Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Dislocated Ear

My son’s phantom ailments often set me to chuckling. After playing with some padded sticks recently, he informed me that he had broken his eyebrow; a sledding trip down a snowy hill resulted, he said, in a dislocated ear. Neither wound proved fatal.

The boy feels twists and twinges, good or bad, and interprets them into the language of pain and brokenness. Much as I may laugh at his verbal antics, I realize that I – that we –  often do the same thing. I have experienced joy so intense that I thought my heart would beat out of my chest and pain so overwhelming that it circled round to an emptiness that threatened to engulf the whole world as far as the eye could see. And in their intensity, the deafening ecstasy and wrecking sorrow seemed only a hair’s breadth apart. The language of pain, I find, subsumes all these experiences, because each of them rips us out of our normal daily existence and forces us into a rarified air that mere mortals almost cannot breathe.

All this calls to mind the stories of priest and prophets, messengers and saints, who give us accounts of those moments when they felt most closely the touch of the holy. They too use the language of pain to describe these profound experiences. Isaiah, we are told, felt the touch of a burning coal on his lips when he heard God’s call; the image is lovely as metaphor, but translate this into the realm of practical existence and what you have is a scream of pain. Hildegard of Bingen felt the Living Light overwhelm her sight in such a way that her head would explode in agony. Mohammed has by some been labeled an epileptic because the touch of Allah on his heart would cause him to fall to the ground. The touch of the divine comes in ways that we find easiest to describe in the language of pain, mainly because we do not have ways to describe what truly transpires, how words like “ecstasy” and “agony” become mere playthings tossed around to describe the indescribable, categories that lose shape and meaning.

These uncategorizable moments – what they truly tell us, when we stop long enough to listen, is that all those moments of intense joy and unbearable anguish are blessings. We may use the language of pain and brokenness to describe them, but they are at the same time experiences of mystery and unity. Everything leads us to the One, though we do not always realize it.

My son, with his broken eyebrow and dislocated ear, is often a prophet for me, though not always so humorously. He – and all the wonderful people around me – have so much to tell me, to teach me, whenever I stop listening to their words and instead hear what the holy is saying through them. What a blessing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pandora's Box

Curiosity overcoming her, almost of its own accord Pandora’s hand lifts the lid on the lovely jeweled box. Out fly all the evils of the world as Pandora, overcome with shame and horror, tries to close the lid once more. This she manages to do, but not before all but one of the winged creatures in the box have escaped. The one still trapped? Hope.

It sounds like a crushing end to a tragic situation, doesn’t it? The young woman is overcome with a curiosity implanted in her by the gods; the evils will bring all manner of terrors and trials to all of humanity; and hope, which could sustain people through their adversities, remains trapped inside a locked box. But then you start wondering why hope would be in the box in the first place. It wasn’t like this was a box full of bright and shiny elements designed for the benefit of humans. This was bad stuff, I’m telling you, every awful thing you can imagine, and hope was placed there as purposefully as every one of those bad things. Why? Because hope, too, can be an evil.

We usually elevate hope almost to the level of a sacrament. We admire those who don’t give up in the face of adversity, we see hope as a necessity in building a better world. High apple pie in the sky hope. It’s all good, right? So how could hope ever be anything other than good?

The answer is as simple as desire: we too often pin our hopes on particular outcomes like a package and wrap our ego around it like a bow. Maybe it’s something individualistic like a promotion at our work or a sign of affection from our partners; maybe it’s something that we think of as more noble, like a grant to come through for our favored non-profit or the passage of a law helping victims of abuse. Doesn’t matter how personal and intimate or noble and communal the hope is: the problem is that so often we are like kids anxiously waiting to open our Christmas presents to see if Santa brought that special toy we’ve spent so long wanting.

I said to my soul , be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

So says my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, in a beautiful poem called East Coker. He gets it, he gets how hope itself can become a cage that we use to fend off the real world, how it can become the opposite of mindfulness and acceptance. That strength of will and determination to work toward the best possible outcome that is sometimes shown by those facing adversity or illness – we call it hope, but really it includes a healthy dose of knowing that the ultimate goal may not be reached, that there is integrity and passion and joy in the journey even when the journey does not take us where we want to go. It isn’t ego wrapped around desire, but rather presence wrapped around acceptance. 

For my part, the hope that I strive to give up is far too ego-driven, far too concerned with desired outcomes rather than with learning the lessons of the process. Let Pandora’s box stay closed; like Eliot, I shall wait without hope, letting go of the wants that swirl within and around me so that I may receive the blessing of whatever it is that the universe is sending my way.