The Subversive Power of Joy

paucal
Photo credit: Paucal
sub·ver·sive
/səbˈvərsiv/ – adjective: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
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The last little over a month has been tough for us in the US, hasn’t it?  I remind myself, though, that this COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching thin the lives of millions of people around the world for much longer than it has ours. I’m, so far, one of the privileged ones who still has a job, whose family is healthy, who has a close network of loved ones and dear friends who check in on me daily, and who is well cuddled by two cats and a dog who seem to sense the crisis we’re in and insist on more snuggle time with me at day’s end.

I’m sure that I am no different from everyone else when I say that I’m bewildered by this whole pandemic.  The logic adds up in my head about how it could arrive and throw us into absolute turmoil, yet COVID’s unexpected entrance didn’t seem to give us enough time to prepare and ground ourselves for what it was bringing with it. I daily get that odd sense of, “What if this is just a really extended weird dream, a Ground-hog Day-ish kind of experience, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be completely back to normal?” But then I wake up, after sleeping in ridiculously late because suddenly I can on many days of the week, and we’re still here in the same place of isolation and uncertainty.

There is so much fear, tension, and irritability that is present around us right now.  But, as someone who is an apocalyptomist ( a word Facebook recently fashioned that fits my personality pretty well sometimes – where I believe shit is going to hit the fan and yet everything will somehow still turn out OK), I simply refuse to throw in the towel and give in to despair, even when I look at the data and it feels like the most realistic option.  I choose to find joy wherever I can, whenever I can.  And I’m learning more and more, especially now, that sometimes joy doesn’t look or necessarily feel like you would expect. It can only be found when you’re watching for it, and when you, at a gut level, believe that it wants to be found.  Joy is subversive, because it has the power to completely change a situation from the inside out, unexpectedly. It can take the most bitter of moments and transform them into something that may still be painful, but can no longer overwhelm us.

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Last night, twenty minutes before shift change, I slipped into the room of a patient of mine who was dying, to see if the last dose of morphine I had given was lessening their air hunger and to see if they were comfortable.  I was tired, as every nurse is at the end of shift, even more so these days because of the emotional and mental fatigue that happens with constantly changing policies, wondering if we’re doing good enough at infection prevention, and constantly watching the patient assignment board to see how full or empty our unit has become.

My patient was breathing rapidly, shallowly…but peacefully. I pulled up a chair next to the bed, slumped into it, and sat, just breathing with them, until it was time to go give report to the night shift nurses.  It blows my mind,  that time after time when I sit with a dying person, how I feel like I received a gift in some way.  Like….who am I to be able to witness the closing of the curtain on the hours of this one person who has never existed before and will never exists exactly like this again?  It’s similar in a way, I think, to when a baby is born, and you’re in awe at the miracle of life and wondering what kind of life this little one will lead, and what they will experience.  Sitting with the dying…I usually have no clue what kind of life they led.  I don’t always know if they were a kind person, or a bitter person, an over-achiever or someone content with an average life. I don’t know if they ever felt seen, heard, or were well-loved.  But there is the gravitas of knowing that they were a small bit of divinity incarnated for the briefest of moments in time, and that their life mattered no matter what form it took. The life finale of everyone should be held carefully and with reverence. I firmly believe this.

Somehow, in these kinds of moments, I am often surprised by joy. Not a happiness that they are dying or leaving behind loved ones.  Not a superficial emotion that suddenly makes me feel like everything is all better. No, it is a deep, gratitude-awe state that I was allowed to be here, now, in this one moment where the life/death veil thins.

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I have belly laughed more in the last month than I have in the previous six months combined, which really says alot because I usually laugh all the time. I have friends on The Facebook who regularly post tremendous content, but everyone has upped their game lately.  One thing that I am particularly enjoying is that so many of the wonderful memes and jokes being posted are entirely irreverent and often over the top, but it’s like people are even more willing at the moment to lay aside their social inhibitions and lay it all out there to soften the blow of the coronavirus with humor.

Even on my unit, when we’re rushing around, hot and sweaty in our personal protective equipment, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the majority of our patients are COVID – positive, I’m amazed at how much I laugh on each shift.  There is nothing better than having hard stops for laughter during crazy days when we’re all tired and frustrated.  It’s the joy that sneaks in with that laughter that has the power to change the mood in a room, to give us all just a little more motivation to push through the day, to pause our griping for just long enough to remind us that we’re in this together.

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“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how”.  AND “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve been thinking that the important ways to get through this COVID crisis emotionally intact are to reframe the way we see what is happening, to shift our perspectives, question everything, and fully embrace the silver linings when we find them.  If we can only view COVID as an evil villain that has swooped in and is destroying our way of life and mercilessly killing us, then what else is there for us but to despair and be terrified of when the reaper might also come for us. But, best as I can tell, this is a very myopic way of looking at life, one that is devoid of the understanding of the power that joy can bring into any situation.

I’m a realist most of the time, and I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna.  But I do believe almost everything in life is nuanced, and complex, and can’t be adequately described with simple labels. Although this may sound trite and horrifying to some people, I really don’t think that we can deny that COVID, despite its fury and swift progression, has brought us some real blessings if we choose to look for them. (I will also completely admit that I’m in a more privileged situation than many people, and am not sitting here having to worry about where my next paycheck or groceries are going to come from, or wonder if I”ll have adequate access to medical care despite my race or socioeconomic status. I, in no way, want to minimize the difficult and trying circumstances of others with what I’m writing here. ) Hasn’t it forced us to slow down from our breakneck pace of life?  Hasn’t it forced us to reevaluate our priorities?  Hasn’t it forced us to become very intentional about who we do life with and make us put real effort into finding ways to maintain relationships? Hasn’t it made us stop and look at those around us with a little more compassion and empathy?  Hasn’t it forced us to become the best of our creative selves? Hasn’t it shown us that the world is small, we are a global community, and we must work together if we are going to get through this?

I don’t really understand life.  I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got it figured out.  I don’t REALLY know why we’re here on this spinning ball in a tiny little spiral galaxy amidst billions of other galaxies.  But I am convinced that it does us well to try and find meaning and purpose in what we experience.  For me, this exploring everything I encounter for meaning is a very selfish pursuit…I want to find the joy in everything. This is, for me, what makes life worth living.  And so far, there really haven’t been many places in life where I haven’t been able to find at least a little joy.  The thing is,  joy is abundant when you learn how to find it, when you figure out the secret places it lies hidden in plain sight. Maybe learning to find this joy is part of the task of growing up as a person.

And while I certainly don’t believe God sent us COVID as retribution for anything, there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and maybe we can all collectively grow up a little more as we face the decision to either give up from despair or daily seek joy and meaning, moment by moment.

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Here’s an important fact:  Joy is a function of gratitude.    You can take that one to the bank.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it is that if you can’t be grateful and if you can’t seem to recognize any of the areas where you are blessed or given things that you don’t deserve, then it’ll be really hard to find joy in much.

I’ve referenced this before in a different post, but Ann Vosskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is an excellent primer on learning to record the small things in life you are thankful for. The recognition of all these things, however trivial, have the power to spark joy. It takes practice, but if you look hard enough, you can find things to be thankful for in any situation.  Gratitude is a wildfire; when you change your mindset to focus in on the little things that are good, the little things that make your heart beat a few paces faster, the little things that bring you a sigh of contentment and peace…then everything begins to change and you can spot things you are thankful for everywhere.  And the realization that you carry more thankfulness than you had realized, and that good things exist all around you amidst the struggles….well, that’s joy.

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In a recent On Being podcast, Krista Tippett interviewed the Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast. During their talk, he described joy as the “happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

This is exactly why joy has the power to change everything….because it can exist independent of circumstances.  Joy can overthrow the tyranny and fear of institutions and pandemics through its existence as a choice.  Life may seem like absolute hell, but we always have the freedom to find gratitude, and we always have the freedom to seek out joy.  This is where the meaning in life is, and no one can ever take it from us; we can only choose to give those up ourselves.

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“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
― Rumi

Don’t waste this time of sorrow. Don’t come to the end of the COVID pandemic bitter and cynical about life. Let sorrow work its way through you, mourn and grieve what is being lost, and then choose to look up with new eyes to see the new things that are coming. Don’t just think about what is no longer here, what is being taken from you.  Be overjoyed about the new spaces present within you, the new wineskins that are capable of holding big life and fresh joy.

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The following is a song about joy, in my opinion.  It was written as a song about faith, but I’m stretching the boundaries on it. Joy is the subversive power in life that can show us the beautiful, to fill us up again, to help us see everything with new eyes, and to experience a world that is bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than the superficial one we often limit ourselves to.

 

 

The Art and Science of Discovering Truth

phasechange
Photo credit: IBM Research; Phase-change neurons. A chip with large arrays of phase-change devices that store the state of artificial neuronal populations in their atomic configuration. 

*This is a processing post, going all over the place…I do not claim to have an absolute handle on truth or how to get to it…so hang with me.

“Science is a way of thinking, more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan

Last week I was chatting with someone about our college days and what we majored in.  He knew I had a science background but was unaware that I also had a degree in Missions from the Christian university I attended, eons ago it feels like.  He asked what that major was about, and I told him it likely would not interest him because it was basically about proselytizing around the world and trying to bring people to Jesus, with a bit of humanitarian work added in for good measure. I frankly am a little embarrassed these days to admit I have this degree, mainly because while I totally think people should explore who Jesus was and the rich spirituality that can come from Christianity, the last thing I want to do is to manipulate people into thinking they’re going to hell in a handbasket if they haven’t been “saved”. That being said, the degree was a valuable resource for teaching me to become more globally aware and less ethnocentric.  If I’m honest about it, the degree probably inadvertently helped lead me away from an evangelical bent because it encouraged me to be more open-minded and look beyond myself and the ways of living I grew up with. I gained alot of anthropological insights and cultural sensitivity out of those classes and “mission trips”.

The person I was talking with used to do research in a field called atomically precise manufacturing, and I’ve since decided after hearing him give a talk on the subject, that in my next life I am going to hunker down, force myself to take those additional calculus and physics classes that I avoided in college, and pursue a career in physical chemistry. Fascinating stuff, I tell you, and some of it dovetails with the analytical chemistry research I did as an undergrad.  Is it too late to change career directions, AGAIN?

As we talked about his work on APM, and how doing good science is important to both of us, it occurred to me that maybe the rigorous pursuit by scientists, academics, and researchers to get people to pay attention to science….basically proselytizing people to science… is really no different than when people from a faith tradition go out and try to get other people to join them by means of persuasion, guilt, or shaming. I didn’t really like to come to this conclusion at first, because sometimes I think of science as a little mini-god…well-done science as an absolute that can’t really be argued with…like if people would just use their brains they would all come to the same conclusions.  Then my self-arrogance-o-meter kicked in and I recognized that my thought train was a privileged one and that maybe I should think about this topic more.

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There is good science, and there is bad science.  But there is also good religion/spirituality, and there is bad religion/spirituality.  While it can sometimes be difficult to parse out the differences, both of these require a determination to avoid laziness and quick answers.  Good science is not churned out as quick responses when questions are posed, and good spirituality requires long spans of living out hard questions and refusing to grab on immediately to the fuzzy, feel-good platitudes of cheap, easy, and superficial religion.

There are alot of things about Christianity that I grew up believing that I now look back on with incredulity.  How did I believe some of those ideas for so long, and let them intimidate me into living a life that didn’t always feel real or authentic to who I am, fundamentally? It isn’t just a matter of me not agreeing with some of my old beliefs; I look back now and feel absolutely silly for viewpoints I once held so strongly to. How could I have ever come to some of those conclusions?  But I also realize that so many of those beliefs took root because in the area of spirituality and religion, I hadn’t been taught well how to think.  I was unintentionally taught how to blindly believe, read sacred texts super-literally, and accept being shut down when I asked the hard questions. It wasn’t until I reached the academia of religion through college, where I was taught about exegesis, hermeneutics, use of biblical languages, thinking about cross-cultural contexts, etc, that I began to build a toolbox of new paradigms and ways of thinking about how life and God might work. I also had to go out into the world and experience more to gain understanding with different eyes and a different mind.  So, looking back, I couldn’t do better spirituality because I didn’t know better at the time, and I didn’t have the tools I needed to do better.

It seems to me that doing science is much the same as the way I described my growing up spiritually process. I really like Sagan’s words about science as a way of thinking.  I think alot of the world misses this, especially in this day and age of arguing about fake news and how “my evidence is better than your evidence.” Aren’t we so good at proof texting scientific studies just as we are with Bible verses?  Well, this one study says drinking red wine leads to a decrease in relative risk of heart disease, so that clearly means it’s OK to down a bottle every day.  Or, this study shows that this number of people lost weight eating  an ultra-low-carb diet, so clearly, we need to down the fat-bombs and consume bacon with every meal to achieve optimal health. Or, to be a little controversial here, The President has a “good feeling” about hydroxychloroquine and there are some preliminary studies describing its use in COVID patients, so let’s just start throwing it like gangbusters at everyone who has tested positive.

It’s my study versus your study, my scientific news source versus yours, tit for tat, back and forth.  As though finding real truth is just a matter of learning a few facts and lobbing them at people, claiming we have figured out life.

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Going back to atomically-precise manufacturing guy.  Yesterday, we talked for a bit about a piece that just came out in the New York Times, where a principal investigator for the federal government’s COVID clinical trials cautioned that employing experimental drugs too broadly and too quickly could cause more harm than help because we are treating emotion instead of doing good science. We need the well designed clinical studies and data gathered over time. My question to him, APM guy:  is it morally OK to throw Hail-Marys at people at a time like this, or should we hold to the gold standards of research and wait until we have solid clinical evidence of safety and efficacy before we act?  His opinion: sometimes you just need both.  Sometimes you need to lob Hail Marys while maintaining the rigorous slower pace of good research at the same time…because at a time like this, people need answers and people need solutions.

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Is there a place for bad science?  Is there a place for bad spirituality? Can those two things be part of the bigger picture of TRUTH?

I think sometimes about that quote attributed to Karl Marx….”religion is an opiate for the masses”, which is apparently more accurately translated: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.

I’ve heard people use this quote in a derogatory manner….like those of us who are drawn to religion and spirituality basically are looking for something to dope ourselves up with in order to avoid reality. I actually think that is incorrect, although I have to say I’m doing bad science with that statement because I’ve never actually done drugs or used any drugs like LSD or ayahuasca that are purported to offer spiritually enlightening experiences. But it makes me wonder…maybe bad science or bad religion have their place even if they aren’t perfect or always done well, because they encourage us to engage our imaginations, at least to an extent, and think beyond what we see right in front of us.

When I was in junior high, and then again in college, I was dreadfully depressed.  There were so many times I just wanted to end my suffering, most of which I kept to myself. I wasn’t afraid of death, but at the time, because of my conservative Christian beliefs, I was terrified of the idea of having to get to heaven and stand before Jesus and tell him that I wussed out on him and on life.  Looking back, I think my theology during those years was not so great, but bad as it was, it gave me something to hang on to when I couldn’t see any other great motivator to keep trying at life.  That’s got to be worth something, right?

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I try really hard to remember that truth, in whatever form, can be subjective and slippery. I’ve had people try to convince me that they knew certain things to be absolutely true; I’m always very suspicious and skeptical when I hear those kinds of things.  I personally believe the only thing that I know to be absolutely true is that love exists.  However, I’m also aware that that could be my own subjective reality, and I don’t really want people to believe it just because I said it and that I believe it.

There are so many things that have seemed completely true at one time or another, and then we figured out that we were sometimes dead wrong.  The world feels flat from the vantage point of the earth’s surface, but we know that it is in fact, a big round ball of rock moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. We also used to take time for granted and assumed that it was a constant in life.  Well, apparently not. In physicist Carlo Rovelli’s words, time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space”. Or what about absolute zero…where we used to think the temperature was so low that atoms would cease to move. But scientists have been able to reach negative Kelvin scale temperatures in the lab thanks to quantum physics.

My whole point here is that truth about anything can be hard to put our finger on.  Even if like, in classical physics, things seem true on a certain scale, that truth might not always translate to a different scale…like how the rules for physics seem to change on the quantum level. We should probably all remain sobered and respectful of this in our pursuit of truth and our compulsion to tell everyone else what we believe to be true.

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Back to scientific proselytizing.  So many times we are trying to force people to take our word for it when we share scientific findings or theories.  We insist about DNA and quarks and dark matter and all manner of other things and shame people who don’t automatically believe us or our textbooks or our data sets.  But we as scientists can also get very annoyed at people who try to push religion on us, who are recounting their own personal spiritual experiences and pointing to references in sacred writings that we might not be convinced actually hold any weight.

We all seem to try to insist that others believe what we have seen and/or experienced, whether it is about science or spirituality. And we all get annoyed with each other sometimes when we are asked to accept things as true with blind faith…some of us will get annoyed when we are just told to trust that vaccines are safe because alot of scientists have said so, and alot of us will get annoyed when we are told we should just accept Jesus as a redemptive savior so we can go to heaven because alot of people believe we are otherwise damned to hell.

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OK, maybe besides love, one other thing that I believe is absolutely true is that we have to hold grace for each other, and we have to forgive each other. All of our individual pursuits to find truth are inevitably going to be on collision courses with each other. We have to recognize that for some people, pursuing truth is an art form, that needs to be felt out in subjective ways.  Others are going to believe in their bones that truth is objective and can be unearthed through good, well-designed experimentation.  And we have to be gentle with each other, and even amidst the frustrations that arise, honor that each person is on their own path and has the right the pursue truth in the way that feels authentic and correct to them. We are not entitled to get our own way by making everyone see and understand the world exactly as we do.

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A slight caveat to what I just said above…..we need to offer grace, but we need to also relentlessly pursue showing people and allowing ourselves to be shown, how to do good science and how to do good spirituality.  Maybe not in a manipulative proselytizing way, but through encouragement and with each other’s best interests in mind.

Didn’t Maya Angelou say, “When you know better, do better”?  In my mind, science is a way of thinking, and spirituality is a way of being.  Both can be improved upon, albeit in different ways. Both require us to lay aside laziness and acceptance of the status quo without ever attempting to engage or ask good questions.

This is the important part of truth-seeking that gives us the space and maybe permission to be able to offer our ideas to others.  Personally, I have no desire to take advice or criticism from people who have refused to wrestle with life, who have insisted on always playing it safe, who have avoided suffering and pain at every turn, who refuse to consider that they might be wrong. But the people who have survived really hard things and allowed their hearts to remain soft, open, and engaged with life….well, they can pontificate to me freely and I will be so much more likely to listen, even if I ultimately don’t come to the same conclusions as them. The people who refuse to gloss over the difficult questions, who work relentlessly to unearth the shadow parts of themselves, who strive to think critically, and yet are OK with not knowing all the answers to life…these are the people I want to learn from, because somehow I believe they might have the greatest grasp on absolute Truth, whatever that is.

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And a final thought:  fear can never be the ground of being from which we seek truth.  Maybe it is a necessary short term catalyst to get us moving, but it can never be the long-term motivation. I’m personally convinced, although I won’t insist on my correctness, that fear can never lead us all the way to Truth, either in science or in spirituality.  This is because it always has us looking over our shoulders, staying guarded, reluctant to take this one risk or chance that might actually be the one step that is ultimately needed.

Nope, the art and science in the pursuit of truth are marked by bravery and courage that insist on moving forward even when the fear threatens to overwhelm us. Fear keeps us small, fear keeps us afraid of hell, fear keeps us from loving others well…fear keeps us from doing anything, everything to find what is real, genuine, authentic, and lasting.

This is why I don’t like proselytizing of any kind, whether it be of the scientific or religious variety. Invitations, free from manipulation and fear, are better.  I think this is always true.

 

Oneing and Walking Yourself Into Peace

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Photo credit: Alvaroreguly

I woke up today feeling a little sorry for myself. Here in Indiana, like so many other places, we’ve been ordered to shelter at home unless we go out for essential activities or to be in nature maintaining distance from other people.

This morning felt lonely.  My family lives states away from me.  My significant other and best friends live in other towns. My kids are currently with their dad, and once I start being exposed to COVID patients at the hospital, the plan is for them to stay with him indefinitely so I minimize exposing them as much as possible. I boarded my dog over an hour away the other day, to make things less stressful (he is adorable but like having a toddler) and so he wouldn’t have to be penned for over 12 hours every time I work.  I’m not entirely sure if a dog kennel constitutes an essential business, so I’m also wondering how easy it will be to retrieve him this weekend.

While I live on a cul-de sac, I don’t know my neighbors well and the old man at the end of the street literally thinks I’m a hillbilly because I sometimes leave my recycling dumpster on the curb for more than a day at a time, and because when the basketball goal gets knocked over by the wind, I don’t rush out to put it back up just to be blown back down again.

So I slept in, moped around, played the piano for a while, and then started watching Mad Men from the beginning season to distract myself. I couldn’t even find the internal umph to engage with a new TV show I’d never seen before. Halfway in the first episode, after my coffee had finally kicked in, I came to my senses.  I am not going to sit around and waste this gorgeous day on reruns or feeling sorry for myself. So, I laced up my Altras, and hit the pavement.

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I’ve been thinking alot lately about an idea that the mystic Julian of Norwich talked about hundreds of years ago.

“The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person,” and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person.”

The thing about mystics is they see the world in different ways than the rest of us, and sometimes what they talk about sounds ridiculous.  Until you sit with their words for a long time.  And then, you understand that they are revealing bigger truths than you ever knew.  What I’ve discovered is that with alot of these truths, you can’t mentally, cognitively work your way into understanding or believing them.  You have to experience them, to live them, and to be OK with the fact that sometimes they will seem like nothing short of a paradox on surface level.

Our world has become increasingly smaller over recent decades, and in some ways it has felt like we’re seeing ourselves more as a global population than a bunch of separate national entities.  However, at the same time, like here in America, there have been divides growing strongly and solidly between us.  Nothing has revealed this more clearly than the election of our current President. There is still a great undercurrent in this country of us seeing and interacting with each other based on labels and “otherness”.

As I’ve grown older, I’m seeing more of Julian’s “oneing” when I look at other people.  Sure, there are people that are hard to understand, people that I dislike intensely, or people that I’m gonna intentionally not do life with if I can help it.  But when it comes down to who we are fundamentally, we are all one.  I like the enneagram because it helps us see how we are all motivated by the same kinds of things.  We all have fears and insecurities. We all want to know that we’re OK and everything’s going to be OK.  And what I love, even when it looks like certain people could not be more different, are the words by Carl Sagan, that “we are all made of star stuff.” We all came from the same star dust, that initial universe expansion – the Big Bang or the Big Bounce or whatever physics description you want to refer to.  We were all originally one, and I totally believe, that in a spiritual and metaphysical sense, we are still one.

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Normally when I run, I turn to a playlist I’ve created that features alot of fast-beat, loud, empowering songs…ones that have the right cadence to get into a good running rhythm.  Today though, I felt the need to shut off the words for a while and run the music itself. So, it was Beethoven and Aaron Copeland. As the fog faded, the sun began to peek out, and the temperature steadily rose, Appalachian Spring provided the right running mood to pull me out of my woebegone state, reminding me that the coronavirus had not canceled springtime.

I ran a few miles, enjoying the sunshine and sweat, and then thought about turning back toward home. But then I changed my mind. I decided I was going to walk the back country roads outside of my town until I had walked the peace back into myself. I was not going to go home still stressed and concerned; I was going to stay in this springtime until all was well within me again.

Nature itself is a mystic. It cannot be understood or experienced through words or scientific descriptions of how it calms the nervous system.  Well, maybe you can try to talk about it in those ways, but just talking about it doesn’t do the trick.  You have to get out in it for it to work.  But the thing about nature is that it tells us alot about the “personality” of the universe.  Jesus talked in the Gospels about the sparrows and lilies of the field… Here is the passage from Matthew 6 out of The Message translation:

25-26 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

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I really like the translation of that last verse:  give your entire attention to what God is doing right now…He/She/They will help you deal with whatever hard things come up.

This is about being here now, about insisting on staying present, about living in the moment. I’m not one to sit here and throw platitudes at you that we should just pray and God will just fix everything for us. No, I absolutely believe that we have some hard roads ahead of us, we will have to make some difficult decisions, and we are going to experience pain and loss.  I think it would be foolish to say otherwise.

That being said, I think it is also unwise to say that everything is doomed, and this is an area where nature has alot to teach us.

Life…this creative force that is pervasive throughout us as humans and this entire earth, has this remarkable, resilient, insistent urge to fight and claw its way back every single time. Something that I daily marvel at while working in healthcare is how hard our bodies work for us to keep us alive, keep us functional.  We can throw shit food at our bodies, refuse to exercise, make dumb hygiene choices and more…and our bodies (the life surging through our cells) takes whatever we throw their way and provide the best possible results they can for as long as they can.  Life is on our side, even when we refuse to be on our own sides.

Or think about areas where natural disasters occur…fires, volcanoes, whatever…and yet life manages to poke itself out of the dirt through some little creature of nature after everything has laid calm for a bit.

Or, like just today, on my run/walk, evidence of spring coming back again after a cold winter. What seemed dead and withered is suddenly rejuvenated.  The springtime abundance is a reminder that COVID-19 has not locked down life.  It has presented a huge challenge for us, yes, but it has not silenced life.

This is what I was reminded of as I walked mile after mile by the fields, over the streams, under the budding trees.  You have to stop and be here right now to know what is true.  There’s a great story in the Old Testament that illustrates this.  Elijah was being chased by his enemies and holed up in a cave to escape them and rest.  He was desperately trying to find where God was in the midst of his struggle.  Here’s the story from 1 Kings 19:

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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The media and news are obviously necessary and can be very helpful as we try to regain our footing and find our way through these uncertain days.  But when we constantly listen to them, it can be easy to panic, lose our way, and become shaky. When we frantically try to find the voices that will solve this pandemic or listen to the fearful voices that are so loud around us….these are what will unsettle us.  We have to stop, calm ourselves, and listen for the whisper.

The whisper is not loud voices from the religious leaders that warn that the coronavirus is God’s retribution for us. It is not the politicians’ and stockmarkets frenzy about the economy and crashing stock prices.  These are the earthquakes.  These are the fire.

The Lord, or Source, or Spirit, or the Ground of Being, or whatever you want to call it, is the whisper that comes when we get really still, when we focus on what is handed to us right now, right here.  And from experience, I can say that the whisper seldom comes with words. Instead, the whisper is peace…a peace we can be brave in, a peace that we can move forward from, a peace that springs forward fresh creativity to solve problems, a peace that is ultimately what we’re all really looking for.

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It took me a little over 9 miles, but I walked peace back into myself. I had a keen, almost visceral sense, while walking of that oneing.  I belong to the world, and the world belongs to me. And my fear of being alone, my fear of isolation fell away.  I could never really be alone. I am connected to Source deeply, internally, and externally I am just the same as all of my fellow travelers…we are all stardust in this struggle together.

And I remembered that I know how to hold pain, traumas, and loneliness; I do not have to allow myself to be overtaken by it, overwhelmed by it. All the great ones who have gone before me and who have been my teachers have taught me for years how to do these things…how to move through pain without letting it consume me, how to live in joy through uncertainty, how to listen and empathize with others even when I’m afraid.

As a world, we are having to sacrifice personal freedoms, make hard decisions, and do things we would never have expected to be called to do. But I am already so impressed with how people I know are stepping up, developing brilliant ideas and problem-solving in fresh, intensely creative ways…people figuring out ways to serve others even while they themselves are in isolation…people insisting that all the things that make us human are still vitally important and cannot be given up even if we are physically separated from each other.

So this is what I’m leaving today with, having been reminded once again by the trees and the birds and the Sun…be here now, in every moment…do the next right thing in each moment without worrying about all the what-if’s that you have no control over…be merciful and gracious to those who are afraid even when they make dumb choices out of that fear…and learn to listen relentlessly for the gentle whisper that can calm your soul.

 

Don’t Panic Until You See “Them” Panic

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My middle son came to me last night at bedtime, concerned about all that he has been hearing about COVID-19 at school, and worried that his school district might be closed like the neighboring district. His sweet worried face wrecked me, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good to say, because I’m a scientist and a nurse and I know this pandemic is not just going to go away.  So I said what I could:

“Graham, do you see mama panicking?  Don’t panic until you see mama panicking.”

He seemed satisfied with that answer and went to bed, waking up happy this morning and ready to go to school.  But as I went to sleep myself last night, I lay in bed pondering at what point I might panic.

As someone who used to have prescriptions for Xanax and clonazepam with a diagnosed panic disorder, I know what terror and panic feel like. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re sliding down a vortex of despair and fear and there’s no rationalizing your way out of it. Granted, my panic attacks have always been about irrational things, but even so, fear is fear.

Ultimately, I thought about how I am a solid place for my kids…I’m supposed to be that bulwark that faces the biggest scary things in life for them so they know how it’s done.  But, who’s parenting me?  Who do I turn to when the world looks scary and I’m so tempted to join in with mass hysteria and panic?  And then it came to me…I know exactly who will show me the way.  It’s the same people that have been showing me the way for years, the same people who have taught me to trust my own inner voice and connect with Source deep within my own self instead of always in external places.

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You know that story in the gospels where Lazarus dies, and Jesus shows up after the fact?  And Mary and Martha were seriously like, what the hell, Jesus? You could have gotten here on time, you could have fixed this situation! Why are you crying now about him dying when this could have all been prevented?

I think maybe the key point here in this story is not just Lazarus’ resurrection, but the fact that Jesus didn’t panic. He didn’t come running in, blustering around, ready to cast away Lazarus’ illness and imminent death.  Nope, he took his time in coming, and he held space for things to happen, so that he could show Mary and Martha and all the village of Bethany an even greater, reality…a greater glory than what they had asked for and hoped for.

How do we hold space when a pandemic is spreading and everyone is scared and uncertain about the future, and we all are kind of convinced that life as we know it has shifted forever?

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Ram Dass died several months ago, and I have thought alot about how he would handle this strange new happening called the coronavirus.  Would he be fretting or stocking up on toilet paper or all the other things most of us are tempted to do in situations like this?  He and a friend wrote a wonderful book about death not long ago, called Walking Each Other Home, that has changed me deeply.  This book has parented me because it has shown me the things that really matter in life, and that death is nothing to fear. By learning to live well and trust life, there is no sting in death.

I recall a story I heard of something that happened with Ram Dass in 2018.  I can’t remember all the specifics, but in 2018 a false alarm was sounded in Hawaii that a missile was coming their way. Ram Dass lived in Hawaii, and so heard the sirens, along with his caretakers who lived with him. But instead of panicking that their lives were going to end, they remained calm, and they spent the time they thought they had left meditating.  They just were.  They didn’t fight what seemed to be reality.  They allowed it to just be.

Another person who has “parented” me is the Dalai Lama. I can’t even really say so much what words have come out of his mouth specifically that have changed me.  With him, it is about presence.  Back in 2014 or 2015,  the Dalai Lama came and spoke in Boston, and of course, I jumped on the train and rode into the city from where I was living so I could hear him talk.  There were thousands of us sitting in the stadium, and the environment was magic. We were all literally sitting on the edge of our seats, just wanting to hear the Dalai Lama laugh.  What he said was important, but what resonated the most was his laughter.  Because his laughter told us that all is well.  I’ve had a few people in my life, where when you sit at their feet you feel like you’re sitting with Jesus.  The Dalai Lama, even in a crowd of people, feels that way.  He laughs, and you hear divine love coming out of that laugh, and you know that everything will be OK.

I think of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Mooji and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and Michael Singer and so many others who have parented me, who have shown me what life is about, what matters and what is simply passing.  I trust them, they’ve shown me the way; they are my great cloud of witnesses pushing me onward every day to be better, to love better, to trust the universe and its ultimate goodness.

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I was listening today to Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed,  – please run out to your nearest bookseller and buy this or listen to it on Audible.  It has wrecked me from the first paragraph, because it is wisdom upon wisdom upon wisdom.  About halfway through the book she talks about the Hebrew word Selah that shows up in the Old Testament Psalms. She describes it as a word that means to stop, be still, and hold space.  It often came after a line of words in Hebrew poetry, and perhaps indicated that a moment of stillness was warranted…a time to stop, and just breathe, and know the words that had just come before.

And then I also thought about my life mantra that I shamelessly stole from Richard Rohr….”Everything belongs”.  For my 40th birthday coming up I’m finally gonna get this tattooed on my arm because it is what I live by.  It is how I hold all things together that don’t seem to go together.  But today I realized that one thing about this tattoo idea I’ve had forever for my arm was missing….I can’t just leave it at “Everything belongs.”  It has to be “Everything belongs….selah.”  Trusting that all is interconnected, everything has it’s place and it’s time, there is good in all things and all people, and then…..hold….just sit and breathe the truth of that. Live the questions without striving to find all the answers, rest in uncertainty, listen for divine laughter – wherever or whoever it may come from.

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I don’t know how this pandemic will turn out.  I don’t know if it will just be an inconvenience in my own personal life, or if it will rock my world and dramatically affect how my children and loved ones and I do life. But I’m choosing to not freak out.  I’m choosing to look to the wise ones that have never yet failed me. I choose to trust the ageless words of Jesus, not to worry about tomorrow.  Just focus on now, be here now, trust in the goodness of the universe.

Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m not grounded…that’s OK.  The ones I trust the most aren’t panicking.  So I choose not to panic. And hopefully my boys can look to their mama not panicking, and not panic, too.