I’m not a cricket tragic, but I was struck by the 16 year old Pakistani wunderkind Naseem Shah, currently playing Test cricket in Australia. By all accounts he’s an extraordinary young man and the youngest player to make his debut in Australia at the Wacca. He’s certainly challenging the Australians.
Naseem has only been playing cricket for five years but his rise has been meteoric. Pakistan Captain Azahar Ali commented on the teen’s exceptional talent “What (first) impressed us most was his understanding of bowling. Sometimes bowlers show a lot of talent at a young age, but they can’t execute plans… He knows his strengths and weaknesses and knows how to read the batsman”.
Naseem is obviously an individual with a poise and maturity beyond his years. Naseem is an Arabic word which means cool breeze and it’s been pointed out that his smooth bowling action and a breeze-like bowling run-up make him very pleasing to the eye. He is also closely connected to his family and had only recently convinced them to move for Dir to Lahore so they could be closer to one another. Tragically on his second day’s play in Perth, his mother passed away unexpectedly.
Since Muslims like Jews don’t delay funerals, Naseem would not have made it home in time for the funeral. His brothers suggested he stay in Australia to fulfil his mother’s dream of seeing her son play cricket for Pakistan – which he is doing as I write.
Naseem has been praised for his awesome resilience in the face of loss. His team- mate Shan Masood best summed up the approval and acclaim for his decision not to return to Pakistan to grieve with his family: “… Staying here and putting his hand up…. to do well for the team, for the country, that’s commendable. That sort of attitude is what we’re looking for in all the guys. As a team, we’re trying to stick behind him.”
There’s no doubt that Naseem is no ordinary teenager, but I can’t help wondering what impact this decision may have on his life and what message it sends to young men and indeed all of us.
Grief is complex, it affects people in different ways; it is as subtle as it is sorrowful; as startling as it is sensible. There’s also no standard or prescribed way of mourning; people process their loss in a variety of responses. Some do it in the deep silence of their souls, quietly unpacking the layers of their loss. Others need to talk, sometimes compulsively, re-telling every details of the death of their loved one. Yet other people find little solace in words and prefer the relief of tears and strong emotions.
Despite the diversity of responses, two things are for certain: nobody can escape a life without loss and nobody can escape the effect of bereavement. Grief, by its very nature, wounds and like a wound needs to be treated so that it can heal. A failure to address the quake of death doesn’t spare you from its ongoing tremors and jolts. They may go underground but they are there, brooding and quivering and will surface sooner or later.
So I worry about Naseem playing through his grief, delaying its inevitability. For now he’s brave and commendably courageous and hopefully those around him will give him the time and space in the near future to deal with his sharp and sudden loss.
And I worry for the young men and women seeing Naseem as a model for mourning. I am concerned especially for the young men having the egregious trope of ‘stiff-upper lip’ and ‘man up’ reinforced. Men may well grieve differently from women but they too need to walk through the ‘dark shadow of the valley of death’ (Psalm 23).
In this week’s Torah reading (Chayei Sarah), we are told “Abraham came to eulogise Sarah and to cry for her” (Gen 23:2). Abraham, man of courage and passion, warrior and politician, leader and shaker, was also a man who could cry in public; show the inchoate ache of his soul, express the loss of his covenantal partner through a noble eulogy. He, no doubt, was a model for his son, Isaac and helped him face the loss of his mother Sarah.
I was fortunate to learn from my dad’s friend not to supress my grief. My father (whose name was also Isaac) was stoic through the funeral of my Zeida. It was only after, as we moved from the graveside, that a friend said to him, “Cry Isaac, let it out…”, that he let go. To this day I can see the shuddering of his shoulders and the relief of his body as the tears flowed.
The American Philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it powerfully: “Never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh”.
I would suggest that Abraham’s son, Isaac, was helped by his father’s example to face his own anguish.. Abraham lets Isaac know that everybody is lessened by the loss of their loved ones: this is suggested by the small letter Kuf (“כ”) in the middle of the word to cry (Ibid) in the Torah text. Abraham felt diminished by the absence of Sarah, he felt smaller….
Abraham also recognizes that once you have mourned, the scar may remain, but you need to move on and so he seeks a partner for Isaac and a new companion for himself. Thus “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother, he married Rebecca, she became his wife and he loved her; and he was comforted after his mother” (Ibid 24:66). The Midrash comments that a light, blessing and protective cloud returned to the tent… Isaac and Abraham regained their mojo, the light was back in their hearts after the darkness of their grief, their confidence was restored like a hopeful cloud. As Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran put it: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain”. Abraham and Isaac allowed the sadness to carve into their being and so were able to open themselves to a renewed and overflowing joy.