Dwelling In-Between

Sometimes in our lives we are entering, and sometimes we’re exiting. We pass through periods of growth and periods of disintegration. And then there are the in-between times, which can be more unsettling than when everything falls apart.

At least when the familiar unravels, we can see what’s causing our sadness or distress. In between is a wintery place, a subterranean season. Any life or growth happens underground, out of sight, beyond our conscious reach.

In those parts of the world gathering their first layers of snow right now, people know that winter will not bend to their wills. It can be endured, dealt with—even enjoyed—but no one plants crops in winter. No amount of snow removal equipment makes it safe to drive quickly.

I noticed the arrival of an in-between time recently because of the absences that came with it—absence of ambition, absence of plans or planning, even a lack of concern about those missing attitudes. This isn’t the first in-between time in my life, but it’s the first time I’m not gnawing at it like an animal with its leg caught in a trap. This acceptance is all at once unnerving and unexpectedly peaceful.

Winter can be that way, too. Nothing quiets the soul like a gentle snowfall, but sliding through an intersection on black ice brings an immediate sense of panic.

Perhaps both feelings are responses to recognizing a lack of control. Recognizing and trusting gets me a dose of peace; recognizing and thinking I need to change something lands me squarely on the black ice.

Our culture does not teach us to “trust in the slow work of God,” as the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin recommends. It teaches us to make things happen, to pursue what we want.

But winter is not a time for forcing change. The Earth is taking care of the bulbs and roots that will become green shoots and clenched buds impatient to open. And so in our in-between times, the Ground of our Being is tending the new life we as yet know nothing about. All we have to do is wait and enjoy the snowfall.

Letting Love Define Us

They say we learn from our mistakes. This happens occasionally, but more often I observe myself procrastinating or making snap judgements about people again and again.

I think twelve-step programs call this powerlessness. The likelihood of willing ourselves to change is low. I recently read an interview with an efficiency expert who basically said that willpower is not really a thing.

As I understand them, the next few of the twelve steps prescribe looking clearly at what one is doing. This process has multiple levels. It means admitting to ourselves that we are the cause of the outcomes we’re experiencing, but it also means seeing past or through our mistakes, seeing them for what they are.

Our failures don’t define us. Only love has the power to name who we are, as Jim Finley says. If we aren’t seeing our limitations clearly—and clarity comes not with the harsh light of judgement but with the gentle illumination of mercy—we might mistake them for our true nature.

We are limited beings, but none of us is a whole unto ourselves, nor are we intended to be. The astonishing variety in this world reflects the infinite nature of God’s one Love in which we belong as an integral part. Concentrating on our faults leads us to create separation rather than living the wholeness that is.

It’s hard in this culture in the midst of failure to see oneself as part of a blessed whole. We can no more will ourselves to see this reality than to make any other change, but we can live as if it is true, we can have faith. We can embrace ourselves with the love and respect due a manifestation of God and one day, as Richard Rohr says, we’ll live ourselves into a new way of thinking.

It’s Not Easy

With apologies to Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being human.

First of all, we’re incredibly complex biological organisms in which many things can go wrong and often do. Then there’s sexuality, glorious mixture of chemistry and culture that it is, which generally complicates things a lot.

We have thoughts and feelings, most of which we don’t know what to do with, and many of which do not promote our well-being. Not to mention that a large chunk of what motivates us is unavailable to our conscious minds.

And that’s just the internal world. Add other people into the mix and suddenly we’re dealing with differing pasts, conflicting cultural values, the vagaries of language. Our infinite personality variations mean no two people experience the same event in the same way, yet we long to be understood. It’s a wonder civilization formed at all much less continues.

So perhaps we could cut ourselves some slack and remember that we’re still evolving. According to the economist Max Roser, every day for the last 25 years, 137,000 fewer people lived in extreme poverty than the day before. A company is building a machine to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This doesn’t mean all is well—climate change comes to mind—but it is reason for hope.

The most profound hope comes from the reality that Divinity permeates this beautiful messiness—that we are, that creation is—in a way that we cannot comprehend with our rational minds. The Holy connects us all. No part of our lives or our being is separate from God or from the rest of existence.

To steal a line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer,” “That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.” The divinity of everything is waiting for us to approach and recognize it with our divinity. That’s not easy, but it’s what we’re here for.

Compassion All Around

This week, noticing the convolutions of my interior life, I thought to myself, God, what a mess. Happily, the thought didn’t carry its usual load of self-judgment. Instead, it came with a smile and a good deal of compassion for myself.

The next day I saw how people who cause untold suffering for other people must have incredibly messy interiors. Living inside their skin must be excruciating. This isn’t news, but after experiencing compassion for myself, I was able to feel the same toward those I usually condemn. Paradoxically, at the same time, the tragedies caused by their actions came into sharper focus.

In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama tells the story of a monk in a Chinese prison camp in which many Tibetans died. After the monk escapes to India and is telling his story he says, “I was in real danger.” The Dalai Lama thinks he means he was in danger of losing his life. The monk says, “I was in danger of losing my compassion for my Chinese guards.”

I think the first step in cultivating this kind of compassion is to extend it to ourselves. In my interior landscape, I often approach myself as if I weren’t trustworthy, as if I’m just waiting for the rules holding me in check to let down their guard so that I can do something truly terrible. Like what? I have no idea, but the inner messages make out as if it’s along the lines of clubbing baby seals.

There may be better ways to approach one’s own humanity with loving kindness. We will make a lot of mistakes, but everyone reading this blog stepped out into the world with the intention of doing good today and is likely succeeding at least eighty percent of the time.

Richard Rohr says suffering that is not redeemed is passed on. Jim Finley says when you touch suffering with love, it dissolves. We will not end suffering in the world by staying at home and loving those who cause it. At the same time, we cannot cause lasting change if we act without compassion toward ourselves and all the world.

Fear Less

Sometimes there is nothing to be afraid of. Perhaps most of the time. I didn’t realize how often fear is my go-to approach until one night this week it switched off.

I was puzzling through some non-life-threatening problem that I had invested with a great deal of urgency when it suddenly became clear that there was nothing urgent about it. There are life-threatening situations in this world that may warrant fear—fires, hurricanes, bombs, abuse—but whether the kitchen gets clean or the work assignment gets finished or the person likes me are not among them. Yet I invest these moments with such fraught energy.

I carry around a mostly unconscious, baseline assumption that unless I’m a little afraid, I won’t perform well. As if fear makes everything better. As if life were a performance.

This approach assumes a certain untrustworthiness in oneself and the world. This worldview does not admit the value of failure, the freedom of making mistakes, or, perhaps most importantly, the beauty of one’s self.

We are always changing and evolving along with the rest of creation, and though we participate in that evolution, we’re not in control of it. I think we’re taught that anything out of our control is scary, and that includes our true selves, hidden with Christ in God.

Maybe we have good reason to be scared of our true selves. The more we get in touch with the Love at the center of our being, the harder it will be to continue living as we have been. Our habits of thinking and feeling, the rules we’ve made for ourselves, the criteria by which we’ve reassured ourselves that we’re OK will all begin to feel empty.

But we’ll exchange survival for joy, stasis for dynamism, fear for trust, and self-protection for love. Not a bad tradeoff, all in all.

A New Day Every Day

A friend shared something the other day that seems simple but that had never occurred to me before. Today, everyone you meet—including yourself—is encountering a day he or she has never encountered before. In other words, we are all, every moment, doing something we’ve never done before.

Of course in one way I exaggerate. Many things we’ll do today, we’ve done thousands of times. At forty-two, assuming (falsely) that I’ve brushed my teeth morning and night every day of my life, we’re looking at upwards of 30,000 brushings. But just because we’ve done something before doesn’t make it the same.

I can attest that playing a soccer game is very different at twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-two, and simply walking changes from two to thirty to eighty—or the day after you pulled your hamstring at any age. We might find it almost unbearable to pour a cup of coffee the day after a loved one has died. Much of what appears repetitive is not simply because we are not the same day to day, nor is the world or the people we meet.

And that’s incredibly hopeful. “Behold, I make all things new,” God says in Revelation, but that’s hard to believe sometimes. It’s tempting to believe that my own fears and failings are stronger than the Creator’s evolutionary Spirit moving through all of us, but the odds are on God’s side.

Seeing each day with new eyes, we can be astounded—awe-struck even—by its unfolding beauty: a bright red leaf on a tree we see every day or the smile of someone we’ve known for years. At the same time, remembering that each step is a new step might help us go easy on ourselves and others. I don’t know about you, but the first time I do something, I don’t do it that well.

May this new day be a graced one for you.

Being Incomplete

A professor working on the effects of sunspots on Earth’s soil said something like this to me this week: “You know the sun is about halfway through its life [I didn’t], so in five billion years….” When I heard “halfway through its life” I thought, this whole end of the solar system thing is closer than I realized. Then came the five billion years.

Also this week a friend sent a prayer written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the first line of which I’d heard before: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Fourteen billion years-ish so far—slow indeed. I worry about the way weeks and months speed up, seeming to contain less time every year. As they age, the stars say to each other, wow, a million years is just nothing anymore.

Teilhard’s advice is not surprising coming from a paleontologist and priest, nor is the end of the prayer:

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

“A new spirit gradually forming within you”—something that is not there now and has not been there before. That’s remarkable. The sun may apparently stop having sun spots right about now—give or take a few thousand or maybe million years—as this is something that can happen to stars halfway through their lives. Something new after five billion years, something gradually forming.

“Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Whatever this new spirit is, it will never be complete, will never come to a point of stasis. I don’t know whether the sun feels anxious, but its formation—its birth—involved an epic, fifty-million-year struggle between gravity and fusion energy. And now it exists by burning itself up. It will die, but it will never be complete.

We are not somehow separate from this existence we find ourselves in. We are part of a grand becoming that has little or nothing to do with the way we want things to be or think they should work.

Over the next billion years, the sun will heat up and Earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it long before the sun engulfs the planet. “Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.”