No Reason, but Meaning Nonetheless: Losing Steve Norwick

I was honored to be one of many speakers at the public memorial for Professor Stephen Norwick yesterday at Sonoma State University. While colleagues, students and family members were able to share lovely and illuminating stories about this remarkable man, I wanted to take the chance to acknowledge the special nature of our shared grief. Some who missed the event asked to read the words I contributed. So I post them here.

It is customary for memorial services to take a certain tone; a dignified tone. We articulate loss and we express sadness and we try to speak of inspiration. And all those things are good and important and we will do that today in abundance. And certainly we’ve now had a couple months to get used to the idea of Steve being gone, time in which to begin to sort out our thoughts and our feelings. 

But I would like to break with tradition and with the demands of dignity. I would like to say in the deepest and most official way possible that this sucks. Being here today really sucks. Yes, every loss is deep and painful for sure. But this – happening the way it did, fast and flukish, unimaginable, inexplicable, and denying us anything resembling a real goodbye, robbing us of our chances to offer Steve our last face-to-face expressions of love; taking from this world without warning or fanfare a kind man, a loving man, humorous and bright-eyed, caring, connected, committed, beloved – this, my friends, sucks. This experience, this story, does not permit any easy residence within the place of acceptance, that Dr. Kubler Ross tells us exists.

We had every reason to expect to have more years of Steve; many more. And as is often the case in this world, we don’t get what we expect, and neither did Steve.

Some of us take refuge in the thought that “everything happens for a reason.” But I don’t buy it, not in its simplest sense. And I don’t think that’s how Steve saw things either. That kind of certainty wasn’t his style. Steve was open to the wonder of not knowing. His personal life was wrapped up in it and his academic life was born of it: the wonder of not knowing. He could look at a landscape, and speak to its geology and biology and mythology and still bear witness – and force us to bear witness – to the absolute wonder of it. How Creation continues to unfold in its convoluted and elegant and mysterious and messy ways. His life was about exploring the “how” of all of this, while standing solidly and joyously in the mystery of the “why.”

In the Jewish tradition, when we begin to mourn we articulate our not knowingness. We say:

Adonai natan, Adonai lakach. Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach.

God has given and God has taken away. May God’s name be blessed.

This ancient meme represents our communal shrug of the shoulders. Our resignation to the fact that we don’t understand it, and that it is out of our control; but that nonetheless, it was better, so much better, to have Steve in our lives, to have Steve in this world, than not. In fact, we might better translate it this way:

From mystery we come; and back to the mystery we go.

But through it all we get it that this life is a blessing and a gift.

But I will, before I close, admit that there is an important kernel of truth in the idea that everything happens for a reason, a kernel of truth that is especially true in this case. Down the road many or all of us will look back at how Steve influenced us and at how his loss affected us; we will one day see the sharp or subtle turns our lives made as a result; the new work we undertook; the ways we came to relate to the planet; the ways his memory subtly touched on our decisions both big and small, our hobbies, our pastimes, our beliefs, our political actions, even how we get around. We will notice how loving Steve and losing Steve helped form who we are in the world, how we live and how we guide others. We will see that we are different people, better people, because of him. We will look back at the landscape of our lives and we will think aha.

This tragedy did not happen for a reason. But still, it will have meaning. We will, knowingly or unknowingly, take something of Steve forward with us into the future, and we will pass it on to our children and our students and our friends, even if his name is no longer attached to it. The ripples of Steve’s life will continue to spread out, and who can say how far. It is – like this Earth that Steve studied and loved – a mystery.

Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai m’vorach. From the mystery we come; to the mystery we return. And through it all we get it that this life – Steve’s life and our lives – are a blessing and a gift. And if you are so inclined, let us say, Amen.


Thank you to Rabbi Eli Cohen who introduced me to his "from mystery we come" translation of Adonai natan.