So what to write? I've been hovering between despair and a kind of...what? Sentimentality? Nostalgia? Moodiness? No. It is a more spiritual and vulnerable state for which I have no name. In the midst of my anxieties, I find myself reaching out into the world of spirit. I call upon God or ancestors, guides, energies, or angels. I don't care much who answers me so long as I don't feel so alone.
And I have felt very alone. I don't know how many times, in a fit of anger and disgust, I spit out the words, "I hate this culture!" by which I mean the greed, arrogance, cruelty, and thoughtlessness that seem to prevail everywhere I look. I avoid television news but can't seem to stop myself from reading news and watching it on the internet. It is appalling, and I am tired of that lump in my throat and the sting of tears as I read about yet another injustice, yet another cruelty, yet another abomination committed against the most vulnerable members of Creation. It is as though we have made a game of trying to outdo ourselves in debasement. What humiliations can we enforce? What standards of grace and kindness can we ignore? All decency and logic seem abandoned in the pursuit of power and wealth for a few while the rest of us scramble and cling to what little dignity we have left.
I have become cynical. I sneer and laugh at the gross ignorance I see around me. Wrapping myself in self-righteousness, in the protective gear of pride of education, status, and position, I protect my tender underbelly from the greater sadness that always threatens. But every so often, I peak around the edge of my disdain and take a direct hit. I never know just why, but sometimes a story of injustice, loss, or cruelty knocks the wind out of me and I just sit there and cry. Sometimes the fears I have that I will not be able to preserve myself and my family overwhelm me. They paralyze me. My heart races and I tremble. I distract myself with the blinking lights of computers and televisions, but sometimes I cannot deny that there is darkness everywhere.
Except it isn't everywhere. The news is not an accurate reflection of the cultures that animate the United States. Media feeds on the macabre, the sensational, and the absurd. I won't deny that their diet is rich. They certainly have their pick of horrors from which to choose, but I am also trying to remember (as a hedge against despair) that the world is also full of love, justice, kindness, and good sense.
The other day, I saw a middle-aged woman with her elderly mother. The elder woman was awake but unresponsive. Her daughter talked cheerfully to the people around her. She spoke kindly to her mother although there seemed no hope that her mother could respond in kind. "It is bright outside, Mom. Better wear these sunglasses," she said as she gently placed the glasses on the old woman's face. The old woman, in her wheelchair, did not so much as turn her face toward the sound of her daughter's voice. I could feel my own fear, for myself, for my kids, for my own parents, grow and twist in my gut. "Please, God, protect me from this woman's fate."
In the parking lot, I again saw the two women. The younger woman was preparing to lift her mother into her car. Before she did so, she leaned forward and very gently stroked her mother's face and looked into her eyes, her own face warmed by a tenderness for her parent that the parent could no longer express to her child.
This gesture of love, so simple and so brief, was like a thousand sermons to me. I have been pondering over it for days. Here was a moment that did not warrant my bitter laughter, nor my contempt, nor a well-written rant. It brought me up short. Whatever can it mean? In the moment of my witness, I thought to myself, "How much we love each other!" In the midst of our imperfections, our pain, and our weakness, how great is the Love that sustains us. I have been so long in practicing my anger with the horror stories of life that I had quite forgotten just how majestic (though very quiet) the love stories of families, friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers providing care and attention for each other can be. I'd quite forgotten too just how common they are.
Why? Because we are human and that's what we do. Humans beings are called to love and we have obeyed that call. We are imperfect and inconsistent, it is true, but I will not believe the lie that we are wholly corrupt. I will not give up hope that, however often we fall and fail, the core of us is incorruptible, spun as it is of the very heartstring of the Universe.
As we drove away from the parking lot and to the grocery store, I began to wonder. Is the Dark really winning or is that just more spin? I don't deny the existence of inhuman evil, but maybe we just don't see how full of Love the world is. Perhaps the world is full of a power we cannot grasp and cannot see because our fists are clenched and our eyes are squeezed shut in fear. I had let my defenses down while I watched the woman and her mother, and this time I found the wind knocked out of me not by darkness but by Light. In the moment the woman stopped in the midst of her busy-ness and responsibility to caress her mother's face and smile into eyes that could not smile back, I felt my world shift. In that moment, she embodied Christ, and I was witness to the Presence.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't mean this to be an "everything is going to be okay" post. I don't mean to suggest that a positive attitude will stop wickedness in its tracks or heal all wrongs. I'm aware that the woman in the parking lot probably finds herself unsmiling, bitter, and exhausted more times than she would care to admit. Having cared for very young, very old, and very ill people in my own family, I know that love does not always manifest itself beautifully. I also can't pretend that the world is not full of anger, pain, humiliations, and monstrous cruelty. It is.
The world is full of pain. I'd be an idiot not to acknowledge it. But it is also full of Love. I just haven't been paying attention. Love is not grand or sneering. It is not violent and does not force itself into our consciousness. We often miss it because unlike Fear, it does not loom over us. Unlike Rage, it does not cut into us. We miss it because it is usually not a grand thing. So used to looking for danger, we often do not register the presence of Love.
" Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." (I Corinthians 13: 4-7)
So I've been thinking about that if "thinking" is the right word. Perhaps a better word is "feeling". I'm experimenting with a possibility that maybe "my calling" is not quite so complicated as I have been making it. Perhaps it really doesn't matter whether or not I publish or whether or not I "make a difference" by being smart, or brave, or even very well-organized. I'm trying to minister to the world as the woman in the parking lot did for me. I am trying to be gentle, trying to be kind, trying to see each soul as a soul rather than as a competitor, an obstacle, an irritant. I am remembering that in this world, we are imperfect and therefore we love each other imperfectly, but also that within us, beyond us, and through us exists a more perfect Love. This is the Love that is our Source. It is the pattern and fabric from which we are made and, if we are willing, it is the template of our destiny.
I'm embarrassed to say it because it is such a trivial thing, but I've begun looking people in the eyes and smiling at them as gently and as genuinely as I can. I figure all of us, whether or not we are capable of response, is as deserving of such care as the woman in the parking lot gave to her mom. I guess my experiment isn't much really. In many ways, smiling at folks is merely practicing the good manners my own mother taught me as a child, but, oh! the reward! Sometimes, when I smile at someone, the worry or the anger or the boredom slips away from their face and they look back at me with the same kindness. In those moments, I realize that I was never alone. In the grocery store, on the street, in the college, at the park, in long lines, ladies' rooms, waiting rooms, and traffic jams, I am surrounded by souls illuminated by Love. Knowing this makes the darkness seem a bit less scary. Seeing Love and acknowledging its presence is just the beginning of the service I owe, but it seems, perhaps, like a good place to start.