We have to tend the flame. We have to keep the spark alive. That is a divine imperative. It all starts with, and depends upon, our being alive to the time and place of our living. Life is a gift, but it has to be tended. We cannot take life for granted, or assume that just because we are upright and intact we are as fully alive as it is possible for us to be.
Life is a fragile affair. We can be 98.6 and breathing, and be as dead as “a faded rose from days gone by.” We can take a wrong turn, bet it all on the wrong horse, live our way into dead ends and lost causes, be whammed out of the blue by circumstances we could not have predicted or avoided—and give up. Death comes disguised as many things. Being alive is not guaranteed by birth. We cannot be alive without meaning to be, intending to be, and living so as to be. It takes focus and concentration to be alive. We have to work at being alive, as we would work at anything else.
We have to be alert to what it takes to be alive to what it means to be alive. What is required for life? What constitutes living for us? Jesus came that we “might have life, and have it abundantly,” and tells us, in effect, to take life to all nations. We have understood that to mean eternal life. We have understood it to mean that Jesus came to appease a blood-thirsty, vengeful, angry God so that we might go to heaven when we die. How eternal is life that doesn’t begin until we die? Jesus isn’t about heaven when we die. Jesus is about waking up right now and doing what it takes to be alive—fully, completely, joyfully alive—in the present moment of our living.
Jesus isn’t the only one who knows. What does he say? “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” The children know. One of the things that sets Jesus apart is his child-like-ness. Children come into the world knowing all about being alive. Nothing is more alive than a child—until the adults, or circumstances, get to her, to him. We are born fully connected to life—a connection that the world begins to erode, bit by bit, until by the time we reach fifty, or twenty, we are hanging by a thread.
To “have life, and have it abundantly,” we have to be connected to what is important. We have to remember what we knew as children. Children know what they like, what they love, who they are, and how to look at the world and be amazed. As they get older, the process of socialization, of acculturation, separates children from themselves, robs them of their souls, and takes their life away.
At least, it can if the child doesn’t learn the art of living with a foot in two worlds—the world of the interests of Self/Soul, and the world of the expectations of society and culture. If we are to maintain our connection with the Source of Life and Being, we have to find ways of remaining true to ourselves without cutting ourselves off from the things living demands of us. We live within a particular context, within a specific set of circumstances. The task of life, of being alive, is being true to ourselves, within that context and those circumstances. This is called Walking Two Paths At The Same Time. It is easier, by far, to give up the struggle, and let the path of heart/soul go untrod.
In order to picture what we are up against, imagine a stream flowing down hill. On its way to the sea, the stream encounters an ever-present collage of things that make its task difficult. There are boulders that roll into the stream, trees that fall into the stream, hogs that wade and wallow in the stream, landslides and beaver dams that block the stream, farmers who pump water from the stream, a wide variety of animals that drink from the stream, and long stretches of dry weather which practically dry up the stream. Through all of this, the stream never says, “Okay, that’s it! I’m done with this! I am not flowing one more minute, if this is the way I’m going to be treated!” The stream never gets tired, never gets fed up, never quits. “Quit” is not in the stream.
Imagine a dogwood growing under a heavy canopy of large pines or hardwoods. We think we have it tough. It is hell hacking out a living on the forest floor. Sunlight and water are at a premium. Every minute of your life, 24/7/12 is spent bending toward the light and putting out more roots in the search of a little moisture, trying to beat the competition to what is never enough to go around. A dogwood is up against it from the start.
Every dogwood in its natural habitat is bent out of shape. Every dogwood in its natural habitat—that is to say, in the context and circumstances of its life—is grotesquely contorted by its effort to grow toward the light. The dogwood sacrifices appearance to get a few leaves in the sun. It never says, “Well! I never knew it would be this hard! I don’t get a minute’s rest, and I am worn out with the work of trying to find enough light and water to live on. I have no canopy or trunk to speak of. After all these years, there is still nothing to me. I’m only a sparse collection of limbs reaching for the sunlight. I am exhausted and ashamed of myself to boot. I’m going to quit!” Dogwoods don’t quit.
The easiest thing in the world is to get to a point where “it just isn’t any fun any more.” We lose our teeth, our hair falls out, our eyes grow dim, we can’t hear a thing, all our friends have died, and we can’t remember the last time we had a good time—or anything else for that matter. Each day is as bad as—or worse than—the one that went before it, and we can’t for the life of us find anything worth living for in any of them. The great work of the human soul and spirit is to not let living get us down.
The great work of the human soul and spirit is to live with all that is within us for as long as life is possible—and to assist one another in that work, because it is for this work we live. We are here to be alive in the time left for living, doing what we came to do in the time and place of our living. We are here to throw our arms around our lives just as they are, to embrace life, and live as those who are true to themselves within any context, within every circumstance. It isn’t easy, but that only means we only have to do what is hard—and help one another along the way.
Alcoholics Anonymous has only one function: to bring people back to life. Every member of AA has died, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and almost physically. When a person joins AA that person is on the edge, with his or her back to the wall. That person has given up, and has been given up by everyone except other members of AA. It is the work of Alcoholics Anonymous to get the life back into its people. And, you know the motto: One day at a time.
That could be the motto of a stream encountering dams and landslides. It could be the motto of a dogwood trying to get to the light. One day at a time. Life is a conscious, deliberate, intentional, daily effort. It doesn’t happen accidentally. Just because we are 98.6 and breathing, we can’t think that we will also be fully, deeply, joyfully alive. We have to work at that—every day for the rest of our lives.
And, we have to have help. We need one another. Members of AA have a personal sponsor, and they have all the other members of AA to help them with the work of coming back to life. We cannot do it alone. We need one another appreciating the good about us, and willing the good for us. We need to be able to say how it is with us, and have people listen and understand, without dismissing what we are experiencing, and trying to cheer us up by telling us that it could always be worse. How cheery is that? We know that it could be worse. And, we know if we live long enough it will get worse. It is not helpful to talk about how worse it could be. It is helpful to listen with understanding about how things are.
It is too easy to drift away from the divine imperative of tending the flame and keeping the spark alive. It is too easy to lose heart and let the spirit die within us. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Ps. 421:5) The work of being alive is the work of remembering that dying is easy, living is hard. It is the work of doing what is difficult, and living, consciously, deliberately toward the things that enable life, and are life, every day, for as long as we are alive.