Of all the compliments you could receive, perhaps the best is that you feel like shelter. That, in all the storms and chaos that swirl around us, talking to you feels like safety. Not in the sense of being a yes man or echo chamber, or even in the sense of being able to do anything to stop the storm, but in the sense of home.
“I find it shelter when I speak to you,” says Emily Dickinson. What might we do and say to make someone feel that way? Shelter implies that the storm is still swirling, the elements are still fierce, but talking to you is a respite from that and an entry into something welcoming and safe. A place where you are known, and heard, and cared for. A place of comfort.
Certainly there are plenty of people making themselves someone’s storm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be someone’s shelter instead?
What can you do in this increasingly chaotic and exhausting world for someone to find it shelter when they talk with you?
Most of us will not be inventing a vaccine to end this pandemic or donating millions to the research. Most of us will not be heroes in the saving the day sense.
And yet each of us has incredible power to choose how we want to meet each day when life is so stressful. Whether we want to retreat into a cocoon focused only on our own wants and needs or use this as an opportunity to reach out to others. Whether we want to add to someone’s anxiety or be their shelter in the storm. Whether we want to be comforted or to comfort.
And the impetus for any acts of kindness comes from the deep recognition of how important those acts of kindness have been to you when you have despaired. The kind gesture, the comfort of a friend simply abiding with you as you travel a dark path, the reminder that you are precious when you’ve forgotten and can see only your mistakes. These have been your lifeblood. And you can offer that gift to others, particularly now. Take a moment to enjoy this profound poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
So much of life feels like it is beyond our ability to understand. Philosophers and theologians can argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether our futures are predestined. Or, even, whether God is dead, or, for that matter, ever lived, or, if alive, plays any hand in the events of the day.
Where is God when we suffer or when the whole world suffers? Is there any comfort in the argument that suffering happens because God gives us free will so has to let the natural consequences of things we’ve set in motion happen? That just kind of sucks, particularly when we are the well-behaved kids kept in at recess because of the misbehavior of some lone miscreant. What kind of global sense of the divine is that? Where is the comfort?
And, yet, there are moments, aren’t there? Moments when things fall into place, and we see the interconnection of living things, and feel lost in the mystery but at home there, too? Moments that sweep us into awe and gratitude and marvel? Moments where we can see the divine in the creation? In each other? Moments when we wonder how we got so lucky to be here, now, in this place and time, with these former strangers now beloved, with this life to live and all the options that offers?
We can look back at our lives and recognize the little junction points when we took a turn or met someone who became precious to us. A coincidence that we were both there in that same place and time. A coincidence that we got to talking and felt a connection, so kept talking, until that stranger became now a friend. Or a coincidence that led us to make a choice that brought us on a path to greater insight, understanding, and communion. What explains that? Those little coincidences that led us to the lives we have?
Lenny Duncan calls those coincidences ‘God staying anonymous’, and perhaps that is comforting. Perhaps the notion of a benevolent God putting people and experiences in our path to lead us forward gives us a sense of hope. Perhaps that is God working to draw us close. Perhaps it is our job to keep those flames of hope burning.
Duncan explains: “Church, I love you because you are the answer to the question ‘Is God real?’ You are the resounding yes thundering in our hearts. You are the triumphant roar affirming that God is real, powerful, and still able to perform miracles, here and now. In this time in our history, when the world seems like it is on the precipice, you are the gentle hymn that will pull us back from the abyss. You, Church, are the resounding call the entire world is bending its ear to hear as the first straining notes float over the mountaintop. You are slowly beginning to look at these hard truths, more and more each day. You are the dance of providence that lays itself out as series of coincidences, bringing even the least likely into communion with the divine. But we know coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous. It’s our job to point out that God is the agent of change we all experience.”
And in any crisis, there will be people who step up out of a sense of the greater good and many of those suffering will tell you that God was there with them in that suffering, not from afar as if on a cloud looking down, but right there in their very fiber, in their own breath and the beating of their heart. God with us. Emmanuel. Not just in the coincidences, though certainly there, but in it all. And even when things are well beyond our comprehension and the complexities of the universe and even our own lives confound us, that is comforting. Emmanuel.
Is your life all ups, no downs? Do you ever feel a need to make it look like it is? Maybe to pretend the rough stuff doesn’t exist or put on a big smile to cover a broken heart? Do you ever feel like there must be something wrong with your faith if your life is going badly?
Truth is, shit happens. To the best, most faithful of people. Life’s struggles can feel overwhelming. You can get to the point where you simply cannot see how someone could think and feel the way they do. You can lose hope.
At times like these you need to breathe deep and get yourself to a quiet place. And it sure would do no harm, and maybe a whole lot of good, to read a poem like this:
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Barry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
And the good news is, you can read this poem, and your soul will calm without even being in that place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. The words of a good poem are like magic. They can heal you and still the churning waters of your soul. And they can help you remember the ‘day-blind stars waiting with their light’, because, yes, we cannot see the stars in the daytime, but they are there. Shining.
May you rest in the grace of the world and find peace.
It’s easy to be grateful for the good things. But … everything? What about the fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness? What about the loss and persecution? What about the things that challenge our life and morality and soul? What of these?
Yes. All. Even these things that most pain us or make us worry. It is in these times we draw on something deeper than ourselves and grow. These are the times that cause us to reach out to others and embrace community. These are the depths we can survive and use that survival to offer hope to others.
Gratitude forces a perspective shift. From despair to hope. From loss to possibility. From chaos to peace.
So much of our suffering is invisible. Loneliness, sorrow, depression, not fitting in. We can bind up our own cuts and scrapes, but how do we bind up those kind of wounds?
There is an old parable about heaven and hell. In both, people are forced to eat with spoons that are too long to feed themselves. In hell, they are starving. In heaven, they feed each other.
When it comes to these invisible hurts, we are healed by kindness, one to another. We don’t know when we are being kind that it may help someone, but it certainly can’t hurt. And it may be just the long-spooned nourishment that someone else needs.
To inspire acts of kindness today, watch this video of a poor baby elephant stuck in a muddy hole. The gratitude its mother shows its rescuers will melt your heart.
The daffodils are coming. Planted last fall–before the snow, before the holidays, before the pandemic– they are starting to poke up. Soon they will be blooming everywhere adding cheer to the lives of whomever might see them.
A garden is a microcosm of life. Seasons of vibrance and beauty fall away into a frozen landscape seemingly devoid of color. But then, maybe when you’ve almost forgotten, there is blossoming and rebirth.
Gardeners and children know something that many of us have forgotten: there is joy in the dirt.
It turns out, “Prozac may not be the only way to get rid of your serious blues. Soil microbes have been found to have similar effects on the brain and are without side effects and chemical dependency potential.”
Studies show the benefits gardeners and children will swear by of playing in the dirt are actually based on science.
It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.
In this interview, Brené Brown discusses the complexity of emotions we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social isolation. Her words bring comfort and solace to all of us, but particularly those of us raised to believe that only positive emotions should be felt or expressed.
These are tough times. And it’s particularly difficult because this is not an emergency you have to gear up for and get through; it’s a slow burn. As she says:
“Normally, in order to get through a crisis, you know, our bodies are built to respond with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, a lot of super coping surge. And then the waters recede or the fires are out or, you know, the crisis ends and we slog our way through kind of cleanup and trying to find our new normal. But we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it’s going to out- it’s going to outpace us. And I think we are hitting that moment where we are weary in our bones. We are physically tired. We, you know, anxiety, uncertainty take a lot out of us physically. I think, you know, we’re on Zoom calls. I don’t know what happened. Like, I work a lot to begin with, but I feel like I’m on Zoom calls from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. You know, and then we’ve got toddlers crawling up our backs and partners trying to, you know, tell us to be quiet. They’re also are being called. And we’re tired. And I’ll tell you, the other thing that’s exhausting; that we are not acknowledging – again as a collective – is grief.”
And the grief is perhaps more extensive than any we’ve felt before. It’s grieving a loss of everything that was normal to us. Brown explains, “Well, I think it’s a very difficult position we’re in right now because I think we are both grieving the loss of normal and grieving the ordinary moments that make the touchstones for our lives. We’re grieving the loss of those at the very same time we’re having to find and settle into a new normal. And those two things are very difficult to do. At the same time, not mutually exclusive, but as close as it gets without being mutually exclusive. So there’s grief, I think. Grief is the loss of normal.”
And it is ok to experience that grief and mourn those losses. We are vulnerable, and there is no shame in acknowledging that:
“To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic, is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day. And the thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it’s not weakness. It’s the foundation and the birthplace of courage. There is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure. And so, you know, I’ve asked 10000 people that this question, starting with special forces military: give me an example of courage in your life that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And in probably 15 thousand people at this point, not one person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability. So we need to dispel that mess and we need to acknowledge we are in a lot of vulnerability right now. That means we can be our best, bravest selves or we can be our worst selves, and I think the thing about choosing to be our most courageous selves is having to understand this is another method to style that most of us know we’re taught growing up that we’re either brave or afraid, that the truth is we can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. Most of us are in these moments today.”
We can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. We can be strong in our vulnerability. And, even though we are living a new normal, we can choose how we show up there.
Picture a fussy baby, afraid to fall asleep, but then comforted in his mother’s arms by her lilting lullaby, her breath soft against his face, her song sweet to his ears.
Who among us can’t, at times, relate to that child? The future seems particularly uncertain. Worry disrupts sleep. Anxiety weakens our resolve.
There is something about a lullaby, though, the soft tones, the repetitive melody, the gentleness of the presentation, that can help soothe and relax, comfort and reassure us. The sweet song can reach into our long past baby consciousness and help us rest.
Take a minute to enjoy this beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s Goodnight, My Angel, by Social Dissonance with soloist Ryan Nagelmann. May it help you find peace.
There is an elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it, we try not to think about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist. That elephant is the fact that we are all on a one way journey through this life. Our time is limited. None of us knows in advance when our end of the journey will come, but that end will come.
When we pull ourselves out of denial and gaze directly at this elephant, we can realize something important: our opportunities should be seized now. That good we can do? Don’t put it off. That kind word? Say it. That gift or remembrance? Give it now.
We will not have this place and time and opportunity to make a difference again.