I was out with some theatre friends the other night catching up after over a year, when Samantha, a talented and beautiful young woman who works as a dance teacher during the day and appears in musical productions in the Boston area, mentioned that she and her fiancee Bill, another local actor, might go to Nigeria to work with AIDS babies this summer.
It was such an incongruous statement for her that I thought for a moment she might be kidding. For all the years I've known Bill and Samantha, our talk has been about auditions and productions and show gossip and the life of the arts. What would lead the two of them to catapult themselves out of this round of creative activity that they're both very good at, and well-known for, into a land of suffering and poverty, of helping rather than entertaining, of being confronted with the vast chasm of disparity between the way Americans and Africans live?
I suppose they discussed it rationally, having come to the conclusion that the world is hurting and that they would like to help. I suppose they, like many of you, have been paying attention to the nightmarish confluence of horrifying factors making life hell for millions of Africans: political turmoil, genocide, famine, the destruction of sustaining ways of life that supported generations of farming villages, and the ravages of HIV. And something in them said, "Let's go immerse ourselves in that. Somehow, this will be worthy and important for us to do. We will be totally out of our element. We will not wake up in the morning and have a good, clear sense of what is happening next. A lot of frightening things could happen. We will not be in control. And we are ready to experience that."
Is this a rational plan? No. Is it a wise decision? It very well could be. The soul knows. Most of us are aware of our conscious, rational mind plotting life as a series of linear achievements: "First I go to elementary school, then I go to high school, then I go to college, then I become something resembling a grown-up, then I get married, then I probably have children, then I work hard at something lucrative for 30 years, then I retire, then I die peacefully in bed at home surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, leaving them a great inheritance." Or even just, "Tomorrow I get up, I go to the gym, I make lunch for the kids, I do some laundry, I go to work, I hope to get home by 7 or 8, dinner will happen somehow, and then I will watch 'Lost.'"
But the soul knows that life is not a linear projection of sturdy, admirable achievements or responsible, quotidian tasks but a labyrinthine, spiral journey in and out of clarity and confusion, good times followed by painful emotional or physical loss and suffering, and plenty of days-- and even years-- of utter inner chaos. The outer world follows the same patterns. The preacher, Ecclesiastes, said it in these words, "To every thing there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time for war and a time for peace." People hear this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and they make a face, "That's awful! A time to kill? A time for war?" But they misunderstand.
Ecclesiastes is not the voice of one pronouncing a vision of what the world could or should be, but the ancient voice of one articulating how life really is. And boy, it's hard to hear. It's ugly to those of us who like to think of the trip from birth to death as happy, clean, blessed with good fortune, where this is no time to kill and no time for war.
But the soul knows. The soul is a dark, silent, undulating swampland of mystery, fate, primordial wisdom, will to survive, and sure knowledge of death that lives largely hidden away beneath the questing, linear self. The soul is eternal, it is immortal -- it is, some say, breathed into us at our birth, and it goes free of our bodies when we die. The soul knows that the world is a volatile environment for fragile creatures with enormously complex brains to live in, and that for that reason, one of our most prevalent ways of managing the existential anxiety of the human condition is to cultivate the illusion that we are in control.
And to that illusion, all the great wise men and women who have ever lived have a similar response. It can best be summed up as "HA. HA."
"Which of you, by worrying, can add an hour to the span of your life?" asked Jesus, and the answer is pretty clear, "no one."
The very heart of the Buddha's teaching, too, is that change is inevitable and all suffering comes from attachment; and particularly to our attachment to control.
The Buddhist author, Sharon Salzburg, whose excerpt from her book Faith we just heard, likes to tell funny stories on herself about how ridiculous we can get about control. She lives in New England and some friends were planning a visit from a region that has no autumn foliage. Salzburg scheduled the visit just at a time she assumed the leaves would be at the peak of their brilliant color. The friends planned their itinerary. But for some reason, very close to her friends' scheduled arrival, the leaves were not doing their thing. There was mostly green and maybe a little yellow out there. Salzburg found herself driving along urging the leaves to change color already. She'd be stepping on the gas, looking out the window and muttering, "Come on, let's get some oranges and reds going here."
She said, "I had to admit to myself at that point that maybe I was having just a little bit of a control issue."
We laugh, but the need to be in control can literally make us sick: physically sick with chronic anxiety, phobias, high blood pressure, back and neck pain, headaches, gastrointestinal illness -- all results of our bodies tightening with dread and rejection over what we cannot anticipate.
Sharon Salzburg tells another story about control, a more tender story about her close friend, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, having a stroke, and her subsequent panic and fear and obsession about the outcome of his stroke. She writes that she "replayed each scenario a dozen times, 'Maybe he'll be able to speak again but not walk. Maybe he will be able to write but not speak. Maybe he will make a complete recovery.'" Clearly, this was all just the response of a frightened friend, trying to gain some control over the situation -- as if by thinking hard enough, she could make the best possible outcome happen. We all do this. We do this about serious crises and small unknowns alike, white-knuckling it through situations we have no control over. Meanwhile, check your or your friends' medicine cabinets for the Zantac, Xanax, Prilosec, Pepcid, and the odd Valium. There's some anthropological evidence for us right there. The pharmaceutical companies are making a killing off our anxiety and fears of loss of control.
Eventually, with the help of friends, Sharon Salzburg got to the point where she realized that she could not do anything about the situation but pray. She writes, "I called on all the buddhas and bodhisattvas [avatars of compassion] of the universe, those beings who represent freedom to me, who are the embodiment of goodness and wisdom." Turning to something bigger than herself, she says, made her feel less alone, although still anxious and afraid. Eventually, sitting side by side with her fear of the unknown and abiding with it, she was able to let control go and allow love to enter her heart, a simple compassion for her friend and herself. Her prayer went from "Please let such-and-such happen" to "May my friend know that he is not alone in his time of trial, may benevolence surround him."
So here's a question for you: Do you think it matters that she got to that point? If you were lying unconscious in a hospital bed, would you rather your loved ones paced the floors with churning stomachs railing against fate, yelling at doctors, feverishly running around trying to do something -- or would you rather they sleep the sleep of the peaceful after having done what everything helpful they could think to do, and then filled their hearts and minds with prayers of compassion and love for you? I ask this with genuine curiosity because I think that many of us were raised to confuse love with control, that is, "I want these things for you and I want your life to go in this way, and that means that I love you."
Today we have had cause to think of those sisters and brothers who live in such volatile environments that even the luxury of the illusion of control is denied them. A life of constant crisis, poverty and civil strife will quickly remedy any human of the fantasy that how the day unfolds is really a matter of their own will and desire. Today we sent out a little bit of our energy in the form of money to some of those who live in the midst of this kind of turmoil, support that might mean a little bit more security for them. But let's be clear about our motives in doing so:
Whether I show up at your door or you show up at mine when the rug is pulled out from under us,
when the planes collide in the sky and fire falls on the city,
when the diagnosis comes back malignant and inoperable,
when the job has been cut and the mortgage is due,
when the paramilitary troops have come and taken the husbands and sons from the village,
when the heart and mind have slipped into profound, debilitating depression,
we reach out with food, money, words of comfort or offers of help not to provide security but to incarnate solidarity,
not to stand defiant in the face of what we cannot control and pretend that with our good intentions or generous gifts we can make everything right,
but to say, this too, is life, and even in this time of terrible uncertainty or suffering, life goes on, and we are in favor of it.
We are out of control, and yet we say yes to life, and give our hearts to it again and again, day after uncertain day.
Norwell. Nigeria, Afghanistan. Hanson. Sudan. Herzegovina, Rwanda, Hanover, Pembroke. None of us are in control. The wise ones from every culture bid us to open our stiff clenched fists, and not only to acknowledge that we cannot steer our ship by tight gripping, but even to open those hands, and put those hands together in an attitude of blessing, and even to bow, with genuine reverence, to the mystery.