I don’t know why it is but my nightstand drawers routinely get filled and then overfilled with the weirdest, most random stuff, until finally I cannot close them anymore. This morning became “clean up” day, and aside from finding scores of broken pencils and no sharpeners, a paper I’d written for an Anthropology class 15 years ago, a worrisome number old invoices, some snarled up threads and a small tube of toothpaste, I also found a little card Buster had made for me when he was about 5 or 6 years old. On the front is a big, happy smiling face, and inside he had scrawled, “I love my life!”
It’s adorable, and it warms the heart. And it is also a little poignant, too. At 20, Buster is not the fresh innocent who views all of his surroundings and himself with affable awe. Now, he knows a few truths about the world, and about himself. He knows he is capable of hurting, and of being hurt. He is capable of being overly trustful and naive, and also of betraying the trust of others.
The hard lessons of life teach us things we’d rather not know, especially about ourselves. Too often, the thing we hate most in ourselves is what we project onto others, which just increases our cynicism and our loathing of the world – a loathing which ricochets back onto us.
It is a happy world when you are five years old, when it is easy to say “I love my life.” Nowadays, Buster will tell you that he still does love his life, and himself, but he has some regrets, and wishes he could have a few do-overs.
Which means his is progressing normally. Who among us does not wish for a few mulligans, whereby our past actions are discreetly erased from the scorecard and we are given a chance to go back to re-play those holes?
In Chapter 38 of Isaiah, line 17, we read the healing and cleansing line: “…you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back, all of my sins.”
That’s a wonderful image, isn’t it? God takes the sins we acknowledge to him, in our contrition, and with exquisite mercy he flings them behind his back, so they no longer stand between us and him; our failings can no longer impede our meeting, and all that is left is for us to trust enough to leap into God’s ever-waiting embrace.
To do that – to really trust God enough to make that leap – requires that we love ourselves enough to believe that we are also lovable to God. And that we love our messy, imperfect and difficult lives.
It also requires that we “hate” our life enough to let go of illusory control, in order to surrender it, wholly, into the divine hug of acceptance; “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Such a fan of paradoxes, God is! When we are weak, then we are strong. When we really love our life, then we can relinquish it; then it is an acceptable gift to God. A hated life is not a fit gift for anyone.
Chesterton, who lived a long life that never seemed to run short on wonder, wrote in his poem, “Evening”:
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
Recently Al Lieter, who had a respectable pitching career in Major League Baseball, recalled his disbelief at moving from the minor league to the majors. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence he said: “I couldn’t believe I was getting to live out my dream. Every time I stepped onto the mound, I knew what a gift it was, how much I loved it, and how easily it could all be taken away, so I was grateful for every minute.”
The foundation of joy, I am convinced, is gratitude. And gratitude can only come from awareness. If you are not actively aware of the good things in your life, if you refuse to recognize them, or take them for granted, then you cannot feel gratitude. And if you have nothing for which to feel grateful, what have you got to be happy about?
I have known people who never appreciated the great gift of mobility until they were crippled by arthritis. I knew a man, once, who never appreciated being able to raise a cup of coffee to his lips, until he suffered a brain accident, and could no longer drink without help.
Thanksgiving is not just for turkeys. Optimally, it is a state of mind. And since “a thought is a thing,” daily thankfulness becomes a state of being.
Buster’s lovely card reminded me of a time when my Li’l Bro Thom wrote to me, “sometimes, I hate my life…”
He was singing a Psalm of the Common Man, which I then blogged about in 2006, and repost here, because although I still have thirty tabs open that I mean to share, I still don’t feel like writing politics…although probably you should be aware of this.
THE PSALM OF THE COMMON MAN
For the past few days, I know, this blog has been a little on the edgy and skittish side. Those of you reading me must have developed an image of me tap-tap-tapping away at my keyboard, hair askew, wild-eyed with a caffeine overdose, hyperventilating and unable to focus.
And yeah, that image would be just about right.
I apologize if I’ve seemed a bit out-there. While I was under the pressure of a couple of deadlines, Christmas and family commitments, I let email correspondence and other concerns go rather to hell and then this week I looked up at it all and felt like I was the proverbial hapless clerk about to be flattened by a pile of files.
All of this was apparent in my writing which, for a few days, has been uneven and unfocused. My Li’l Bro Thom – a fellow who understands the concept of high stress and yet manages, through faith, to deal with it and still remain sane and reasonable – noticed.
“You’re writing like you need ritalin,” he joked.
Normally, I would have laughed, but when a criticism is really on-target, even if it is offered gently, it can really sting, and rather than laugh I emailed back an unhappy emoticon and a pathetic, “go ahead, make my day even worse.”
“What’s wrong,” he responded.
There followed a rambling email that was the equivalent of a harried woman blubbering and waving her hands about like a demented emu. I spilled!
“My husband has a job opportunity that is very exciting but will mean more travel! I’m becoming a sentimental goose who keeps seeing her grown children as cute 6 year-olds before her eyes – how did my life go by so quickly! And I don’t think anyone is even reading me except my Elder Son’s Sweet Girlfriend – and I think she only reads me because she’s mystified by me, or something. Sometimes I feel like…all I’m doing is writing words and words and they don’t matter. I know you were joking, and any other day I would have laughed…but I just feel so out of sorts. And I got my hair colored and I’m SO grey, all of a sudden! You men don’t understand what it’s like!”
“You need a retreat,” he counseled.
“Yes, and chocolate,” I concurred, wondering if Buster had any about for his Eagle Scout fund-raiser. “What about you,” I asked, feeling immeasurably better for spilling, and knowing he is carrying a very heavy load in many ways. “How is it all going?”
“Well…we take every day as it comes, right?” He wrote back. After going into some details on a family matter that is causing him real grief he concluded:
Sometimes, I hate my life
But mostly, things are good.
I looked at those words for a long time and then wrote back, “David could not have written a better psalm.”
One of the greatest things about becoming a Benedictine Oblate is that we are encouraged to pray at least some part of the Liturgy of the Hours (aka The Divine Office, aka The Opus Dei) every day. Immersing oneself in the psalms is a remarkable experience because within those 150 poems resides the entire human condition in all of its lunacy and sorrow, its agony and rapture and woe. To read the psalms daily is to be reminded that no human expression of feeling is unique to the rest of humanity, that our interpersonal kinship is not really narrow – rather it is as broad as we allow it to be.
We live in a very polarized age wherein we too often and too-willingly segregate ourselves with an “us good, them bad” mentality. That is not new, of course. Humans have always drawn their lines of demarcation between themselves and others – mostly either because of ethnicity or language or creed. Lately, as ethnicities blend and languages fade, the lines seem increasingly to be drawn mostly over ideologies disguised as creeds. Or creeds disguised as ideologies.
It’s distressing to see. It is terribly distressing to watch what appears to be an inexorable move toward national self-destruction in the pursuit of “squashing the other side,” when in fact both sides are America’s, and an America without healthy discourse and respectable, honorable and loyal dissent will not need an outside enemy to render her impotent and eventually inconsequential.
The truth is, no matter who we are, no matter what our economic situations, our familiar realities, our backgrounds, our educations, our failures or our potentialities – beyond all that separates us, beyond our own drawn lines, we are all the same. In our quieter moments, we sing a nearly silent, common psalmody. It is the Psalm of the Common Man, and everyone sings it, no matter how “uncommon” they believe themselves to be:
We take each day as it comes
Sometimes I hate my life
But mostly things are good
Mindful people try to be grateful for the good things in their lives, but it is easy to overlook what is positive and dwell on the negative – to lose sight of all one has, for the want of what one seems to lack. It is an ancient part of our human condition; it existed in Eden, after all.
In a monastic house, psalms are chanted by the community in turn. They sit dexter and sinister, right and left, and each side takes turns, verse by verse, down the psalms.
Left and right, they sing. They weave psalms and canticles, readings and collects, prayers and praise into one marvelous whole, and in doing so, dexter and sinister – united in purpose, and in understanding – become one.
We take each day as it comes. Sometimes we hate our lives. But mostly things are good.
All together, now!