Sorrow amidst the Joy

Sunday Morning Musings:  As the Advent/Christmas season approaches the paradox of life and its joys and sorrows seems to come more into focus.  I suppose the sharpness of contrast is prevalent any time of year but more now.  I recently watched and listened to the sights and sounds of the local Santa Claus parade.  I am not sure whether the children were as excited as their parents and grandparents but what a joy it was (especially when those standing in front of me hadn’t attended before and were surprised at the candy handouts).  Even as I walked slowly (I am getting too old to stand too long) back to my car the enthusiasm of the young families filled the air.

Yet, I am very aware that this same season of wonder and hope knows its share of sadness.  Grief doesn’t have a season and can wash over one at any time.  There is the struggle that confronts those who hear all around them the sounds that ring out happiness while they feel the heaviness of loss.  As the expression of grief has become more acceptable or main stream in the past thirty or so years there have be a rise in the number of occasions designed to address this sorrow.  Despite the fact that different names are used to attempt to label these events (Blue Christmas, The Longest Night…), all of these services hope to allow acknowledgement that even amidst the sorrow, joy can be found.  And I suppose the opposite is true, that amidst the joy it is okay to express our sorrow.

The main reason to acknowledge this paradox is that life is made of both our joys and our sorrows.  Kahlil Gibran in his book The Prophet wrote “when you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (p. 29).  As much as anything I understand this to mean that our joy is muted because of our sadness, but that it only because we have loved and now have lost that love that we feel its pain.  Furthermore, this means that to really honour the sorrow, we can and should allow ourselves to cherish the memories and the love and joy we carry with us.

Buddhist teachings, according to Pema Chodron in her writing When Things Fall Apart, goes so far as to tell us that “when inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself.” (p. 87).  We can use our loss to inspire us to think about others and it can become an opportunity for us to show compassion.

How truly it is for all of us to show compassion and those who feel the pain and sorrow of loss can lead the way.  What an honour we offer to our loved one when we act on his or her behalf living a good and meaning filled way.  There is no doubt that we can offer compassion in so many ways, all we have to do is look and reach out.  That is not to say what I do is going to be the same as someone else, but when each of us uses our sorrow to create joy, healing begins.

Not Having to be Perfect

Sunday Morning Musings:  In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be, (Little, Brown and Co., 1996), the author, Harold Kushner speaks of guilt and shame that arises within each person as they are “capable of recognizing the gap between what they are and what they can be expected to be, and of being embarrassed of the difference” (p. 35).  He then speaks of the difference between guilt and shame and how they both can create the way we see ourselves, and think that others will see us.

There is no doubt that much of our understanding comes from various interpretations of the Bible and from the ideas of original sin (Adam and Eve in Genesis) and that of atonement through the cross of Jesus (He died for our sins). Yet it seems that as our society moves away from these concepts the stories or sense of guilt and shame continue.  In some sense it may be that society is so imbued with religious overtones that there is a strong carry over.

I mentioned in my novella, Dying to Live (Shelsid Publishers, 2014) about a dying person who seemingly had little or no connection to the church confronted the chaplain with the statement, “I am going to hell!” The first question that came to mind was that of where this question/idea had come from.  Obviously, there was a fear and sense of guilt that arose and the idea of going to hell was causing a great deal of stress. (The whole idea of heaven and hell as a physical place is another issue for another blog.)

That is not to say that we shouldn’t feel guilt or shame.  But as Kushner goes on to point out that “Religion properly understood is a cure for feelings of guilt and shame, not their cause.” (p. 43).  And yet, the sense of not being or feeling worthy continues.   I wonder just how we can overcome it.

I am not as perfect as I would like to think I am, but do I really have to be or even could I be?  I don’t think I am flawed because God made me that way.  I am not sinful because my parents sinned and their parents before them.  I make mistakes and worse yet I let myself think that I am not worthy because of those mistakes.  Even worse is when someone has wronged me and I blame myself for it. Sadly, that is so much the case today.  How often do we blame the victim?  How often does the victim feel unaccepted and thus unacceptable?  These feelings of inadequacy usually end with the individual avoiding talking about the issue. Such being the case with allegations of sexual abuse that we are currently hearing about that may have happened years ago.

The positive we need to take from all this is that guilt and shame are not God-given; they do not make us worthy or unworthy.  Nor do we ever have to think that we can or have to be perfect.  Rather, I have heard told many times the idea that imperfection helps us to understand that I am okay just as I am. Various writers including Leonard Cohen in Anthem have told us that the crack lets the light, or the wound lets God in (E. Kurtz & K. Ketchum) to name a couple. The difficult part is believing it, letting it live deep in our hearts.

Flip a Coin or Think?

Sunday Morning Musings:  I remember being asked one time about making choices, at least the choices that have an either/or response. When I couldn’t decide I was asked to flip a coin and told afterward that the answer was not in the coin but in the feeling that occurred when I saw the result of the coin toss.  The inner feeling, or as some might say my “gut reaction”, indicated my choice, or at least what I hoped would be the result.

As I mentioned, this is a good idea as long as the choice requires an either/or response.  But what happens when the choice isn’t that simple?  Questions get asked that don’t have a response that is so easy or is often followed with a “but”.  For example:  Do you believe in the Bible?  My response would not simply be yes.  I do believe in the Bible, but whose understanding of it, whose interpretation?  Or, do I believe the Bible to be the Word of God.  Again my answer would be “yes, but…” or even better to use my improv skills would be to say “yes, and…”  There is not a simple answer to these or similar questions.

I was surprised to hear our Governor General commenting about the either/or essence she felt existed between science and religion.  I will admit that for some even today, the two are like oil and vinegar.  Yet, my experience with oil and vinegar holds true for science and religion.  They go together well as long as they are mixed properly and not left to divide.  I believe in creation, only not as it has been and often still is taught.  New life is created every moment of every day.  The scientist (at least some) would say that is true but might add that it doesn’t mean that God is behind it all.

Again, what we create is an either/or situation.  If God creates the heavens and the earth, then God makes both good and bad alike.  And, of course, that means that every bad that happens is a result of God’s will.  Evil exists because God chose or chooses to allow these things to happen (wars, shootings, terrorism, poverty, hunger…) On the other hand, if there is no God, then it is easier to explain these things just as fate.

My experience has taught me that life isn’t that simple. It has also taught me to be respectful of those who have different views.  But wouldn’t it be easier if I just spoke my mind? Then I could simply say that s/he is wrong, I have the right answers and if you don’t believe me, well then tough.  Wouldn’t it be easier not to have to think any more about right and wrong, about truth and untruth, about science and religion?  All we have to do is believe the “so-called” experts, right?

My experience has also taught me that one for Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: Life is Difficult is also very true and that means that life isn’t always simple.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have choices to make, rather it means we need to think about our choices and not always leave the thinking to someone else.  We have to value ourselves and our choices and our differences. Yes, and we must always be respectful and loving and compassion.

Love is the Only Authority

Sunday Morning Musings:  I have been struggling for a while now about the paradox of authority.  I like to be in control and therefore like to exercise my authority in a situation.  On the other hand, I am respectful of those in authority over me.  Therein lays my conundrum.  How do I tell the difference between exercising my rights and responsibilities to be an authority figure and accepting what I am told?

I am a firm believer that we operate with at least three different levels of being with others.  As a child I was very dependent upon others.  I had the expectations that my parents, my schools, and my church would lead me in the right paths.  What they told me was the truth.  As a teenager I began to rebel against such dependency.  I was actually encouraged to think for myself.  Even though my parents were still authority figures to me, they encouraged me to ask questions and search for answers even if they didn’t always agree with me.  The same was somewhat true as I advanced through school and church.

However, I was soon to learn when I became a teacher that asking questions or encouraging my students to ask questions could result in the unpredictable happening. It was much easier as a teacher just to have my students respond as they were expected.  Teaching by rote is okay for a while, but it really doesn’t promote a sense of independence of thought.  I do remember a grade 13 teacher (yes, I am that old) telling me that if I was to write a good essay I would need to present more than facts.  I was told to tell what the facts meant.  That seemed to work as long as my meaning and the teacher’s meaning were much the same.  In other words, I could be an independent thinker as long as I thought in the “acceptable” manner.

The church seemed to treat me in much the same way, even as I advanced into theology.  If I gave the expected answers I was accepted.  I learned how to play the game and as a result I got the required grades and ultimately was ordained.  (That is not to say that is the only reason I was ordained.)

In many minds the churches (and religions) have not changed much over the centuries.  We still have a book that is the authoritative Word of God, and as long as it is interpreted “correctly” all is well.  And for correct interpretation all I need to do is read what it says.  Why this book even tells me to consider men as better than women, as white men better than non-whites.  Who would believe that stuff, that nonsense?

Now the alternative could be just as bad.  In the play Sola Fide! (a Friendly Dramatization of Martin Luther’s 500 Year Old Reformation) written by Reverend John McTavish who with tongue somewhat in his cheek put words into the mouth of Cardinal Eck, “Imagine if every priest or monk decided to interpret the faith for himself.  There would be chaos, Luther.  Churches on the corner of every street, all of them claiming to possess the truth in their own little Bibles, their own little paper Popes”. Who decides?  Who is  the final authority?

So we come to my third phase of life which is that of interdependence.  We all have the possibility of being right and wrong.  We have the authority to think for ourselves and should be encouraged to do so. But we do not have the authority to act on our own or in way that is disrespectful of others even if they disagree with me.  We do have the authority to be compassionate and loving. I have thought this though and for me, this is the word of God.  (Now the issue of power vs. authority is another topic!)