All things together

Do you ever have times – maybe a moment, or a day, or even a stretch of days – where you feel absolutely raw? An open, throbbing, vulnerable heart thrust into the world?

I do. Sometimes it’s just a glimmer that takes my breath away. Sometimes it lasts longer.

I feel so deeply connected with the intensity of life, both the sweet and the stinging, that I can’t quite find my boundaries.

I struggle against and rest in such vulnerable times.

Over the course of this week, my little family unit has experienced a perfect storm that thrusts us into this heart-opening, heart-breaking place: clients facing dire health and mental health struggles; a political (and therefore moral & world) climate in unsettling shape; limited time for our usual self-care strategies. There’s more, but you get the idea.

With any time of vulnerability, the capacity for empathy expands. We feel the pain of the parent whose child is chronically ill so much more acutely after an illness in our own babe. We can’t watch or read scary/sad/tragic stories during upheaval in our own lives. It’s too much – we have enough on our plates personally, and to deal with others’ struggles feels positively overwhelming. Or, we feel compelled to read all the sad stories, join all the support groups, and never allow ourselves a moment of relief. 

These vulnerable times challenge us to root our own feet into the ground so we don’t lose ourselves, and find the lotus growing out of the mud.

In college, I did a summer internship at a food shelf and housing facility in Cincinnati. It was a powerful learning experience for me, and all around unpleasant. It wasn’t well organized. I didn’t have any training or education about how to develop programming for residents (supposedly my job).

The whole neighborhood was hot, smelly and sad. The shelter staff was burnt out (to varying degrees) and tired. My roommate in the dorms for the summer was distant and not interested in being a friend. I was trying to find a new balance with an old friend, and it turned out to be really, really tough. It was a tricky season for me.

One day, when I was in the basement of the old building and had completed the tasks set before me (in the first hour of my eight hour day), I found myself in despair. No one would’ve noticed if I hadn’t shown up in the morning. My weeks attempting to connect with and teach the women in the shelter had bombed miserably. A lot of my personal life was in upheaval. For one thing, I’d thought I wanted to work in nonprofits when I graduated – but this? This didn’t seem like a good fit.

I had a book of meditations by Anthony DeMello (I’d read and had my world rocked by his A Way to Love earlier in the year). It happened to be in my bag, and I was so very miserable I thought I’d give a meditation a try. I was deep in the mud, and ready for a lotus to emerge.

The essence of the meditation (in Wellsprings) was this: I was to sit and contemplate a variety of situations in succession, observing in my mind’s eye as though I was watching the story on tv. The birth of a baby. The loss of a baby. A birthday celebration. A funeral. Spring flowers emerging. Plants dying in Autumn. And on it went, moving between what appeared to be polar opposites.

At first, I recoiled from the sad images. The pain was too much. As I sat in that basement, perched on a radiator in a deserted hallway, I felt something in my heart melt. I felt a deep, unfathomable peace. It was a brief and soul-sustaining touch into the okayness of things – an acknowledgement that “good” or “bad” is something we’ve made up. If we set loose those ideas, even for a brief moment, there’s room for a third option we can’t fully comprehend. There’s relief there.

Maybe we need to flounder in and hate on that mud for a little while first – or curl up in a ball and breathe until we’re ready. We will, eventually, be ready to take on the immense beauty and struggle and loveliness of this fact: our hearts are all connected – in fact, there’s only one heart.

May we find space to allow grief and joy, loss and gain, closings and openings all together.

May we tap into the courage stored in our every cell to recognize that there’s no such thing as happily ever after – and, equally important, there’s no such thing as everything is ruined.

May we know, even when our brains tell us otherwise, or our emotions take on a pushy, tidal wave quality, that there’s tension in the world for a reason. If we trust the dark moments, the chaos, the aches, they’ll deepen our light, our sense of order, and our healing.

Have a wonderful day.