Loss and Community

Recently our URI community suffered two devastating losses: the deaths of Erica Knowles, a senior studying journalism and women’s studies, and Professor Peng Wang, a young faculty member in Chemical Engineering and Pharmaceutical Science. Each loss leaves a gaping hole in our community – voids that only they could fill. This past Saturday we gathered to mourn their loss and to celebrate their lives. Such events, although desperately necessary, are difficult for all concerned, especially for the families and those who love them. I very much appreciate their generosity in allowing the larger URI community to join with them to say good bye, and to share in both the grief of loss and the warmth of remembering.

Erica had long been a part of Rhode Island and South County, whereas Dr. Wang had only recently joined the University of Rhode Island faculty, and was born and grew up in China. On the surface the memorial services were very different, shaped by the distinct cultures, histories, and relationships of those whose lives we celebrated. But at the end of a long Saturday, I was left with the abiding conviction that our common humanity, intensely shared among a community at such moments, transcends all the differences of religion, language, culture, and history.

It is good to be reminded of that. Many people struggle with the questions of whether our lives have real meaning, or whether our decisions and choices ultimately really matter. The questions are ancient ones, and posed in many ways and venues. We seem to be living in a time where those questions are becoming more pointed and more urgent, in part the consequence of modern science and its increasingly mechanistic understanding of humanity. Alfred North Whitehead pointed this out in his 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard University, published as Science and the Modern World. He quotes Tennyson’s famous poem, In Memoriam: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” Whitehead argues that this line reflects the appalling possibility (to Tennyson and many others) that, since the laws of physics “blindly run”, that our lives, consequently and inescapably, blindly run.

It is not easy to conclusively refute that possibility. But the two funeral services reminded me that love matters, that friendship matters, and that therefore our lives matter. Our choices, our actions, the relationships we build, and the connections we make can bring us together in a community where what we share is far greater than our individual contributions. Last Saturday, we came together in grief, but in sharing that grief, expressing it alongside our love and appreciation for those we lost, we came away with shared memories, closer ties, and renewed hope. Remarkably, I think, community such as that evident on Saturday can provide powerful testimony to the possibility that our lives are not governed solely by the laws of physics and chemistry, that our lives together do not “blindly run”, and that we can create a future that is better for all.