The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

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The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

Begin with speculation: Why do mass murderers often finish their missions by committing suicide, either by cop or their own hand? Various sources suggest self-loathing, hopelessness, a weird attempt at revenge, and a refusal to endure the consequences of their actions.

All of those reasons make sense, more or less, but this morning, riding out the dismay of yet another mass shooting, another explanation occurred to me.

After you kill people, you are in great measure dead already. Suicide is the end punctuation of the truth.

This basic idea—the violence you do to others returns home to you—is hardly new, but it is so unpalatable, abstract, and counterintuitive that we reject it, if we acknowledge it at all.

The Psalmist writes of his enemy, but speaks a universal reality: “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate”(Psalm 7:15-16).

Arthur Conan Doyle certainly borrows from Psalm 7 when his Sherlock Holmes observes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).

Buddhist teachings also acknowledge the result of letting yourself be consumed by anger and violence: “By doing [violence] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23).

The temptation is to domesticate such wisdom by restricting it only to terrorists and crazies. But anger is wild, violence a delinquent student. And, no revelation here, we human beings can all get pissed and throw haymakers. Who among us doesn’t take life from others, blood cell by blood cell, hour by hour? The unkind word recoils upon the speaker as surely as the shooter is wounded in his own crossfire.

Of course, not all violence is driven by anger. A soldier, for example, might wish to do anything rather than kill. Unfortunately, taking another person’s life, even for a just cause, can still be lethal for the most stable of soldiers. Some in military service die in battle, obviously. Others return home with beating hearts and tortured spirits. From 1999 to 2010, one veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes, 22 of them each day. In 2012, active-duty suicides ever-so-slightly outpaced deaths in engagement (177 to 176).

I regard members of the United States armed forces as heroes. They risk life and limb out of a deep, difficult calling. They carry out orders they may not like in conflicts perhaps troubling to them in hopes of defending their country.

It’s unfair that a noble person can survive a battle only to discover in the aftermath invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A glowing coal doesn’t care whether the hand about to throw it is right or wrong, good or evil. It burns whatever it touches.

I’m prepared to be corrected in my speculations. I’ve never taken a human life. But why did many veterans of my father’s generation remain silent about what they saw and did in World War II? Why was the scorn Vietnam vets endured so personally and spiritually devastating? Why are those serving in today’s military taking their own lives in record numbers?

Because killing kills. Failing that, it maims. The recoil of violence is so strong that even those of us who lash out only in insults and dirty looks bruise ourselves.

The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas was killed by a robot reaching toward him with an explosive—the fruit of his evening’s labors. But he was dead already.

And what about the rest of us? Is there any hope of stopping what has become our planetary routine of violence?

My kingdom for selfless love pandemic! But that wish amounts to whistling into the wind. What we have right now is rage, which, though understandable, is not inclined toward the Golden Rule.

Any suggestion these days ends up sounding impotent, but I’ll offer mine just the same: We ought to teach our children right from the start that any blood they shed in this life will generally include an equal share of their own.

Writing and the Narrative of Suffering

I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.

Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?

But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”

Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.

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Pema Chodron in 2007 (Credit: flicker.com on Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.

The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.

I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.

We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.

Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.

In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.

Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.

But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.

There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.

Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.

The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.

Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.

Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?

I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”

Mean: the New Normal

Begin with this: I’m no better than anyone else. Pick whomever you like: the haggard, rotten-toothed crack head; the Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not 1000-pounder who eats four rotisserie chickens for lunch; parents who treat their kids like dog crap. One environmental variable; one chromosomal kink; one impulsive, destructive choice: slip one of these into my row of biographical Dominos, and I’m not a marginally respectful fifty-one-year-old blogger and Lutheran pastor. I’m a vagrant, letch, junkie, inmate, whatever. Because of this truth, what follows is a peek at a sad sore on my spirit. Don’t picture my hands as fists.

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One mishap here, and I could be living under a bridge. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes midday oblivion is joyful. Imagine finishing a swim in warm water. Your blanket and towel are in the shade. When you lie down, the sand cradles your body. The breeze is so perfect it seems like part of your skin. Sliding into sleep, you think for a moment your head is resting against the chest of Merciful Eternity. Yeah.

Other times, midday oblivion is the bird—not a bird, but the bird. It’s weary, though reptilian, repartee with the world. It’s a mumbled f-bomb. It’s a wet Bronx cheer. It’s what you say as you shoot the moon. It’s your way of grunting, “Go pound sand.” Or it’s a sighed, “Enough already. You win. I’m taking a nap.”

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Credit: openclipart.org

Today’s oblivion won’t be the beach kind, and before a glorious siesta, I’m wagging my flaccid bird at meanness, which is epidemic. Unless I go to a monastery, I can’t seem to escape it—probably because my eye is now hypersensitive. Mean is everywhere.

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Even canned coffee is mean these days.

The other day my son Micah asked me to run him to the Exchange, a great used media store with friendly, helpful clerks. As he looked around, an ad for some World Wrestling Federation video played over and over on a flat screen in a corner near the ceiling. I stared up, slack-jawed. So many means to celebrate: sweaty, snarling, barking, slamming, glistening, hollering. And that’s just the gladiators. The crowd is in a constant, lathery rage.

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Amasis the Wrestler–grrrrr. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When an aching neck forced me to look down, I noticed that at eye level and below, no square inch of the Exchange goes unexploited. There’s junk for sale everywhere. Check out the gallery of confrontational action figures and other curiosities.

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Ew.

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Not one of Al Pacino’s finer moments, if you ask me.

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Sorry for the glare. What will scare a monster? Tell him Chuck Norris is hiding under his bed!

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Grrrr. Hulk pants too tight!

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At least the Joker laughs as he blows a puff of poison gas in your face.

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Bobble-heady Freddy. Needs dental work.

In fairness to the Exchange (did I mention the help is genuinely nice there?), not all items are angry.

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Most colorful of the Rolling Stones coaster set.

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$9.00? Seriously?

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Love M&M’s. Need ear buds. Not tempted.

The common denominator here? If an item isn’t quirky, it must be baring its teeth. Who would buy somebody under eighteen a psychopathic action figure? Only Chuck Norris isn’t a physiological aberration or demented killer. And what adult would collect such diabolical kitsch? The absurdity and ugliness are draining.

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Ah, that would be a “no” vote from Simon. (Credit: newsbiscuit.com)

Of course, the face of mean isn’t always ugly. Often it’s stylish and witty. Back when “American Idol” was hot I didn’t watch it. Not only was it excruciating to witness performances by kids whose parents had lied to them about their talent, but I also couldn’t hack Simon Cowell’s delight in explicating their failure. I don’t blame Simon—he’s probably a great guy—but he has certainly contributed to the evolution of a television menu that’s riddled with mean. If you want to watch a cooking program, one of your options provides chefs with bizarre ingredients—pork tenderloin, Oreos, arugula, merlot-infused goat cheese, and honeydew melon—then puts their concoctions before restaurateurs, one of whom cowells them over the head for creating gunk. Throw a cluster of narcissistic brats on an island or into a mansion and you’ve got reality television: look how rotten these characters can be to each other, how many ways they can lie to and betray each other. And now home improvement and remodeling shows are caught in mean’s gravitational pull. What’s-their-names, those handsome twin brothers, are now leading teams of competing remodelers, and the underachievers are going to be thrown onto the scrap heap. I can’t tell you the names of these shows, since I watch for a minute, then catch another wave. (By the way, is “Survivor” on anymore? I honestly don’t know.)

I wonder what lesson all this mean entertainment teaches us—and don’t even get me started on “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Human Centipede,” diversions that are beyond mean. If nothing else, I’d argue that the stimulation I’ve mentioned contributes to the normalization of mean.

After watching a movie in which humans are sewn together in the most unsavory way possible, what’s the big deal about posting an embarrassing picture of a friend on Facebook? When housemates shout bleeps and stab fingers in each other’s faces during primetime, a nasty text message seems benign, arriving as it does without eye contact.

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I imagine she’s actually very nice. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what’s got me looking napward at the moment is more basic than cinema, games, Facebook, and cell phones. I’m tired out by good, old fashioned, face-to-face mean, mean tendered for no good reason, mean delivered because—ah, what the hell!—mean is normal, even hip. (I’ve no empirical evidence to support any of this preachiness—sorry.) My impression is this: contemporary snarl and snark, far from being frowned upon, is now a compelling fashion statement. Wrestling gladiators and movie action figures, with their teeth bared, are only the new normal reduced to caricature.

In this regrettable landscape, simple unfriendliness doesn’t register on the interpersonal Richter scale. Even those who claim to be religious can treat fellow human beings shabbily without any fallout of conscience. Lately a dear friend has shared news that those around her are repeatedly breaking author Anne Lamott’s Rule #2, which I paraphrase here: “Don’t be a [schmutz].” My friend’s been hurt, worn down by cold shoulders and passive aggression.

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Come here, kid. You’ve got schmutz on your face. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Truth be told, it’s actually my friend’s pain that’s tiring me out—a cordial, hard worker being pummeled by schmutzes. There’s no remedy for what’s certainly longstanding bad behavior that I’m stung by now only because I’m thin-skinned. All I can do is follow Voltaire’s advice that I cultivate my own flawed garden. And I can give loving, juicy raspberries to a world that seems extra mean today, then lie down. My hope: in sleep the only teeth I dream will be framed by smiles.

Thich Nhat Hanh visits Calligraphic Meditation Exhibition in Bangkok

Make a bobble-head Thich Nhat Hanh smiling at me, and I’ll buy one. (Credit: corbisimages.com)