What do I mean when I say this, and what difference does it make for me and for others? “Can’t go on, must go on” is a mantra for the moment to moment mourners, the grief-learners, the ones who journey daily through slivers of light and stretches of shadow. To live in this awareness or to remind myself of this is to learn that there are times in life, sometimes daily where I need to be honest about two things: one, that there is more than enough heartbreak and trouble to go around and it is real and it hurts like hell; and two, that my place is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and walk with wonder and fullness in this heartbreak.
“Can’t go on, must go on” is not a declaration of self-pity. It is not depression, nor is it desperation. It is the look I see in the eyes of people day after day after day who courageously lean into their own sickness or the trouble of those whom they love dearly. These words are words of the lean-in, the hold-to, the push-forward, the hang-on to something… anything.
But most people don’t say the words. I see it but I don’t hear it. And some stop half way. “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on” is expressed often and it truly is a dark day, when someone stops there, especially when it doesn’t have to be true.
“I can go on, and I must go on.” This, too, doesn’t carry any weight, and often in many ways is heartbreaking in itself. No… ultimately you can’t go on. Or you won’t go on. Listen to what they are telling you. As Brendan told me yesterday, “Nothing lives forever, Dad.” Thank you, six-year-old chaplain’s son, thank you.
If we want to learn compassion, learn to have joy, to witness ourselves expanding both up AND down, words like these need to be said among us. Words like these need to be felt deep into our beings. I feel like I am at the end. I feel like I can’t take any more. I’ve got nothing left and I can’t cope with one more stress/tragedy/heartbreak. I can’t go on… and yet… I know this is not the end. There are still things for me to do. The world, my home, my land, my people, they need me. I will call upon whatever strength I might have and whatever strength I am given by the mysterious out-there/in-here. Divine Life will enliven my spirit and/or my body… to take one more breath… until there are are no breaths left and my spirit and my body will enliven others. Even then, we go on. Nothing is lost. Everything comes from somewhere.
I entitled this piece for a reason. I’ve been thinking a lot about tempering lately. I think there used to be a time when I felt it was of value to maintain a Zen-like middle path where I didn’t want to get too excited and I didn’t want to get to upset. Thrills and depressed… that’s what Anthony de Mello used to say. But, I don’t want that any more. I am fully convinced that this is not the way to learn love, it is not the way to learn how to grieve. It is not the way to grow in our connection to Life and all of life. We have ups and we have downs and neither is better or worse that the other. Perhaps, I can explain.
I did a talk on Sunday about generosity and and brought the full Orphan Wisdom Forensic Audit Method to the teaching. I studied the etymology, I brought in a poet, and I kinda of winged it. Not saying I wasn’t prepared and not saying it didn’t land. But I experienced the full effect of being on the “receiving end.” Here is the down and up of generosity. It comes from the root “gene” which essentially means “stock, kin, and to have been beget.” When they used to say you were generous, they meant your “line” was good. Well, now, few of us know where we really come from and we live in a time of individualism and to a certain degree, miserliness. This is the opposite of generosity, which is to act in such a way as to take into account what “begot” you or what “made” you. Your land, your food, your ancestors, your people… the thing is to let this affect us. This ain’t no “middle path.” This is the down and dirty, learning to “inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully” (as David Whyte writes about), letting ourselves feel down into that and rise up out of it. “Everything comes from somewhere,” I have been teaching the boys.
Since getting back from Canada and Orphan Wisdom School, I have had a number of firsts, each an up and down of a certain kind. Part of my work in the world, beyond the spiritual director/chaplain/community builder, is to help create and do ritual at transition times. I did my first baby baptism, outdoors by the lake on a Sunday morning. The geese, paddling on the water at the edge of our steamy-breath hazed sight, took flight as the ceremony was complete. The most ideal and wonderful witnesses, reminders of the wild goose that won’t be caged. I blessed baby Sawyer, as one connected to the trees, with elements of earth, fire, wind and water… a calling her down into the land even as we lifted her up and honored her place in the family of things.
Not even a few days later, I was asked to do a funeral for a young mother, who had two young children, six and two. This would be the first funeral I had ever done, but it was one of those “can’t go on, must go on” kind of events. Difficult and heartbreaking, devastating even… but necessary and something that I knew I could do in honor to her. This was very much a down even, going down into the sorrow, but yet, as I offered to the community gathered there:
I first met Jana and Kevin, the day they got their biopsy results back… all the way back in March. I was also there, when they heard that nothing else could be done. These could very well have been among the very worst days. Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was shock. But these things do not equal a hard heart. A hard heart is when we stop paying attention. When we shut down. I never saw that in Jana. When I asked her three weeks ago if there is anything she was unresolved with, any questions that were left unanswered, her response was, “Why? Why me?” This is the question that keeps a heart from growing hard, at least if we can somehow consider that there is no good answer, no answer sufficient enough to take the pain away. When we jump too swiftly to fairness and unfairness, deserving or not deserving, even what God has to do with it… I think this stops our open heart. An open heart is a broken heart…
An open heart is a broken heart. Or perhaps a broken heart is an open heart. However you want to say it, the truth of it remains. We must let ourselves be affected. Don’t shut it out. If you want to live as a receiver and as a giver, you must draw down and be affected.
One final up and down, and this is my life now, as a dad of a boy with Duchenne. Brendan fell last week. In his room. Just toppled. This something that happens with weak muscles and not good balance, nothing new. But he also doesn’t have much in his upper body to cushion his fall so when he hit his bed frame he broke his arm. I got the call and rushed to emergent care where we had x-rays and he got a sling. He was quite silent throughout the whole visit, no doubt taking in our repeated reminders to the doctor and nurses that he has Muscular distrophy and falls a lot. But when he got that sling, he smiled and did a little dance for the doctor… who proceed to say he had never seen anything like this and told all the nurses. Down and right back up again. Light in the midst of our darkness. I am schooled by a six year old.
I had to pick him up and carry him to school a few days later because he can’t walk that whole way. Plus we were late and his wagon had been left at school. A fifty pound boy with one arm and another that is not strong enough to hold on gets heavy quickly so I pushed it as far as I could, telling him that when we get closer he would have to walk. “But I’ll get too tired,” he said. How do I know when he can do or when he can’t do it? Is he playing me or telling me the truth? Well, he walked because otherwise I would be the one down. We went slowly and I watched at how his left foot hit the pavement at an odd angle. Tight calves, I thought. He isn’t planting his heel first. Another problem with DMD. I felt, too, the slowness of his gait as he lagged behind and I tried to hold his hand. It’s ok to slow down. I don’t need to pull him. Innocent parents unknowingly share that we might not get in the back door, but I know we have a special pass and help him get his coat off and carry his notebook for him. It aches to see the signs, to watch the slow progression and to still find these moments of joy, as in the conversation about the frost on the grass. He reminds me… don’t miss this, Dad. I’m going down, I need you to hold me up. Or Dad, I see you are going down. Let me hold you up.
And this comes to my memory just now as I write… just today, a patient with sepsis, confused and difficult to understand, after ten minutes of indiscernible conversation, says with eyes half closed, “Hold me up… I’m going down.” I can’t make this stuff up. I am receiving it all. It’s my kin and it begets me. Be generous to me, Life, and may I respond generously.
I’ve been considering a talk I’m giving on Sunday about healing. It’s a challenging consideration as I wonder how to approach this, especially along the lines of grief and being hope free. Currently, I am sitting with two different aspects of healing. They are real, I would guess, to each of us, and they are connected. I’ll shoot a few arrows up and see if they land by the end or if they make sense. If not, that’s ok… maybe after a week’s time or maybe at some point before the end of your life.
The first aspect is that healing happens and it doesn’t happen, and often we don’t know why. Often healing happens to those who have done everything “wrong” and it doesn’t happen for those who have done everything “right.” Now I’m tempted to throw the whole framework out the window, but it is worth diving into because it is so real for so many people. Jesus says in Matthew 5, “God causes his sun to shine on evil people and good people. He sends rain on those who do right and those who don’t.” I wish he didn’t preface that saying with “You will be children of your Father who is in heaven” because honestly, it doesn’t really make me want to have that kind of father. The truth is there, though. The sun… the rain… they are indiscriminate of evil and they are indiscriminate of good. What about the sun that burned so hot, with no rain on so many parts of our country while fires burned homes of so many of our fellow earth brothers and sisters? Indiscriminate? And what about the rains that have fallen on Texas and Florida and all the destruction that was wrought there? Iniscriminate. And what about the rain that fell on the people in Las Vegas from the window of the Mandalay Bay hotel? Indiscriminate. And what about the drip, drip, drip of the medications that have no effect on people I see every day in the hospital. Again… whether they are do right or whether they don’t. It doesn’t seem to make a difference.
The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “ I’ve seen it all in my brief and pointless life—here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil. So don’t knock yourself out being good, and don’t go overboard being wise. Believe me, you won’t get anything out of it. But don’t press your luck by being bad, either. And don’t be reckless. Why die needlessly?” (I love this version from the Message). So wisdom… over rated. Being good… over rated. Being bad or reckless… over rated.
Mary Oliver seems to have a response.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. The world goes on and no matter how lonely, how distressed, how broken down, this same world that continues to go on, offers itself to your imagination and announces your place in the family of things. You belong. The rain falls on you and the sun shines on you. And we are held, as one amongst the many, in the midst of our sadness and sometimes anguish of not finding the healing when we would give everything to receive just that.
This leads me to my second wondering, is there healing even when there IS no healing? As a chaplain, this is, of course, a rhetorical question. Anthony de Mello tells a story:
To a distressed person who came to him for help the Master said, “Do you really want a cure”
If I did not, would I bother to come to you?”
“Oh yes Most people do.”
“Not for a cure. That’s painful. For relief.”
To his disciples the Master said, “People who want a cure, provided they can have it without pain, are like those who favour progress, provided they can have it without change.”
De Mello taught that healing comes from dropping sickness… getting rid of that which is causing the sickness. Our natural state is health. So when someone has an infection, we want to get rid of the infection. When someone has cancer, we want to get rid of the cancer. We don’t add anything to be healed and we don’t add anything to be happy. So just at health is our natural state so is happiness. Happiness comes from dropping our illusions… our programming. This is the natural way of things. We are as natural as the world around us and where it is natural for us to be in a state of health, so it is natural for the world to be in a state of health. The world doesn’t need us to survive. The world will go on just fine without us.
Interestingly enough, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes his reflection on the overratedness of striving with the consideration that “it’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it.” This is why earlier, I said I would rather just throw out the whole paradigm that healing might happen to some and not to others. Reality demonstrates otherwise.
Our healing comes from embracing the reality and the paradox and letting it transform us. We are meant to grieve. We are meant to feel the absolute heartbrokenness that comes from those who do not experience the healing they so desperately desire. It increases our love which opens us to more and more areas in our world that desperately need healing. There is always healing that can happen and there are always things to grieve. And as we embrace, we heal, and the world heals, and we see that the more grief we can hold, the more joy we can hold as well.
Listen carefully to these words by Kahlil Gibran, and hear how closely this resonates to all I have been saying so far:
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say to you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily, you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at stand-still and balanced.
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?