Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Choose Life: A Response to Despair

In early 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, it was Peter Mayer who ultimately saved my soul. His inspiring lyrics to songs lifting up the vastness of the universe and the wonderment of life were the thing that helped to move my response to life from despair to affirmation again. Though I waded through the mire of those dark weeks following the devastating news with the help of community and spiritual practice-  clinging to recent retreat visions and the poetry of interdependence, lighting candles of mourning at a local interfaith vigil, praying with a dear friend on the solstice by a favorite waterfall, and summoning enough courage to lead and deliver a message of hope for the Christmas Eve service at my congregation- I was still struck down by the cloud of meaningless tragedy.  Newtown is 40 minutes from where I live, and dear friends who live there had children not quite hold enough for  Kindergarten then.  It was 'close to home' in many ways, and I, like so many others, rushed home that day to collect my children and hug them tighter than I ever had before.

But listening to the music of Peter Mayer, my spirit returned to life.  It was the first week of January, when I had again stepped forward to offer a sermon, this time on the subject of "Epiphany".   For inspiration, I played- over and over on my ipod- "The Play" 

When I try to grasp the simple fact of this existence. And think of all the fantasies, fairy tales and wishes. None strike me as more unlikely or magnificent than this is...

As I listened something in me knew deeply once again the preciousness and fragility of life itself, and the wonderment that in the great vast universe we exist and have our being.  And something in me experienced the call to once again honor and show reverence for it all.

Now, caught up again in the heartbreak of life, this summer we are met from all sides with stories that could move our souls to despair. From Ferguson to the Middle East to deported immigrant children, we want to turn away from the images, to forget.  But our only way out as a people is through; we must join together to grieve for the senseless loss and irreverent abuse of human lives.  The war and the violence and the human ignorance continues, but it is Life itself that makes the world go round. What actions can we do that are life giving?  Are our gifts of wonder and gratitude and compassion enough?

Deep in that Newtown winter darkness I learned that the worst I can offer the world is my despair.  [Now, I do distinguish depression (a mental illness) from this state of collective despair (a condition of the soul), and I urge those who struggle with depression to seek medical and psychological treatment. For those of us caught in the collective despair, spiritual guidance might be a way through. I have known depression which led to self-abuse and suicidal ideation at another dark time of my life and sought and received psychological treatment in my early twenties… so I know well the difference, though the psycho-spiritual dimensions of all darkness are interrelated and overlap...but that is another story for another time.]

But despair- this I am identifying as a common response to the world's tragedies;  a response that perpetuates darkness of soul- and I plead that we might look for hope wherever we can find it.  Mr. Rogers says "look for the helpers" in those dark times, and I say yes, and also the ones who have witnessed with their souls a meaningful way to survive. As a teenager and young adult, I looked to Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and Etty Hillesum- writers of the Holocaust- for answers.  I sought out poems and drawings of butterflies by children in barracks as proof that something of the soul (that thing which perpetuates beauty and meaning at all cost) could not be destroyed no matter how horrifying the circumstance.

And yet, I have noticed how easy it is to despair these days as minds are manipulated by social media.  Beheadings, teens lighting themselves on fire, abused animals- those repulsive images are made so easily visible now to the public's eyes…. and so too, the racist, misogynistic and vengeful commentary that plays on in pseudo-political debate in the comments section of every article. Why are we so drawn to sink in the mire?

But this is not the only response. We can choose to nurture and spread images of life. I am moved by another tide- and in one period of 24 hours- take note of friends who are fighting back with light. There are new pictures and stories in my newsfeed:  People standing for hope and peace on the side of love.  Those images too light the screen like yellow candles in a black night.  Articles are shared: a 99 year old woman making dresses for children in Africa,  a summer camp for the deaf performing Pharell Williams' song 'Happy' in sign language, a professional barber who gives haircuts on sundays to homeless men on the streets, a  retreat for peace that brings together Palestinians and Israelis at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village, and the stories of 50 women who have changed the world.

Personal stories come too from friends I know and love: a dance therapist who is refuge to a suicidal woman in the hospital where she works; an activist on the front lines of Ferguson, as a witness to social justice in peaceful protest; a Jewish chaplain who joins hands in worship beside a Muslim colleague, as leaders to young and old in interfaith understanding; a teenager from my congregation on a mission trip in Nicaragua helping to build a house for a family; and one young boy from Sandy Hook who begins his first day of kindergarten with a smile on his face, full of innocence and hope.   These are the pictures in my news feed today.

I am moved and in awe of the human spirit, so brilliantly shining through online images. I am awed, and remembering again the words that Peter Mayer sang… 

Hands and faces seen up close, galaxies through telescopes... Crimson hillsides in the fall, and more astounding than them all... Are pondering minds with eyes that see these are deep mysteries... Deep mysteries

Perhaps we are the greatest mystery that exists, we with our choice to choose life. There is a wave of despair-  and another current of love that must roll back against it.  This world is more precious and beyond our understanding, the songwriters of our living tradition remind us.   Our only response to the tragedy and heartbreak of this world must be to stare it straight in the face and in the midst of destruction, to choose life: to fight for it, love the hell out of it, work for justice, and at the end of the day bow down in gratitude to the stars, the heavens, the wonder of each other and our very existence. And to sing to the beauty of it all.