How to live on a ledge

This post covers topics that I’m usually uncomfortable writing about, though I think about them frequently. I’ve recently added lines from the Tracy Chapman song “Why” to the draft of my Artist Manifesto:

The time is coming soon when the blind remove their blinders and the speechless speak the truth.

It gives me courage.

I recently received a text message, one bubble within a group conversation:

I don’t know how best to respond to this. I’m very glad that you shared it with me, and I love you! … It’s hard to process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone I’m close to.

I didn’t write back at the time. I thought some thoughts but texting has its limits. It’s been on my mind though.

Long-time readers of this blog might know that I sometimes resolve pressing philosophical queries during the quiet time between dropping the kids off at school and arriving back home. I can’t remember the soundtrack this time, I was a million miles away, but a number of things occurred to me that seemed related to the question I hear in my friend’s message, so I wanted to examine them.

Last night my son was taking a shower. It was time for the shower to be over so I went to turn off the water (he would stay in all night if I let him). He was in there, his skinny little six-year-old body, pretending to be a knight or superhero, water dripping down his face. My turning off the water didn’t disrupt the flow, he stayed in his universe, wherever that was, as he got out of the shower, took the towel. I was flooded with a joyful feeling, I get to be here, now, in the beauty of this moment with this vibrant soul, this child I love with all of my heart. The joy also mingled with a recognition that he will grow up and no longer allow me to hand him a towel someday. And then I thought of a mother who gets a phone call that her son was shot at school. That he’s gone and he’ll never come back.

I was reading yesterday about a boy with brown skin who was shot, killed, by a boy with peach skin because the brown-skinned boy would not call his playmate “mister.” I went to a gathering at my children’s school last week to discuss the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. A mother of a current student stood up and told the group that in her many years at the school it would have made such a difference if one person with skin the color of mine had made an effort to befriend her. She shared, vulnerably and without blame, that she felt that none had, that she felt sadness. And I felt sadness. I’m a person with lighter skin. I didn’t know, or I didn’t take time to know, or know how to know. And I’m not talking about a systemic situation here, I’m talking about that one person and this one person.

In this age of awareness and connectivity it is seeped into our pores, you can’t do anything, be alive, without absorbing into yourself fear, and pain, and loss, of those close to you and those you’ve never met. How can we process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone, the ones we’re close to and the ones we’re not?

Sometimes, frequently actually, I think about David Attenborough’s films. In the series Planet Earth II, there is a segment on the Nubian ibex, a little goat-like creature with giant eyes, that lives in the mountains. Please picture a very adorable animal. These things are born on sheer cliff faces, the ledge for them to stand on is like an inch wide. They have these tiny pointed feet for skipping up and down the mountain. You see, they have to have water to live. And the water is down there, with the foxes.

That is life.

When I’m feeling like life is hard I think about the Nubian ibex babies who are just thirsty. They just want a few sips of water. And they have to climb down a mountain, they slip sometimes, and then foxes eat them. But the foxes have babies too. They just want something to eat. Does that make them the bad guys? No, it makes them alive.

And that is why love is so necessary.

Because we are the ibex. And we are the fox. And we know it.

And now I’m gonna talk about Jesus.

Now before you stop reading, please know that prior to four weeks ago I had not been inside of a church, except for a Christmas service, in about seven years. And I’ve only been to a Christmas service twice in that time.

Long story: I have a number of old books, from one grandparent or another, and they are mostly falling apart. I don’t know what to do with them, which to keep or which to give away, so I started reading one (it’s a slow process) called The Greatest Thing in the World written by a Scottish man named Henry Drummond in the late 1800s when Darwin was becoming well known in the wider world and people were asking a lot of questions about evolution and how it could fit with the Christian worldview.

Drummond was a science-type who saw the evidence for evolution as pretty solid and also felt that it supported what he knew of life as a Christian person.

Before I go any further, I want to make a suggestion. Maybe you watched a lot of people drive to church in their Mercedes wearing a full-length fur coat talking about how God chose them to be blessed and that didn’t sit well with you, camels getting through eyes of needles and all of that. Maybe you learned in history about the Inquisition or the Crusades and you felt that Christianity has been used by a lot of people throughout time to hurt others and gain power. Maybe you are a science-type and you don’t see the need for any supernatural explanations of anything. Maybe you don’t care for the way Godly People twist bits of religious text, out of context, for political ends, to manipulate large groups of people for their own ungodly purposes.

My suggestion, as you read the following, is that you think of Jesus like you would think of Nelson Mandela. A teacher who had some things to say about how to behave given that we are the ibex and the fox. A guy who said some things that made some sense to some people. The fact that his words have been twisted and used for power doesn’t, on its own, make them bad words or bad advice.

Here’s what has helped me lately:

Drummond writes that, Pre-Jesus, men were working their passage to Heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them.

Jesus said, hey, there’s a better way to guide your actions: Love.

How do you love?

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is generous. Love is humble. Love is courteous. Love is unselfish. Love keeps a good temper. Love does not deceive. Love is sincere.

That’s it.

I wake up in the morning. I walk into the kitchen. I light a candle on the counter. I call it the “peace candle.” When the kids start to bicker, when I start to feel rushed, I try to look at the candle. Love is patient. Love is kind.

It helps. A lot.

You will observe that all [the qualities of love] are in relation to men, in relation to life, in relation to the known today and the near tomorrow, and not to the unknown eternity. We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ made much of peace on earth.

The most obvious lesson in Christ’s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving…And half the world is on the wrong scent in the pursuit of happiness. They think it consists in having and getting, and in being served by others. It consists in giving and serving others. He that would be great among you, said Christ, let him serve. He that would be happy, let him remember that there is but one way – it is more blessed, it is more happy, to give than to receive.

Christ did not come into the world to give men religion. He never mentioned the word religion. Religion was in the world before Christ came, and it lives today in a million souls who have never heard His name. What God does all day is not to sit waiting in churches for people to come and worship Him. It is true that God is in churches and in all kinds of churches, and is found by many in churches more immediately than anywhere else. It is also true that while Christ did not give men religion He gave a new direction to the religious aspiration bursting forth then and now and always from the whole world’s heart. But it was His purpose to enlist these aspirations on behalf of some definite practical good. The religious people of those days did nothing with their religion except to attend to its observances. Even the priest, after he had been to the temple, thought his work was done; when he met the wounded man he passed by on the other side. Christ reversed all this – tried to reverse it… The tendency of the religions of all time has been to care more for religion than for humanity; Christ cared more for humanity than for religion – rather His care for humanity was the chief expression of His religion.

And more from First Corinthians:

Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love is the opposite of abstract. It isn’t thinking about hungry people and wishing that everyone had enough to eat. It isn’t feeling sad or scared on behalf of someone close or far. It isn’t the act of making a donation, or campaigning for something, or fighting climate change, or becoming a martyr. It is separate from belief and from knowing. Love requires interaction, connection. It is between you and another person, one real person, right there (or an animal, or a tree, or a mountain, or maybe even a teacup). It is how you encounter others, how you try to encounter others, how you work, the nature of the effort you are willing to put in, to encounter others, real others, others as imperfect as you, in a way that creates heaven on Earth.

We are all born on the cliff, though some are born with much wider ledges.

We are the ibex and we are the fox.

And we are conscious of this. Our consciousness is what searches for understanding, and a way to be okay with the truths of living, of your children living, of everyone you love living, of everyone on Earth, of everything on Earth living on a sheer cliff.

I don’t think you have to define it, though I long to be in community with others who share a spiritual perspective. Who orient themselves not to the ever-after or to following rules or to belonging or not belonging. But who, when they don’t know what to do, how to act, they choose to love, here, now, today, the person next to them, the person across the street, the person at the store, the inconsiderate driver.

I was at the grocery on Tuesday, the store had just opened and I was checking out. All of the staff members were gathered at the front for a team meeting. There are some staff who work at the registers and I know them, we are friendly with each other. But there are people at the store who work behind the scenes. Generalizing I would say they may not speak English as well as the folks at the registers, I have not seen them and I don’t interact with them when I go to the store. But they were there at the meeting. There was one woman standing by the door as I was walking out to leave. I looked at her face, at her eyes. I smiled. The smile she returned to me has stayed with me all week. You would have thought I gave her a one thousand-dollar bill. All I did was to see her and to smile.

Last night there was a performance at my children’s school. During intermission I saw another mother there alone, like me. I don’t know her well but our children are in the same class. I stood up and walked over. This one person and that one person in this one moment. Right now, it’s my way of dealing with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone. And sometimes it can feel pretty good.

My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

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