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.

Faith in What?

I was listening Tracy Chapman’s song “Heaven’s Here on Earth” while wondering about the fate of the world, and her phrase “faith in humankind” jumped out at me. What a radical idea that is.

Faith is not an easy or a reasonable thing. The news tells us 24/7 that humanity is an unreliable mess. Society recommends trusting constant acquisition of stuff and status instead.

Jesus, on the other hand, had tremendous faith in humanity. Who in his right mind would say, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”? What was Jesus thinking? This is the guy who fell asleep in the garden and went on to deny Jesus three times and run away. But Peter’s also the one who recognized the Christ: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus called Zacchaeus, not exactly a model citizen, down from the tree. He told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. That shows tremendous faith. He didn’t overlook what they’d done before, who they’d shown themselves to be up until then, he looked beyond it. He didn’t ignore the evidence against them but was willing to look at all the evidence in their favor.

What did he see?

He must have seen himself. He must have seen their divinity.

According to a reflection by Jim Finley, “Thomas Merton says there is that in you that no one [including you] can destroy or diminish because it belongs completely to God.” At the same time, we are literally made of this Earth. Everything we are and have comes from the Earth.

These are not contradictory ideas—these are two reasons for hope, for faith in humankind. We are not earthly or divine interlopers. As one of the products of billions of years of evolution, we belong on this sacred planet, as Brian Swimme points out.

“Heaven’s here on Earth in our faith in humankind,” Chapman’s song reminds us. Faith in our ability to love and to change, in our intimate connection to creation, in the reality of God dwelling within us.

 

You Are Trustworthy

How does one go from “God is trustworthy, the world is trustworthy, I am trustworthy” one week to “Everything I do is meaningless” the next? I’m not sure, but I might add “covering almost the entire existential spectrum at high speed” to my resume.

The trustworthy part arrived unexpectedly during my drive to work one day. Sometimes the universe gifts us a download of knowing after which, for a little while, we can perceive reality differently.

“Trustworthy” didn’t mean everything will be OK as we usually think of it—no pain, no loss—but rather that love fills all of life, even the hard stuff, so it’s already OK in a way we rarely notice. Also, creation has a “benevolent trajectory,” as my friend Markus says. On the cosmic, evolutionary scale, it’s all headed somewhere good, though again not necessarily good as we understand it.

I am trustworthy because God’s essential nature and creation’s essential nature is my essential nature. I’m not going to singlehandedly derail the cosmic experiment. As a matter of fact, I’m participating in its becoming, as we all are.

That was profoundly real for three days, and then literally a week later I understood why middle-aged people go out and buy little red sports cars—preferably a convertible, thank you. When all of the identities we’ve confused for our selves stop providing any sense of who we are, life becomes quite uncomfortable, and surely a sports car will relieve that discomfort.

How did I travel such an emotional and spiritual expanse so quickly? Humanity, I suspect, in the form of returning to my really healthy daily practice of not-enough-ness.

A vast chasm separates the person I think I’m capable of being from the person I’m actually capable of being. The imaginary person in my head maintains complete mastery over the physical and spiritual realms at all times. She always focuses on the most important task and completes it brilliantly, regardless of whether she got six or eight hours of sleep. At the same time, she’s riding the express train to nirvana, and it’s a straight shot.

Unfortunately, aside from being fictional, she’s missing the point. The world is already trustworthy; she is already trustworthy. There is nowhere to get to, not even nirvana. We don’t live to attain spiritual or any other kind of fulfillment. We are filled—and therefore fulfilled—by embodying loving kindness day by day, as my friend Bardwell once described his approach to life.

And we are already doing it. God is trustworthy, the world is trustworthy, you are trustworthy.

Letting Things Slide

There are things that you know you shouldn’t do, that you pretend to resist doing, but that you know you’re going to do anyway. Like opening a bag of chocolate chips with no intention of baking. On a day when you’ve already eaten frozen yogurt and an almond croissant.

Or sliding oh so casually from semi-upright to horizontal on the couch instead of going upstairs and brushing your teeth when it’s very near bedtime. Or clicking on Facebook in the middle of writing a blog post. Not this blog post, no, surely not.

Our resistance, though futile, is well-intentioned. We might not enjoy the results of these things. Our pants might be a little tighter or our work a little sloppier for lack of sleep, but sometimes, I think, it’s OK. In fact, a little celebration may be in order.

We have an unending litany of things to get right in this culture—health, career, appearance, family, house, garden, etc.—and we need to take it easy on ourselves once in a while. Letting something mostly harmless shift from not OK to OK now and then could help us realize that life might actually be OK much more of the time than we think.

I don’t mean eat the entire bag of chocolate chips—unless it’s the day you really need to—or give up on flossing all together. I think this is another area where David Roche’s Church of 80% Sincerity has the right idea. Being human, we can only strive for self improvement about eighty percent of the time. For the other twenty, pass the chocolate chips.