Creating a Worthy Life

Brooks Vance advised his wife, “Don’t add up the liabilities, Louise. It will only depress you.” This is not denial. This is recognizing the futility of rehashing what has been done to us, of living with our backs to the future and our arms reaching out to that which cannot be. The spiritual task is to let go what’s going and to let come what’s coming. May it be so with us all!

Of course, we grieve what must be grieved, and mourn what must be mourned, but grieving and mourning are not to become our life. We do not live to wail. We wail and go on. To what? To the next thing. To the next thing that needs us. To what needs to be done in the situation as it arises. To the construction of as much good as we can create with what we have to work with, within the context and circumstances of our lives.

Our work is the creation of the good, not the remembrance of the long-gone-good, not the eternal mourning of the loss of the good, not resentment for the good that never was. Yes, we can be devastated, traumatized, overwhelmed, and undone by the impact of life. Yes, all that we have can be taken from us. But, if we sit lost in our losses, we also lose the moment of our living.

The task of life is always “What now?” “What next?” We have to find ways over, under, around, and through the barriers and blockades, the traumas and catastrophes, that come our way. We live as much “in spite of” as “because of.” We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of dreams of snuggling down with life as we like it, of sealing ourselves into a nice, cozy, little nest, where things are just right, and will be forever. We are in the business of creation, not preservation. It is the business of life to emerge, unfold, evolve. Flat, straight lines are death.

The loss of everything to hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires and floods in recent years point us toward what is needed: resources for the surviving victims, and help over time. We need to provide survivors with the wherewithal required for the next step, the next thing. We help them with food, clothing, shelter and the means of making their way in the world after the loss of their world. We supply them with the physical, psychological and emotional resources for life, with the expectation always being that they will live on, that they will wail, and go on, that they will recover, regroup and reorient themselves toward the best they can imagine in the wake of all they have lost.

One of the psychological/emotional tasks of survival is the deliberate act of moving beyond the numbing, all-consuming nature of traumatic events. We have to draw a line. We have to stop contemplating our losses. We have to go on with what remains of our lives. This is letting go of what is gone. This is the defiant refusal to submit endlessly to the impact of grief, loss, and sorrow. We will not allow our past to rob us of our future.

This does not mean we forget what we have lost. We may wail repeatedly over time, over the rest of time. We may mark anniversaries with tears, sadness and sorrow. We may hold ceremonies of grief and remorse in which we remember our losses, and mourn that which is no more. But, we do not cease to live because of what we have lost. We refuse to give into the constant ache of numbing sorrow, and bring our attention to bear on this moment now, and what needs us here, and what we can do to serve the good, with what we have, where we are.

We do not turn our backs to the idea of the good, in spite of the evil we have experienced. We do not withhold ourselves from the service of the good, even though evil is real and much too present a force in the world. We do not reject the good as a useless, pointless, futile waste of time—but live to bring good forth in our life, anyway, nevertheless, even so!

There is an inscription on a New England tombstone that reads, “It is a terrible thing to love what death can touch.” It is a worse thing to not love what death can touch. It is crucial that we refuse to allow the terribleness of love’s loss to keep us from loving. The spiritual task is to love, wholly, fully, completely, over and over, “what death can touch.” That is who we are. That is what we do. We are here to love what death can touch, as terrible as the impact of loss may be.

We cannot reject the path that is ours to walk. We cannot refuse to walk it with grace and compassion. We cannot forget that the rest of our life is in our hands. How do we want to spend the time that remains to be lived? How do we want it to play out? What do we intend with the life we have left to live? What do we mean by the way we live our life?

There is a sense in which we are no different from the displaced persons, the refugees, of every age. We have more personal resources at our disposal, and it is easy for us to think that we are not as they are. But all of us are putting a life together, whether we know it or not. All of us have to live for the rest of our time upon the earth. What form will our life take? What shape will it assume? What will people, looking at our life in the time that is left to us, think we are living for? What will they think we are trying to express, exhibit, bring to life?

Our life is our work. We owe it to ourselves to craft the best life we can imagine! We have what remains of it to complete our work, to shape our life, to produce the best we have to offer as a boon to the world. This what all hero’s returning from their journey offer to the people who welcome their arrival. Our work is who we show ourselves to be through the process of living our life. It has no necessary connection with what we do to earn a living. Our work is who we are. It is how we carry ourselves through the day. It is what remains of us in the minds of those who know us long after we are gone. In what ways will we be remembered? What will our legacy be? What about us will be missed? How are we living to keep our presence alive in the lives of those who out-live us?

Kindness and compassion were a part of the mix that was Jesus and the Buddha. As were identity, integrity, sincerity and authenticity. They said what was on their mind. They had an accurate sense of direction. They knew what was right and what was wrong—regardless of what the social code of their day said. They knew what was true and what was false. They knew what was important and what was only pretending to be of value. They saw into the heart of things. And they bore well the pain of being alive.

They lived out of their own take on things. They had their ideas about how life should be lived, and they were right-on with each of them. Time has borne them out. They did not come espousing a particular view of morality. They did not recommend asceticism. They did not advise a particular religious doctrine. They came exhibiting, expressing, disclosing their understanding of peace and justice as the foundation of right relationship. They made wherever they were a good place to be. Jesus and the Buddha knew that how we treat one another is more important than keeping the law, and so, did what they knew needed to be done, and let the outcome be the outcome.

Jesus and the Buddha lived to respect and honor all people. They treated everyone as a person of worth. The Buddha would have agreed with Jesus as he identified himself with the lowest of the low, saying, “In as much as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” No one was invisible to Jesus or the Buddha. They saw everyone as being of equal worth, and they treated everyone as though they were. Samaritans, women, and children had no place in Jewish society, they held no rank, they were ignored to the point of being “disappeared,” but Jesus saw them, received them, welcomed them, elevated them to positions of honor and said, “The first will be last and the last will be first.” The Buddha proclaimed, “Cease to do evil; learn to do good, cleanse your own heart; This is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Whom do we treat well? Whom do we ignore? Who is safe with us, and who is unwelcome in our company? The straight way and narrow gate is to have a really, really big heart. That is what the church has missed with its emphasis upon morality, true belief, and right doctrine. Jesus, and the Buddha along with him, would say, “Believe anything you want to, but have a really, really big heart.”

The work is to develop a big heart. This is the spiritual task. It is not believing in Jesus so much as it is being Jesus—not believing in the Buddha, but being the Buddha (And so the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”). We live to be as big-hearted as Jesus and the Buddha were. One approach to that work is to become aware of how little our hearts actually are. Catching ourselves in the act of littleness, in the act of being little-hearted, is a step on the way to a big heart and a worthy life.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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