Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Creeping Death and the Hidden Life

If you've read my post Christmas 2009, you are already familiar with this passage from Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood…about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ‘em at you.” This was literally true. 
…The kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree… 
On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neely nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day…(and) to her joy it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one…could afford to buy it… 
The man took this tree out first…”Anybody…wanna take a chanct on it?” 
Francie stepped forward. “Me, Mister.”… 
“Aw g’wan. You’re too little,” the tree man objected. 
“Me and my brother—we’re not too little together.” 
She pulled Neely forward. The man looked at them—a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round… 
“These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of yous. These kids is goin’ to have a show at this tree.”…The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked…(and)…went through a kind of Gethsemane. 
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year…But then…if I did that…next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’…I gotta think of myself and my own kids…Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”
The writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, who is identified as "The Teacher," had a surprisingly similar take on life:  
Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
How did an educated member of the elite ruling class of third or fourth century B.C. Israel, and a semi-literate Christmas tree salesman from turn-of-the-last-century Brooklyn reach such similar conclusions about life? What could they have possibly had in common that gave them such compatible worldviews?  While at first glance, the existential despair of the Teacher and the kitchen-table anxiety of the tree salesman seem worlds apart, I submit that the former’s Angst and the latter’s tight-fistedness have a common root. I think that each, in his own way, lacked the courage that makes generosity possible. I think it is courage, born of faith, and not an abundance of resources, that makes a person “big enough” to help when need arises.

The tree salesman wasn’t a “big enough man” to give away a tree to two underfed children. His fears of privation and lack were immediate and concrete.  But judging by how worked up the writer of Ecclesiastes was about leaving his wealth to his own children, it doesn’t seem like he was overflowing with liberality either, though he was certainly “big enough” to be open-handed.  Evidently, being a “have”--as opposed to a “have-not”—is not enough to stimulate generosity.  (Any restaurant server will tell you that the wealthy are the worst tippers.) 

While the tree salesman was unmanned by the struggle to provide for his family, the Teacher quailed in the face of his own inability to make himself feel fulfilled.  Both had tried to wrest happiness and security from life, failed, and withdrawn to avoid further pain.

So what stimulates the development of courage? I had an insight into that, I think, on a recent visit to my Dad. My father moved, several years ago, into the same planned community near Syracuse that my brother and his family live in.  Though he has made numerous social overtures to his neighbors, they have never reciprocated.  He told me during my latest visit that he has no connection to any of his neighbors—that he doesn’t, in fact, consider himself to have “neighbors” at all, but simply “people who live nearby.”

In the neighborhood I grew up in, my Dad’s liberality was generally known—the way he would tip, or stand people drinks, or mow every lawn, snowblow every driveway and fix every kid’s bicycle in the neighborhood.  Having grown up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia during the Depression, my Dad learned early the importance of good neighbors.

“Out in the country,” he explained, “people needed their neighbors; you had to have good neighbors to survive.” In his current setting, everybody thinks themselves self-sufficient enough not to need neighbors.

It must have taken courage for my great-grandparents to build that house in the holler in which my Dad grew up, setting up in that rugged country knowing they would eventually depend on their neighbors for survival.  It must have taken courage to come to the aid of neighbors in need when one’s own resources were always precarious. Each time you primed the pump of neighborliness, it must have been an act of faith.  Having grown up making those acts, my father grew into a generous person.

Let me clarify the word “faith” as I’m using it.  My Dad never went to church with us when I was a kid.  Taken by one of his aunts to a Pentecostal mountain snake-handling church, he was sufficiently traumatized that he put off baptism until he was fifty-five.  So, by “faith,” I don’t mean intellectual assent to a list of creedal propositions, or even a regular discipline of devotion; I mean a basic belief that all, as Julian of Norwich famously put it, will be well, and the corollary belief that we can afford to be generous—that we cannot, in fact, afford not to be.  At very least, it is the belief that our duty is clear whether we can make sense of life or not.  God, C.S Lewis said, wants us to be concerned with what we do; the Devil wants us to be concerned with what will happen to us.  This is the understanding of faith the Teacher does not seem to have developed.

When we are young and callow, we can be very generous; I used to pick up hitch-hikers, take in strays (actors, mostly,) and lend freely of what little I had, and my friends did the same for me.  When I lived largely on Ramen noodles, I was the kind of person who would bicycle thirty miles to attend a friend’s graduation party, then crash on the friend’s floor.  Now, in comfortable middle age, I’m more likely to say something like, “This is not the Stilton I like.”  So I cannot pretend that I don’t understand the impulse to tear down the barn and build a bigger one. I have thought a lot in my middle age about Garrison Keillor’s challenge “to be the person you set out when you were nineteen, instead of the dull, greedy old weasel, snarfing all the food on the plate who you turned into instead.”

Of course, the young do not generally believe that horrors are in store for them, and what middle age calls “prudence” is mostly beyond their imagining, so generosity may come more easily to the young.  But at the same time, it is not for nothing that Lewis called middle-aged prudence “the creeping death.”  It is what makes us store up treasures for ourselves and forget God; it can cause us, as we become more worldly, more established—and have more to lose—to become more fearful and less generous.  And even if the mature are more apt to name God than the young are, we often seem less apt than they to trust that all manner of thing will be well.  What we once did without, we come to regard as essential.  Tracy Chapman described this state in her song, “Mountains O’ Things”:
It's gonna take all my mountains o' things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay…
I won't die lonely
I'll have it all prearranged
A grave that's deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o' things
Jesus also taught what the end was for those who believe we can barricade ourselves against life by amassing wealth: 
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.
The Teacher saw through the delusion of purchase-able happiness and security. Something obviously made him lose his nerve with respect to life being worthwhile, but he did see very clearly what the value was of the kind of earthly success the farmer in Jesus’ parable tried to achieve:
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives…I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I…owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure...Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind…
The Teacher learned that we cannot insulate ourselves from the vicissitudes and apparent meaninglessness of life by an abundance of earthly success.  But he does not seem to have translated that insight into an affirmative and faithful way forward.

So how do we, in a way that is faithful to the Gospel, move forward with the courage that begets generosity? I think Paul shows the way: 
…[I]f you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When I was younger, I used to interpret all that “things that are above” stuff as world-denying nonsense from an apocalyptically deluded evangelist who believed the world was coming to a speedy end. As I have grown older, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of knowing that our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

Martin Luther used to begin each day by making the Sign of the Cross and saying aloud, “I am a baptized Christian.”  What if we were to remind ourselves every day that our lives are hidden with Christ in God?  What if we were to repeat it morning and evening, meditate on it, post it on our walls, and season our successes and failures alike with the remembrance of it?  What if we recalled it with each rejection letter we read, and in the midst of every pleasure that we know will not last? When my daughters no longer want to hold my hand and sit in my lap, will I mourn that loss less, and enjoy more the gifts that the future brings, if I remind myself now that my life is hidden with Christ in God?  And when any tax is made on my generosity, will I find it easier if I really believe that all will be well, and that giving of myself will not diminish me?  Would the tree man have given Francie and Neely the tree, and would the Teacher have found a better use for all his wealth? And when my life is demanded of me, will I be able to smile, knowing where and with Whom it is already hidden?

Fear makes us stingy, grasping and deluded; despair—even if undeluded--leaves us with an ungenerous view of life. It is faithful courage that makes us able to live bravely and generously.  Maybe that’s why Jesus’ single most frequent recorded utterance is “Do not be afraid.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Home Version of Our Game

Looking at reviews on Amazon of a book I was considering buying, I came across this gem:

I keep waiting for the day when someone writes a version of Buddhism for the working mom. I think that person should herself be a mother with at least one ADHD child. She should be clinically depressed and have a couch potato for a husband. If she manages to help the child grow into someone with a good marriage and a real profession, I'll buy all of her books. Unfortunately what we keep getting are philosophies created by self-satisfied, introverted, childless, hermits like (Xxxxx.) There is nothing wrong with an introverted, childless, hermit being self-satisfied. What is wrong is suggesting that his way of being represents THE path to enlightenment for everyone.

I see the reviewer’s point: many writers on spiritual topics do seem to be either members of religious communities or unattached people who can order their days more as they wish than we in the married-with-children crowd can.

As I sit on my porch writing this, I can hear my five- and seven-year-old daughters playing inside the house. While they were in school, I was able to meditate twice a day. Now, while they are home for the summer, I read the Office of Morning Prayer and, if I’m lucky, doze off during meditation before bedtime. And vexingly enough, when I have the flexibility to do what I need to in order to present my best self to the world, I only see my children a few hours a day; when I scarcely have time for practice at all, I have them with me hour after hour. They are, I think, not the better for it.
—Hang on…
OK, here’s what I’m talking about: I just had to go change the bedclothes after one of my girls got so involved in an audiobook that she put off going to the bathroom until she wet herself—and because I am not yet the Worst Dad in the World, I did not say, “You did WHAT? How freaking old are you, child?”  But I thought it. I’m pretty sure that never happened to Thomas Merton.

But here’s my point: while hermits and free spirits may have it easier than householders in some ways, I think there is an Absolute Value of Practice in everybody’s life, and that practice can be neither created nor destroyed. The big difference is this: what we all do—householders, hermits and the unattached—on the black mat is mere scrimmage; the game is what happens everywhere else. The difference between “them” and “us” is that we don’t get as much dedicated scrimmage time, and so must do more of our practice “in game.”
—Shit, hang on…
OK—and I am not making this up—my wife is being admitted to the hospital because an injury she received last week (an upholstery nail clean through her thumb) has become infected, and the infection has become systemic, so they’re going to put her on IV antibiotics and possibly operate, so I’ll be taking the children to grandma’s house by myself tonight, I guess.
Ima finish this later.


I’m told that Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate in the charnel pits; I’ve read that Swamis meditate in the cremation grounds.  My life isn’t set up for me to do either of those things right now.  I have to settle for taking Communion to elderly people in nursing homes—which is great practice, too, when I am paying attention, and has the added benefit of giving comfort and a sense of connectedness to a living person while I contemplate mortality and the dissolution of form.

I drove my children to Hershey, where we had planned a weekend with my wife’s family, then drove back to Philadelphia to be near the patient.

There was a certain amount of medical drama the relation of which would compromise my quality of life at home, but though she would have been dead by now had this happened in our grandparents’ time, she is just fine now. As I watched her sleeping on the hospital bed, her bandaged hand suspended from the IV pole, her drawn face pale above the tangle of thin blankets and her gown askew on shoulders that looked frail in the weird hospital half-light, I reached into my pocket for my rosary. Then I changed my mind. I sat down and, for a long time, simply looked mindfully at my wife and the mother of my children, breathed in and out and let go of all thoughts. I cannot describe the experience in words, but I can say that I was present, that the frailty and freakish blessedness of human life was contemplated, and that practice happened.

Of course, every life has drama and exigency; it isn’t the press of events that makes a householders’ life challenging, but the press of non-events, the minutiae of day-to-day life.  Here’s a recent update from one of my Facebook friends:

_______is totally overwhelmed by all the little details of her life: buy stuff for Xxxx’s camps, reschedule orthodonist, find few last props for (the play,) clean house and look for new car. I need a personal manager.

This is what Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali saint whom many consider an Incarnation of God, meant when he praised the householder who also managed to be a bhakta, or devotee:

A devotee who can call upon God while living a householder's life is a hero indeed. God thinks, 'He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me…But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties…Such a man is a real hero."[i]

The real challenge for us sheet-changers/dog-poop-scoopers/grocery-shoppers/pediatrician-appointment-makers is to find the practice in the game that sometimes leaves us little time or energy for scrimmage. 

Swami Vivekananda told of a young hermit who, after several years of ascetic spiritual exercises in the forest, one day felt a shower of twigs fall on his head as he meditated under a tree. Looking up, he saw a crane and a crow fighting in the tree, and as he inwardly cursed them for disturbing him, fire shot forth from his head and consumed the birds. Elated at his new power, he went as usual into the village to beg his food. At the first house he approached, a woman’s voice within bade him wait.  “How dare she make me wait?” the hermit thought. “She does not yet know my power.”

Again he heard the woman’s voice from within: “Boy, do not be thinking too highly of yourself; here is neither crane nor crow!”

When the woman finally received him, the chastened hermit asked how she had known his thoughts.

"My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest.[ii]

I cannot yet say that I match this woman’s zeal—but it’s surely a worthy goal.  I’m going to bed.  I will not be meditating tonight.

[i] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abridged edition.  RamakrishnaiVivekananda Center, 1988.
[ii] Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.