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Reflections

“Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?” ~ Mary Oliver


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The world of human cruelty and ignorance must continually be confronted and resisted by any means we have.  But we also need to seek solace in the indifferent but wondrous natural universe if we are to survive intact as persons and remain able to extend kindness to all sentient beings.  Checking the news, fearful of the next travesty threatening our country and the world we need, at the same time, to walk with open eyes and ears and hearts through fields and woods, along lake and ocean shores.

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                                                         Cheap Grace

The shadows on the wall tremble like vultures drying their wings.   Within the darkness of Sylvia Plachy’s blurred black and white  photograph, two boys raise and stretch their arms against the grimy concrete of the Berlin Wall. It is 1990 and the boys know that approaching the wall and mocking the still roving guards will no longer unleash an array of bullets to execute them. But to play at dying is irresistible.  Something insists that they reenact the fears of all the bloody senseless deaths they’ve seen and known since early childhood. Though a real threat has suddenly evaporated, innocence has not been reclaimed; a game of exorcism is necessary.

Lisel Mueller writes in a poem of how she and her husband, peaceful before the hearth during midwinter nights, read Chekhov’s stories aloud and nearly weep for the pains of humanity. She acknowledges that this is a luxury but also that a taint of their hypocrisy lingers in the warmth. When we suffer vicariously with human beings in books and in movies we do expand our capacity for empathy even though we are far removed from the characters’ immediate realities. Somehow we forgive ourselves our relatively comfortable lives in comparison to the created characters’ or to those who have lived in dire situations in the past. Yet despite our conscious awareness of our own transience and fragility and luck, I wonder is that awareness absolution enough?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us no, and by saying no, he energizes my dormant doubts. An authentic martyr to the Nazis, hasn’t he earned the right to fling these mocking words at us:  Cheap grace ?  He hurls them out  and I catch them full in the face.   That is all that most people ever know, he claims.  Is the accusation too harsh?

Watch the news, read the headlines.  Be bombarded daily with others’ griefs and atrocities.  The innocent never cease to suffer;  thousands of  elephants are shot from helicopters, children are slaughtered with machetes, the coral reefs are suffocated to death, the skies are constantly polluted;  it never ends.  How do we, most of whom  remain  relatively safe observers, though with tears in our eyes, and through  sleepless nights, reply to Bonhoeffer’s curse?  He was the one who  sat in an isolation cell for years and was then forced to stumble naked to the hangman’s noose on a  cold dark morning. He lost, but he won.

Vultures consume the dead and become symbols of death and of rebirth. They are purifiers.  
Shadows grow large and frightening and recede again .  Most children play at dying a terrible death.  We all are driven to touch in some way what we fear. Don’t we sometimes catch ourselves viewing television, guiltily eager to watch distant tragedies unfold? What would it be like if it were us?

We can’t all be martyrs.  We are not all so designed and the pity and the sorrow of that fact is never lost on us.  Reluctant, even ashamed, we live our given lives as best we can.

There is a Jewish tale I love.  Some days it remedies my guilt, absolves me of my fears that prevent me from walking into the fires or over the nails:

Zusya approaches God in Heaven when he dies and feels utterly impotent and ashamed because he has only lived the life of a normal everyday man. He has not been a Moses or an Abraham. He has not led his nation to deliverance from pestilence.  He is unworthy.  Zusya is surprised to find a smile on God’s bearded countenance when they meet and to hear the profound voice he had so feared say gently, “But Zusya, being Zusya is all I ever wanted you to be”.





 

                                               Another Zusya, masked ; homage to
                                                       the great photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard


* the poem by Lisel Mueller is  her book, Another Version.
* a classic book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is  Letters and Papers from Prison
the photograph by Sylvia Plachy is found in her book Self-Portrait
 with cows coming home.

   

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A friend recently sent me excerpts from Viktor Frankl’s book  Man’s Search for Meaning.    If you haven’t read the book, do.  If you have, a reread in this troubled time will offer sustenance to the soul.

Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning;

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

                                                        
Of humor, another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation, Frankl writes:


    It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. … The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.


Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.





           

Hope is the thing with feathers…                                          Emily Dickinson