Tribute to Dr. Phil Anderson
I cannot remember a time when Phil and Irene were not part of my active awareness. The roots of our relationship run into the deep soil of family connection with both my wife Susan’s family and my own, flowing into long and loving relationships with their children. We are woven together and have become family, through profound moments, moments of life and death, faith, learning, and celebration. Sprinkled among these were many wonderful quiet times, eating dessert at Greg and Kathy’s [Phil’s daughter and son-in-law] house during festive seasons or sharing the simple joy of a summer evening on their patio.
Whenever or wherever the gathering was or whoever was there at the time, Phil was an intimate part of the occasion. He was fully present and interested. He was alive to the moment, the personalities, the issues, and the atmosphere. He was centered, attentive, concerned, humorous, genuine, and gracious. I want to reflect upon this quality of his life for just a moment.
My favorite philosopher and writer on spiritual matters, Martin Buber, calls such a life, one of elation. The life of joy! This joy embraces the fullness and range of human feeling and experience and cannot be stifled by any experience. It must therefore originate and find its sustenance in relationship to God, a relation-ship of such a quality that it does not cease at the rim of eternity. Buber calls this kind of relationship, I and Thou or Me and You!
He makes a further point. This life of joy underlies all great religious movements, which I hasten to add describes our own pietist tradition. Our Grandparents sought after as much joy as Swedes could handle. Our hymns are full of joyful expression. Phil’s faith was that of a pietist, full of life and joy.
All that is necessary, says Buber, to live this life of joy is to have a soul united within itself and indivisibly directed toward its divine goal. That’s all! That’s all there is to it. However, he insists that this must happen in the world in which we live, not in an ideal world, but the world just as it is and not otherwise, in the moments in which we find ourselves and not otherwise, and just as we are and not otherwise.
Phil’s life bears witness to this truth. He lived out of wholeness. He radiated joy in the world as he found it, in each moment, in the places and in the company of those who were around. There was a sense of a quiet intensity about him because he was aware of the taste in his mouth, the sound in his ears, the touch he felt through his hands, the sight in his eyes. He was alive to all of it, as it was and not otherwise. Even in his last months, when he knew death was close, his deep joy flowed with quiet confidence.
If you knew Phil, you know this about Phil’s character, you have felt his wonderful smile rest upon you followed by a warm handshake or embrace, a memory, a story, a question about your own life. To be with Phil was to feel unhurried because he was rarely interested in rushing off or being elsewhere. You know this immeasurable pleasure of being in the presence of someone who is delighted to see you—I mean really delighted. I actually took some selfish pride that this must reflect on me, as someone special and important. I knew however, that this was the way Phil moved through the world. It wasn’t that I wasn’t special, it was simply that he looked upon everyone in terms of their uniqueness, as they were and not otherwise.
The hardest part of uniting our souls within ourselves is loving the world as it is, ourselves as we are, and people as they are. It requires acceptance, letting go of having to remake ourselves or others into someone else. It also means that we cannot find joy by avoiding difficult or painful moments. This deep sense of joy that filled his life grew from the acknowledgment that life is not only made up of our own hopes and desires. Life is a complex and mysterious thing which requires a mixture of acceptance and tenacity, love and wit. The rush of life sweeps across us, gathers us up in its current, and flows into strange and distant lands. We hang on, and follow, and lean back into all the richness that we are offered, as we find life and not otherwise.
This was Phil’s witness and enduring legacy. It was how he understood missions: stethoscope around his neck in Indonesia, his hands touching and caressing patients coming to him with pain and disease, his eyes filled with compassion. Blessing their humanity, he struggled to help their illnesses with tenderness, consummate skill, and diagnostic expertise. "If you do it to the least of these," our Lord said, "you do it onto me."
Even in his retirement he continued to receive calls from around the country for advice, counsel, and referral. It was Phil who my family called to rush over late in the night to 5223 Christiana in Chicago, to close the eyes of my beloved grandfather for the last time. Phil and Irene held our hands at the funerals, as we said good-by to those we love. This kind of joy knows intimately about pain and death, of injustice and outrage, because this is also the way the world is and not otherwise. But this joy is not stifled nor crushed by it.
I must point to a further facet of this remarkable man, because a united soul is hungry for wonder and filled with curiosity. Irene and Phil explored the fascinating world of elderhostels, enjoying the relationships they made, as well as the wide variety of subjects they studied. They were two of my Father’s favorite students. Phil loved to study Biblical texts, kept up on medical research, history, biography, cultural diversity, and was fascinated with all manner of human endeavor and natural wonder. He loved keeping up with his children’s comings and goings and the adventures of his grandchildren. They each filled his heart and mind with enduring interest, pride, and love.
Whether he was creating with his own hands, remodeling old structures, replacing rotten planks, walking the grounds of his beloved cabin at Hayward, staring out across the waters of Round Lake, or sitting in Greg and Kathy’s back yard, this facile mind and spirit was fully occupied. He was glad to be wherever he was, joyful and complete, in the moment as it was and not otherwise.
Buber adds a final word to this life of joy. It is a critical word. Having a joyful life is not the goal toward which we strive, he says. It will be given when we strive to give joy to God. He writes: "Your personal joy will rise up when you want nothing but the joy of God, nothing but joy in itself."
This joy is not an achievement. It is a gift, freely given to all who open themselves to it, where we are, with all that is within us, as we are, even in a dark hour and not otherwise. How wonderful to have had this fellow pilgrim among us to show us the way. Phil would want us to imagine the smile on God’s own face, as God embraces his good friend and servant.
May our own joy increase as we carry the memory and spirit of this good man within our hearts and overflow throughout our lives. Peace to you Irene. Thank you for your wonderful care of Phil and your gracious sharing of both your lives so freely to so many. It could not have been otherwise.