Learning Differently

The world is getting better by a number of measurements—less poverty, less violence, fewer child deaths, to name a few, but we don’t see this reality unless we back up far enough to take in the whole picture.

Sometimes learning from our own lives requires a similar step back. I recently made a mistake I have made multiple times before. I’ve even set up a system to prevent this particular mistake—a system that unfortunately relies on me for implementation.

After a period of despairing over my inability to change, it occurred to me that maybe the lesson wasn’t what I thought it as was. When I expanded my viewpoint, a number of other possible lessons popped into view.

First, as long as a human is running something, there will be mistakes, and that goes for me as well as all the other humans.

This concept does not seem revolutionary, but we don’t really believe it—I certainly didn’t. We approach our lives as if a constant upward trajectory were possible, as if once we solidified a rung in the ladder we never stepped down onto it again.

Second, I realized that I put much more mental and emotional focus on my mistakes than on my accomplishments. We don’t recognize the world is becoming a kinder and more comfortable place to live for a number of reasons, including our tendencies to focus on what we’ve just heard or experienced and to respond more strongly to bad news. In a similar way, shame or guilt over a moment of selfishness might erase in our minds the generosity we’ve shown at other times.

A humane response to our humanity is to practice great compassion with ourselves and others regardless of the circumstances. Richard Rohr says God never leads through guilt or shame, and God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.


Note: I was most recently reminded of these numbers in a presentation by Allan Rossman, who cited the data from Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.

 

 

Reality Wants You

I woke up early one day this week to do Important Things, e.g., pack a lunch, before leaving for work. Instead I spent a good amount of time patting Tux, my cat.

I said to him, “Looks like it’s going to be a Tux kind of day.” That simple statement opened up in me a sense that the day had a direction of its own independent of my plans. I saw the possibility of tuning into that movement rather than trying to lock each hour tightly into a pre-imagined form, like when you hold something squishy in your hands and it inevitably manages to squeeze through the spaces between your fingers.

Then a little tendril of terror crept in. To trust the universe to reveal itself and our place in it sounds noble in theory, but in practice it involves getting up close and personal with our lack of control.

Right before the terror, though, a feeling of aliveness prevailed. I believe it came from experiencing the reality of the newness of each moment. All creation really is coming into being each nanosecond, including us. “The sky gathered again/ And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

This could be cause for great celebration, for dancing in the streets and on the rooftops.

I’m not saying that whatever we’re struggling with will be magically erased, but what could be more exciting than to consciously participate in the unfolding of existence? An unfolding that is now, as it was in the beginning, good. An unfolding that is bigger than our plans and moves in time beyond our understanding.

The world will surely be a different place when we go to bed than when we woke up. We may only recognize the wonder of its evolution if we step into the current that is already flowing toward Love.

When We Are

The only time we can love the world is right now because that is the only time we exist. It’s strange to forget that we’re alive right now, but we do forget—a lot.

My mind rehashes past events with great frequency as if I could change the way life unfolded. Learning from our mistakes is difficult but useful. Trying to tweak our past actions to edit outcomes we didn’t enjoy—or ones that could have been just a little better—is living an illusion.

Perhaps our pasts are more redeemable than we believe, but they can only be redeemed in the present not undone or changed. There are no redos, but there is grace. There is moving forward with respect for what has shaped us, compassion for ourselves and others, and humility in the face of our tremendous limitations and equally incredible gifts.

I also attempt to spend a good amount of time in the future with, as yet, no success. I mentally pre-live everything from writing emails to attending dinner parties. Practice improves our abilities and capacity, but I’m not making that complicated dessert before serving it. I’m planning out conversations when the circumstances in which people will gather don’t exist yet. Who knows in what frame of mind we’ll walk through the door or whether we will arrive at all.

We can honor our pasts and live into our futures with wisdom by remaining conscious in the one place where everything comes together—now. If Love is the ongoing creative force in the universe, the present moment is the where and when of infinite potential. We cannot know where we’re going, but we can participate in where we are, in the creative force loving us all into existence.

A number of things could be the thing we’re here to learn—love, interconnection, how to cook the fudgiest possible brownies. Another meaning-of-life candidate that I’ve noticed recently is cultivating the ability to wait in openness and trust rather than defending a certain outcome.

I’ve seen myself tensing up mentally before someone has even spoken, putting on full body armor when for all I know they’re about to invite me to go pick flowers. As with so many habits of mind, for most of my life I was unaware of this battle preparation. I thought it was just common sense or being ahead of the game or making sure things came out the way they were supposed to.

What does it mean to trust in this world of ours? It can’t mean believing everything will come out the way we want it to or expecting that we’ll move through life pain free. That’s closer to denial. But any situation can go in multiple directions, most of which we can’t anticipate.

Can we consider that what we have during the most difficult times is enough? Maybe not in the perfect way we see in our head. Maybe we’ll still experience a great deal of messiness, failure, and pain, yet in the midst of all that life is moving toward an unknown destination. As Jim Finley says, God protects us from nothing but sustains us in all things.

Can we allow life to go spectacularly well in a way that we couldn’t have imagined? It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that when we approach life with openness it will take an entirely different turn than it would have otherwise. Our very waiting creates possibilities that didn’t exist when we approached the situation defending our preferred future from attack.

We are taught that we need to make things happen. If instead we can participate in what’s happening, life will become unpredictable in the most wonderful way.

Walking through the World

A friend and I went backpacking recently. As we were pitching our tents on the first night, I was thinking ahead to what would come the next day when a wise cedar tree told me, “Keep your head in your feet.”

Our feet cannot get ahead of where we are. The interior of our heads, on the other hand, can and do travel to the most distant circumstances we can imagine, visiting scenes that will most likely never occur.

Imagination is an incredible gift. Unfortunately we often don’t use it wisely, conjuring up catastrophes or arguing passionately for things we may not really need to convince anyone of. At least I do.

No single day works out as we planned it, but our feet are always present, connected firmly to the Earth in each moment as it unfolds in reality.

In a poetry reading from the On Being Gathering, John Paul Lederach, describes “haiku attitude” as a combination of joy and patience, a way “to prepare yourself to be touched by beauty.” Lederach works in conflict resolution around the world and must have found beauty in some of the most difficult situations. What a life-changing openness that would be.

Our trip did not go exactly according to plan. We didn’t reach the lake we were aiming for. On the way out, we somehow missed the swimming holes we both remembered seeing on the way in.

Yet the trip was full of beauty—the strawberry milkshake smell of the Jeffery pines (thanks, Dad, for teaching me that one), the flow of deep and attentive conversation, a cascade of different colors of light on the granite as the sun set, the sound of the creek that was our constant companion, the full moon shining on a still spot in the water and lighting up the campsite so brightly we could move around without headlamps.

These are the moments we can miss if we’re projecting ourselves mentally through the world instead of walking through it. These and every moment are the ones worth letting ourselves be touched by.

Relating to the Depths

I recently heard the advice to give up understanding anything (apologies for not remembering the original source). After living with this idea for a little while, it occurred to me that understanding is insufficient to being alive.

Comprehension and figuring things out are essential for a certain level of life. It’s remarkably useful that science has identified human beings as the cause of climate change and can calculate the most effective solutions. We don’t want to give that up.

But the depths of life require entering into rather than figuring out; understanding is too shallow an approach for the deep waters. We cannot comprehend death or loss, love or joy, but we experience them. The preciousness of this life sometimes overwhelms us—an incredible sunset, a flock of birds descending, or children at play to use Jim Finley’s examples. These moments open us to existence in ways that have nothing to do with thought.

In a very real way, we cannot understand any other being. We cannot think our way into the experience of a tree, a cat, our siblings, or the person who sits next to us at work five days a week. To see things from another’s point of view is useful but limited and different from being present with that person, from allowing our spirits to recognize one another.

We share life with all of creation. We are in relationship with all that is, and the foundation of that relationship is love. The desire of love is not ultimately to be understood. It is to see and be seen, to know and be known, to experience and be experienced.

The “peace that surpasses all understanding” is exactly what it says it is. May we dwell there.

For a Blessing

Tonight I will attend a Sabbath service with the local Reform Jewish congregation for the first time. A friend of my mom’s who as a teenager survived Bergen-Belsen died last week, and her name will be on the list of those for whom the congregation will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

I met Bella and her husband Henry once, and I vividly remember Henry saying, “Who could have imagined all of this,” waving his hand around to indicate the Red Robin where we were eating, his and Bella’s entire life in the U.S., children, a home, “when we were in the camps?”

At a symposium on climate change this week, a communications professor said that if you want people to change their behavior, you need to communicate a sense of concern and also a sense of hope. If only the dire effects of climate change are presented, people will not act. They will feel powerless against what seems to be an inevitable and bleak future.

Hope and uncertainty are intimately related.

I wonder how or whether people maintained hope in the concentration camps, in that place where they didn’t have the ability to make choices that would change their situation, with uncertainty about whether they would wake up in the morning but absolute certainty about what they would wake up to.

The Kaddish makes no mention of those who have died. It is a hymn of praise to God and a request for God’s peace. It must have been spoken thousands of times a day during the Holocaust.

Bella returned to Bergen-Belsen once and gave a public talk while she was there. I cannot imagine the strength either journey demanded—the journey of survival or the journey of return, but the latter must have required a deep sense of possibility.

May Bella’s memory be for a blessing. May our lives be blessed with hope.