In Memoriam: Elizabeth Windsor, Queen of England

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

Alford, Lord TennysonBecause I Could Not Stop for Death

By Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Elizabeth Windsor, who passed away earlier today at age 96, knew something very important. Something so important that she impressed her character with its exacting demands and lived every day guided by its truth.  She knew who she was – not as an individual with ups and downs, likes and dislikes – but more importantly, as an official.  She held an office.  She was Queen of Great Britain.  She was in service – to history, to the future, to her realm.

For her, being monarch was a privilege in the best sense – it was an opportunity to do good, a grace, to have work that, every day, was meaningful, even at the horse races.  She did not seem to see herself as entitled to extensive personal prerogatives as the due to her privilege, so much as accepting and welcoming responsibility.

Responsibility is onerous, sometimes even a frightening burden we would rather lay down and go fishing.  Others depend on us and that can get into our souls.  Responsibility is not often sugar and spice and all things nice.  When we are responsible, our very selves are on the line, subject to judgment and criticism.

How many of us seek out responsibility?  Many of us flee duty and decision-making.  We pass the buck, leave it up to others and slide through life uttering weasel words of exculpation.  We are eager for position, privilege in a crude and demeaning mode of self-indulgence at the expense of others.  We often seek to rise above others, to gain dominion over land and money, to become celebrated, but to what end?  Do we seek to stand firm for the right as Martin Luther did – “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

Elizabeth easily, it seems, accepted her fate as having been born, through no fault of her own, the eldest child of a king.  She shrank not from the standard of personal character, which insists that rank must have its responsibilities, come hell or high water.

Quite unexpectedly, I once had dinner in Buckingham Palace.  I was seated next to Princess Anne.  She spent the dinner talking with me and ignoring the gentleman to her right, who was quite obviously not pleased.  She was intelligent, worldly, but reserved, keen to learn, quick to make a point.

And once I had a long private audience with His Majesty, King Rama IX of Thailand.  He advised me on Buddhism.  His aide-de-camp, a major general, had trouble staying awake.

In each case, while listening, I wondered how I would carry myself if our roles were reversed – me the royal and they the commoner.  I sensed, in each, dedication to something more than self.  Each provided me with insight and keen observations.  They took their position – but not themselves – seriously as a work that made a difference in our world.  And I sensed, as well, that these two people very much wanted whatever difference they might make to be good and honorable.

In this sense of holding office, I suggest that Elizabeth Windsor was a role model for all of us.

We each have our special offices – parent; child; grandfather; grandmother; citizen; neighbor; employee; owner; our own person; civil servant; teacher; lawyer; marketing executive; doctor; nurse; priest; penitent,…

Let us, therefore, never turn our backs on the responsibilities that come with our offices, nor indulgently disable ourselves, mentally and emotionally, from holding such offices in good faith and to the best of our abilities.

I have always liked Mark Twain’s quip that “Let us endeavor to live so that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.”