Subtraction and Addition

Today marks seven months since my father died. My eulogy can be found here.

After having visited home for the first time without him there, I am reminded of something C. S. Lewis wrote in his book The Four Loves:

Lamb says somewhere [see below] that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but “A’s part in C,” while C loses not only A but “A’s part in B.” In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [J. R. R. Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves” [Paradiso Canto 5, line 105]. For in this love “to divide is not to take away.” (page 61 of the Harcourt paperback)

Likewise, it seems painfully obvious to me that, now that my father is dead, I shall never again see my mother’s reaction to one of my father’s off-color jokes. I will miss the devotion, tenderness, and sympathy that his declining health brought out in her—as I once missed the way my brother’s battle with cancer brought out the best in him. Far from having a greater share of my mother, I have less of her. Less of my brother. Less of Terry. Less of Elaine. And so on.

Lewis reminds us, too, of the deeper reality reflected in all this:

In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.

We don’t need to reserve this appreciation for the dead, after the fact. We see the living rightly if we appreciate the layers of interrelationship. Doing so makes no room for jealousy but invites company. On a daily basis, I see this in the small ways that my children bring out an aspect of my wife that I’d otherwise have never seen.

We should embrace and be grateful for the ways in which new relationships illuminate existing ones. This web of relationships—which inspired this poem several years ago—is something that sustains us and keeps us from thinking that we can know another person in isolation. Our own sampling is simply too small. How much more fitting, then, is the image of heaven as a great banquet where we sing “holy, holy, holy” to God, who is Himself three in one.


Charles Lamb made this observation in a letter dated March 20, 1822, to his friend William Wordsworth. Here is the passage, which bears rereading for its subtle insights:

“Deaths overset one and put one out long after the recent grief. Two or three have died, within this last two twelvemonths, and so many parts of me have been numbed. One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other; the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won’t do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies. There’s Captain [Martin] Burney gone! What fun has whist [a card game at which Burney was infamous for cheating] now? What matters it what you lead, if you can no longer fancy him looking over you? One never hears anything, but the image of the particular person occurs with whom alone almost you would care to share the intelligence—thus one distributes oneself about; and now for so many parts of me I have lost the market. . . . The going-away of friends does not make the remainder more precious. It takes so much from them, as there was a common link. A, B, and C make a party. A dies. B not only loses A, but all A’s part in C. C loses A’s part in B, and so the alphabet sickens by subtraction of interchangeables.”

One thought on “Subtraction and Addition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s