Articulate the agony! Consciously, willingly, submit to the ordeal! Bear the pain! That’s the path to life, and living, and being alive! It’s certainly the path to wisdom: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” -- Aeschylus
We cannot be alive without embracing the fullness of life. We have to open ourselves to the whole thing, feeling what can be felt, touching what can be touched, seeing what can be seen, hearing what can be heard, tasting what can be tasted, so that we might know what can be known—so that we might live the life that is ours to live!
In doing this, we have to re-think thinking. Thinking about our agony is not experiencing our agony. It is distancing ourselves from in and a way that renders us almost immune to it. I say almost because what isn’t experiences is buried, goes underground, where it rots and ferments and stinks like death itself, and is death and we die because we would avoid the pain of being alive, which is also like dying. We die one way or the other. In living we die, in dying, we live.
What kind of death will we die is the question. Will we summons the courage to face our life head on? Will we look our life in the eye? Will we articulate the agony? Consciously, willingly, submit to the ordeal? Bear the pain? Or, will we look away, run away, hide out, deny, deny, deny? Will we dismiss the pain because it is so much less than other people have to deal with? Will we numb ourselves with steady doses of cultural Novocain and repeat hypnotically, “There is a reason for everything,” “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear,” “Something good comes from something bad,” “Don’t question things we can’t understand”? Will we change the subject and not say what we have lost? Because we are afraid that if we start feeling the agony, experiencing the pain, WE will be lost?
There is nothing like the traumatic encounter with pain, grief, loss and sorrow to blur the line between sanity and insanity. In the sane world there is a process and a routine and a structure for everything. You stop on red and go on green. And there are rules governing everything, keeping it all in place. Our daily life in the sane world is scripted to at “T” and runs right along on schedule: “Good morning. How are you?” “Just fine. How are you?” “Have a good day.” “You, too.” We all know what to say, and when, and how to say it.
Then comes the slammer. The sane world is shattered by that which obeys no rules. The tsunami, the hurricane, the wildfire, the drought, the war, the heart attack, the car wreck, the fall… And life is destroyed for all who survive. And insanity—that is, disturbance, disorientation, upheaval, instability, confusion, and the inability to trust ourselves to our own future, to our own life—reins. Nothing makes sense. The traumatic encounter exposes the shallow banter of the sane world as completely insane. Where is sanity to be found then? Where do we go to be grounded, balanced, stabilized and safe then?
We do not know. We get by by denying that we know what we know, by wishing that “we didn’t know now what we didn’t know then” (Bob Seger). By pretending we don’t know what we know. By looking away. Running away. Hiding out. Denying, denying, denying. Hoping that they will keep making whiskey, and anti-depressants, and our favorite distractions and diversions. What are we afraid of? Not being able to function? We are already not functioning. Ah, but, maybe no one notices. We at least get out of bed and drag ourselves through the day in order to pay the bills. We do that much. And, we are afraid we won’t do any of it if we admit how little sense it makes working to sustain a life that is as shaky, and vulnerable, and unstable, and insubstantial, and insane as life actually is.
When the foundation crumbles, what grounds us? Around what do we coalesce when the traumatic shockwaves destroy our world? What is the heart of our life? What forms the core of our existence? In what do we trust? What is the content of our faith? What enables us to pick ourselves up and go on in the spirit, with the attitude, manner and style, of those who go on with purpose, and hope, and joy, and life? What do we believe in, know to be true, that enables us to live a life we would be proud to live in the aftermath of the complete loss of everything?
Each of us must find our own answers for these questions. Sorry to tell you that, but there is no one answer fits all in the back of the book. What picks you up and gets you going may not cause me to stir. What you tell yourself to bring yourself to life might not rouse me at all. Which is to say that you may think what I am about to say is the stupidest thing that has ever been said in the entire history of things being said.
And, before I say that, I’ll say this: We do not share the same perspective. We do not see things in the same way. We have different points of view. There are ten thousand different Christianities, and always have been. How many sects, and varieties, and versions of all the religions are there? Past counting. And, for all the creeds, and doctrines, and catechisms, there is not one that bridges the gap between us and our lives, between the life we want to live and the life that is forced on us by our culture our circumstances. The creeds can only put us to sleep, and we are always waking up to the emptiness of this creed or that one, and having to find a new creed, a new place to go to church, in order to shut ourselves off from the encroaching truth of the life we are afraid to live, calling us out of the camp, so to speak, out of religion, into the rawness of the first-hand experience of God.
Life requires more than creeds can offer. God exists within us all as the unrecognized potentiality of our lives (just as all monsters and demons that threaten us are our own fears and limitations). Life would deliver us into the hands of God, and God is always calling us beyond ourselves into ourselves, into the life that is waiting for us. Life would hand us over to God. God would hand us over to life. And, we don’t want anything to do with that God. We have to create religion to protect us from that God. We always have to relinquish the God of our religion in order to get to God, to the God who is calling us to wake up and embrace the life that is ours to live (which has nothing in common with the life we want to live, the life we want to be our life). We have to forsake our God—the tame, placid, predictable, civilized God of our ancestors, you might say—in order to place ourselves in the service of God—the God of the wilderness and wild, crazy, notions, who is the real God of our ancestors, and all people.
No one can speak for that God. That God speaks for that God. Do not take anyone’s word for what that God is saying. Do not let anyone tell you what to do in the service of that God, or how you should think about that God, or what you should believe about that God. That God exists as the rawness of your own experience with the truth of your life. And you cannot articulate the meaning of that encounter. You can only talk in poetry and metaphor, and make pictures, and write songs, that hint of the truth.
This means that you have to receive all that I say as you might receive a lump of clay, and mold it with your own understanding, shape it according to your own experience, taking what you need, what you can use, and leaving the rest, the part that you think is the stupidest thing you have ever heard. Don’t worry about that part. That part is not for you. No one can tell you what you are not ready to hear, what you don’t want to hear, what you are not interested in hearing. You can only hear the parts that can be helpful to you at this particular point in your life. Leave the rest for someone else.
That brings us back to the question about solid core of our lives, the grounding center, the heart, the anchoring reality, to that which holds when all else is crumbling and disintegrating and is no more. Here’s what holds for me: YOU. You are the ground of my life, of my being. What do we have but each other? When all else is taken from us, what are we left with but each other? In the prisoner of war camps, Victor Frankl reports that those who survived the experience of the complete loss of everything were those who cared for, and were cared for by, their comrades, their neighbor.
Here’s what I think: There is me and my life, and there is you and your life. I exist, in part, to help you with your life. And, you exist, in part, to help me with my life. In bearing my pain and making a good effort with the issues of the day, I help you with your life, with the life that is yours to live. In bearing your pain and making a good effort with the issues of the day, you help me with my life, with the life that is mine to live.
We help each other live the life that is ours to live right here, right now, in these circumstances, in these conditions, whatever they are. I am with you in your experience of life. You are with me in my experience of life. We cannot close ourselves off from one another. We cannot isolate ourselves, insulate ourselves from the pain of life by having nothing to do with life or with each other. True life, abundant life, real life IS each other. We cannot live cut-off, disconnected, alone.
But, not just any company is life-giving, life-enhancing, life-bearing. It takes the right kind of company for that to happen. Some company is death itself, and we are better off alone than in the presence of some people. So, when I say YOU are what grounds me, I have to issue an immediate disclaimer. The right kind of relationship with you is what grounds me. We have to work to be sources of the right kind of relationship for each other, and all others.
Two things flow from this. The first is, this place cannot be your life. You have to have a life apart from this place. The church cannot be the center and source of your life. The church can only help you with your life, help you live the life that is yours to live, but that life is not this place. This place and these people cannot be a substitute for finding and living your life (We’ll talk about that next week and why finding and living your life is so difficult).
The second thing is that these people cannot be your best friends. These people are not chums and buddies and pals. Right relationship is not chummy. Right relationship requires a certain working distance, close but not enmeshed, distant enough to know what needs to be said, and say it. AA members don’t play golf with one another, and go to movies with one another, and hang out with one another. They know that two can go astray as easily as one, and that if we are going to be a counter-weight to the other’s craziness, we have to have at least a see-saw’s length of board between us. It’s tricky, finding the right amount of distance, not too close, not too far away, but that’s the art of right relationship, and the key to being the source of the kind of helping presence that heals and makes well, restores, sustains, and enables us to live the life that is ours to live.