When One Door Closes, Another One Opens
by Rev. Terry Davis
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on September 17, 2017
My father was no Xiang Yu. But he was a stickler for pushing us to let go of things, namely pruning and discarding anything he deemed as useless clutter.
Growing up, a ritual in our house occurred every few months in my playroom, which was located in the basement of our townhouse. My father would methodically go through the shelves and toy boxes, pulling out books, a doll or a board game that he suspected were no longer on active duty while my sister and I stood anxiously by.
“This,” he would say, holding my Chrissy doll with the cool red hair that sprouted out of the top of her head by turning a plastic knob in her back. “This doll . . . when was the last time you played with it? Last week? Last month? When?”
If I didn’t have an immediate and airtight response to his inquiry – “Uh . . . Tuesday with Susan Schiedel!” – if I hemmed or hawed in any way . . . in the garbage. And, so it went. For my father, clearing out and moving on was more important than sentimental attachments.
Despite the trauma of those playroom purges, I nevertheless seem to have inherited my father’s attitude toward keeping old or unused things. Greeting cards from my spouse, goofy keepsakes from our travels, clothes, purses, jewelry – out they go to make space in a drawer or clean off a counter. And I can usually discard them without a tug on my heart. My two exceptions to this are books and, for some odd reason, paper bags.
I will admit to having a reverence for books. I also usually have underlined key passages in ink or written notes in the margins, so my books are mostly no good to anyone else. I suppose I also keep them for the reasons discussed in this morning’s reading: I want to keep my options open. I’ll never know, for instance, when I might want to thumb through The Norton Anthology of English Literature, a leftover book from a 1979 college course.
And, paper bags . . . well, I’m not sure about that idiosyncrasy. My grandmother used to collect paper bags – plain old grocery bags and nicely constructed retail shopping bags. So, perhaps my own habit is a genetic thing.
In our reading, writer John Tierney offers scientific proof that human beings like options. He says closing the door on them – even when they’re not working for us – is difficult because we don’t want to deal with the emotional pain of loss.
I can say that this is true for me. In my case, the pain of holding on often has to exceed my fear of the anticipated pain to come before I’m willing to let go, close the door and move on.
I imagine I’m not alone on this.
And, so, assuming that many of us struggle with closing doors on things in our lives that aren’t working so well, it seems that the familiar line, “When one door closes, another one opens” is meant to offer a measure of reassurance. It suggests that, while I may experience a painful end in one area of my life, a positive beginning is taking shape in another.
It’s a quote that I imagine has become popular for the hope it offers in the face of difficulty.
In case you’re wondering what wise prophet or religious leader gave us these words, the answer is none of the above. Instead, I was surprised to learn that they come from Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist, innovator and inventor.
His actual quote reads, “When one door closes, another opens, but we look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Bell’s own life seems to be an illustration of what it can mean to move forward after great losses. He experienced many setbacks, including the death of two brothers in their youth to tuberculosis and the death of two sons in infancy. He also had many failures on his way to inventing the first patented telephone.
And, yet his life is also marked by much success, including a happy marriage, his developments in telecommunications and aeronautics, and his work with the deaf.
While John Tierney says that human beings avoid making endings because we want to avoid emotional pain, I believe Alexander Graham Bell’s words suggest that human beings struggle with the emotional loss that endings bring because we have forgotten that life is abundant.
When we’re in pain, we’ve forgotten that life is abundant.
His words remind me that there will come a day when I will, once again, be able to experience life’s joy, love and beauty. They remind me that, while I may live with pain of some losses for the rest of my life, it’s also possible to shift my focus away from my once-daily suffering. I can eventually turn my attention toward the new opportunities that exist and wait for me.
As hopeful as I believe Bell’s words are, I’m also very reluctant to throw them in conversation like a lifeline to people who are deeply suffering. Sadness has its own timetable, and I believe it would be insensitive of me to suggest to a grieving parent or brokenhearted spouse that he or she look for the open doors in the midst of tragic loss.
Rather, it seems that the hope offered in Bell’s quote is one that I can find – that we can find – only through personal experiences. After the painful divorce, after the death of a loved one, after the difficult decision to leave a cherished home or job . . . perhaps only after experiencing these closed doors and letting our grief run its course . . . are we able to see signs of hope and know that there are doors opening upon a new life.
I was reminded of how unique and personal this process of experiencing loss and regaining hope is as I encountered the personal stories that emerged from our recent hurricanes.
For example, on the news one evening, I watched and listened to a husband and wife talk to a reporter about their home in south Florida, which had been completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma. It was the second time the couple was faced with rebuilding their house by the beach. The first time was following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, shortly after they married and moved to Florida to build their dream home and start a new life together.
The couple was being interviewed on the site where their home once stood, which had now been reduced to a pile of wet rubble. While the wife seemed mostly resigned, her husband’s grief was clearly evident in his cracked voice and uncontrollable tears.
When asked by the reporter if he thought he had the heart to rebuild and start over once again, the husband responded painfully, “We will rebuild, but not here. Not here. We’re going a long way from this place.”
That man who lost everything might find open doors one day, I thought, but not right now. His story right now was one of closed doors . . . of pain and personal tragedy.
By contrast, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, a news journalist in Miami, tells a different story of her Irma experience. She writes:
I was a native Floridian, and that meant sucking it up and enjoying hurricane-watching parties. When Hurricane Irma began threatening South Florida’s eastern coast, I would have sworn on any relative’s grave I wasn’t going anywhere. So, you can imagine the sense of disbelief when I heard that Thursday’s mandatory evacuation for Miami-Dade County included my house. We packed up two cars, three dogs, a kid, baby, and hit the road, expecting price gouging, reckless driving and mass hysteria.
But what I discovered on the road amazed me.
Growing up, most people in my neighborhood lost their homes in 1992 to Hurricane Andrew. It was ground zero on our block. I still remember when Gloria Estefan visited the tent city in Homestead, Florida, where my family would go eat hot meals in the aftermath of the storm as I played with displaced children my age. These things seemed rather minor to me at the time.
That’s because a few hours prior to Andrew making its landfall in Miami, my mom had cancelled my Barbie-themed birthday party. Instead, I woke up to destruction. I saw my immigrant-born dad cry. He went to fetch water all over Miami. Hours later, he arrived carrying bottled water and a cake.
That night as the city was under curfew, my six candles were the only light in our home. They sang happy birthday and we all had a piece of cake on paper napkins. “No importa cuantos ciclones pasen” – my dad said the number of hurricanes didn’t matter. “The most important thing is to be together.”
Ruiz-Goiriena then reflects on her different reaction as an adult to Hurricane Irma, writing:
When you train and live as a news reporter, you have no problem parachuting into any town and testing your luck in finding sleeping arrangements. [But] I wasn’t the intrepid solo reporter anymore. I was now married, had adopted my very first dog, was a stepparent and had a vivacious blended family that could be cast as the Latino version of the Brady Bunch.
For the first time ever, I was overrun with a sense of panic. I scoured Expedia. Every hotel room south of Chattanooga, Tennessee was booked. Airbnb was my last resort. I searched for five hours nonstop until a list listing appeared. It took 16 hours to get to our Airbnb outside Atlanta.
Usually I would have totally lost it. But we met people at gas stations and convenience stores that waved when they saw our license plates and stopped to wish us well.
Ruiz-Goiriena, it seems, had seen her first open door.
She says that she and her family enjoyed their weekend in Atlanta with friends they hadn’t seen in years, barbecued, and even went to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. She received a tip that a local Atlanta pizza restaurant was inviting Florida evacuees to have a proper meal, pay what they could and eat the rest on the house. Even the restaurant’s patrons were getting involved, adding to their tip amounts in order to start a donation fund for evacuees.
More open doors.
Ruiz-Goiriena continues her story:
The morning after Irma destroyed my home state, we decided to head to South Carolina. About 40 minutes later, our Charleston Airbnb host inundated us with calls, telling us not to come because of the path of the storm.
We made a U-turn, parked the cars in the garage of the Georgia home where we are staying, and 30 minutes later the power was out. It’s been out ever since.
That was this past Monday. She concludes:
I’m currently filing the end of this piece over the phone with a gracious CNN editor. We are unclear when we will head home but two things are for sure – family sticks together, even if we’re eating cake off napkins. And wherever we go next, we’ll find kindness along the way.
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena’s beautiful story was her personal experience of closed and open doors. We don’t know the outcome of things for her and her family back in Miami . . . or whether she’ll be able to hold on to her hope when tragedy strikes again.
Yet, when I read her story, I found myself filled with hope. I found myself wishing that the broken man in South Florida who lost everything might also discover the kindness Ruiz-Goiriena experienced . . . and that he might know that doors are opening for him as he builds a new home and a new life.
My guess is that we all have let go and closed doors on parts of our lives . . . and we’ve had doors unexpectedly close upon us. The pain we experience in these moments may crowd out life’s light for a little while or for a very long time.
But with time and kindness, my hope for you and for me is that it’s also possible for light to re-enter our lives through open doors . . . perhaps just a little at first, but also just enough for us to know that the light is always there.
May it be so. Amen.