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.

If We Only Knew

“Can you use a Roomba on wood floors?” That’s one deeply important topic I considered Googling tonight.

In the story “A Visit from the Buddha” by Theophane the Monk, the Buddha comes to visit a monastery and while the monks are sleeping he scrawls, “Trivia” all over the walls. When the monk narrating the story first sees the graffiti, he’s offended, but then he realizes it’s true.

This existence is difficult. We will all experience loss and mental, emotional, and physical suffering. The degree will differ, but no one is exempt from these realities. Yet when these times pass, we tend to return to Roombas, to the trivial.

There’s nothing wrong with robotic vacuum cleaners. We all need clean floors and great cat videos, both effective antidotes to suffering. But the daily details and decisions, important as they are, will never lead us to the depths of our lives where God waits, hoping to meet us, hoping to open up the fullness of our being.

“If people only knew the love and joy they hold in their hands,” a friend said to me this week, speaking about the often unrealized potential of relationships.

“To be is to be in relationship,” Fr. Cyprian Consiglio once said in a talk. Unless we recognize and live into our interconnectedness by loving one another, we are denying our very existence.

God is relationship, multiple spiritual teachers have said in various ways. For us to encounter the reality of ourselves, we must enter into relationship—with other people, with other beings, with the Earth.

May we choose, as the monk in the story finally does, the heart of Jesus, a path of radical self-giving with the power to transform the world. If we only knew the love and joy we hold in our hands.

 

What Do We See?

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who lied habitually. It took me a while to realize what was going on because I’d never met anyone with that habit.

One day she told me that a coworker would be out for a few days because he’d received a grand jury summons. She said, “I thought he was lying, but he brought in the jury summons.” I hope my jaw didn’t literally hang open in front of her. I understood all at once that she thought everyone else lied the way she did and that her life must be really isolated, difficult, and unhappy.

The priest giving our parish Lenten retreat put it this way: people who lie can’t see other people. I think we miss seeing each other in so many ways. I often assume other people are approaching me with the same small, fearful voices with which I’m approaching them.

A small example: I hate it when I’m driving in the left lane and someone zooms around me in the right lane and then cuts back in front of me, not because it’s unsafe but because I’m insulted that the person thinks I’m going too slow. As I was speeding to catch the van the other morning, I saw my impatience and frustration with the person in front of me who was going slightly under the speed limit and realized that the people on the freeway might be perfectly happy to zoom around me. I’m projecting my frustration onto them.

A larger example, I sometimes worry that my friends are mad at me or don’t want to be around me when there is zero evidence or history to support this concern. (If you need a good laugh, The Onion did a marvelous piece on this particular psychosis.) Which means I’m not seeing my friends, some of the people I love most in the world.

So in a very real way, whatever I’m doing to myself, I’m doing to others, and vice versa; however I’m judging myself, I’m judging others the same way, and vice versa. One more argument for loving kindness all around.

Encountering Mystery

Mysteries come closer and more often than we think. I used to see a couple in their fifties or sixties walking through my neighborhood every morning as I drove to work. In my memory, they always walk hand in hand. I don’t know if this detail is true or invented, but they had an air of closeness, of having grown together over time.

They are both heavyset, almost square. He walks with a cane. The other day I saw only the man, walking alone. I worried about what had happened to the woman and about how the man would fare without his companion. I also felt negligent because I hadn’t seen them in quite some time but hadn’t been conscious of their absence. Had they been right there and I hadn’t noticed them? Or had one of us changed our routine by a minute or two, enough to no longer be a casual occurrence in the other’s life?

Another couple, slender, faster, maybe younger, maybe not, used to walk their dog farther along my route to work. The woman always wears a knit hat and the man a blue fleece jacket. I would glance at the clock every day when I passed them to figure out whether or not I was late. I have not seen them in a while either.

I wonder who, if anyone, I am to these couples. Am I the woman in the gray car who drives too fast? Do they even see me?

I know nothing of these people, despite their proximity, yet on some level they matter to me. I wonder whether I know my acquaintances at work any better. I assume we have more in common because we share certain experiences, but are they really any less mysterious? And when it comes to that, would my closest friends and family tell their own stories the way I would tell them? Is it possible to conceive of the world from inside someone else’s heart, mind, and soul.

Perhaps that’s why that couple holds hands, even after all these years—they know they are holding onto something precious, a piece of the world unlike any other that can be explored for a lifetime and remain unknowable.

Here’s a poem from the Polish poet Anna Swir that argues the opposite of what I just have. Or, at the end, maybe not.

The Same Inside

Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.

I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
another dog.

I gave her money,
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.

And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.

-Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Reprinted in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. by Czeslaw Milosz

Falling into Place

I bribed my family to forego skiing in Colorado and come to California for Christmas. The winning offer: Dungeness crab at $6.99/lb.

We’ve never before gathered in California, and the four of us haven’t been together in quite a few years. When reflecting on what made the week so much fun, it appeared to me that we’re all at a point where we want to be with each other or are at least capable of enjoying the company. With the possible exception of the cat, who made it clear he objected to the disruption of his usual routine.

It’s not always easy to remember that things happen in stages. My sister is six years younger than I, and for years I didn’t want her around. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want any of my family members around. By the time I returned to the fold, my sister had had about enough of all of us. The two of us have been close for years now, but it took some time.

The cycle turned again this year, and it felt as if things I didn’t even know were missing fell into place a little.

That’s not to say we’re perfect. My sister and I had to stop speaking about a photograph because we disagreed so strongly about its contents. My parents are divorced, and though they did us the gigantic favor of not hating each other, they are not those people you see in the movies who remain close friends.

Yet we all seem to have come to a place where, most of the time, we don’t need each other to be any more or less than who we are. The other side of the coin, I think, is that we all have some acceptance of our own failings. We can, mostly, listen to stories about ourselves and say, wow, did I really do that? A gentler reaction than, I did not do that!

The future undoubtedly holds anger and frustration along with the joy and love, but this Christmas felt like a healing, as if something was sewn together that will make our relationships stronger in the future. And that is a remarkable gift.

Moving on

Even the best of beginnings inevitably entail endings. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around the reality that change involves the breaking—or at least loosening—of some bonds and the creation of others.

I will start a new job soon, a job I’m excited about. This week, though, I’ve felt rather wistful and melancholy about leaving my current office. I like to think of it as overachieving to get nostalgic about a place while still there.

Some things that make me sad:
•    No longer being on the About page of our website
•    My desk not being my desk
•    Not being invited to birthday lunches anymore
•    Most of all, no longer seeing the people I currently work with on a daily basis

We choose so few of our relationships in life. With the exception of spouses, the selection of the people we spend the most time with—our families and our coworkers—is beyond our control. We get to pick among the applicants for a job, but because a person is so much more than a collection of skills, an hour-long interview gives little idea of who will walk through the door.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my current officemates and how much we enjoy each other. Everyone knows the work-day rituals; there is comfort in the well-worn grooves of relationships and the familiarity of our banter. We laugh a lot. And these people all make really good food—the importance of that talent cannot be underestimated.

I will see these folks again, but lives get busy and there is no substitute for time spent together. The group I’m joining is similarly tight knit and good humored, so the future is bright. But for now, I want to acknowledge how much I appreciate my current crew and how much I will miss them.

Falling Back In

Going back in time is a dicey proposition. I tested it out last week in Chicago when visiting with some friends I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years.

We had not kept in close touch. I am a lousy correspondent; five Christmas cards constitute an overachiever year for me. I also tend to get wrapped up in the local day to day, leaving little time for those far away.

The bus ride to my old neighborhood gave me a jarring sensation of the familiar turned foreign, as in a dream when you know you’re at school but the building is clearly your Aunt Millie’s house. Visiting with old friends, on the other hand, felt surprisingly normal—no awkwardness, no tension, as if I dropped by for lunch on a regular basis. Though we had only an hour and spent most of it catching up on life details, simply being in each other’s company gave us all a good deal of joy. Something within us still fits together in whatever ways first drew us to one another.

These people’s presence in the world makes me happy. It still matters to me how their particular corner of life is turning around. Their idiosyncrasies still charm me. How can I claim all that when we rarely take the time even to shoot off an email? I suspect that friendships are amazing, elastic things, and our capacity for love exceeds the time available to us, taken up as it is with the necessities of work, laundry, and the like.

There are people scattered across the globe whose daily lives used to intersect with mine but now diverge completely. Some of them I can reasonably hope to see again; others I likely never will. Yet I find it comforting that I care what happens to them and that they may return the favor.