Saturday, June 09, 2007


(News-Herald, June 7)It’s one of those classic social problems of the workplace.

The first time you pass each other in the day, a simple “Hi” or “Hey” or “Howsitgoin” is appropriate. But then ten minutes later when you pass each other again, what do you say? You can’t do a full-blown greeting—that might suggest that you actually forgot you already said “Hi” and that would be kind of rude. But if you don’t say anything at all, that seems like you’re ignoring the person, and that’s rude, too. So you use some sort of head-bob or brief grunt to serve as some sort of not-exactly-a-greeting and you can both get on with your day.

The inconclusive goodbye is harder. Admit it—at least once in your life you’ve made a complete goodbye to someone, stepped out, realized you forgot something, and then decided not to go back after it because it would just be too awkward to face the people you just said good bye to.

The inconclusive goodbye is the opposite of the repeatable partial greeting. With the greeting, you already know which was the First Greeting of the day. But with the inconclusive goodbye, you never know when the actual final goodbye is going to come.

If the possible separation is short, there’s no pressure. “See you later” and “See you tomorrow” are fairly close. It’s tougher when you’re trying to choose between “See you later” and “See you in twenty years.” Underestimate and you’ve given someone a lamely inadequate parting message; overestimate and you have to sheepishly face someone to whom you bared your soul a day or two ago.

The inconclusive goodbye is, of course, one of the many challenges of high school graduation season. There are plenty of people to say goodbye to. Some of them you will see repeatedly over the summer and every vacation for years to come. Some you will stay in touch in through the magic of the US Postal system or the mighty internet, even though you will rarely meet face to face. Some will be regular fixtures of your life practically until the day you die. And some you will never, ever see again.

It would be great if you had a window on the future, a way to sort these different folks out, so that you could correctly hand out a “See you later” or a “I hope your life goes wonderfully.”

Of course, as much as we avoid thinking about it, we already face this puzzle in the average non-graduation seasons of our lives. Every time you say goodbye to someone, it really could be the last time you see him or her. But it’s too heavy to think about that. Only at weighty times of transition in our lives does the issue become unavoidable.

We have to part, and we have to think about what that might mean.

As if that weren’t enough, there are other flavors of parting to be tasted as well.

Students who aren’t graduating use pretty light goodbyes to end the school year. “See you next fall” isn’t much weightier than “See you later,” and it’s true that we will all be back in same building next year. But it won’t be the same.

I can be sorry to see a class go, even if I know I’ll see every single student in it around next year, because they’ll never be back in that exact combination again. They’ll be certainly older, possibly wiser, in new groups, with new concerns in someone else’s classroom.

Families face the same thing. It’s not like you usually send a child off to college or work or a separate apartment or even marriage knowing that they’ll never ever be back under your roof again. They’ll be back, sometimes for quite a while.

But it won’t be the same. The pieces of your family will be back together, but they will make a new and different picture, and the old one will be gone forever.

That’s not always, or even often, a bad thing. The new picture usually shows strengths and joys and bright new colors even as the parts and patterns of the old picture are visible underneath. Growing up improves most people without destroying what there was to love about them when they were younger.

I suppose that’s why graduation time is a bit sad for some people. You can know that you will be together again, but not like this, not the way you are now. In the best of partings, there’s joy in what the person is becoming and what they are moving toward. But even when you can say “See you later” to a person, you can know that you are saying “Goodbye forever” to something else.

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