Trying To Love The World Again

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I hate spiders. So I was none to thrilled when I returned to my car tonight and found several of them on the windshield. I’d parked with the car brushed against some low hanging branches. Albeit the spiders were small, but I hadn’t considered the possibility of their presence until I returned from my meeting and was startled by the flicker of their legs across my dashboard, inches from my open window. So as soon as the engine was running, I reached to turn on my windshield wiper, which would certainly squash them, or at the very least throw them off the side and below my reversing tire. Good riddance.

But then I stopped.

I recall a night when I was twenty-two, completely broke yet similarly carefree, passing the hours with some friends in a bar on the coast. Hanging on the wall was a coat rack constructed of driftwood upon which someone had painted a mural. Atop the scene was a quote from- I would later learn- the artist Brian Andreas: “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That takes a real hero.”

That night I spent loose pocket change on cheap whiskey, sang loudly and off-pitch, and laughed like I didn’t have loan payments or a looming eight AM shift. But, for the most part, I sat quietly at the bar, stealing glances at the words written on a coat rack, like to-be lovers exchanging shy looks from across the room: “try waking up and loving the world all over again.”

This was easy when I was a child and the world ended with my backyard, the universe my neighborhood. Siblings were annoying but civil, neighbors were quirky, enemies could only be found in textbooks and death was what happened to grass when summer’s rain never came. Love was abstract and removed from any reality of pain.

But today I fear that my reservoir of love for the world is running dry. I cut someone off in traffic and they return my apologetic glance with a glare and the finger. My black friend tells of how she cannot sit on a park bench without a carload of white men yelling racist slurs as they pass by. I read reports of heinous genocides half a world away followed by commentators who call hell-fire down on anyone who disagrees with their proposed solution.

And I’ve no love left for the world. I’m not a real hero, just a coward trying to slay the dragon that is this conundrum of compassionate apathy playing itself out in my heart.

The other week I saw a homeless man sitting on a corner with a cardboard sign. He was just like every other anonymous homeless person we all see, and I was just like every other anonymous potential miracle, skirting around him and avoiding eye contact.

But for a moment I watched him. And as I watched everyone walking by, I wanted to scream. I wanted to run up to him, grab him by the hand and hold him up, hold us up, for all humanity to see. Because don’t we get it? If we’ve no love left for him then there’s none remaining for anybody. If there’s no hope for the least of these then there’s not the slightest for the rest. Of this I’m sure.

But I just walked by. Like
 everyone else.

Then tonight my hand stops before I turn on my wipers to send spiders to their death. And I’m back in the bar on the coast, twenty-two and old, sipping cheap whiskey, my friend is trying to woo some digits off the cute bartender over my shoulder. I look around me and I see it all, like a panorama of time before and after that moment. For a split-second, it’s worth it and I want to try to love the world again.

It was then and still is. It has to be.

So it starts here, it starts now. It starts small. It starts with something as trite as a man who is little more than a coward in the grand scheme of things deciding not to kill a helpless spider in the immediate scheme of things. It starts with trying.

I drive home slowly with spiders clinging to my windshield like hope to a world being ripped apart by cynicism and cruelty. But they made it, we made it; we’ll make it.

And when I walk into my apartment they were still on the windshield, prancing about, almost like they weren’t despicable, terrifying varmints, almost as if the world wasn’t such a dark place after all.

Where they’ll be in the morning, I don’t know. But I, for one, will wake up and I’ll try to love the world again.

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A Mild Revolution

There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.

I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.

Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?

For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.

An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.

The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.

This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.

“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”

I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.

“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”

And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.

For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.

To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.

For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.

 

 

An Unembarrassed Passion

Over the past few days I’ve been compelled by the following three perspectives on humanity: three years ago 38,364 people committed suicide in the United States alone. According to a recent report, 20.9 million adults and children have been sold into sexual servitude. And lastly the response of Ted Bundy, a convicted serial killer, who is quoted as being befuddled over the hysteria caused by his crimes. Said Bundy: “I mean, there are so many people”.

I am out for a run.  I chose not to bring my music today and thus am more attentive. It is raining, softly; the drops are falling like whispers on the remaining snow banks as I jog by. I pass house with a large tree in the front yard. Something catches my eye from above. Something is hanging on a branch near the top of the tree.

It looks circular and brown. I wonder if it might be a wasp’s nest, or perhaps a birdhouse. But I took off my glasses before my run. So I stand on the side of the road, squinting in a variety of fashions in an attempt to know, understand, to perceive what it is that is hanging from the tree. But I can’t, no matter how I twist my eyes. So I continue jogging and tell myself I will return, someday, with glasses.

Jonathan Steinbeck once asked “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never really seen.” I am reminded of the observation from Joseph Stalin that a single death is a tragedy though a million is just a statistic. I am compelled by a million things that I cannot see clearly.

The monks of the middle ages embraced self-flagellation; they tore their flesh to shreds in the hopes of embracing the pain of Christ. They believed that the pain of Christ was the sin of the each individual bearing down upon his shoulders. Today I’m not sure what the pain of Christ is. I have not experienced it.

I read recently of 33 Christians who are to be executed for their propagation of Christian house churches in North Korea. I want to weep. But try as I might, I find it difficult to pray for this number. I cannot see the faces.

Though how I wish I could. How I wish I could feel the nails and the wood splintering into my back as I push up the cross, straining for a breath. How I wish I could feel the humiliation and see the mocking sneers from those below. Oh, how I wish I could know the wasp’s nest from the birdhouse. How I wish that I’d just remembered my glasses.

But I can’t and maybe I shouldn’t. That’s grace, I tell myself. I couldn’t bear it.

Nonetheless, above that grace the cynical truth whispers softly; it’s point still remains: “I mean, there are so many people”.

I recall the American teenager, a suburban child with everything he could want save perhaps an A plus on his latest paper and a girlfriend who would elevate his social status. He was caught cutting himself and when asked for a reason simply responded: “I just wanted to feel something”. The confession of renowned journalist Susan Orlean suddenly becomes understandable to me; “I suppose I do have one unembarassing passion,” she wrote, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

I need to be inundated with the world around me and beyond me, to scrape my hands against something that isn’t white washed. I need to see through the statistics  and numbers to the passion of a single life. I return from my run and my knees are aching. They have done this for several years and no matter how long I rest them or stretch there seems to be no cure; they always ache after a run. I find grace in the aching and sometimes passion.

Likewise, I find hope in the monks who flogged themselves to partake in the pain of Christ. Maybe I’m not the only one who feels disconnected. I pray this hope will not fail me; that it will not let me slide into the blurry oblivion of things unseen. I pray for the vision to see clearly, the vision to feel vividly and grace when I cannot bear it.

I pray and I think maybe, then, there is a hope for my squinting form on the side of the road, hope for statistics and those who add to them. Maybe then there’s a hope for me feeling something beyond apathy, a hope for the numbing sensation of hopelessness, for the moments we are all stuck in it.

And I choose to believe in this passion, believe in this hope.  Lest I tire of squinting and continue running with the empty promise of returning some other day.