Posts Tagged ‘light’
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.
Shadow does not exist by itself, it is cast, by a real physical body. We may say a person is overwhelmed by their shadow: a Tiger Woods by their sexuality, a Richard Nixon by their overweening sense of power, a nation by its hubris, but their shadow is passive, an absence of light, a shape lent by their own outline. Shadow is shaped by presence; presence comes a priori to our flaws and absences. To change the shape of ourselves is to change the shape of the shadow we cast. To become transparent is to lose one’s shadow altogether, something we often desire in the spiritual abstract, but actually something that is not attainable by human beings – to change the shape of the identity that casts a shadow is more possible. Shadow is a necessary consequence of being in a sunlit visible world, but it is not a central identity, or a power waiting to overwhelm us.
Even the most beneficial presence casts a shadow. Mythologically, having no shadow means being of another world, not being fully human, not being in or of this world. Shadow is something that must be lived with, literally, as it follows us around, obscuring the sun or the view for others, yet we cannot use it as an excuse not to be present, nor to act, nor to effect others by our presence, no matter if the effect is sometimes indeed, overshadowing and difficult. Nor can we use it as an excuse to run uncaring over other’s concerns.
To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt. To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.
Shadow is a beautiful, inverse, confirmation of our incarnation. Shadow is intimated absence; almost a template of presence. It is a clue to the character of our appearance in the world. It is an intimation of the ultimate vulnerability, the dynamic of being found by others, not only through the physical body but by its passing acts; even its darkening effect on others; shadow makes a presence of absence, it is a clue to ourselves and to those we are with, even to the parts of ourselves not yet experienced, yet already perceived by others. Shadow is not good or bad, only inescapable.
Upon receiving the news from Paris, I did what I often do in moments of crisis. I turned off the TV — and sat with the grief. I turned, as I often do, to poetry, nature, scripture, and prayer. I retreated to solitude, leaving time for sorrow to sit with me before having to answer the inevitable crush of media speculation.
In those early hours there is no real analysis, only a parroting of ideological perspectives. I find it more fully human to welcome grief, and connect with the humanity of those for whom these tragedies are even more personal, more intimately destructive.
The poem that I turned to was yet again from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Everywhere, everywhere. Everybody hurts. It hurts everywhere.
I watched the outpouring of grief from all over the world, including most of my Muslim friends. I saw hundreds of Facebook profiles being changed to the French flag-themed profile pictures, and thousands of #prayerforParis and #Prayers4Paris tweets.
I also saw, as I knew would come, wounded cries of the heart from friends in Beirut wondering why their own atrocity (43 dead) just one day before — also at the hands of ISIS — had not received any such similar outpouring of grief; friends from Pakistan wondering why there was no option to “check in as safe” during their experiences with violent attacks; friends from Central African Republic wondering why their dead — in the thousands — are the subject of no one’s global solidarity.
Somewhere in the midst of grief and devastation, here was the cry that I also heard again and again: What about my pain?
In some of the news coverage, we get told that “bombings are nothing new” to Beirut. I cannot help but read this as implying not that some countries are witnessing more violence than others, but that some lives matter more than others. Some outposts have been even more forthright, talking about our selective outrage masking a two-tiered model of human life, and outright racism.
It is a subtle shift, but I think there is a difference in tone between recognizing someone else’s tragedy and saying, “But what about mine?” and saying, “Yes, I see your tragedy, and I offer you my condolences and sympathy. And I see your tragedy and mine as connected.” It is the second that strikes me as more spiritually and morally mature.
Having sat with grief for a day of silence, here are a few thoughts that come to my mind:
Need to Grieve, Need to Mourn.
When I got the news and had a chance to catch up with the grief, I then made a point of turning down media interview requests and actually took the time to mourn. I hope more of us do take this necessary time. How sad it is to see analysts on TV opining, when we have not yet buried the dead and mourned the loss of life. I am concerned when our response in times of crisis is to strike out, lash out, and express rage before we have had time to sit with, and process, sadness and grief. Unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways.
My heart and prayers go to the families of the deceased, and to all who have felt the impact of this horrific attack. I wish we could extend the time to sit in solitude, hold each other, wipe each others’ tears, and mourn together.
Yes, Paris Is a Dazzling, Beautiful (Global) City of Lights.
Paris is charming almost beyond what a heart can bear. But no, Paris is not unique. Today, Paris is a global city. The very same global process of colonialism has brought the children of the colonies, largely North Africans, into the metropole. Today, Muslims are the most visible minority population in France, and they are both racially and economically marginalized.
Today, Paris is part of the global narrative. New York, Madrid, London, Ankara, Bombay, Damascus have all witnessed grotesque acts of terrorism. The primary victims of terrorism by ISIS are Muslims in places like Iraq and Syria. Muslims have been killed on a magnitude hundreds of times the scale of the Paris atrocity. Remember that, according to a recent United Nations report, some 8,493 Iraqi civilians were killed and 15,782 Iraqis were injured by ISIS in the summer of 2014 alone. According to credible reports, approximately one million people have been killed in Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation.
ISIS and Islam.
As has been the case with previous tragedies, national Muslim organizations extended their sympathies and their condemnations of the horrific acts of terrorism. But I wonder if now, almost 15 years after 9/11, if we should still have to. I don’t know how many times we have to keep saying that acts of violence on civilians can never be justified, no matter who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.
Simply put, when Muslims condemn acts of violence from extremists, and they get asked again and again why don’t they condemn terrorism, I wonder if is because some of us are not listening. And perhaps that we don’t want to listen. There is a sad place deep in my soul that has to admit this: there are some in our midst who do not want to believe that faithful, pious Muslims could find and do find acts of violence morally repugnant. That attitude, as common as it is, tells me nothing about the humanity of Muslims that I know, or about Islam. It does tell me a lot about a xenophobic spirit of ignorance that is rampant in our society.
Ultimately, this spirit of ignorance and racism is a common enemy, just as much as state-sponsored violence and violence committed by groups like ISIS is an enemy. All of these stand in opposition to the dignity of all of us.
I don’t know how to say it more directly than this: Yes, the members of ISIS come from Muslim backgrounds. No, their actions cannot be justified on the basis of the 1400 years of Islamic tradition. Every serious scholar of Islam has confirmed this clearly, and unambiguously. ISIS is about as Muslim as the KKK is Christian. If you don’t look to the KKK to tell you about God’s message of love as expressed through Jesus, don’t look to ISIS to tell you about God’s mercy as expressed through Muhammad.
Avoiding the Trap of Divisiveness.
The ISIS terrorist attacks are precisely intended to create a divide, a false divide between Muslims and the West. Acts of terrorism are not only about the violence and mayhem created. They are also anticipating, and bringing about, a backlash from the societies that have experienced violence. This goes back to the days preceding 9/11, where al-Qaeda hoped to bring about a U.S. attack on Afghanistan. It succeeded.
ISIS, as well, is hoping to create a culture of backlash against Muslims in Europe, to foster a situation of persecution of Muslims there that will bolster future recruitment of extremists. And, Western attacks on Iraq/Syria will, in turn, lead to further extremism. To put it simply, we can’t bomb our way out of the ISIS mess. Military campaigns are part of the solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. Diplomacy, including with parties that we have political differences of opinion with, have to be part of the answer.
If we are to confront ISIS, we have to confront the sources of their funding as well as their ideology, which will force us to ask difficult and challenging questions from many of their Wahhabi and Gulf area supporters — who are also American allies.
The Mythic “Attack on Universal Values.”
President Obama released a statement regarding the terrorist attacks:
Once again we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.
As a humanist and a person of color, and as a person critical of both Western colonial conceit and violent extremism, I can only half-applaud the President’s statement. On one hand, both the Qur’an (5:32) and the Mishnah [Sanhedrin 4:5] tell us that to take one human life is as if to take the life of whole humanity, and to save one human life is as if to save the life of all humanity. True, from that perspective the attack on Paris is an attack on all humanity.
What I question is the selectivity of the “universal values” part in President Obama’s statement. I don’t know what that means. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were not, ever, universal values. The Europeans never intended for the values of the Enlightenment to be applied to the whole of humanity. The Enlightenment — which gave birth to both the French and the American revolutions — was also a profoundly exclusionary principle that never applied to the victims of the empire: not to native Americans, not to the humans stolen from West Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves, not to women, and not to the French colonies. The “universal” values were never universal.
I would love for compassion, dignity, and the sanctity of each and every human life to be a universal human value. If it is to be, that day is in our future. I will believe that we have arrived when the atrocities in Syria, in Palestine/Israel, in Central African Republic, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city America are all treated as attacks on “universal values.” When these atrocities are treated as global and universal human atrocities on par with attacks on Paris and New York, I will believe the declarations. When we see politicians marching for African lives, Afghan lives, Palestinian lives, and Black lives, I will believe their statements.
Watch Out for Trolls.
No sooner had the atrocity in Paris happened, before the bodies were buried, out came the trolls. There was Richard Dawkins, who came out against Islam yet again:
There was Donald Trump, who somehow managed to turn the Paris tragedy into a stump speech for the NRA, stating,“Nobody had guns but the bad guys.” As if the solution to violence is somehow more guns.
Franklin Graham was at it again, stating that “Islam” was at war with the West:
He spent just as much time on Twitter bashing Islam as he did offering prayers for the victims. In collapsing ISIS and Islam, Graham is actually granting ISIS the very Islamic legitimacy that it so craves — and does not deserve.
No, the answer to ISIS’s violence and hatred cannot be more hatred and more ignorance. We have to transcend this hatred through something more beautiful and loftier: a call for universal love, and a holistic sense of justice.
We cannot curse our way out of this darkness. This fragile and broken world needs more light, more light.
Protect the Refugees.
The news out of Paris indicates that one of the assailants has been identified as a Syrian. The fear on many people’s part is that this will lead to a backlash against all Syrian refugees. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of immense scale. Let us remember this: the Syrian refugees are fleeing the brutality of the very same ISIS that has now unleashed its savagery on Paris (and Beirut). In short, the millions of Syrian refugees are themselves the primary victims of ISIS. Let us not doubly punish these desperate people by associating them with the atrocity of their own tormentors.
In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.
I don’t have the answers to ISIS, or how to defeat them. But I do know this: at the end of the day, love and unity will have the victory. If we are to get there, we have to remain fully human.
If we close our hearts to love, to each other, to nature, to God, we have already lost. If we close our hearts to one another, we have already lost.
There is grief in the city of light, and in so many cities of light. In the midst of the grief, in the late hour of a Fall, a beauty lingers. Love shall have the victory at the end of days.
Let there be light inside our hearts.
Let there be light around us.
Let the light permeate us.
Let’s rebuild the City of Lights, one illuminated heart after another.
The City of Light needs no more darkness. Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.
The author, Omid Safi, is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.
The blessing of the morning light to you,
may it find you even in your invisible appearances,
may you be seen to have risen
from some other place we intuit and know
in the darkness and that carries all we need.
May you see what is hidden in you
as a place of hospitality and shadowed shelter,
may that hidden darkness be your gift to give,
may you hold the shadow to the light
and the silence of that place to the word of the light,
may you join all of your previous disappearances
with this new appearance, this new morning,
this being seen again, new and newly alive.
— David Whyte