I've often wondered about reconciling the idea that we're here by some cosmic accident with the idea that we're folded into a divine plan, that roughly 7 billion unique souls each serve some purpose. Is there significance to our existence and the seemingly insignificant and fleeting roles we play on planet earth?
If you believe nothing is a coincidence, then you see meaning everywhere you look. As a believer in miracles great and small, I can totally get behind this point of view. The spectacular sunset on the eve before my mother's funeral gave me a much needed sense of peace. The notion that each friend or family member I'm sharing this journey with gives me an opportunity to both learn something new and continue to figure out how to love better. And certainly, escaping the clutches of a serial killer makes me wonder what my purpose for sticking around all these years might be.
Today, just before sitting down to write, the news broke of 22-year old Otto Warmbier being freed from N. Korea (where the college student had been imprisoned after supposedly taking down a propaganda poster.) It was also reported that the young man had been in a coma for 16 months; he has since died. This is the sort of story that drives home how some of us who count ourselves lucky, are really just hanging on by a random thread. There is no hint of a divine plan in Otto's horrific story. There is potential for meaningless chaos and tragedy. I can understand this point of view too.
What about the idea articulated at the end of Forrest Gump that it's both? That we've each been given our little plot of earth with the freedom and opportunity to play the cards we're dealt the best way we can. Viktor Frankl said in his famous Man's Search for Meaning, "Everything can be taken...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." He arrived at this epiphany from the inside of a concentration camp, so he should know.
I don't know for sure which it is, that we are here by accident, or we have run into each other on purpose. But I do know, either way, we are not here alone. And, we find meaning in our connection and care of others. In fact, it is in our uniquely human ability to love that our existence matters at all. Sounds heavenly to me.
As mothers, it often feels like we should be able to be better: worry less, protect more, cook healthier, drive slower, recover faster...the list is never-ending. Many of us have tried to do it all, to the point of feeling insecure or unfulfilled, overwhelmed or just plain exhausted. It's easy to give up and give in to what can seem to be a tsunami of information and suggestions, rules and recommendations, ostensibly all aimed at making us better mothers. We want our children to be happy, to be kind, to be successful, to be passionate - as if we are in control. The best part of being a new grandmother may be the perspective that the most we can do as parents is to offer love and support, doing our best with all the rest. After all, parenthood is a job that will never be perfect, nor complete. It takes effort to learn to find joy and fulfillment in the celebration of milestones both large and small.
As Mother's Day approaches and in thinking about motherhood, I thought about the powerful experience I had recently when I attended an intense two-day Board of Trustees meeting. As usual, the agenda was opened with a prayer. But this time it was a prayer we had never heard before. As the wise words of the prayer unfolded, our restlessness ceased and you could have heard a pin drop as each Board Member held their breath wondering what would be spoken next. It was a startling and unexpected moment of pure acceptance and grace. When the prayer was finished, we felt renewed, empowered to tackle the complexity of the task before us and face the individual steps necessary to head down the path of successful planning for this inner city school.
Though at times many jobs may threaten to overwhelm us, this is what we are all called to do, whether it is through the challenges of our parenting experiences, our responsibilities in the communities where we live and work, or in other aspects of our daily life. It is a reminder to forge ahead, as Meb says, "Doing what we can, when we can." The words of the prayer that spoke to me that day of the retreat are attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, SJ. They are particularly poignant in light of his own passion to pursue the defense the downtrodden while spreading the word of God. As he says, "We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs, and prophets of a future not our own." As I heard his prayer, I wondered if he knew how prescient he was of his own subsequent tragic murder and the positive steps toward equality it prompted. It is a message I sometimes forget when I try to be all things to all people; taking the long view saves us from being discouraged and giving up, reminding us instead of the future.
The Miracle Chase was always about empowering each of us to think about our lives differently. Similarly, Archbishop Romero's prayer empowers us as well, to recognize, as parents must, that we are called to do our best, not to resolve every ill, but to find joy and a sense of accomplishment in what we can achieve and in planting the seeds for future generations. It's an important point to remember this Mother's Day. (Joan)
A Step Along the Way
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives included everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need future development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
As a sort of experiment, I've been watching my dog, Cleo. She anticipates and she's joyful, and if I hold up a treat she sees it and salivates, her brain remembering that she got this treat the last time I held it up. Even so, I am not sure she can really hope. Hope requires an ability to imagine a future that is not this one, even if that future is out of our real control or is not very likely. While to live in the moment as Cleo does can be celebrated, to be able to change something - ourselves, the world, anything - requires an element of hope. We humans are able to hope.
Some of my darkest days are when hope is hard to find. My friends and I are worried about the state of the world. We cringe when we hear about bombings and the threat of more bombings. We cry tears of empathy when we learn about mothers and children being separated, about sons being murdered, about lives that matter to some but not all. We worry about climate change threatening both the honey bee and the very heartland of countries as we know them. To cope, we learn about and try to build resilience. To cope, we work on developing hope.
Maya Angelou wrote, "Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one of them in." I'll admit, I have been fearful at times. I want certainty more than anything. Certainty that my loved ones will be OK. Certainty that my garden will have enough water to grow and enough bees to pollinate the flowers. Certainty that the good students I know who work so hard will not be punished for being born on the wrong side of the border and will be allowed to complete their degrees. Certainty that our scientists, including my son, will be able to continue to work on behalf of all of us to find new ways to deal with problems that require facts and evidence-based research to solve. I want certainty for myself, my daughter and her friends that we will not be singled out for abuse because of being a woman, or someone with a disability, or a transgender person, or a person of color. I want certainty that I will have a safe place to come home to each and every day.
When I live in fear, I cannot hope. When I give up and say there is nothing I can really do, I give up hope. When I say, even in a very enlightened way, "I accept whatever is here," I may be choosing to live outside of hope. Hope is required for anything to change, for it is an essential part of imagining the possible.
When we were little, we sang, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." Today, I heard someone say that even on a sunny day, when someone lights a candle, there are more "Lumens" (a scientific measure of the total quantity of visible light emitted by a source) than before, even when that extra light is not noticeable to a person standing there. Lighting one candle, literally, changes the world. It is also true that the ripple effect of the light waves from that light, (like the ripple effect of miracles, I'll add), enters the web of the Universe. We cannot know where these waves of light go or what their impact may ultimately be. As with many small acts, the end result may be almost imperceptible to a person standing nearby. Sometimes, it may just be too soon to tell.
What is the measure of a smile? Can we calculate joy generated by reading a card from a friend, warmth from a hug when lonely, the sense of fullness when we provide dinner for a homeless. hungry person? Each of these acts seems small in light of the horrible tragedies of our time, paling in comparison to the suffering on the news we block from our minds in self-preservation. And yet, the smallest acts of smiling, of serving, of sending love, are also "candles," significant signs of true resistance in a world that can seem dark. Hoping beyond hope that I can make a difference, I will resist!
Here are some ideas that have been recommended to build up our "hope muscles":
- When feeling hopeless, ask yourself, "What is truly important to me? Does the situation now make a difference to my raison d'etre?"
- Ask yourself, "What is it that I have control over in this situation?" and do only that.
- Conduct a simple act of kindness and know that you just sent a hopeful light into the world.
- Don't take failures personally.
- Celebrate small victories and successes: don't wait for only the big ones.
- Take baby steps towards your goals.
- Tell one another success stories, no matter how small you think they are. These are the ripple effects of light into the darkness and you hold the candle!
Mao said that women hold up half the sky. I beg to differ. Like the ad jingle from the '80s said, "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan..." a sentiment that women across the globe can understand as they juggle the multi-faceted needs of their jobs, families and communities. Women bond over the unique experiences that belong to them, a sisterhood that in combination with other forces, like motherhood or glass ceilings (or both), can produce some mighty friendships.
When my younger daughter Allie was in 6th grade she was bullied. Not for a day or a month, but for the entirety of the school year. By June the light from her eyes had gone out. Watching her go through this torment remains the most painful of my parenting experiences. One of my closest friends had a daughter who was way cooler than anyone else in 6th grade and knowing of Allie's plight, she planted a seed with her daughter who, over time, coaxed Allie into a different group of friends. Another friend who was always willing to listen had her daughter ,who was friends with the bullies, help from the inside of the group.
Friends save us in a myriad of ways. They open us up to worlds and wisdom we may not otherwise have been exposed to. They are our sounding boards, our cheerleaders and the sharers of life's greatest joys. They compel us to be our best selves. From friends I learned that to keep a confidence is truly a sacred trust, the ultimate respect; that to be the village for each other's children is an act of loyalty and protection that will never be forgotten; and that to show up, especially in times of stress and struggle and grief, is, as they say, 90% of life.
When I look in the mirror, of course, I recognize myself. But behind me I can count the friends who have accepted me for who I am and loved me, even when I hadn't yet figured out how to love myself. They have been the caretakers of my soul. Sandra Day O'Connor said, "We don't accomplish anything in this world alone...and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weaving of individual threads from one to another that creates something." Sounds pretty miraculous to me.
Joy to the World...sounds like a message reserved for a Christmas Carol or the feeling when welcoming a new little one into the world as we did last month with our first grandchild.
I've always wondered where is joy the rest of the time. To be truthful, I think I am a joy-junkie. I can, as Katie says, "find whole scoops of joy with my children" (in my case, I'll admit it was mixed in with a bit of worry and a pinch of frustration), but I also find joy in the sunshine or the snow, in writing or in reading something that makes me laugh or cry or think more deeply. I find joy when I take the high road and don't cut off the silly driver who is attempting to run me down or try and be kind to someone whether I know them or not, even when I don't have the time or the energy. I have cocktail napkins that say, "Stop me before I volunteer again." but I never use them because volunteering brings me joy; it's my way to help contribute to the struggles in the world, doing my part to effect change where I can.
Sadly though, sometimes when I present my happy-to-be-alive and grateful-to-be-living-my-life face to the world, I have been accused of being a tad Pollyanna-ish. After all, the unasked question of "Don't I know that others are suffering?" hangs in the air; as if somehow by being really sad or at least more subdued I could make it better. At last, those days are over and I can express my joy (as well as my sadness) freely. My new lease on life came from a book a dear friend gave me for Christmas, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, The Book of Joy, and I have embraced it more wholeheartedly than anything I have read since Our Bodies, Ourselves back in the 70's! I mean if Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama can find joy after all that they have been through, who am I to back away?
Apparently 2015, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu spent a week together in Dharamsala, India in honor of the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday and to discuss the subject of joy. As they spoke it became clear that at the core they both valued connection with their fellow human spirits, seeing suffering together as the birth of empathy and compassion. Together they recognize that, "Ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others." I think I have felt this my whole life. In my medical profession, like so many of my coworkers, I thought a part of my job was to make the patient's life a little easier and to help them find joy and humor in the midst of pain and suffering. The importance of finding joy has stayed with me in other areas of life as well.
For years, I was drawn to the strength of Archbishop Tutu; his ability to stay strong and committed against all odds and to foster forgiveness after the atrocities that were committed in his homeland. I marveled at his fortitude and when I heard him speak years ago, I was shocked at how diminutive he was in physical stature and yet was a giant among men. When I read his words about joy and suffering, I feel vindicated for my years of being joyful in the face of sadness, and I think his words to the universe are directly aimed at me, "Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken." WOW. Now I have a benchmark, a goal and have found a calling not just to feel joy, but to spread joy. To help me practice that calling with the consistency it deserves, I have but one word that I will be able to rise to the challenge: