“Hold fast to dreams, For if dreams die, Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.” ― Langston Hughes
Back in 2012, I participated in a WordPress Photo Challenge that asked what inspires me to blog. Here is my response. I am still inspired by all these things: caring for family (now it’s my mother who is in hospice with lung cancer), Nature (it still demands my maturity every day, especially with climate change dangers tangibly around me), grieving my husband’s death and caring for our children (which prompted me to move to Oregon to be near them), compassion for Life and our common suffering (spiritual lessons of positive and negative space inspire me every day), and education (there is always so much to learn).
Today, in response to Tina’s challenge for the Lens-Artists this week, I revisit these inspirations.
“The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.”
― Kalu Ndukwe Kalu
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” ― Maya Angelou
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Compassion for Life
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”
― Vincent Van Gogh
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” ― Socrates
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiates 1:9
The Sun, our home star, energizes the life of our planet from 93 million miles away. It has been doing that day in and day out for a very long time. When my perspective of change is tied to my own lifespan, it is easy to feel tossed about in dramatic arcs. To feel the peaceful constancy of the Universe, I need only to look up from my life.
While there is nothing new under the sun, there is more than enough that is new to me. If I ask around, though, I may find connections to the processes that continually have influence here and learn from them. That, I believe, is where wisdom is found. King Solomon might have been thinking about that when he set down the thought which opens this post.
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look What happens With a love like that, It lights the whole sky.”
May you discover joy under the Sun and spread love generously, beginning with yourself!
Thanks to Amy for the inspiration for today’s challenge!
My first thought on this subject is of Linus Van Pelt, the wise but neurotic younger brother of Lucy the fuss-budget in the Peanuts cartoons. His blanket is rarely out of reach. He is aware of his dependence on it and unapologetic and creative in his relationship with it. He seems to be coping better than most adults. Aren’t we all neurotic in some way?
Now that I’m fifty-something, I’ve gotten to know my insecurities pretty well, mostly through the loss of things I relied on. I no longer depend on my husband for security, since he died 9 years ago. My kids all moved out of the nest and I sold the big, suburban house. Shortly after that, I stopped practicing belief in Christianity (and I had a serious practice). As all of these big pieces began to fall away, I began to realize that security was not about them, but about how I think about myself in the world.
You see, either I belong here, or I don’t.
If I don’t belong here, all of those things won’t help. If I do belong here, all of those things are unnecessary. I finally began to see that I am part of this natural world. I fit in it, just the way I am. And even when I die, all the bits of me will be reabsorbed into the earth and fit in just as well that way.
It’s pretty simple, really, but I have to say that I still get anxious and neurotic sometimes. The one who shows me what being secure in the world looks like is my partner Steve. We camped in the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time we got to the place, he was pretty tired from driving. So he just lay down and fell asleep. No tent. No bug spray. No gear.
“Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” – Nietzsche
Civilization kills. We are living in apocalyptic times. The Anthropocene is here; humans are dominating and destroying the Earth. Like all civilizations in history, though, ours will fall back into the dust, and Earth will absorb it in some fashion. I get angry with humans because of this. Our arrogance and hubris and stupidity is truly abhorrent. I would wash my hands from all association with my species if I could, but for two things: music and food. I am willing to forgive everything for Puccini and Marcona almonds sauteed in butter and thyme.
Perhaps it is nothing but hedonism to feel that my pleasure in a fine meal at La Reve on Tuesday might bring me back from the brink of utter despair. The “Holiday Train” event in the village late that afternoon had created horrific traffic congestion with black-clad pedestrians pushing strollers into the dark streets while some pop Christmas frenzy blared over a loudspeaker. I felt truly Scroogeish; humans are complete humbug. But then the ambiance of a Parisian bistro — chattering guests and tremulous accordion melodies — and the buttery oak in the Chardonnay spread its warmth over that cold, post-Truth fear surrounding my heart. I asked Irene, our Asian-American server, about how the chef prepared the pumpkin soup. We talked about how roasting brings out the deeper flavors of vegetables and stock bones and what items on the menu were gluten-free. By the time I had savored my way through triple-cream brie, salmon, lamb and chocolate caramel, I was ready to admit atonement of the human race was possible.
The next day, however, my thoughts turned dark again. How could I justify the expense of that meal, even though almost half of the cost to me was covered by a gift certificate? How had the animals invested in that meal been treated? How far had the ingredients traveled on fossil fuels to get to my plate? My awareness of suffering may have been dulled for a time, but it was not erased. I may have been treated quite well, but was I healed?
Healing. In Western culture, it’s about fixing pathology. In Eastern culture, it’s about making whole. Awareness is about opening up to understand the whole, the complete Oneness of the Universe. “Life is suffering” is the first noble Truth in Buddhism. Suffering is in the Oneness. Arising from the awareness of suffering are two responses (at least): Fear and Compassion.
I experience my fear for the human race and my compassion for it as well, blended contrapuntally. To recognize that only as thoughts criss-crossing my brain might drive me mad. To see that reflected in a complex pairing of wine and cheese or in the first act duet of Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme saves me from perishing from the ugly truth. I will never comprehend the Truth, although I live it every day. Making, enjoying, or experiencing Art is as close as I may ever come to holding the Whole in my heart. I believe that those who practice Meditation seek to do the same, while sparing the harm caused in producing Art.
May we all find a way to happiness, a way not to perish from the Truth, a way to be at peace with the Whole.
(This article is featured in this month’s issue of The BeZine. See the issue here.)
I took a quiz recently to test my Bible knowledge. I used to be a bona fide college campus ministry staff worker. I studied my Bible…religiously. So, I wondered how much I’d retained after having dropped the Christian label 6 years ago. I got one question wrong: “In a list of the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit, which one is NOT in the basket? Kindness, Peace, Forbearance, or Hope?” Turns out it’s Hope.
“Hope is a mannequin. Love is a battlefield,” sings Bobby McFerrin’s voice in my head.
Hope is a deceitful kind of thing. It sounds like a marvelous, Puritanical virtue. I think it’s a slippery slope. Hope is passive. “I hope it won’t rain.” There’s nothing you can really do about it, one way or the other. You’re stating a wish, a sort of desire or thought without any teeth. “I hope my insurance will cover this.” You’re placing the burden of responsibility or action on something, someone other than yourself. “I hope in the future.” You’re making present moment decisions while not being present in the moment.
On the other hand, I think Will has gotten a bum rap, as in “the willful child”, “not my Will but Yours be done”, “keep your servant from willful sins”, etc. I much prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson preaching Self-Reliance to that doctrinal negation of determination. I think it’s important to know what you want, what you like and why. At the same time, I think it’s very important not to get attached to those things. Some people will defend their desires because they feel that their identities are shaped by them, and they want them to be. In a Universe of impermanence, that can be problematic. What if the thing you desire is altogether unattainable? Or even unapproachable? Your identity becomes “the person who is not going to get what they want – ever”. Sounds like a life of frustration and suffering to me.
To be able to say that I think this thing is good, that I want to use my energy and resources to practice and promote this thing, while I acknowledge that much of the success of this thing remains out of my control, is Self-Reliance. Furthermore, I no longer believe that the success of this thing is in the control of a supernatural power. And I’m OK with that. I don’t need to have a guarantee that this thing will succeed eventually in order for me to feel my efforts are worthwhile. I can have a moral conviction of the value of this thing without supernatural endorsement.
I suppose I should mention that my philosophical transformation began after my husband died. My identity was shaken. I lost Faith; I lost Hope. “How very sad!” I hear you cry. Let me add that I was then asked repeatedly by a dear friend, “What do you want?” “Who do you want to be?” and I eventually found myself. I became aware of delusions and habits of thought that I’d never examined before. I discovered my will, my values, my feelings and my ability to accept change, adapt, and practice living gracefully and gratefully. I know good things intuitively, and I have learned that I am trustworthy.
And I believe that everyone else could say the same. See, I do believe in something.
This article appears in the July issue of The Be Zine. To see the whole blogazine, click HERE.
“Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Merriam-Webster
We all act on faith. Each of us, every day. We make decisions based on ideas and concepts for which we have no proof. We take action based on insufficient evidence about the cause and the effect. This is unavoidable. When are we ever going to have all the information about anything? The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. The more we experience and the more we learn of others’ experiences, the more we realize that possible experiences and conclusions are infinite. None of us is ever in possession of “all the facts”. We are all guessing.
Similarly, we all have delusions. We all look through various lenses, have particular blind spots, and wear custom-made blinders for one reason or another. Sometimes these serve as coping mechanisms to protect us from overwhelming stimuli. Sometimes these simply magnify our ignorance.
Let’s try on an example.
I have to make a decision about how to commute to work in the morning. I have been told that taking the freeway is the fastest route. After all, the speed limit on that road is 55 mph. However, it’s always under construction in the summer. But is speed the best value to consider? Maybe I should not burn fossil fuels and ride my bicycle instead. I will then arrive at work sweaty and tired. There is a bus, but buses are full of germs. But my friend takes the bus, and I could ride with him and chat…And so on.
The point is, there are a number of ways to get to work and a number of reasons to justify each one. Those reasons may be weighted by experience, by social influence, by practice, by value and by preference. We each make our choices, our decisions, based on incomplete data and bias, but the point is WE MAKE CHOICES. And that is our great freedom, a right of autonomy.
We have the opportunity to make new choices at any time, although they will also be based on incomplete data and bias even when they are made in an attempt to incorporate new information. The dynamic of deciding and re-deciding is perhaps the greatest activity of life for our species. It’s what our big brains are for. But it is a process that does not have a product. We will never get it all figured out. Dogma is unsupportable in the long run, even if it seems beneficial in the short term. We will never, ever arrive at what is absolutely “right”. Perhaps a better pursuit is simply what is “better”.
Where faith turns into action or behavior, we make moral judgments. Based on your beliefs in the moment, you chose what to do. Was that action beneficial? Did it cause harm? If you decide the action was harmful or that acting in that way did not help you to be the person you want to be, you can choose a different action…AND you can choose to change the beliefs that justified your action. A flexible framework allows a lot more options.
Back to our commute example. What if…
Believing that getting to work quickly was the most professional, responsible thing to do, I set off on the freeway. Soon afterward, I ran into road construction. Flag operators stopped my car. The minutes ticked by. I got frustrated, angry, eventually enraged, and I expressed this state of mind by shouting a curse at the flag man and punching the accelerator as I was allowed to move forward. In the process, I rear-ended a car in front of me. Now I have caused insult to the construction worker on the scene, injury to the car and possibly the person ahead of me, and acted like a person I do not wish to become. I can decide to be more careful not to act in anger in the future, and I can decide that getting to work quickly is not an important value so that I’m less likely to feel frustrated when I can’t fulfill that value. I can examine my beliefs and thoughts as well as my actions and make changes in both in order to practice non-harmful behavior more effectively.
This is a simple example. My real life is much more complex. At one point, it involved decisions I made about raising teens to adulthood while my husband was dying of a chronic illness. I realized that acting on my faith sometimes caused me to harm them and to become someone I didn’t want to be. So, not only did I stop the behaviors, I stopped believing the underlying principles that motivated them. I kept wondering if I was “losing my faith”, a phrase that sounded so negative and irresponsible. What I was actually doing was evolving my faith and my self. That, I think, is a very positive and responsible practice. I intend to practice striving for “better” and doing less harm. That’s my new choice, my new faith.
Things that are not weighty can be significant nevertheless. What is greater than a seed on the wind for the future of a plant?
What is more important than light that lifts the soul in the dark of winter?
And something as weightless as a feather is essential for a bird to soar.
We are wise to take the ethereal seriously: the death of the canary in the mine, the evaporation of a pond, the butterfly that will not migrate. They tell us vital things.
At the same time, we must examine the gravity we feel about death. Is it really such an enormous thing? It is altogether common and expected.
And even mountains move – eventually.
The cosmos is forever dancing with the forces of gravity. The stars are light on their feet; they twirl and twinkle, smiling their whole lives long. We are made of star stuff. Let’s lighten up! After all, what could be more meaningful?
Photo credit: Carol Toepke
Remember this post when you feel like you’re doing too much heavy lifting.
This piece is featured in this month’s issue of the BeZine. For a link to the complete issue, click here.
The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate. However, I will preface this one with a bibliography. I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:
“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)
That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:
Homo sapiens sapiens Oh most separate, separating Anthropocene anthropocentric The Egoid egotist Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man Eyes on screen Fingertips fiddling
Journey who will
That Über undertaking Condescend to transcend Dare to die in darkness, Awake in wilderness At one, atoned In mystic Middle
This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine. For the table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.
“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly. Here are some key quotes from that piece:
“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”
“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.”
I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”. However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.
First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’? I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning. What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.
Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling. It is how we know we are alive.
And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us. We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history. That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values. We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out. These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well. It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories. Civilization is a story. Religion is a story. Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories. There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones. (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous. There is no ‘right’ story. Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.
This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well. The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning. In some ways, we want that. We find it exciting. But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative. To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace. Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning. When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego. Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out. My energy is renewed, and I am at peace. (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ. Awareness is the first step!)
“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.” We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times. Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others. For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity. May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!