A couple of nights ago, my partner, Leo, and I watched a video online about a gardener in Aleppo, a man who stayed in the city even when bombs were dropping daily and the population had dwindled by 75%. The camera shows the man, surrounded by abandoned buildings and rubble, handing out handfuls of brightly colored flowers, a shockingly beautiful sight for an image of war. In the video, we see people who say that the flowers remind them of Allah’s beauty and grace. The gardener tells us that the noise of the bombs is like Beethoven’s music and we see his adoring 13-year-old son who had quit school to help his father. I think to myself, “Ah, there is hope in the world!” Then, without any lead-up or warning, the captions tell us that, in the midst of filming the documentary, the gardener was killed by a bomb. The news drops into our hearts like a bomb right there, shattering the comfort of our bedroom, the convenience of our privileged lives. I feel my heart break, and I can practically hear Leo’s break, too, as the video shows us the gardener’s son, bravely answering the reporter’s matter-of-fact follow-up questions to his father’s death. The clip ends in a black screen and we sit in helpless silence. Finally, Leo turns to me. What can we do? What can we REALLY do?
I can not remember a single day when I have not asked myself these questions. Whether I’ve just read an article about the latest oil spill, seen pictures of refugee children washed up on the shores of Greece, or watched yet another video of a young black man being murdered by police officers. In the grocery store, I often find myself racking my brain for solutions while perusing racks of dried goods and choosing perfectly ripe produce. I ride the subway and wonder what could be the most effective way to connect heads to hearts and alleviate the suffering of large populations of people. The question hangs constantly in the back of my mind, like I’m trying to remember if I turned off the stove or not or whether I remembered to pack my toothbrush before a trip. Unlike those niggling thoughts, however, this one never fades. What can I do? What, really, can I do?
If I were looking for advice, my mom might tell me, as she did when I was an impatient and stressed-out teenager, to simply take it one day at a time, to concentrate on the here and now because that’s all I can do. A therapist might ask me to explore my feelings of helplessness or desire to control. My more New-Agey friends would urge me toward self-care because, as we all know, you can’t take care of the world until you take care of yourself. “Put your mask on first,” right? All of this advice has helped me at one time or another. But, something never quite satisfies in any of it. What good is actually going to come of me simply looking within or taking a break? Sure, it might protect my sanity for a while and shield me from some heartache, but what happens the next time I take a peek into the world out there? I’ll get pelted with new (but the same old) images and stories like a nightmarish déjà vu. Will anything truly have shifted? I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that liberating myself from suffering will liberate the world from its suffering.
James Hillman, in We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse, tells us, “By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore… And therapy, in its crazy way, by emphasizing the inner soul and ignoring the outer soul, supports the decline of the actual world. Yet therapy goes on blindly believing that it’s curing the outer world by making better people.” Before all of you therapists and counselors out there start huffing and puffing, just listen. Of course we need to look within (James Hillman isn’t denying this either); I’ve personally found it immensely helpful to discover that my external circumstances do not determine my emotional state. But, is the “separation” between the outer world and the way we feel inside really all that well-defined? Hillman goes on to write, “I would rather define self as the interiorization of community.” We are interconnected and interdependent and the more that I try to turn away from the suffering of the world, and simply work on my emotional reactions, the less I will take any responsibility for or engagement in creating actual change.
I connect to myself, as defined by James Hillman, by being in the world and putting my hands and heart to work in it. And personally, this is how I’ve most often and most deeply connected to the ultimate, loving presence called God. I connect to God in community. Almost a decade ago, a profound friendship turned me, an outspoken atheist, onto the idea that there was something inexplicable and powerful moving in my life. Somehow, I knew that I was meant to know this person and was suddenly awoken to the Great Mystery. I began to realize that the invisible and faraway God of my childhood was actually present all around me right here on Earth. I began to see, hear, and sense that Presence in interactions with people, friends and strangers alike.
Yes, contemplative practice and self-reflection is and always has been an integral part of my personal transformation. But, some of my most powerful and mystical experiences have occurred in my relationships and while engaging in service to others. In A Spirituality Called Compassion, Matthew Fox writes about “extrovert meditation,” or prophecy. He says, “All meditation is about making connections. Introvert meditation – a journey inward – is meant to remind us of a connection already made that we have forgotten – namely that God is within us… This insight is an important one in a culture of objects, things, alienation from self and one’s inner self… But there can be – and often has been in the West – too much emphasis on meditation as the journey inwards to find God within… It can very easily and has very often stifled our capacities to create and especially to create compassion… and of relieving the pain of others.” He insists that “[t]here can be no true incarnational spirituality without extrovert meditation. What good is introvert meditation if it doesn’t flow out into concrete, compassionate action in the world? Instead of listening solely to what lies within, we must listen to the parts of our soul out there. And, often, this is heard in the cries of a hurting and broken planet.
Do I know what will ultimately change the world? Not yet. But, I sense that I’m getting closer by turning my attention outward. By helping others, I’m helping myself, too. Because there is no separation.