One of the things I like most about life is that we never know what’s coming. The universe is full of surprises. Who knows what tomorrow—or the next five minutes—will bring? Turn a corner, and life changes forever. We can’t count on anything. We spend all our time getting our ducks in a row, and they fly south for the winter. We build the Great Wall of China, and the Empire still collapses. What a world. You can’t beat it anywhere. I love it. I’m being completely serious. I love the whole show. I love not knowing from one minute to the next what will be waiting on us when we get there—what we will have to deal with—how we will deal with it—where it’s going.
Fran Tarkenton, a former NFL quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants said, in an interview with ESPN, that he missed everything about his career in football. The sacks, the completions, the scrambling for first downs and touchdowns, the hits, the fumbles, the rain and mud, the snow, the wins and losses. “I loved it all, and miss it so.” There you are. We have to be able to say that about our life: “We loved everything about it, and miss it so.”
Two things are true, and wonderful: “You never know what’s going to happen,” and, “The response determines (or at least, strongly influences) what follows.” The future hinges on—and flows from—how we respond to what happens in each present moment. Yet, nothing we do will control any outcome, or guarantee any result. We have no control, but we exercise considerable influence, and we don’t know where things are going, or what will happen next. Now, that is worth getting out of bed for every morning!
This is the kind of thing we go to the movies to watch: The day has a mind of its own and we can influence the day! The day has a life of its own and we can bring to life in each day things that would not be alive without us. We work with what the day gives us to guide the day toward the best we can imagine within this context, these circumstances. And, we do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, every day for as long as there are days. This is much of a long-range plan as we can hope for! If you want a more specific plan than this for your life, the days are going to collapse in a gasping heap, laughing.
The best we can do is to be relatively clear about the best we can do. What is the best we can imagine? What do we wish for ourselves, those we love, all living beings, the entire planet, and the cosmos as a whole? What is worth our life? Toward what are we living? These are the questions we must be answering with our lives. We cannot be too clear about them. And, we cannot arrive at clarity without thinking about, and talking about, what is happening, and what we are doing about it. We don’t engage enough in that kind of conversation.
The days come at us too fast to allow reflection. We don’t have time to think about what we are doing. We’re too busy dodging, ducking and jumping out of the way to worry about anything beyond survival. The only thing we are clear about is that we need a break. We need to tag out of this round. We need help.
The bad news is it isn’t going to get easier. We only have the time between now and the next thing—which is no time at all—to “recover from the past and store up for the future,” decide what we are going to do about the future when it arrives, think about where we are going with our lives, and what we think ought to happen, and how we ought to assist its happening, and evaluate what we are doing while we are doing it.
James Hollis, the Jungian analyst and author, says his high school football experience taught him that no matter what happened on the last play, he had to get up and get ready for the next play. That’s life for you. Here it comes, ready or not. We’ll have to invent our response on the run. We don’t have time to sit for days, weighing our options.
But, we get all the practice anyone could possibly want! Our lives are proving grounds, which produce, over time, the kind of life that life is all about—if we pay attention! If we are aware! If we are awake! The good news is that we don’t have to know what we are doing. We don’t have to have it figured out. We don’t have to be clear about anything. Our lives are self-correcting, self-guided, self-propelled, learning environments. All we have to do is keep our eyes open in order to figure it out. We only have to live with our eyes open—and bear the pain!
We cannot live with our eyes open without bearing the pain. The pain is the pain of seeing how it is and also is—knowing, feeling, experiencing how it is and also is. To be aware is to be aware of the contradictions and conflicts—to be aware of living in the tension between how things are and how things ought to be. This is not easy. The more aware we are, the more we will have to manage the pain of being alive.
The human predicament is that we can imagine a better world than the world we live in. We have to bear the pain of the discrepancy between the world of our dreams, and the world we wake up in every day—between the world as it could be and the world as it is—between the way things are and the way we wish things were. It is an agonizing discrepancy. We bear the pain of realization, of enlightenment.
We cannot grow toward how things ought to be without coming to terms with how things are, and how things have been, and how things can be. How things are, and how things have been, provide us with the corrective insight required to live toward how things can be. But that means bearing the pain of knowing how things are, and how things have been, and how things can be. Part of our work is to live with our eyes open, and bear the pain of living with the awareness of how things are, how things have been and can be. Part of that pain is the pain of what has been done to us. Part of that pain is the pain of what we have done. Part of that pain is the pain of what has happened to those about us. We cannot live with our eyes open without knowing that things are not what they might be—what they should be.
The church of our experience has attempted to handle the discrepancy between how things are and how things ought to be by dismissing, discounting, denying or ignoring it. Or by saying that it’s all our fault, and that if we weren’t sinful our lives would be grand. Or by saying that it isn’t really all that bad, and it all happens for a reason, and all we have to do is have faith and everything will be fine. We can do better than any of this.
We can start by saying that our pain is real, and that it must be witnessed. We cannot bear unacknowledged pain. Pain has to be recognized in order to be borne. We have to say what is true to those who can listen with understanding, acceptance and compassion. What we say has to be heard, understood, received, accepted, witnessed. That’s the first thing.
The second is that we have to grieve what is to be grieved, mourn what is to be mourned, feel what is to be felt, object stoutly to what is to be stoutly objected to, and then allow the intensity of our agony to diminish over time. If we have objected properly our agony will diminish, and it is our place to permit that. We are not here to agonize endlessly over the discrepancy between the world we can imagine, and the world we can live in, but to step into this world, and live as well as life can be lived within the context and circumstances—within the possibilities and necessities—of life as it is.
The third thing is that we have to realize that things are not right with this world, and that’s just the way it is. The question is, what can we do about that—how can we work with it. We have to bear the pain of life, and do what can be done about it. And when nothing can be done about it, we have to acknowledge it, mourn it, and allow it to diminish over time. We have to bear it over time in the company of the right kind of people.
Bearing our pain in this way enables us to live with our eyes open, and practice the art of living toward the best we can imagine no matter what. What is the best we can imagine? What do we wish for ourselves, and those we love, and all living beings, and the entire planet, and the cosmos as a whole? What is worth our life? Toward what are we living? We practice answering these questions with our eyes open, living with the idea of making things more like they ought to be than they are, and making things as good as they can be for ourselves and those about us. The trick is to remember what we are about, so that we can practice being about it, and influence the world toward the good of all.
One way of thinking about the work that is before us is to call up the image of Jacob wrestling through the night by the stream called Jabbok with “the angel of the Lord.” You’ll remember that the angel had to depart before dawn, and Jacob wouldn’t let the angel go, even though the angel had dislocated Jacob’s hip, until the angel had given him a blessing.
Rachel Remem says that the trick is to take what comes as graciously as possible, and refuse to let go until we mine it for whatever good may come attached. The angel of the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip; Jacob held on, demanding the blessing.
You know how you are rocking along, things are fine, all is well, you’re on cruise control, clicking off those personal goals and objectives, realizing lofty ambitions, with the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow, smiling like a Cheshire cat in the cat bird’s seat, saying “Ain’t life grand,” when you hit the wall? You know how out of nowhere comes the news about the blockage, or the malignancy, or the job loss, or the divorce, or fill in the blank from your own life experience? You know how it is to be smashed between the eyes by life at its harshest and worst? You know how we can’t run far enough fast enough, and we just try to bury it, get busy, refocus, and refuse to think about the awful thing? That’s what it is like when chaos comes for a visit.
Life gives us things we don’t want, and we try our best to give them back, to give them away, to get rid of them any way we can through denial, diversion, distraction, evasion, escape, avoidance, addiction. We R-U-N-N-O-F-T any way we can, every way we can, every time we can. And we miss the blessing. Every time life whacks us a good one right in the chops, the potential for a blessing exists, and we let it go because we are so busy trying to get back to normal, so busy trying to find the life we once had, so busy trying to bless ourselves by getting rid of the dreadful thing, whatever it is, and give ourselves what we want instead. It doesn’t work that way.
We aren’t in control. We don’t drive this thing called life. It’s immune to our directives, ignores our orders, and whacks us a good one from time to time, right in the chops. When that happens, we have to remind ourselves of Jacob, and grab the thing, whatever it is, right back, and grind our face right into its face, look it squarely in its ugly red eye, and say something on the order of, “I’ve got you now you stinking angel of the Lord! And, I’m not letting you leave without the blessing!”
Sometimes we have to work for our blessings. Sometimes we have to wade right into what looks to be completely devoid of blessings of any variety, and slog around in the slime, until we are sure we have extracted every bit of the good that is to be found there, and come away with the blessing it brings, after what may seem to be an endless struggle through the dark night of the soul.