Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all/And, my dear, I’m still here/Plush velvet sometimes/Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here.
These lines from the song, “I’m still here”, written by Stephen Sondheim and featured in the 1971 musical Follies, have a poignancy about them. During 2018, I found myself constantly telling others “I’m still here”; it became my theme song. Why? Some might say it is a peculiar choice because the song has been described as a survival anthem, a cultural roadmap of the American fads, media darlings, politics, and excesses of the 20th century. In the show it is sung by a character, Carlotta Campion, a former Follies showgirl, who has “seen it all”. June Abernathy says of the song that if the character is cast well it will strike a chord with every member of an audience: “those who have ‘been there’ a bit themselves can identify, full of the knowledge that they, too, are ‘still here’”. And that, I suppose, supplies the answer to the question, “Why?” Health-wise, yes, I encountered some problems last year, which caused me to reflect on life and death. Without going into detail, the stresses and strains, anxieties, upsets, tensions and disasters of life have, at various times, left me feeling ashamed, angry, grief-filled, and alienated. But these must be balanced by the triumphs and successes, delights and joys, etc. In reflecting upon them all, there is a great mixture of emotions. The sum total of all these experiences is that I managed to get through them: I’m a survivor (cue another song)!
Reefers and vino, rest cures, religion and pills, and I’m here…/Black sable one day, next day it goes into hock, but I’m here./Top billing Monday, Tuesday, you’re touring in stock, but I’m here.
The great Broadway performer Elaine Stritch (1925-2014) performed the song at Sondheim’s 80th Birthday concert in 2010. She once told Sondheim that an actor has only earned the right to perform the song once they reached the age of 80. I am not quite there yet; even so, there’s plenty in my mental scrapbook to enable me to say:
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z/Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie/I got through all of last year, and I’m here.
Getting through the stuff of life, the good and the bum times, the triumphs and the tragedies, is the common human experience. In the span of just a few verses in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (11:24-27), the apostle speaks proudly of his Jewish heritage and his experience as an outsider to the Jewish community, undergoing judicial punishments for violations of the communal norms at the hands of his fellow Jews and the Roman authorities, as well as shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, and so the list continues. This is Paul’s curriculum vitae. Throughout all his trials and suffering, he stood fast because he knew that his vocation had come to him from Jesus on the road to Damascus. Cyril C. Martindale, SJ (1879-1963), wrote of Paul experiencing “grinding humiliation; probing error; blind entry into the unknown; sick consciousness of hopeless insufficiency”, yet these did not sink him. Rather, with such agonies came incredible graces: “Amazing months when in a world unaware, a man was passing through the utmost of human weakness, and the tremendous energising of Omnipotence.” At times he had been tempted to ponder whether he had been wasting his time. Yet he carried on through heartache, disappointment, collapse and physical pain, and could declare, “I’m still here”.
These small deaths and risings are part and parcel of life, part of the grand vision of God’s redeeming purposes already accomplished in Christ, it is the divine power working through our human weakness. In Ephesians 6 (10-20) Paul appeals to the churches of Asia to be “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power”. In the translation offered by N. T. Wright in Paul: a biography, he advises: “Then, when wickedness grabs its moment, you’ll be able to withstand, to do what needs to be done, and still be on your feet when it’s all over. So stand firm!” [p300]
Pope Francis has challenged us to live the Gospel with joy, even in the hard times, so that we will continue to sustain and nurture each other. Earlier in that same passage from 2 Corinthians 11, Paul says that one who boasts of their accomplishments is a fool, because these things are meaningless compared to the true life offered to believers in Christ (vv 16ff). Jesus words are: “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19). It is in all the changes of our lives and the ups and downs, the good times and the bum times, that our very identity is formed. Thus, the way we endure the comings and goings, all that life throws at us, is the way we shape our identity, our very soul. That’s why Jesus said what he said about endurance. When we endure life with all its vicissitudes, we, in fact, gain our souls. Whereas, deliberately to choose hardship, suffering or pain simply because they appear to have ascetic value is to mock God. Our lives here inevitably bring suffering, loss and pain which is more than sufficient for most of us, and we can only make sense out of such negativities that come our way if they can be of service in the cause of life itself. We know from experience that the bad times can engender a passion for life which did not exist before, and pain, mental or physical, can provide moments of exceptional growth. Undeniably such things can be used in the service of life, but they can never be intended as ends in themselves. There is nothing inherently sanctifying about pain and suffering; it is how we incorporate these in order to enlarge ourselves which makes the difference enabling us joyously to declare, “I’m still here”.
Ruth Burrows writes, in Love Unknown, “When faced with a moral demand that, if obeyed, would seem to humiliate or diminish us in some way, can we say yes by surrendering ourselves to the steadfast love of God, which, as we know, is always intent on our good? In times of distress, darkness, turmoil, can we still perceive that loving face, or do we wail: ‘What have I done so that God should do this to me? How can God do this?’” These are the classic questions of those who suffer injustice or misfortune. In the same book, she concludes: “No one can pretend that, when besieged as we are by multifarious cares, in time of crushing grief, when dismayed by the horrors of perpetrated evil and the human suffering following on natural disasters, it is easy to maintain a lively sense of God’s presence and his love which embraces us at every moment. Yet, to be true to our Christian calling to a life of holiness, to be a light to the world, we must work for steadfast faith, or rather, activate the faith we have been given. ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he has sent.’ (John 6:29).”
Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite Nun from Quidenham in Norfolk. She is the author of a number of bestselling books.