30 Apr Loving Our Way Through
My brother called me today to vent. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta and is moving to Alabama in a few weeks. Moving is stressful enough, but moving in a pandemic, even more so. His first grandchild is expected to be born shortly after he and his wife relocate, in the same neighborhood as their son, daughter-in-law, and soon-to-be-granddaughter. They will need to isolate themselves for two weeks before being able to hold their grandchild; but, how do you isolate in the midst of a move?
Granted, there are millions of people whose lives have been upset much more dramatically by COVID 19 than my brother’s. I mention his story because it popped into my awareness today through his phone call. In his frustration and stress, he wanted a solution. He longed for certainty, predictability and a guarantee that human experts and leaders could master and control this virus and overcome its disruptive force. My guess is that he is not alone in this desire.
Modern, western culture values problem-solving. We have lived by a story that we can achieve any outcome we wish, and patience is not a virtue. Enforced distancing and reduced activity seem like a waste of time. We should be doing more. We value ourselves by what we accomplish. We do not like living with a bunch of unanswered questions. We want answers. What we really want is control again, or a sense that we are in control of our own lives.
I believe that one source of our frustration is our inability to think our way through this impasse. It doesn’t seem to make sense to many that we have crippled our economy over this virus. But without social isolation, most people get that our stressed medical system would crack and chaos ensue. Still, now that rates of increase in the disease have begun to slow, there is this intense desire to get back to normal. Surely, we must be able to think our way out of this mess without so much pain and disruption.
As a spiritual leader, I find myself at odds with the instincts and expectations of so much of our culture. It seems to me that this virus is opening our eyes to the nature of reality and disabusing us of many of our illusions. We are not in control of our lives, much less in control of our planet. We are part of a web of being much older and larger than we. Our actions carry unintended consequences and our understanding of this web of which we are a part is hopelessly partial. That we ever came under the spell of a story which assured us of our sovereignty over the world shows how naive we are. Still, myths die hard, and the death of our myth of dominance and control is unnerving.
We thought that we had outgrown the stories of our religious past. But all of the world’s ancient religions understood our limitations and vulnerabilities far better than we do today. They taught the virtue of humility, not because they understood ourselves and the world so poorly, but precisely because they understood these so well. There is nothing wrong with humility at all. Humility is a natural result of clear seeing and understanding. It’s arrogance which is blind. The ancients taught that we are part of a great chain of being and that wisdom came from understanding this chain and opening ourselves to its wisdom. The blindness of arrogance believed that we could remove ourselves from this great chain and make ourselves the ground of all being. We may no longer believe in gods, but that does not mean that they are not laughing at our folly, or weeping over it.
Our contemplative ancestors valued the mind, but understood how limited it was in exploring matters of ultimate concern. They knew that God could not be grasped by the intellect, but only by love. For them, love was not mere sentiment and warmth. Love pointed to a well-traveled and disciplined road of spiritual practice in which the restless mind was tamed and other faculties allowed to take their proper place in leading humans to a clearer seeing of themselves and the world. The heart is an organ of spiritual perception, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out. So is the body. We’ve made ourselves sick by silencing these other parts of ourselves which would lead us to lives of greater balance and health, to say nothing of humility. Only people asleep to essential parts of ourselves could fall prey to such arrogant illusions as we have.
I keep preaching to my congregation that the most important work that we can do in this time is prayer, silence, deep listening. I watch our temptation to strive, to do, to act in some heroic fashion. Surely, this is how we will get ourselves out of our dilemma. I think the opposite is true. Let go, sit, open the heart, allow the body to speak, listen, be quiet. We are part of a story much bigger than ourselves, and there is wisdom available to us only when we humble ourselves to pay attention. The wisest ones among us and from our past would tell us that we will not be able to think our way through this crisis. If we are to get through, we will love our way through.