A Common Disaster
Everything in the world is shaking. I keep a steady hand on my trowel.
This week, I am planting ramps in the woods.
This same week, Russia invades the Ukraine.
This same week, on Tuesday, at 1:15 AM, my friend Ruth is in her study, the lights are out and it’s pitch dark. She is playing her viola, it’s Berlioz’s symphonic poem, “Harold in Italy”. She is crying. She cries for her daughter and for herself.
This same week, in the Ukraine town of Sumy Oblast, Alisa Hlans, three months shy of her 8th birthday, dies when her school is hit by a cluster bomb. A few miles away, Maksim Khanygin, a Russian soldier, is shot. His comrades stand helpless to save him and he dies the day before his 22nd birthday.
This same week in…………………
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest. - Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
It’s late February, and where I live, it’s the perfect time to plant ramps. I do not know what sort of timing is at work in the minds of Vladimir Putin or others who lit this conflagration. I do not know what timing had Ruth up so late playing such music and crying. I do know that the instructions from Cane Creek Meadows Farm suggested that I should plant the bulbs this week.
Fortunately, at my home, it is not the season of war. It is not the time for mourning the recent dead nor for beautiful sad music played alone in a dark room. Those seasons will arrive. I am not worrying about them now. I know full well that death is always in season, as is birth. Death and birth are what make seasons.
Planting in the woods, with help from Tim and Zach, we are blithely unaware of the death of the young girl and a soldier 5,000 miles away. We cannot hear Ruth’s haunting music and her muffled sobbing. If not for the speed of international communication we might well have remained unaware and undisturbed for weeks or forever.
In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris, among the many dead are a soldier and a child. Those two deaths likely did not register in the mind of a single one of the 22,874 individuals living in Trenton, New Jersey at the time. Nobody knew. Lives moved on uninterrupted. (Of course, this ignores tremors at the spiritual level of connectedness where every death ripples through the entire world organism, but that’s a matter for another time.)
The point is, on a conscious level, if I don’t know, if nobody informs me, if I don’t get a text or log onto Facebook, or listen to the news, then I am not likely to be disturbed. It’s like putting my head in the sand or otherwise covering my ears and eyes, too often seen as uncaring, but which has advantages. It is far too easy to become mesmerized by the constant drone of “news” and the play of forms that present themselves. A distorted sense of fear emerges from the apocalyptic images that bombard me, inculcating a feeling of powerlessness. The drag on one’s spirit is palpable and depressing. I care, but I am increasingly mindful of the object of my attention lest I fritter away my energy in distractions. When the moral demand to tend to everything is disproportionate to my range of action, I am in danger of being paralyzed and I will fail my duties and to truly care for what is in front of me.
I do not require regular updates on tragedy nor a touch of hell now and then to know that the world can be terrifying, that the smiling mortician stands ready, that war is somehow “inevitable” (it is not). I am poignantly aware that there has never been a shortage of hate in the world. But to begin to believe that I am somehow responsible for everyone else implies that I can become like God; it presupposes omnipresence and omnipotence. It lightens the burden of focusing on my own behavior and forces my gaze outward. Yes, I am instructed to love my neighbor, but this is best accomplished in the concrete sense of those closest to me, in community, not in the abstract of neighbors hundreds or thousands of miles away. I must accept and remain faithful to the limits of my responsibilities and capabilities.
It is only later in the day, when the planting is done that I stumble upon the news. I don’t generally seek out the news but it has a way of intruding like an unwanted, uninvited, discourteous guest. Why invite such a loathsome being into my home and willingly subject myself to offense? Despite the firewalls I have built, high frequency images from the global news media intrude and I am infected. I feel the fear, sadness, and rage building inside me and I begin to lose control of the thoughts that come into my head. I forget that enchantment and grace are always present whether or not we will or sense them. It takes effort to remind myself that, especially in these times, I need to be a witness for beauty.
You may think me indifferent to other’s suffering. I am not. I care, I feel, but then I must return to the task at hand. It's not the outer world that I must first attend to, it’s my inner world. When disturbed, regardless of the cause, my primary duty is to quiet the disturbance and reclaim my center. Otherwise, I am of little use to anyone. I experience the feelings aroused by the terrible news and then seek to rebalance. While not closing my heart to what is happening, I hope for the things that seem the least possible, like peace. I find it both admirable and useful to sometimes emulate the Amish who have declined to use technologies they perceive as threatening to their peace of mind or their community. One lives as one can or must.
In my daily periods of meditation, thoughts always intrude, that’s the kernel of a meditative practice. I cannot control the thoughts that enter my mind, but I can control the thoughts I entertain. When a thought arises, I simply acknowledge it and let it pass. This is most difficult when an emotionally charged thought enters my field of awareness (anger, lust, fear) but it is even more imperative to let these emotionally charged thoughts go by. If I don’t, they will soon have me sailing down some river where I will lose both my center and my peace. It’s not seeking “no thought”, rather it’s not holding onto “any thought” until thoughts, like chattering monkeys, yield to being ignored and generally subside. Then the peace that always abides, which I hope for the world, may be realized.
The best planting is done by focusing on the activity itself and, with each tree, bulb, or seed, to plant an intention for growth. Growth for the thing planted, growth for the planter, and growth for the world in which it is planted. This is what I can do. I plant ramps with silent reverent attention, ignoring the chattering news of the world, and feel joy in the doing. There is no other way I would choose to live, only numerous other ways to suffer.
The idea that we can change the world without changing ourselves is, at a minimum, suspect. My experience is that it doesn’t work that way. Not for a moment. I am not hopeless in an oftentimes difficult world. To give up illusory hope of changing the world is not to be hopeless. But the meaning of an individual life, and one’s individual life is the only real life one can truly consider, lies in the way we make for ourself. It is never prescribed nor need it be what the culture or the world might suggest, compel, or insert into the discussion. The way is paved by attending to one trowel of dirt, a single bulb or seed, a loving thought in each precious moment of life. The world will always be buffeted by thoughts, winds, words and images. I sense these forces and then do what’s indicated. Like a lover, I strive to remain in rapt attention to the object of my desire and, in doing so, become lost to the world.
If you draw a circle around what you love, you can be sure that hate or indifference will walk the line. Nature knows nothing of the crazy world of boundaries, it is an indivisible whole. That being so, my circle of concern encompasses the entire world and I am deeply saddened for those impacted by war and disaster.
Although I have concern for the entire world, my ability to influence is proscribed by time, energy, and geography. I was not born to save the world; I was born to live rightly in a corner of it. My circle of influence extends mostly to my family, my neighbors and my immediate community. Each and every life, no matter how long or short, permanently affects the lives of those they encounter, alters their orbit, and the echoes of this impact live on. Each life teaches, either as a good or bad example. No one is excused from the impact of how they choose to live. Right here is where I live and understanding that my scope for action is finite, I marshal my resources, spiritual, emotional, and material, with care.
Yet, even within this smaller field of influence, my circle of control is further proscribed. I have little, if any, control outside of the thoughts I hold and the behavior I exhibit. I am planting ramps. I can do this well or poorly. I can do this carrying the troubles of the world and the concerns of the day or with enthralled attention to the task. In giving all to the present moment, I give generously to the world.
I must not forget that I speak with the undeniable good fortune and grace of those who are safe. I am beholden to gods and seasons that do not readily subject me to wars, tragedies, and disasters. I know, again full well, that I am blessed beyond measure. I need not apologize for my good fortune nor do I think it anything but a gift. Being blessed, it is incumbent that I share such blessings as I can, particularly with those closest to me. The problems of humanity are not metaphysical. They are personal. It’s in the realm of personal behavior and responsibility that the problems of humanity must first be addressed.
When everything in the world is shaking it seems the momentum is in favor of darkness. Whatever size the genetic pool of cruelty and ignorance might be, it is never fully drained. In such a world, I am left with only my consistent attempts to live spiritually, to struggle for the light when darkness seems overwhelming.
Yesterday I took a walk in the woods to the spot where the ramps were planted. Two had pushed through the woody detritus, reaching for the light. I too must always struggle for the light. I find it most often in the precious quality of everyday things. And when I find it, the travails of the world melt to nothing.