I saw a recent cartoon on Facebook that seemed to be a collective voice these days.
A stick figure was standing beneath a hovering UFO, pleading, “I’ll pay you to abduct me.”
I laughed, but the deeper meaning stayed with me.
Today, for many reasons, we want to run away. To leave behind the world and all its miseries. To escape from the woes that beset us.
I know I’ve done it quite a few times in my life. But sometimes — short of our own personal injury or that of others — we are called to stay put, to “be with” the suffering in our lives and in the world.
Why? Because the truth is, we share in this journey of sorrow. Life will have its way with us. Suffering will visit us — individually and collectively — and may have already visited. A death. A divorce. An accident. A diagnosis of terminal illness. A child lost to addiction.
And in the world at large, we don’t have to look far. Wars, hungry children, mass shootings, a political system gone amuck, a 24-hour news cycle that feeds society with a culture of death.
Sadly, I grew up watching a world sucked up in killing. I was in seventh grade and I remember coming home after school and watching the evening news. The Vietnam War was raging in black and white on the TV screen. It was the first time that cameras had filmed the carnage and my sensitive soul felt the wrongness of this.
Even at that young age I sensed the connection of each human being in our world. I knew this war was wrong, but on a deeper level, my heart knew it was beyond that. We were killing our collective soul.
Today, more than ever before, our collective soul is being challenged as we dwell in a “border country” — a tipping point that is filled with uncertainties, that is inviting us to ask new questions and to envision new possibilities that are not yet named.
“The border country … does not so much draw us away from the everyday world as it plunges us deeper into a reality of which the everyday world is like the surface … to live there for awhile is like having the veils pulled away.”
In her book The Artist’s Rule, Christine Valters Painter expounds:
“Borders and edges are the places of transformation that call us to something deeper. Pulling away the veils means seeing the heart of things — which always demands a response.”
When we see the “heart of things” and life challenges us to the core with suffering or tragedy, we can either deepen in compassion or numb ourselves to the pain.
Today, I fear we have numbed ourselves. Again and again. Perhaps we are already begging that UFO to take us away from it all.
But it is only in “staying” — in being present to the pain and allowing ourselves to become vulnerable, that we can then be moved to do something.
And what is that? Perhaps, as difficult as it may be, we must first allow ourselves to deeply feel and connect with the suffering around us and within us. Poet and philosopher Mark Nepo writes:
“Each time we suffer, each of us is broken just a little, and each time we love and are loved, each of us is beautifully dissolved, a piece at a time. We break so we can take in aliveness and dissolve so we can be taken in.
“This breaking and dissolving in order to be joined is the biology of compassion. The way that muscles tear and mend each time we exercise to build our strength, the heart suffers and loves. Inevitably, the tears of heartbreak water the heart they come from, and we grow.”
When we grow into compassion, we can then move into action from a grounded space in our souls. We become activists of the heart, whether it’s offering a hello to a stranger, volunteering at a soup kitchen, visiting a shut-in, writing a letter to our Congress person.
The ways are simple. Not hard. I know I tend to make them hard, but they’re not.
When I was a little girl, I remember my mother giving food to strangers who knocked at the door. Visiting my elderly aunt. Caring for her bedridden mother-in-law. All these needs were within her small space of life and being, but she responded. With love.
As Nepo writes, there are always things that we can do in the face of suffering. “We can share bread and water in the storm,” he says.
And perhaps we need to pray. As never before. However you pray. In whatever ways you connect with a Higher Power.
There is a quote about Franciscan prayer that says prayer “is not an escape from the world, but an entrance into it. We become conscious in prayer of how much the world is with us and we are in the world.”
And while we are in the world, as Nepo writes, we arrive at what suffering does to us and we find only compassion … “the genuine, tender ways we can be with those who suffer.”
So then. Can we stay? Can we honor the pain in our personal lives and in the world? Can we be compassionate? Can we open our hearts to each other while living in the uncertainty and sorrow of the border country?