Thursday, May 23, 2024

Columnist Robert Hawke Reflects On The Destruction Of Notre Dame And Its Bigger Lessons

Notre Dame is ruined.

For 700 years, it stood over Paris in beauty and elegance. When I was a much younger, skinnier man, I was in Paris and went with friends to famed cathedral and stood in awe of it. It was one of those moments when I knew that I was seeing something that was more beautiful than I could truly fit in my psyche. To the Parisians 700 years ago, it must have been mind-bogglingly impressive. It must have dominated the skyline and stood as proof of a world larger than themselves. As I watched news footage of the spire collapsing, I thought to myself, well, at least I had a chance to see it and witness its magnificence in person.

It’s hard not to stare in awe at famous stained glass windows of Notre Dame. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, cattan2011.

The world is funny. It looks so permanent. I, like many others, thought Notre Dame was going to be there forever, or at least forever in terms of my own perception. If it has been around for seven centuries, why not seven more? But things can – and do – change. One short circuit in Notre Dame and what appeared to be permanent was forever altered. Isn’t that strange?

I’m sure there were thousands of Parisians who walked by Notre Dame, on the way to work or to school and assumed it would always be there. Why wouldn’t it be? I’m guessing that some of them stopped noticing how beautiful it was and are now grieving its loss like the death of a friend.

Think about your life 20 years ago for a moment. Is it the same? Mine sure isn’t. Day by day things changed, and now, without me noticing, it has completely transformed.

What do we want to see, to do, to touch and to taste that we have always wanted to? Maybe we should do things now. It’s easy, especially as we get a few more miles on our odometer to stay comfortable and put things off (especially the good stuff). But maybe it’s time to have the experiences we want. We could view this as a call to just cross off items on our bucket list, but I think the loss of Notre Dame can teach us something deeper.

What’s on your bucket list? We can’t assume the places and experiences we covet will always be there. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Geraint Rowland.

Back in the chaotic days of punk rock in Toronto, a friend of mine used to go under the Gardener Expressway and spray paint graffiti on the spires holding up the highway. She would always paint the message “This will fall down.” At the time, I thought it was just cool sounding, anti-establishment rhetoric.

Now I see it as more profound. This WILL fall down. All of it. Literally everything that we see that we assume will last forever will change. Taken on a smaller scale, all of the conditions of our life will transform. It’s difficult to remember that because it all looks so permanent. It’s human nature to not notice the great stuff around us while it’s here.

I remember being an 18-year-old kid and driving home in my dad’s prized VW Rabbit on a Saturday night. I had been out with friends and we had gone skinny dipping at the hydro pond. Norm the cop showed up and told us that being naked in public is actually illegal and we were told to put our clothes on and go home.

Experience the good things – large and small – now. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, m01229.

After our very mild brush with the law, I pulled into the driveway, turned off the car, and listened to the engine ticking. I thought about my high school friends and how funny they were. I thought about my mom and dad and how they were going to give me heck for what I’d done. It all felt so normal, so every day, but some wiser part of me (or not “of me”) said, “Rob, pay attention! This will not last forever.” That internal voice was right. Everything IS different.

Yesterday, my wife and I went out for ice cream and had a great time. It felt fun, spontaneous and perfect. Frankly, I felt like one of the luckiest men alive, but I know that in time things will be different. In 100 years, maybe they’ll stop making salted caramel ice cream for some reason. Where will I be then?

So, like the people who used to walk past Notre Dame like it would never change, I’m doing my best to pay attention – to notice the good stuff while it’s right in front of us.

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