Posts Tagged ‘Hope’
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.
– Albert Camus
My daughter Alex once put her bike out on our Brooklyn street for any stranger to take. She made a sign saying “Free bike! Please enjoy!” in purple crayon, adding a bold smiley face. I helped her carry the bike down the steep steps of our brownstone and place it under the streetlight, the sign taped to the seat.
Lying in bed that night, her face shone with happy anticipation. Things appeared and disappeared on the street all the time, but it was different being part of it. In a way, this was what I wanted her to understand: meaning is an action; we make meaning through our actions. You exist in a web of life: this was the message. You are part of nature and part of the human community. And when you give, you receive something.
A good friend of mine once told me that her father took her and the other kids in the family to Coney Island to look at the rides through a fence. To an adult, observing other people riding the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel may have seemed a clever money-saving move, almost as good as the real thing, even preferable: people don’t die watching roller coasters. To the children, of course, it wasn’t even close.
Some truths must be lived. I knew this, even though I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about life. The aspiration, beyond recycling a little purple bike with training wheels that was outgrown, was to kindle something in Alex: an interest in the great exchange that is always happening in life, a sense of being part of it. I could barely find words for it, and I was far from being a role model of engagement. I was an over-thinker, an observer. The hope was that if all the elements came together, the action in the street, the larger idea, there might be fire.
The next morning Alex clambered down the steps from her loft bed and flung open the drapes of the big windows in the living room. She whirled around, her face as radiant as if it was Christmas morning. The bike was gone! We marveled together, although we were marveling at different things. I was marveling at having given birth to a child who seemed to take joy in giving without knowing who might benefit, who seemed to delight in being part of the dance of life. Incredibly, in spite of own doubts and major flaws, I seemed to have pulled off something amazing.
“Now, when do I get something back?” she asked, her big eyes without guile. I had no answer. It was as if a curtain was drawn back, revealing a blank wall. Alex was asking profound questions, and I shared them: is the universe benevolent? How can we begin to understand our relationship to this life?
“Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart,” writes Rilke. “And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”
The thinking mind hates this kind of suggestion. It wants to know. It wants to lift itself up above our flowing, changing, moment-by-moment experience, the world of the body and its perceptions and feelings. It wants us to be someone, and it wants life to be predictable and within our control. But our Brooklyn neighborhood gentrified, and our brownstone sold to a Wall Street investor and his young wife, who brought an architect into our apartment to discuss massive renovations as I sat at my desk, trying to work.
We moved to northern Westchester. Alexandra grieved for the life and diversity of Brooklyn, withdrawing into the world of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, spending hours online with friends who shared her interests. I made a stab at gardening, hoping to soothe and ground us in our new life, to bring a happy little kid back to me by bringing her in touch with the earth.
Stab is the correct word for the effort I made, brief and blunt. Only if a person were blind and drunk and working without tools could they get muddier than I even when I was just transplanting a few flowers. Reluctantly, Alex joined me a few times, wandering outside wearing rubber boots and pajama bottoms, trailing a trowel as if she were joining a chain gang.
Alex complained that everything about the digging and the planting went slowly. I told her that the work and the pace were the same for our earliest ancestors, but I knew this couldn’t be true. They would have starved if they had farmed this way. Alex said she didn’t like pretending we were “back in ancestral times.” I didn’t blame her. We were not our ancestors and we couldn’t know what they knew. There are truths that cannot be known by outside observation, by superficial efforts, by quick stabs. What drove me to keep trying to teach what I didn’t understand? I wanted Alex to feel welcome on the earth. I wanted to teach her to be strong and have hope, but it seemed we were all being swept along passively by time and circumstance.
“Hope is not a form of guarantee,” writes the critic John Berger. “It’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.”
Within the year, a super storm flooded the downstairs and washed the garden beds away. I ran around the house in the middle of the night, on my way to the basement to save boxes of pictures and diplomas and other items. The seemingly solid ground turned to liquid mud. Some truths can only be experienced: the ground giving way beneath our feet is one.
Life is always in movement and always uncertain. Yet deeper truths are revealed when we need them; doors open from the inside. I learned this one December, in the international arrival terminal of JFK airport in New York. It had been a long and difficult trip, and I pictured snuggling safely into the car and soon my own warm bed, a returning warrior, battered but enriched by my experiences. I reached my hand into the bag and that bubble burst. Somewhere between the baggage claim and the car, my wallet had disappeared.
I took everything out of my bag and examined the interior, and then I did it again, unwilling to accept the gaping absence of something that felt so essential to my sense of security. I cycled through the expected reactions: panic and disbelief, the desperate hope that some honest citizen had turned the wallet in, then rage and self-blame about little things, that psychic cutting technique we use to ward off the greater pain of feeling vulnerable. I picked on little details. Why did I stand in such a crowded place to retrieve my suitcase? Why didn’t I wait?
Home from the airport, after a flurry of phone calls, I lay in bed in the dark, wrestling with the dark angel of the deeper why. Why was I so careless? A chorus of witch-like voices chimed in: you’ve always been this way. I felt like a blind and wounded giant lurching around breaking things inside. Why hadn’t I gone ahead and bought that ridiculously expensive sweater or that expensive scotch or that age-reversing face cream I saw in the duty-free shop? It would have been better than just losing all that money to dark unseen forces, wouldn’t it? I was in no state to remember the night I had urged Alex to give her little purple bike to the universe, but the contrast was crazy. How could I trust in the goodness of life?
In spite of all of our care and precaution, life is unpredictable and subject to change. Our sense of security and control is mostly an illusion. No matter how hard we try to be safe and achieve and become someone in this world, life is uncertainty, and we are wavering creatures. There will be unexpected changes at the last moment. There will be loss.
“Security is mostly a superstition,” writes Helen Keller. “It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
I lost the wallet during the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, days before the Winter Solstice, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Our ancient ancestors noted that darkest day, watching the stars and noticing the shortening days, patiently abiding until one day, they noticed a shift: the darkest day was followed by a little more light.
In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3200 B.C.E., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb, a place of rituals. But here is where it gets extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice, on December 21, floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.
I have often imagined how it must have been to gather in that chamber five thousand years ago, how dark it must have been before dawn in a world lit only by fire. Why did these ancient ancestors undertake such a vast and exacting project? Some researchers speculate that they were ritually capturing the sun on the shortest day, as if they were children capable of little more than magical thinking. But the engineering and astronomy required to build Newgrange refutes this. It is a monument to attention and faith.
Lying in bed the night of the wallet, finally exhausted from all my thinking, I thought about this extraordinary feat. It seemed amazing to me that these ancient people could stay open and observing that way in all weather, going on being with life without rushing to conclusion. Left to its own devices, the ordinary thinking mind tends towards pessimism. The light will never return, it tells us; it is always darkest before it is pitch black: that kind of grim prediction.
A shift occurs when the thinking mind emerges from its self-enclosed isolation and re-enters the world through the perceptions and feelings of the body. Most of the time we modern people treat the body as if it is little more than a mute animal that carries us around. We dress it and feed it and sometimes buy expensive moisturizer for the poor thing but mostly it disappoints us, even as it tries to serve us as loyally as a good dog.
The trip that landed me in JFK had been a visit to my now grown daughter Alex, educated, married, and living in England. How do these changes happen? Often during the trip, I looked at my jet-lagged face in the mirror, bewildered by what I saw: who was this older-looking woman with the vaguely worried look in her eyes? Most of us feel we are not enough somehow, not quick enough or somehow substantial enough. Life sweeps us along, and it often seems there is no solid ground.
In Buddhism, a definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. The root of the word patience is a Latin verb for “suffer,” which in the ancient sense meant to hold, not to grasp but to bear, to tolerate without pushing away. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It means being attentive, willing to be available to what is happening, going on seeing, noticing how things change. When we aren’t wishing for something to be over, or when we aren’t freezing around an idea about what it is we are seeing, we see and hear more. We notice that nature has cycles, that each day is not the same length and quality, and that darkness passes.
We don’t have the same close connection to nature that our ancient ancestors had but we have the same bodies and hearts and minds, the same capacity for attention with faith. The Buddha described the experience of enlightenment in many different ways, including being forgiven our debts and experiencing the breaking of a fever. A Zen master once explained that enlightenment happens in small moments, many times. These moments tend to come when we stop fighting reality, when we relax and open. This state of opening is also called liberation, and it often comes in the midst of what we think of as failure and crushing disappointment.
We each find the deeper truths in our time and own way. We find them as we learn to observe from the inside. In England, my daughter and her husband drove me to visit the sets of the Harry Potter films. It was a pilgrimage to a modern Newgrange, a monument to the work that showed young Alex the magical potential of life, the way the light gets in no matter how dark. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, once told a graduating class of Harvard that failure was the bedrock upon which she built her real life. Failing utterly by worldly standards granted her the freedom to strip her life down to the essentials, to tell the story of a lonely boy who, unknown to himself, was really a wizard.
Lying in bed that night, I remembered that the Buddha also believed he was a failure. Alone on a riverbank, split off from his yogi brothers, he broke his vows and took food offered by a young woman. Nourished by this simple act of kindness, he remembered a simple time from childhood. He had sat alone under a rose apple tree, watching his father and other men from his village plow the fields for spring planting. Peaceful and happy, with no adults bothering him, he could be open and attentive to life as it flowed around him.
“Heaven and Earth give themselves,” teaches the twentieth-century Japanese Zen master Kodo Sawaki. “Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to each-other that we actually live.”
The boy Buddha also saw insect families tossed about by the plowing and felt a pang of compassion. He took this impression of equanimity, of being open to the flow of life, to joy and sorrow and all that arises, under the Bodhi tree. This memory of being kind and humble and selfless, just a little kid sitting under a tree, became the bedrock of his enlightenment.
At about 1 a.m. on the night I lost my wallet, the iPhone on the bedside table lit up. A band of light flashed across the screen in the dark, a message from my daughter in England. Mom, I’m so sorry this happened to you. In the light of day and in smooth times, such a message would be no big deal, nice words. But that night it was a candle in the darkness. The eye barely registers the light of a candle in broad daylight but on a dark night it can be seen a long way, shining out as a reminder that there was still warmth and benevolence in the world, the possibility of companionship and kindness here in the midst of it all.
I felt a little blip of love and gratitude. I thanked her and another little message flashed back. It was a trifling exchange, complete with emoticons, yet it felt wiser and more alive than the dire and dramatic racket in my head. Once when she was younger, I told my daughter that it was more important to be kind than to be right. Now I realized that kindness is also wise.
Lying in bed in the dark, watching my iPhone light up, it dawned on me that the meaning of life, the real purpose of our presence here, is being attentive, being willing to go on seeing and keeping our hearts open—not just for our sake but for the sake of others. We make ourselves available to life, opening our hearts to the passing flow of it, knowing we will blunder and get it wrong but sometimes right. We do this even knowing that those hearts will inevitably break because life is uncertainty and change and loss. But sometimes when we are open, light floods the darkest chamber.
The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a beacon for this book, and especially in my reflections on hope. In life, he joined intellectual rigor, scientific discovery, and an adventurous, expansive view of the human spirit. “An interpretation of the universe,” he wrote, “remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter.” While he was excavating the primitive “Peking man” fossil in China, he imagined future humanity excavating the modern human psyche and spirit — and seeing it revealed as primitive. He foresaw that we would overlay the biosphere with the noosphere — the realm of human intelligence, information, and action. He predicted, that is, something like the Internet. He believed that the noosphere would drive the next stage of evolution — an evolution of spirit and consciousness. This is a grand and exciting vision for imagining the long-term stakes of what we might be fermenting now.
But Teilhard thought in slow, deep, geologic time, and so must we. A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world. We are in the adolescence of our species, not by any measure in full possession of our powers. The twenty-first-century globe resembles the understanding we now have of the teenage brain: dramatically uneven; immensely powerful and creative at times and in places, reckless and destructive in others.
In America, many features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions. This book is for people who want to take up the great questions of our time with imagination and courage, to nurture new realities in the spaces we inhabit, and to do so expectantly and with joy.
I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others. Desmond Tutu, whom I found impossible to doubt, says that God has a sense of humor. There is science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections and leaning into them with joy. So I hope and trust that a smile in the voice may sometimes rise from these pages. And I do bring many voices along with me here, snatches of conversation completing and informing my thoughts, as they do all the time in my life and work.
I’m not surprised by the fact that inexplicable and terrible things happen in a cosmos as complicated as ours, with sentient beings like us running the show. But I am emboldened by the fact that surprise is the only constant. We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications. I am emboldened by the puzzling, redemptive truth to which each and every one of my conversations has added nuance, that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long. I have heard endless variations on this theme — the battle with illness that saves the life that follows; the childhood pain that leads to vocation; the disability that opens into wholeness and a presence to the hidden wholeness of others. You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.
And what is true for individuals is true for peoples. Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.
–Krista Tippett, from her book “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living”
The trees on both sides of my street in New York City have bloomed with tiny white flowers that create a canopy under which I walked on this fine Easter weekend. The trees do this every year in spring, and I wait for it, knowing that the cold, grey branches only appear to be dead and lifeless; and that the flowers are waiting for the right moment for revelation.
The white blossoms are a sign for me that new life is coming, that spring will not be thwarted, that Easter has come.
Those of us who are Christian celebrate Easter with joyful and victorious choruses of Hallelujah because Christ rose from the dead and triumphed over the grave. “Where is your sting o death?” I sing at the Easter vigil where we light the Christ candle to shine within the darkness. Easter is a glorious celebration of new life, new beginnings, new hope.
However, Easter is not, must not, be a time of amnesia. We do not, cannot, forget the journey of Jesus when we sing the Hallelujah chorus. Easter, if it is to mean anything, must always stands face to face with the crucifixion of Good Friday — because God knows the crucifixions did not stop when Jesus’ resurrection happened. And God knows that suffering and oppression will not stop in 2014, just because Christians will be celebrating Easter.
I was reminded of this when my partner told me that the white flowers signify to him the anniversary of the death of his first partner who died of AIDS around this time in 1989; just blocks from where we so comfortably now live together as a married couple. For Brad, just because Easter happened in 1989, and is happening again this year, doesn’t mean his heart did not break. Easter did not, cannot, erase the fact of devastating loss Brad experienced, and the grief that accompanied it.
Easter does not erase crucifixions of oppression and personal trials that humans face. It does not have that power, nor that goal.
Easter also does not erase the crucifixion of hunger, fear, war, violence that too many will know today. Easter does not erase the crucifying greed, sexism, racism, domestic abuse, or homo and trans hatred that so many will experience today. Easter does not erase the cross of gun violence, destruction of the environment, the distrust between religious traditions, the unjust prison system, the monied corruption of political systems that plague our country and the world. Easter does not erase the agony of physical disease, Alzheimer’s, loneliness, depression, addiction, despair, heartbreak that are part of many of our daily lives.
Easter does not erase any of it — instead it shines a spotlight on those crucifixions and proclaims that the power of death and sin can and has been shattered by the power of love.
Easter only matters because it is the story of God taking the form of a human in Jesus who experienced the crucifixion, dying for and with us, and then rising to proclaim that death and destruction are not the end of the story of life. Easter matters because it reminds us that God is with us, and loves us, even amidst all of our sufferings. Easter matters because it proclaims a faith that even in 2014, God is pouring forth the powerful spirit of new life to resurrect our personal lives and our world.
Easter is a call upon the Christian to turn to face the crucifixions in our lives and in the world; encouraged and emboldened by Christ, to believe that we too can rise.
May we be blessed and bless others with new life this Easter Sunday.
— Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
Expect to have hope rekindled. Expect your prayers to be answered in wondrous ways. The dry seasons in life don’t last. The spring rains will come again.
~ Sarah Ban Breathnach
“I was in the same moment confronted by an unbearable loss and also by the realization that there were people and community that were there to help me bear it.” ~Kate Braestrup
My oldest child is a first-grade student, seven years old. My youngest five. The news out of Connecticut hits much too close to home.
The imagination reaches into the darkest caverns where a parent’s mind dare not go. I have no idea what I might say to my boys, but, like many, I have gazed upon them with awakened eyes as they lie asleep tonight.
Our heartfelt condolences to all the families and the victims of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
In times like these, let us turn to some of our wisest elders for light, hope, and a way forward…
This passage from the Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hahn, is particularly poignant:
“…there is a seed of anger in every one of us. There are many kinds of seeds that lie deep in our consciousness, a seed of anger, a seed of violence, a seed of fear, a seed of jealousy, a seed of full despair, a seed of miscommunication, a seed of hate. They’re all there and, when they sleep, we are okay. But if someone come and water these seeds, they will manifest into energy and they will make us suffer. We also have wholesome seeds in us, namely the seeds of understanding, of awakening, of compassion, of nonviolence, of nondiscrimination, a seed of joy and forgiveness. They are also there.
What we see, what we hear, what we eat, always water the seed of violence, the seed of despair, the seed of hate in us and in our children. That is why it’s very urgent to do something collectively in order to change the situation. Not only educators, but parents, legislators, artists, have to come together in order to discuss the strategy that can help bring the kind of safe environment to us and to our children where we shall be protected from the negative watering of the seeds in us. The practice of transformation and healing could not be effective without this practice of seeking or creating a sane environment. When someone is sick, you have to bring him to a place where he or she can be treated and to heal.
If the human person is affected by the poison of violence and anger and despair, if you want to help heal him or her, you have to bring him or her out of the situation where she continues to ingest the poisons of violence. This is very simple. This is very clear and this is not only the job of educators. Everyone has to participate to the work of creating safe environments for us and for our children.”
At this time, I also recall a moving story by Vincent Harding, a theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., who recounted a grave moment when civil rights leader Bob Moses learned three protestors had been murdered in Mississippi and told a group of mostly white, college-age protestors that they could quit and return to their families:
“In group after group, people were singing:
Kumbaya. ‘Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here. We’ll all need you Lord. Come by here.’
I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya.”
On this final night of Hanukkah, these final two stanzas from a poem by Rachel Barenblat (@velveteenrabbi). She reminds us to rededicate our lives to the hard work of trusting and opening up — and “to the task of bringing light.”
At last I light the lamp:
the glint, the glow
regenerating, the homefire
Learn to trust again
that this oil is enough
to open my eyes
to God, already here.
~ Trent Gilliss
Dear Family and Friends,
“Life has beauty and a joy that transcends all the darkness that surrounds us, that something ineffable lives beyond the ordinary affairs of the day, and that without this mystery our lives would not be worth living.”
The year just past is an eventful one for Matthew and I. We experienced highs and lows which I guess is part of the tapestry of life.
My sister and her daughter came to the Philippines and even went up to Baguio. The last time they were here was ten years ago. They were part of my wedding entourage with my sister as my godparent and my niece as my flower girl. Now aged 16, Catherine has grown to be a witty, intelligent and beautiful woman. She also loves to speak in Tagalog 🙂
With God’s grace, Matthew’s health continues to improve. He may have experienced a few episodes but then he is able to bounce back right away. I, on the other hand, just got out of the hospital a few days ago. I had acute gastroenteritis and was so dehydrated, so much so that Matthew had to rush me to emergency. After 2 days of confinement, I’m back home and still recuperating.
This year an endeared friend, Joy Gallardo, passed away at age 52. She was my boss and my confidant. She made sure that she was present in the most important events of my life — she attended my wedding, visited Matthew in the hospital ten years ago, would always make sure that we go out for dinner or lunch whenever I was in Manila. I miss her so much.
We look forward to the year ahead with hope in our hearts. Starting next year, I will be working again with the travel agency where Matthew and I met. It is a sort of homecoming and I am so excited with what lies ahead. God has always been good to us. He has provided for our needs and we know He always will.
On a last note, this blog has reached more than 150,000+ hits with 47 followers… something that really excites both of us. Thank you to everyone who took time to visit and read our posts, made comments, we hope you will continue to do so.
May the good Lord bless you, our readers. May He make His face shine upon you and give you peace.