Reposted from Entering The Healing Ground
Sometimes it’s all too much. Sometimes the cup is not only full, but overflowing, and our capacity to stand upright is mightily challenged. We all have had or will encounter times when the events and circumstances surrounding us collide and we feel inwardly shattered like glass breaking everywhere, reduced to sharp edged fragments lying on the floor. Sometimes the feeling of being undone comes with a loss arising near to our hearts. This searing grief burns in our being and emerges from the love we have for the one we lost. At other times, however, this consuming grief comes from sources outside of our immediate worlds, gathering like storm clouds and then in a thunderous clap falls down on us with a drenching rain. This is the grief I speak of here.
It was Palm Sunday, a meaningful day in my youth, honoring the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to a joyous greeting. This day began with a feeling of melancholy, however, an anticipatory grief surrounding the well-being of a newborn child in our community. The news came that the baby was not doing well and it didn’t look like he was going to survive. He didn’t. I heard about his death early that morning and felt a deep sadness swelling in my heart. I knew this tender young family was swimming in a sea of love and loss. The bittersweet tears of bringing into the world, even for a few days, one who could so open your heart and break it simultaneously. Such a fierce reminder of how fragile it all is: our bodies, our bonds, our breath.
It was later that same day, however, when the bough broke for me. I was ending my day, checking messages one last time, when I read of a Mike’s death—he had shot himself. I read the line several times, stood up from my desk and stumbled into the living room. My wife had drifted asleep, woke and looked at me and said, “You look stricken. What happened?” She was right. I was stricken; struck down by the news. I was panicking inside, like some vital part of my soul had just fled. I could not find the ground beneath me. I told her the news of Mike’s death and all I could do was stand there.
I need to say, it was not Mike’s death that unhinged my psyche. I’d only recently met him and felt a potential friendship forming between us. I can’t say there was a deep bond and that his death profoundly impacted me. I was saddened by the news, but why this immense response? Why was the news of his dying so disturbing? What his death did was release a cascade of feeling I was carrying for our entire suicidal culture—our death-dealing, nature-consuming, hell-bent on our collective demise society. My interior denial systems were shattered, along with the fantasies of our somehow figuring our way through the eye of the needle in the nick of time, like in some Spielberg film. For the next two weeks I dragged myself through the world, barely able to taste or touch. I was walking in the shadowed land I spoke of earlier, detached and disconnected from the vitality that was evident around me. This all occurred during the wild eruption of spring with lilacs and honeysuckle fragrance in the air, iris and plum blossoms delighting the eyes. And my delightful grandson discovering he can walk and dance. Everything was clouded, shrouded actually, some film coming between me and life.
The wave continued as news of four more suicides became known to me, along with a serious cancer diagnosis in a dear friend. Too much death swirling around me. All I wanted was to hide. I remember saying to my wife, in the midst of our talking about what was happening to me, “Can we be done for now?” I didn’t want to talk about it: I only wanted to run and hide, but I couldn’t. Whatever had broken, had also taken my old strategies along with it. I was being confronted with my own deepest sorrow.
My mind grappled with an array of thoughts during this time, each thought accompanied by a corresponding emotion that made life challenging. Many of these thoughts were deeply disturbing and left me with an overall feeling of despair. This is not a condition with which I was very familiar. I was the eternal optimist, always picking up the signals in the Zeitgeist of our pending redemption. Now, after Mike’s death and all the other death swirling in my psyche. I could not find a way forward; the path to healing. It all looked bleak.
One day while making my way around the house, I picked up a book a friend of mine had lent to me. It was called No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chödrön. I am not Buddhist, but for some reason I picked it up and began reading. The words were comforting, somewhat assuring, and for the first time in several weeks, I felt a breath of fresh air enter my lungs. I wrote one of her lines down that spoke particularly to me. She spoke of, “an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.” The idea of outrageous courage touched me. I could feel this was the invitation that was nested inside of this despair. I/we are being asked to cultivate outrageous courage in the face of outrageous loss. What I came to realize was that nothing had changed; the outer conditions of death and potential collapse are all very present, but something in me had shifted ever so slightly, allowing a new bottom to begin to take shape. I had been deepened by this descent. Despair was my human response to too much death, too many losses—of friends, forests, cultures. My heart, in all its beauty and fragility, was overwhelmed and couldn’t find bottom. Now, the barest inklings were setting in. I found myself cleaning my home office, building new bookshelves and getting everything off the floor. Movement. Getting something moving again was helpful, a return to participating in the daily rhythms of life. I smiled again, could feel warmth in the loving touch of my wife, the kindness of friends and the beauty of the world.
Still the ground beneath me felt unsteady, as though at any moment it all could shake and easily take me to the ground. I stumbled upon, what Zen teacher and author Susan Murphy calls the “koan of the earth.” How do we answer the riddle of our times? How do we sift through the shards of our broken culture, our fragmented psyches and come once again into “our original undividedness and the freedom it bestows, right there in the suffocating fear itself.” This was the question at the heart of this despair, ripening in the vessel of my sorrow. What felt different this time was the interior experience of the grief/despair. It was no longer centered on personal losses—my history, my wounds, losses, failures and disappointments. It was arising from the greater pulse of the earth itself, winding its way through sidewalks and grocery lists, traffic snarls and paying bills. Somewhere in all the demands of modern life, the intimate link between Earth and psyche was being reestablished, or more accurately, remembered. The conditioned fantasy of the segregated self was being dismantled and I was being reunited, through the unexpected grace of fear, despair and grief, with the body of the earth.
OK. I noticed Chomsky had an article on Tom Dispatch. I didn’t know what it would be about, but I pulled myself together a bit for a straight dose of truth medicine such as he usually delivers. I didn’t realize that Hiroshima Day was tomorrow. Chomsky didn’t forget. Tears came in my eyes as soon as I began to read. I didn’t try to stop them – I knew this truth medicine was something I needed to be fully open to.
I was in a movie theater when the news was announced about the bomb. People in the theater didn’t know how to react. We were awed, and left the theater after the film with the feeling that something huge and impossible to grasp had happened. We were right.
I was a teenager that day, but I had studied Einstein and nuclear physics as best I could. I had known for a long time that a nuclear bomb was possible, and that people would seek to create it. I was also full of WW2 propaganda. Saturday movies about the evil “Japs” coupled with heroic stories of our brave men. So I applauded what I did not fully understand that day. How could I do that!??
I felt such a devastating wave of shame and guilt as I looked back at my younger self.
And then it hit me with full force; HOW COULD WE!! do this awful thing. To put this horrible atrocity alongside the death camps, and all the other atrocities we had proved ourselves capable of. And the deep soul-searing despair for our human race struck deep in me. If we don’t somehow turn from our madness, what awful things will we do in our final Gotterdammerung???
Don’t think that I can’t open myself to the full horror of our situation. I still do so because it is essential to my spiritual health and sanity. But I do so selectively, consciously – and with the knowledge that I have the means to return to some level of sanity that permits me to go on in spite of all this reality – and even continue my absurd gestures towards a better world…
Thanks for your comment Mike. I was born two days after Hiroshima and one day before Nagasaki. They are both heavily on my mind every year even as I celebrate my own arrival in the world in the midst of unspeakable death.