Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

Hurricanes, Prayer, and Gazing at Barbuda

Before Irma, I had never heard of Barbuda. How could I have known it would alter the way I pray?

The hurricane had sent my wife and me scurrying to Google Maps for a crash course on Caribbean geography. For whatever reason, I had never got round to figuring out the names of all those islands and exactly where they were. I had heard of Antigua but never knew it was part of something called Antigua and Barbuda.

Like millions of others, I learned more about both islands, and their many neighbors, as Irma thrashed its way across them. I heard the reports of total devastation on Barbuda and other islands.

At one point, wearied by the wall-to-wall TV coverage, I switched from Google Maps to Google Earth and zeroed in on Barbuda. The view was not up to the minute, so no effects of the storm were visible. But it did show what had once existed and now, presumably, was devastated: low, flat buildings with metal roofs, dirt roads, churches with names like Living Faith, a marina, a small airport, acres of forest.

For a while I simply gazed at the view—clicking around to look at the island, take it all in, and absorb what it was.

Eventually it dawned on me that what I was doing was prayer.

One thing I learned in my training program to become a spiritual director: pretty much anything can be prayer. Asking God for help, giving thanks, liturgy, yes, but also sitting in silence, journaling, drawing—anything done while sitting in, and paying attention to, the presence of God.

That’s what this felt like. Me, sitting on my sofa, gazing at Barbuda before the storm, holding the island and its people in my heart, all while connected with the God who was there with me, closer than my own breath.

Some might call this a useless first-world response to a catastrophe. That criticism is worth pondering in many contexts, but I don’t think it applies here. Far from being “self-absorbed navel gazing,” my experience illustrates how many contemplatives approach the world.

Here’s what I mean. My experience of prayer that day connected me, in a deep part of myself, to a place I’d never heard of. That connection seems lasting: when the news cycle moved on to Cuba and Florida and then to the next hurricane, I could not get Barbuda out of my mind. Just now I returned to the view from Google Earth, expecting the same view of Barbuda, only to be sickened by new views of the decimated landscape.

Right now, as a result, I’m seeking out organizations through which I can support Barbuda recovery. My wife and I have talked about going there in a year or so; we are not first-responder or disaster-recovery material, but maybe our tourist dollars can help in some tiny way. (Apparently, this is a legitimate form of tourism if done ethically.)

So we take someone, something—like an island, or its people, or its natural resources—into our hearts, and that “taking in” fuels compassion. And action born of compassion. That’s one way contemplatives act in the world to make it better. And sometimes it starts with praying by looking at a map.

Depression, the Dark Night, and Why We Should Pause Before Shouting

I’ve been away from this space awhile, and with good reason.

The good reason is hard to describe. It could have been an episode of severe depression, or a dark night of the soul, or both. My money’s on both but tilts more toward the dark night.

You’ve probably heard the phrase dark night of the soul, but maybe you don’t know how it’s been used through the centuries. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, coined dark night (someone added of the soul later). It describes a period in which the Divine Spirit strips the soul of its dross—sins, imperfections, etc.—and brings it ever closer to God. Other sages have called it the desert or the wilderness. The worst part is that God appears to have left the building.

In my case, so did everything else, which makes the word stripping appropriate. All prayer and meditation ceased. I couldn’t write a word. There was no pleasure in anything (which characterizes both depression and the dark night).

It hurt like hell for months, and I hated the pain. My apathy about writing—which is like oxygen to me—scared me. I wondered if all the things I loved were going away permanently.

My spiritual director and therapist helped immensely. Both pointed out something terribly important: for me, the way I’m made, this is part of normal. It comes with going deeper into spirituality. It comes with being creative. As my therapist said, I should try to stop “awfulizing” it. Just live it.

So I am living it. As a result, things are still dark, but they are stable, and the pain is largely gone. As you can see, I’m just barely starting to write again. Same with prayer.

Why am I telling you this?

Before I answer that, allow me to issue the usual caveats. Mental illness is not to be messed with. If you experience depression, please get help. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help NOW. Medication and therapy can turn your life around.

But our culture teaches us to stop there, because that is the only proper response to darkness. When we are sick, we fight it. When we are sad, we work to get happy. We need to do something, to fix something.

We have lost the idea of staying with the darkness for a season—exploring it, if you will.

Good therapy can help us do this. So can good spiritual direction. So can journaling. Anything that helps us ask fundamental questions about the darkness: What is this all about? Why is it happening now? Does it hold any life lessons for me?

This is the stuff of that contemplative spirit mentioned on the very top of this page. For contemplatives—when we’re at our best—there is a pause between what happens and what we should do about it. In that pause, we observe what’s happening. We listen (to God, to the circumstances, to our own heart) for clues. We listen for the priceless wisdom that often comes out of dark nights. Most of all, we wait with a wide-open heart.

There are so many places in postmodern culture where this pause could help. Think of what would happen if angry Facebook posters paused between the latest outrage and their instinctive responses. Think of how critical this pause could be in the rhetorical buildup between the U.S. and North Korea. Hundreds of millions of lives could hang on the ability of our leaders to pause, observe, and then respond.

I know. That’s a long way from living with depression or the dark night. But what happens in our hearts gets played out on our planet. It’s worth tending the contemplative spirit for that reason. Let alone all the other reasons—like the lasting joy an ever-closer relationship with the Divine can bring.

Incarnation: Maybe It’s Not Just a Jesus Thing

Always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everyone else.   —bumper sticker

 

It’s a little weird when your profound life lesson for 2017 turns up on a bumper sticker.

For the past few years I’ve been getting painful reminders of how I’m just like everyone else. In my loftier moments I’m prone to thinking I’ve made progress in certain areas of my life—that I’ve moved beyond petty envies and dark prejudices and grudges and other schmutz of the soul.

And then something comes up and I realize it’s all still there. I am just like everybody else. Not really worse. But certainly not better.

Just. Ordinary. Average.

This has me thinking about incarnation.

If you’re familiar with Christian thought, you know the word well. The Incarnation is the name given to God’s becoming fully and utterly human in the person of Jesus. This isn’t about taking on a human shell or form: it’s becoming one of us. Which means a lot of schmutzy stuff: pooping his diapers, banging his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, possibly squabbling with his saintly parents, wandering off like a normal curious preteen in a big city like Jerusalem, having wild visions of his own destiny, making life choices that look scary and strange from the outside.

Dying.

As the Bible says, Jesus suffered and was tempted and challenged in the same ways we are (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). For me, it’s a wonderful doctrine—maybe the best Christianity has to offer. What it says to me is that God, the One force and creator behind the entire Universe, gets us. Firsthand. From the inside out.

What if we’re called to the same thing?

That may seem silly at first. We don’t need to become human. We are human. We’re already “incarnate.”

Well, yes we are. But do we actually live it: mindfully, fully, aware of our ordinariness and therefore—all-important—our ordinariness in solidarity with all other human beings?

This is the lesson I’ve been learning. All kinds of jealousies rise in my heart when someone else steals my spotlight, and I see I’m envious and insecure just like everyone else. I’m suddenly confronted with a deep need or vulnerability—again—and I see I’m needy and vulnerable just like everyone else. Something I write uncovers an insight I didn’t even know I knew, and I see I have these wonderful gifts and talents to share, just like everyone else.

So when I go fulfill one of God’s two most basic commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” I can see my neighbor as myself. Because I’ve had practice in learning to love myself with all my schmutz, I can learn to love my neighbors with all their schmutz.

Suddenly that horrible thing about my friend X doesn’t seem so horrible because I’ve got it too. Suddenly I can look at the whole person and just embrace them all, beautiful and well short of beautiful. I am them, I can see myself in them, so I can love them as I love myself.

How is this not incarnation? Sure, we’re already human. This is about being fully, attentively human. What Jesus did. What we, just maybe, are called to do too.

Is Your Faith Life-Giving or Soul-Crushing?

Do you like some parts of your faith more than others?

I’m betting most people would say yes. Some beliefs and practices just sit well with us, and some, well, don’t. Christians may cherish Jesus’ call to “love one another” but cringe at the genocide stories in the Book of Joshua. If you’re a Buddhist, maybe meditation has made you more compassionate and awake, but reading sutras doesn’t do it for you.

This is normal, of course. Who on earth likes everything about anything? The bigger challenge, however, is not identifying what we like. It’s figuring out what’s true, and what’s good for us—and for the world.

Earlier this year, at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International, I heard author and pastor John Mabry speak on providing spiritual direction across faith traditions. When asked about helping clients address the “distortions” in their own belief systems, John made a useful distinction. He talked about life-giving beliefs and soul-crushing beliefs. Practices too can be life-giving or soul-crushing.

How do we figure out which is which?

It may seem easy at first glance. There’s a reason, for instance, why Christians like to quote 1 John 4:8, which tells us that “God is love,” and shy away from Psalm 58:10, “They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

What’s more, our sages and sacred texts point toward the life-giving. St. Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, etc. The God of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the Ten Commandments and the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).The Buddha pointed the way with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

That’s a great start, eh? Hew to these elements of faith and you’ll find life. Except there’s another thing. You could possibly read those elements—joy! oneness! right meditation!—and conclude that life-giving = what feels good.

Not so fast.

Take this saying attributed to Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is hardly a feel-good practice, yet many believers have found it life-giving: it makes more room in their deepest selves for intimacy with God. The Jesus of the gospels also admonished his followers to “enter through the narrow gate…. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to”—wait for it—“life” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Clearly, following this logic, not everything that gives life feels good, and vice versa. Moreover, what’s life-giving for one person may be soul-crushing for another. Have you ever tried praying in a certain way, or volunteering for a certain cause, or holding to a certain childhood belief, and the more you explored it the more grueling it became? Sure, maybe you just hit a rough patch, and a bit of pushing through it yielded great things. Or maybe that part of your faith—so life-giving to others—was soul-crushing to you, and you had to go in another direction.

How on earth do you make the distinction and find the life-giving? A deep connection with the Larger, however you define that Larger—God, One, Buddha-nature, etc.—can yield priceless wisdom and guidance. In this context, prayer and meditation, in whatever form gives life to you, are indispensable. Working with a clergyperson or spiritual director can help you sort out your experience in a safe place.

Ultimately, however you go, the journey is worth the effort. It draws us ever closer and closer to the Source of all life. Nothing is more life-giving, and more joyful, than that.

What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.

The Media and Other Groups That May or May Not Exist

Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.

Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”

With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.

The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”

The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.

That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.

So why haven’t we learned it with the media?

When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?

The term mainstream media is no better. Does FOX News qualify? CBS? CNN? What about The PBS NewsHour, with its balanced in-depth reporting? How about Al Jazeera?

You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.

Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.

Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.

There Is So Much More to Listening, and Life, Than You Ever Imagined

Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.

I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?

In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.

It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.

As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.

For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?

Eventually two things became clear.

First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.

Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?

Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.

For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.

The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.

Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.

A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.

 

Whatever Happened to Dialogue Venture?

If you’re a regular reader here, you may have noticed that some things have changed.

The most noticeable is the banner. It used to say The Dialogue Venture. It doesn’t anymore. What does that mean?

You might think it means that I’ve given up on dialogue. In the Trump/Brexit/Le Pen era, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw: more than a few people have quit the quest to talk and listen across divides.

But I’m not among them. I believe in that work as much as I ever have. And frankly, I can’t help myself: people who disagree with my opinions and values just fascinate me. I’m odd that way.

To explain the change, it helps me to go back to the way I’ve always described my dialogue work: I help people change from the inside out to talk with people who drive them nuts.

Notice that first part: change from the inside out. This is where my focus on spirituality and God and inner transformation comes in. I am convinced of the power of faith and spirit to reorient our deepest selves toward the values and attitudes traditionally associated with God: love, peace, justice, compassion, setting oneself aside for the good of others, a deep desire to be positive change in the world.

But inner transformation has an impact on many other aspects of life too. Over the past few years, for instance, I’ve noticed it has something to say about the frenzied pace of our postmodern world. It has something to say about our constant state of distraction. It has boatloads to say about letting go of self-interest and living for something larger. Not to mention what it might say about current events: the Trump era, immigration, etc.

More and more, I’ve felt a need to expand my writing on inner transformation to encompass these issues, while not forsaking topics in dialogue. My website needs to reflect that expansion. And apparently, according to the gurus of author marketing, it’s good policy to establish your name as a “brand” wherever possible. Hence the new banner across the top, with my name in bigger type than I’m used to. (Flip through the website and you’ll see changes in other places too, like the homepage and the About page.)

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. And one more thing: thank you. All these words mean nothing unless someone reads them—even better, if someone finds a use for them. You’re one of those someones just by being here. I so appreciate your presence and support.

Hard Knocks and the Choice to Be Happy

My beloved cat is in decline.

She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”

We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.

Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.

As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.

There’s very little control here.

And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.

Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?

What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.

But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”

And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.

Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.

Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.

Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.

Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.

Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.

 

This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.