In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at Virginia Tech, and in light of our experience with heartbreaking, catastrophic, loss in our own lives, we cannot avoid the realization that some losses are too great. There is no possibility of recovery. We cannot regain what has been lost. Or, put together the fragments of our lives in a way that even remotely resembles normalcy. Things will never again be what they were. We cannot return to where we have been. The life we once lived is no more, but that doesn’t mean we die. We start over, here, now, with nothing, and do what we can with it.
The Buddhist symbol of freedom is a burning house. You lose everything. You start over with nothing, and do what you can with it. Creation is ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” Ah, but, when we lose everything, we lose life itself! We lose our reason for living! When we lose everything, we lose the point. Why try if it all can be taken away in a flash? Why build another house if it can burn to the ground? Living can take the life right out of you. And so, the choice.
Always the choice: death or life. We can die, or we can live. What will it be? Do we owe it to our loved ones who died to die with them? Should we be burned with them on their funeral pyre? Should we be buried alive with them in their grave? Does life stop for us the day it stopped for them? Is that the appropriate testimony to their impact upon us? The culturally sanctioned way of honoring their memory? To shuffle through the rest of our lives not living, barely breathing, bent over beneath the weight of our loss? Is that how we would want them to live in the aftermath of our death? Would we want them to die with us? Or, would we want them to live fully, completely, even joyfully in honor of us, in memory of us, in defiance of death, as a bold and heroic declaration that death will not be permitted to take life from the living before its time?
I am not suggesting that we forget those who have died, or that we go on with our lives as though nothing has happened. As if! I am suggesting that we grieve their death every day. That we mourn their loss, and miss their company, and feel their absence from our lives. And then, carry them with us into those lives, living for them as much as for ourselves. Living in their memory, to their honor, and creating a life out of nothing that they would be proud of us for living, but one which might be radically different from the life we had been living.
We cannot recover what has been lost. But, we must not easily hand life over to death before its time. We take what we have, here, and now, and do what we can with it. Creating, out of nothing, the life that is left to be lived, always with the goal of bringing to life in our lives, in the time left for living, the qualities that make life sacred: Compassion and kindness, sympathetic understanding, peaceful, loving, presence. And, always endeavoring to make wherever we are a good place for others to be. We redeem our loses, and off-set the agony of living, by the grace and generosity we extend to one another, by the love we bring to life in our way with life. And, by asking, from the heart, perhaps for the first time: What form should our living take? What does it mean to be alive?
Look around you. We are all we have. If it doesn’t come to life through us, and those like us, it will not come to life at all. We had better be taking good care of one another, because we are it. We are all that stands between us and the void. And, it takes us all. No one is expendable, disposable. We have to recognize that, and start treating one another accordingly. We have to start seeing one another, and all others, in a new light.
Eyes to see, hears to hear, and hearts to understand mean first of all and primarily, seeing one another, hearing one another, understanding one another. THAT is the pathway to the heart of truth. We are born, ourselves, through that process into a deeper, fuller life and way of being in the world. In loving your neighbor, you save yourself—by waking yourself up and coming alive, as though for the first time.
Ah, but, in this culture, we are born under the curse of the Marlboro Man. The rugged individualist. John Wayne and James Bond are our idea of who, and how, we ought to be. We like to think we can order our lives, that we can manage our days, that we can line things up, and orchestrate existence, and choreograph events, so that everything comes in on cue and exits on schedule. So that nothing is lacking, or needed, and we are in command of it all.
Well. The truth is that we can read a book and put it on the shelf, but then we can’t find the book on the shelf. Books disappear. Car keys hide themselves. The check book takes up residence under the sofa, and lives for years there undisturbed. Computers crash. Printers and automobiles that worked perfectly fine fifteen minutes ago don’t work at all now. And this doesn’t begin to factor in bosses, and co-workers, and children, and parents, and ministers, and congregations! There are no self-contained, self-reliant, self-sufficient, autonomous and independent Marlboro Men and Women. No one has it all together and well in hand. You have to be encased in denial to not know that our lives are unmanageable and out of control!
This is how it works: We step into each day and do what we can with it. If we are lucky, we can work into the day something we enjoy, like sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, or taking a walk around the block, but we cannot count on even that. We certainly cannot count on winning the lottery and having it made. We wouldn’t have it made even if we won the lottery. There is no having it made. There is no place off limits to the encroaching realities of our lives. We have to get out of the rocking chair and go do the thing that has our name on it, like it or not. The rocking chair is there for the breaks between rounds, and we had better take our breaks when we can, because life knows where we live, and we have to deal with the day’s deliveries.
One of the things we need—in addition to something like a rocking chair, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and a walk around the block—is a place where we can acknowledge that our lives are sometimes more than we can manage alone. We need to say how hard it is to those who understand without indulging us or dismissing us. Who can simply affirm our right to feel overwhelmed and undone, and say, “Yep. Living is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. Nothing is easy about it, and you have to work in what fun you can where, and when, and how you can. But, nothing is more essential than living as well as possible for as long as life is possible. What can we do to help you do that?”
What can we do to help one another live as well as possible for as long as life is possible? We get the idea in this country, in this culture, that we shouldn’t need help with our lives. We get the idea that money makes life easy, and that all we need is more money. The quote in the handout a few weeks back from Mark Hendren speaks directly to this. We are thirsty and think smoking a cigarette will cure our thirst. We are empty and despondent, lost and cut off from anything resembling meaning and purpose in our lives, and we think money will fix us up. We are immersed in commercials and advertisements that tell us we are only one more purchase away from happiness ever after. Think of the happiest people you know. How many of them have an HDTV on their wall and an MP3 player hooked up to their ears? Why do we persist in believing happiness can be delivered by UPS or FedEx? What’s it going to take to wake up?
Here’s the deal: Money does not make our lives go away. “We have to solve our own problems every day for the rest of our lives” (Shelton Kopp). How can we help each other do that? Simply saying, “Don’t be surprised at how difficult that is,” is a start. Simply saying, “Don’t be surprised at how exhausting living can be,” also helps. Acknowledging what we are up against provides a surprising bit of a lift. It IS hard. Living DOES take the life right out of us. And, therefore, one of the things we must do is work life back into our living. Our lives have to consist of more than crashed computers, and lost checkbooks, and getting ourselves, or our mothers, to another doctor’s appointment. We cannot spend our lives just meeting the requirements of life. We have to live a little. And, it helps to be reminded of that. It helps to be asked, “What have you done for yourself, lately?”
It also helps to be allowed to say what’s hard and what’s hard about it. What’s draining your energy these days? What is depleting your reserves? What is weighing you down? We need to “name the demons” to those who can listen with compassion without trying to give us their solution and without telling us how their demons are so much bigger and stinkier than ours in an “Oh, you think that’s bad, honey, let me tell you about MY in-laws!” fashion.
Compassionate, attentive, presence is the solution to all of our problems today. And tomorrow. And every day there after. If you are ever going to give me anything, give me compassionate, attentive, presence. The success of every twelve-step program ever is grounded, not on the twelve-steps, but on the thirteenth step: Participation in a community of people who regularly and dependably extend compassionate, attentive, presence to all in attendance. In every successful twelve-step program there is, we encounter love that will not let us go—that will not let us go unseen, unknown, unheard. And that is a more powerful assist than Powder Milk Biscuits in enabling us to get up and do what truly needs to be done.