On trying to become fully human

Tempe, Arizona

Photo by  Shahan Khan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Shahan Khan on Unsplash

Something ‘powerful’ is holding us back. It keeps us from flight. At times it might feel like a dam holding back a great torrent of water. What is more, we feed this hold over us to the extent that years could pass and we remain grounded to its biggest lie. Whatever this obstacle might be, this ‘big lie’, it is known to our hearts alone. Often it is guilt over something we have done, or should not have done. Other times it is regret at an opportunity not taken to express our love, or to ask for forgiveness. This lie invariably tells us we are “not good” and that we do not deserve the “good fortune” incumbent upon others. Many of these instances which stop us from moving forward have to do with our despondency to set things ‘right’. Then the dreadful moment when suddenly confronted with the reality that it is too late. That is, the best of our intentions can no longer be realized. What then? Do we spend the remainder of our lives weltering in self-recrimination? Perhaps a higher providence has seen best for things to fall precisely as they have. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). This was the only way. It was the only way for ‘self-recrimination’ to turn out to be self-revelation. To become fully human, that is, to the extent which such a thing is possible [the ‘unity between head and heart’ Jean Vanier], means to engage with these hard experiences and to live through them. The final destination is what matters. What is done is done. There is the next hour to be lived to its fullest.

Such unbridled joy it does bring to the heart when we happen to come across someone who we sense to be fully human, or at least striving for this end goal. This aspiration towards a human teleology is our spirit’s greatest work. We might discover such people in our everyday encounters “by the well”: our teacher, coach, doctor, grocer, pharmacist, gardener, postal clerk, or cashier worker. If we might borrow from Sufism these are men and women with divinity written on their hearts. Occupation and social status have nothing to do with this luminous heart which is set before us. It is a true humility which recognizes the potential in the other and which possesses a love which moves and breathes outside the margins. Such a human presence is not easily given to cynicism and is slow to judge.

Writing and receiving letters was one of the delights of the ‘bygone age’. Outside the pure enjoyment of the physical processes of pressing out the paper, writing the date on the top left hand corner, putting down the name of the receiver My dear or My dearest…, thinking carefully [‘playfulness’ not excluded] on what you write, and then the final endearments… truly I am yours. And all of it in your own unmistakable scrawl. The letter will often enough, too, carry the unique scent of the sender. What is more the joy of receiving a reply, or a surprise from someone who went to the trouble of looking up your address to then leave his or her ‘biometric’ on the top right hand corner of the envelope. Emails [together with their lifeless emojis] possess little or nothing of such special wonder. Haruki Murakami says it so simply in one of his novels: “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter!”

Little can compare to giving a fellow human being renewed hope, to encourage them through trials, or to inspire in the pursuit of new goals. It is as restorative as saying “I love you”. For love itself, if it be true, takes its first step in the movement of compassion. How can we do this? That is to offer renewed hope to a hurting heart? There are as many ways as there are expressions of love itself. First, the benevolent act of forgiveness. To forgive someone is perhaps the most liberating act for both the giver and the receiver. There are also secret acts of charity where they might most be needed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). A simple letter sent with kindness and genuine concern in a world where self-centeredness is becoming increasingly the norm can make all the difference. To begin with to offer someone hope means to accept them. And there is besides the constraining of the ego in allowing another in greater need to ‘appropriate’ some of our spotlight. Where there is selfishness, hope cannot deliver.

“It all goes too quick” we will from time to time say to ourselves. In the Old Testament in the Book of Job it is described thus: “For we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow” (Job 8:9). The English writer Jenny Diski who endured much as a young person would afterward as an adult add her own addendum to this reality: “Everything passes, but nothing entirely goes away.” We are caught somewhere in the middle. We all know too well it will go quick, but in the meantime we experience profound emotions and our actions leave behind a legacy. The desert dwellers approach this mystery head-on by holding onto “the memory of death”. This contemplation on our brevity upon the earth is neither macabre nor defeatist. It is an act of true anarchism. They joyfully accept our transience looking beyond and live each day with such actual ‘meaningfulness’ as if it was their last hour like leaves of an olive tree which rotate to capture every tiny bit of moisture. So let us hasten to do some good while we can. It is later than we think, it has also been said.

In what ways might I make a difference in my day-to-day encounters with the ‘other’? There are many ways. There are an untold number of opportunities in our everyday exchanges with our neighbor that might not only bring a smile to a needful heart but could also save a life. Are you holding back from sending a message to a friend who might be in need of a word of encouragement? Can you anonymously send a gift to a charity? Delete an email sent to you by someone during a moment of their vulnerability? On your way to work is there a homeless person you might stop to say hello and buy a coffee for? Might you send a card to an ‘enemy’ wishing them a bright day? Could you surprise a loved one with a gift letting them know how precious they are to you? Is it too difficult to nod the head at the stranger who has cut you off at the traffic lights? Make an impromptu visit to a hospital and ask if there is anyone in need of a visitor?  It all goes too quick and yet there is much we can do. In Japanese the word for charity is jizen. The characters of the word beautifully illustrate that at the heart of charity is mercy and compassion. It is amazing too, is it not? That in helping others we are at the same time helping ourselves. And it is no mere coincidence then, that in the New Testament, Jesus Christ would connect the love of God with the love of our neighbor “like unto it” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Many of the world’s problems stem from ‘egoism’. This is the condition where “self-interest” is at the center of one’s morality. One nation considers itself better than the next and robs the other of its rights and resources. And one person thinks he or she is superior to their neighbor so diminishing and blunting their potential. The first can lead to wars and to the spread of famine. The second will lead to despair and to the lessening of our brother’s or our sister’s personality which are the qualities of their character. Both are cruel and will only ever result in suffering, if not to catastrophe, whether on a universal or personal scale.

Then there are those periods in our life

Tempe, Arizona

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

In Shellharbour, NSW, one afternoon in 2018 waiting at school for my children. Courtesy: Michael Family archives.

Then there are those periods in our life when it would seem are reserved for the darkest thunderstorms. And the heavy rains keep coming. Most of us can look back on our lives, especially as we move deeper into middle age and pinpoint three or four of the toughest times. If we could survive those trials then surely we can survive the present ones and those yet to come. It is critical if we should feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed that we look back on those testing weeks, and months and sometimes even years, to see how we pulled through and what lessons can be drawn. Life is indeed a series of ‘ups and downs’ with the ups ever fleeting while the downs have a tendency to linger. This is why I will often refer to one of my favorite maxims gleaned from the desert dwellers that our existence is one of “joyful sorrow”.[1] I have also through my own ups and downs found great comfort in the words of Saint Paul:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8.18).

In recent months it has been one of those periods for me. They have been emotionally and physically difficult. I have had to navigate five deaths each one holding a specific significance in my life with three of these opening up an abyss of triggers affecting my mental well-being. Physically I was once more experiencing severe pain owing to a dental procedure to do with my jaw. We witnessed our eldest boy dealing bravely with having his boyhood dream taken away from him. Nepotism is a terrible thing. A fortnight ago I also left my beloved UOW to go into possible retirement. A self-identity crisis [and I’ve had a few of these] are not good at any age. And in recent weeks I was preparing for my flight to the United States to catch up with the children and Katina. A trip I was greatly anticipating. Except I now have a fear of flying after almost dropping out of the sky and into the Caribbean on board a small Cessna a few years ago crossing over from Anguilla to Puerto Rico. All these things started to gradually overwhelm me. My blood pressure too rose dangerously which can give rise to other complications. I wept but these were not always the tears of prayer. If truth be told I was suffering in ways not too dissimilar to those earlier dark times, despite my being older and I would hope a little wiser.

The details behind these recent trials do not matter. They remain peripheral to this entry. For you can be certain that someone somewhere is battling with darkness more impenetrable than our own. Like my beloved Aunt Stella whose entire family was wiped out within the twinkling of an eye or Leo who everyday educated me mowed down riding his motorcycle by a drunkard who until he died one morning could only speak by flicking his eyelids. You try to reason through all of this? You either risk losing your faith or going mad. There are no shortcuts either. You cannot go round suffering. You confront it at the center and by sheer force you compel yourself forward. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it is the only way, and it is worth the struggle to get to the end of the race. It is the one true place where we discover our name. There is light on the other side and it is there waiting our entering. “I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

But I would like to share with you how this storm too was pushed through that I can now sit down and write these few paragraphs in the relative calm of our little apartment in Tempe, Arizona. I would like especially for the next few minutes to resonate with my younger readers. One of the deaths I spoke of above had in fact to do with the tragic loss of a beautiful young boy. And this is mourning beyond words. Together with the deaths of the bishop who had ordained me into the priesthood my first father confessor Archbishop Stylianos with whom after years of estrangement I had not reconciled and weeks later the sudden passing away of one of my dearest friends our national poet, Les Murray, brought mortality directly into my heart and it did wage war against me one more time. I was taunted amongst other doubts that my own life had been of little if any merit and that for the greater part my few talents had been wasted.

In dealing with the above experiences which came parceled in one hard fist and which not surprisingly released the ‘black dog’ together with an exacerbation of my OCD invariably following behind like a beast in pursuit of its prey, I went through a series of extreme emotions and temptations. And so it happened during these ‘visitations’ that a number of life’s sufferings and impulses arrived closed together: the raw impact of death, the specter of hopelessness, the unbearable thought of the loss of grace, lost opportunities at reconciliation, the weightiness of an overriding guilt, hurting through the unfair treatment meted out to my eldest son, the onset of a melancholia, frustration and anger, the crisis of identity, and strong physical pain. I had confronted such distresses in the same battlefield before but I was younger and more vigorous in spirit. The closest and the most terrifying yet, even more potentially devastating for me, the agonizing aftermath of my leaving the priesthood and the technical issues behind our multiple attempts of trying to save my doctorate which would at times quite literally delete line by line before our eyes. I do not wish for anyone to experience anything of this which was unremitting in its persistence and seemed to me an almost catastrophic situation that would not come to an end. During these times the soul does struggle in its efforts to pray. Do not be alarmed if this is happening to you. It is a natural phenomenon as the ideal situation for prayer is peace, and tribulation is not a peaceful condition. Christ Himself labored in prayer during His most difficult hours on earth: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43f.). It is vital to persevere in our own ‘garden of the soul’.

So how can one deal with these multiple attacks? If there is a general formula I would like to know. There is no such thing and we each walk into these green fires on our own, and one way or another, we emerge different beings to what we were the hour before. There is no ‘general formula’ except for tears and the disquisition of whether to live or die. You can choose to live or die in a multitude of ways. This is because each one of us carries single life experiences into the ‘fire’: a present informed by a different past; a different set of values and beliefs even though we might belong to similar faith communities; we are of different ages and significantly of varying degree of resilience. In the extreme, and there are those amongst us who have been to this frightful place, suicidal ideation infiltrates our waking moments right through to our sleepless nights.[2] Yet, there is common ground, even if by virtue of our shared elements of flesh and blood. There is a ‘soft’ intersection of experiences where the crux of the human condition is at its most visible and sensible. It could be that place which Frankl has memorably called ‘man’s search for meaning’[3] or “the will to life” described by Schopenhauer as the fight for self-preservation.[4] For those who move and breathe within a belief-based community both these great pillars of hope and action can be summed up for example by Saint James’ connection of faith to perseverance through trials (Jas. 1:2f.) or to Buddhism’s teaching of Virya Paramita the perfection of perseverance through courage.[5]

Irrespective of our background or philosophical perspectives what these and other deeply felt insights borne from the observation of humans striving to survive are saying: there is meaning to your life, so will yourself to live.

It is possible, others many before us, have gone through these green fires and have come out alive the stronger and the more compassionate. They practice forgiveness of themselves and towards others. Suffering which never lies can do this to us. Adversity can be our most trusted friend. Blessed are they who mourn. It has been done before, and if we should persevere but another day, this too, it will pass.

 

Postscript Yesterday morning after I dropped off Eleni at summer school classes, I took my long walk down Southern Ave., Tempe. The heat would be unbearable if not for the fact it doesn’t ‘burn’ you like the summer scorchers back home in Australia. The forecast for today is 110 ℉! My ritual has been to take an initial short break at the Back East Bagels for a light morning breakfast. Then the much longer trek retracing my steps back past the school left into Rural Rd., to spend the next three hours at Tempe Public Library. I love spending time in libraries. Cicero well compared libraries to gardens. This evening George is leaving with his Arizona rugby teammates for Denver, Colorado, to contest the Regional Cup Tournament (RCT). Tomorrow morning Eleni and I will be flying out to join him to catch some of the round games.

And yet this impromptu postscript had another reason. On my way to the library yesterday turning left into Rural in the corner of the road my eyes caught sight of a little bird lying motionless in a ditch. It could have been a House Finch. I am not sure. It was dead still. It faced upwards its wings folded around its brown breast like a cloak. Eyes and mouth closed. It might have died for the lack of water. I don’t know. We can never know the whole truth. Not even about ourselves. I wept like a child. Is this normal? Do these things happen to you as well? I thought of the thousands of men and women and children who would on that day likewise die anonymously in the world whether of thirst or famine, homeless somewhere on a city street, or by themselves in a hospital bed. Anonymously and alone like this little bird which, too, had a history and stories to tell.

[1] https://pittsburghoratory.blogspot.com/2012/05/joyful-sorrow-compunction-and-gift-of.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CIq4mtiamY

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/mans-search-meaning

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_to_live

[5] https://www.learnreligions.com/virya-paramita-perfection-of-energy-449709

Life changing talks with a song and a poem to boot

Used discerningly YouTube, the video-sharing website founded in 2005, is a truly incredible reservoir of stockpiled knowledge no more than a click away. The vital thing is discerningly for like many things in the online world this too can become quickly addictive. It is not difficult to stray in this electronically fuelled atmosphere, particularly with such a visual and captivating medium as film. It can become overwhelmingly seductive. Otherwise it is indeed a marvellous place to visit. And so what we hear about “the good and bad sides of YouTube” is without doubt true.

Elsewhere I have shared some favourite pieces of music. Here I would like to share a sample of life changing talks I will turn to. I will visit these downloads when I need an additional reminder that tomorrow is another day where new and exceptional things can happen. That even the next hour is full of great possibilities and salvation from despair. I am sure you will find some of these very special YouTube talks helpful if not for yourselves, then at least for someone near and dear to you. These profound presentations touch on various dimensions of life and the shared wisdom of the presenters can benefit us even if this might only mean becoming a little more compassionate and understanding ourselves. The presentations below have at least some very significant things in common: (i) The speakers have themselves experienced the deepest aspects of the journey which they describe and [like all “wounded healers”] have experienced the ‘wound’ themselves, (ii) they are not asking for your money or selling you a ‘secret’, (iii) self-realization and affirmative behaviour begin with a brutal self-assessment of why we find ourselves engaging in destructive behaviour; (iv) once the problem which is hurting us is realized there is set into action a hard-nosed plan and a fierce determination to see the resolution for change through.

These points are summarised best perhaps by the physician and addiction expert, the Hungarian-born Canadian Gabor Maté: “Something else is possible and you are worth that possibility.” Muniba Mazari, the inspirational Pakistani artist and motivational speaker, tells us how that possibility might be entered into: “Behind every inspirational picture there is an untold story of constant pain, persistent effort, and determination.” We do not have to agree with everything we hear in these talks, and in some places we might noticeably diverge, but there is too much truth and loads of sweet honey here to at least not stop for a while and to consider both the implications and the possibilities.[1]

 

[1] In all these testimonies we will find in the words of Jerry Long, a logotherapist in the tradition of Frankl and someone who had his own great challenges to overcome, “the defiant power of the human spirit” (Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1984, p. 171).

And a song and a poem, Leonard Cohen, Constantine P. Cavafy

An Afternoon Walk Through Gerringong Cemetery

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Saint Paul); our reflection on the back of a marble tombstone; mine and that of my eldest son; two obituaries walking one alongside the other; Christopher James Cullen died 18th June 1911, Aged 59 Years; Mary Elizabeth Knight died 2nd November 1926, Aged 64 Years; William Gilbert Weir died 18th March 1947, Aged 78 Years; Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying; Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning; Pacific Ocean; large pine trees; scattered wooden benches with plaques; here under this grass; here under these roots; here beneath this earth; cemeteries the only truthful universities; “Gerringong cemetery dedicated 2nd July, 1863”; earliest recorded grave Evan Campbell 12th September 1863;  “early graves run East to West facing the spectacular coastline”; Belinda Street; Percy Street; Fern Street down the road; aromatic incense dripping off flowers; “Suffer the little children to come unto Me” (Matt 19:14); there is no suffering to be compared with that of losing a child; “The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love” (Nicolas Berdyaev); Georgia Louise Gillard [Stillborn] died 13th June 1990; Ernest H. Williams died November 14th 1913, Aged 9 Months; William James Purcill died 29th December 1936, Aged 2 Years; Boat Harbour to our right; whale watch deck; pathway through to Werri Beach; I know what you are thinking my boy; okay, tell me something I don’t know; there are shards of light streaking from the bottom of our shoes; “our reasoning brain is weak, and our tongue is weaker still” (Saint Basil); a family of five having a picnic up ahead; a flock of birds swooping on the ground; a man on his knees wiping away the years from a headrest; two women walking their dogs; a little boy throwing rocks into space; my brother-in-law remembering his wife who left five days ago; “the valley of dry bones” (Ezek 37); Church of England Section; Roman Catholic Section; Interdenominational Section; Burial of Saint Lucy Caravaggio; Death and Life Gustav Klimt; The First Mourning William-Adolphe Bouguereau; John Kelly died 11th June 1918, Aged 64 Years; Mary Kenny died 19th September 1903, Aged 59 Years; James John Quinn died 2nd April 1965, Aged 84 Years; “Christ is Risen from the dead”; “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21); “In the place of Your rest, O Lord, Where all Your Saints repose, Give rest also to the soul of Your Servant, For You alone are immortal” (Trisagion for the Dead); The Messenger Linkin Park; Pente Ellines ston Adi Eleni Vitali; Hurt Johnny Cash; “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Ps 23); this walk is doing the both of us some good; the rain is holding off; the cold invigorates the flesh; “Sweet heart of Jesus, be my love”; “loved and never forgotten”; “much loved by her family”; the general priesthood of all believers; “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” (from The Creed); make sure to note the personal pronoun; “time is constantly pressing upon us” (Schopenhauer); forty years ago I could run up these hills without breaking a sweat; now I reminisce of past centuries; “and one minute closer to death” (Pink Floyd); tonight for you alone I will burn a thousand candles; life is to be lived with joy and compassion; there is no contradiction between particle and wave; Mother loves to fold paper boats; she tells me it is what her Father did; Origami and history of paper folding; here take a sip of water; can we go now; we are always leaving, my boy; “beloved son”; “our loving mother”; “my dear husband”; the car park is emptying; a small truck overflowing with building supplies; the family of five are heading off; an elderly lady with a yellow overcoat arranging flowers; a middle-aged man with shorts looking up into the sky; like Noah waiting for the rain to fall; there are things I cannot tell you yet; Marjorie Simpson died April 1st 1999, Aged 83 Years; Patrick Richard Cronin died 30th August 1948, Aged 69 Years; Elsa Lily Rigby died 22nd December 2003, Aged 91 Years; Battle of the Teutoburg Forest; Battle of Bull Run; Battle of Crucifix Hill; “O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells” (Walt Whitman); “And you as well must die, beloved dust, And all your beauty stand you in no stead” (Edna St. Vincent Millay); “Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it” (Pablo Neruda); step left then right; kick that stone to the side; things need to be made straight; 12… 1234… 12; anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices; Billy’s ‘Pop’ William Miller rests here waiting for the bell; specks of brown earth in our hair; strands of grass caught on the tips of our shoes; windcheaters flutter like butterfly wings; dear Lord allow for our son’s shoulder to heal well; “There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death” (Buddha); I would like a plot here; please not Botany; check online for availability; my jaw still hurts a lot; you will always be remembered Genevieve R.; Brahms’ Triumphlied (Op. 55); Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor; it is mental grammar which allows us to communicate; linguistics was a very difficult subject; music is above and beyond grammar; Scherzo great blocks of accelerating beats; pulsating with irresistible power; “Dance until you shatter yourself” (Rumi); life and death in the search engine; Liberation Through Hearing Bardo Thodol; what comes after; whatever it is which proceeds from human consciousness; the ever-present theme from MASH; please, don’t do it, not today; “the wound is the place where the Light enters you” (Rumi); the flesh returns to the earth; Marc Alexander Hunter died July 17th 1998, Aged 45 years; Carmel Therese Matthews died 11th January 2013, Aged 80 Years; Jeremiah Hanrahan died 18th August 1882, Aged 50 Years; Michael John Harding died 21st November 1953, Aged 62 Years; Kathleen Mary Bergin died 30th January 1942, Aged 74 Years; native seed; citrus caterpillar; star burst; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Apoc 21:4); I saw death for the first time in Piraeus Port; the old man next door with the crook handle walking stick; black dresses intermingling with bright candle light; Hannah Noble died 15th August 1911, Aged 63 Years; Derek Graham Clarke Wishart died 24th January 1991, Aged 27 Years (‘Surveyor and Fisherman’); Lillian Ida Chittick died 15th June 1993, Aged 86 Years; on the news the deluge continues; John Milton’s Paradise Lost; Alighieri Dante’s The Divine ComedySaint John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon; the listeners are waiting; ubiquitous surveillance does not equate with omnipresence; it never will; huge tears over graves; like snowflakes no teardrop is ever the same; we wash our eyes; angels flying diamond kites; black opal; alexandrite; “a true gentleman”; “a bud in heaven”; “she, now, has met her rest”; here I have always been at peace; “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?” (Khalil Gibran); Moonlight Sonata “Let me go there with you” (Yiannis Ritsos); “and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (Adrienne Rich); time to go home now, George; we never were too far away

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2014/10/10/4104454.htm

http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/2580127/gerringong-cemetery-history-to-be-brought-to-life/