubris of Greek tragedies, but too much pride in another becomes a proud parent adoring their child. Shouldn’t there be another word for that kind of joyful pride?

In the last few months I gave up looking for a word that captures “joyful pride” and focused instead on something much more important: the echoing, strengthening space that comes between.

On July 7th my mentor/ hero/ “Uncle” Ben died. The following remembrance is a variation on a theme: Margaret, when she was asked to speak at his memorial service, came up with a motif and we each wrote our own reflections separately and simultaneously. This is my take on the many lessons Uncle Ben taught me and my best attempt at understanding how I might be able to teach those lessons and hand them down myself someday.

In loving memory of Benjamin Morrison Quigg, Jr. 1917 – 2013

Uncle Ben was 69 years and 11 months older than I am. I told him once that it will take me at least 70 more years of hard work to become the kind of man he was. As I mourn his loss, I wonder what steps can I take in the years ahead to follow his example.

In some ways, Uncle Ben’s 96-year path is clear to see. He lived the American Dream: from the son of a milkman in the blue collar neighborhood of Fishtown in Philadelphia to a litigator in the Supreme Court. He worked his way up by his bootstraps, being one of the first people to graduate from Temple University with credits entirely from night classes. He attended Michigan University’s School of Law and then he served in the Navy, on a tugboat in the Pacific, during WWII. He set goals and he accomplished them. He is the guy everyone is thinking about when we refer to “America’s greatest generation.”

I can see that trajectory of his life, and I am inspired by it. He lived and loved and worked with remarkable integrity and clarity.

Then again, sometimes Uncle Ben’s story feels more like a detailed web instead of a path. He had a network of relationships that made many people into his family. He had friends of multiple generations who looked to him as a mentor just as I did. And he tended to each of us with sincere warmth and care. He taught me that attention is the truest form of generosity.

Uncle Ben’s magnetism formed a special connection between us: he seemed to feel my happiness as his joy; he saw my little accomplishments as his glowing pride. My smile always looked brighter when I saw it on his face.

But in saying goodbye to Uncle Ben I learned to understand that connection more clearly: he lessened the space between us by filling it with his love. And even though I can’t shake his hand and see him smiling now, I can still feel and share that love just the same.

If I step back to look at it, I try to recalculate Uncle Ben’s life to model my own:

Is it a linear equation that starts low and ends high? That follows the American Dream success-story of his life?

Or is it a scatterplot, in which each new connection has the potential to blossom into a relationship that blurs the line between friend and family?

Instead I now see it as a soaring, unwavering constant: Uncle Ben shared his love in his smiles, his thoughtful questions, his humor, his stories. Uncle Ben’s capacity for love has left a high water mark in my heart; he has set the bar for me to reach.

I can’t imagine it taking less than 70 more years of precious, hard work for me to honor his memory properly. And so I’m sure he would be pleased to hear me say: I better get back to work right now. There is no time to waste.

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