“Why me, God?”…….”Why not you?”

Years ago, the summer I turned 21, I remember how, on days when no one else was home, I would go out in our backyard to scream, “Why me, God? Why me?” I just couldn’t understand why I had to bear the burdens I was: the need to live at home with a demanding, sometimes cruel father, my parents’ lack of support for my college education, my need to work long hard hours as a line cook, and, worst of all, my loneliness, my complete inability to fit in at school or to even be asked on one date. I felt absolutely alone at times, abandoned even, since it seemed that everyone else had so many friends, easy access to the things they wanted, and such loving parental support that, well, their lives seemed perfect – and so – in that back yard I screamed,

“Why me, God? Why me? Why must I work so hard, be so alone,                   suffer so much?“

Yes, the years have passed. No longer do I retreat to a backyard to scream. No longer do I feel so abandoned. And as I look back to my younger self, I am tempted to not only smile at the figure she must have presented out there, shaking her fist at that grand California sun; I am tempted to dismiss her claim of suffering. After all, now that I’ve endured the deaths of both parents, seen the torment friends have faced in losing their children, and experienced genuine failure and rejection in a whole host of ways, well, I am tempted to say that that young woman’s suffering paled in comparison not only to what lay ahead of her, but also in the face of the suffering of millions around the world even on those very days she screamed. But I can’t. However suffering arises – through crushing tragedy, relentless oppression, chronic pain and illness, even our ego’s obsessions, however justified or imagined – the actual pain of suffering is real, genuine, undeniable. And so we scream: “Why me?” a question that I found my self pondering not too long ago.

Throughout this past summer, more often than not, sleep eluded me. Oh, I often fell asleep easily enough, but two hours later, upon the raging of a hot flash, I would awaken, and then, disturbed by noises, temperature, textures and my own thoughts, I would remain awake for 2, 3, sometimes 4 hours before, right as dawn creeped into our room, I could sleep. Nothing, it seemed, helped. Not daytime exercise or good dietary habits. Neither did abstaining from caffeine, alcohol or even chocolate. Nor did the aids suggested by friends: valerian, black cohosh, melatonin – nothing. The worst nights were what I came to call my “night 3’s”, the third night in a row when the most sleep I could garner was 4 hours. It was on those nights when, after having drank warm milk, replaced my ear plugs, written out my concerns and even meditated, that as the tears began to flow, that old question arose: “Why me, God? Why can’t I just fall asleep?”

It was one of those night 3’s when, finally, I awoke, really awoke.

Lying in bed next to my husband, I decided to get back up once I could hold back the tears no longer. Frustrated, exhausted, I went to the living room and sat in our over-sized chair. It being 3:30 or so in the morning, I stared out our window through its transparent shade, at the buildings across the street and down an alley. Rectangles of yellow light marked windows, windows of homes where others, like I, were not sleeping. Pondering that scene, I wondered why they were not blissfully dreaming the night away. Yes, I knew, some may be enjoying the company of someone special, but this, too, I realized. Just as likely, worry, pain, fear – suffering – kept sleep at bay. Glimpsing that behind those curtains and shades were people sick with cancer, overburdened by financial debt or trapped in endless, relentless grief, I felt my heart crack open. Yes, the suffering I experienced from insomnia was real, but, I could so clearly see in that moment, I was not the only one to suffer. And then the buildings in front of me seemed to vanish. Suddenly, I could see suffering everywhere, suffering that, if it were mine, I knew I could not bear. Images of people living within war zones, terrorized by violence and incapable of even feeding their children one healthy meal a day humbled me. I could do only one thing: open myself to deep silent prayer, holding all close in that moment. As a tender love filled my heart, peace settled in as well. Returning to bed, I slept.

The next morning as I reflected on that experience, I began to write out that old question: “Why me, God?” This response arose:

“After last night, you need to ask?”

Recalling that peace that had emerged through the union I experienced, I couldn’t help but be grateful – not for the actual suffering I felt, of course; rather, for the communion it allowed me to enter. For those few minutes, as I basked again in that sense of union, another question emerged:

“Suffering? Why not you?”

The implications of that question stunned me. In spite of thinking that I was doing my best to “love my neighbor as my self,” I saw how miserably I was failing for one simple fact: I did not see myself as equal to my neighbor. Not at all. Somehow, deep down, I saw myself as exceptional, someone worthy of living a pain-free life. Of course, we all know that such an existence is impossible, but yet, that thought that I could demand of God, “Why me?” revealed something else I did not want to see.

I honestly believed that I was entitled – yes, entitled – entitled to pursue as comfortable a life as I could.

Of course, the pursuit of such a life lies at the heart of what we call, “The American Dream,” a condition that encourages each of us to acquire all the resources and materials we need to live comfortably. It seems reasonable enough. In that moment, though, as I acknowledged all the comfort afforded to me through the many resources I possess, I couldn’t help but see the irony between my experience of unity the previous night and the fact that what I possess creates not union but division. In so many ways, the stuff of my life allows me to not only avoid certain people, but to choose to ignore them entirely, even their suffering. In fact, when I am confronted with their suffering, too often I give into the temptation to name a reason for why they must suffer while I don’t. Rarely do I allow myself to see the connection between my own pursuit of comfort and their suffering.

Rarely do I ask myself as I pursue all I can to avoid pain: At what cost does this come?

The burden of that question overwhelms me, actually. In trying to answer it, I see so many ways that my desires contribute to the problems of others, both personally and socially, too many, really to name here. Just glimpsing them, however, brings forth two emotions I’d rather avoid – guilt and shame. Guilt in knowing that I have truly benefited from societal practices such as low taxation and/or wages, and shame in that I have refused to acknowledge how the subsequent lack of monetary resources hurts people. And with those emotions comes….. suffering.

A choice now arises.

Do I deny all that I have just acknowledged, reasoning that all is as it should be because our country is great and/or I have earned all that I’ve acquired? Many will tell me to do just that – it is, after all, the way of capitalism, of the American Dream. I need not feel guilt, neither shame. Nor suffering. Or,

Do I embrace this guilt, this shame, this suffering?

Already, it’s too late. The suffering generated in those few seconds of admitting guilt, bearing shame has done it again: it has cracked my heart open. How my heart longs to reach out to those denied the opportunities I’ve had, to those who’ve endured the consequences of my own comfort, to those whose suffering I now see. I feel helpless, yes, in this moment, knowing that as an individual I can’t make all things right now or even in 100 years. But, if I enter into the communion of all,

if I take my rightful place among my neighbors, allowing myself to be treated as they are,

maybe, just maybe, in releasing my own need to avoid suffering at all cost, at least a few others may not bear the burdens of those costs. Maybe the suffering they will endure will be that which is inevitable in being human, not that which is forced upon them by other humans.

Maybe I will finally be able to learn how to love my neighbor as my self, striving to establish justice, not comfort, as my central goal in life.

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The Nothingness of Being One in 8.4 Million….

_MG_4344To celebrate our one year anniversary of living in New York City last weekend, my husband and I went to see Jim Parsons in “An Act of God.” As we walked through Times Square on the way to Studio 54, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized once again by the thousands of people congregated underneath towering flashing enormous ads. So thick was the crowd that when they moved, I felt as if I had no power but to go in whatever direction they were headed. I could see, too, that within such a crowd, on a specific block of a specific street in one city, I am only one amidst thousands, so indistinguishable to be practically invisible, one tiny speck of creation. Questions filled my mind as they had a year earlier:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,    my own short story of life?

Those questions actually haunted me those first weeks in the city. With only our doormen calling me by name, I couldn’t escape the anonymity of my situation, especially since life in Manhattan is very different from that in Louisville, KY. There, not only could I expect to see several people I knew at my local grocery store, regardless of the timing of my errand, I could also strike up conversations with the clerks behind the counters. Here, I quickly learned that one rarely sees the same people and those who work, work. To fill my considerable free time, I went often to Central Park, mostly to explore on my own, sometimes to take a tour offered by the Central Park Conservancy. One day in particular stands out.

In having ventured into the North Woods, I found the perfect perch atop a 450-million-year-old boulder of manhattan mica schist. As I listened to the afternoon song of a nearby bird, I became aware that other than the faint whispering of distant traffic, no other indicators of the city itself were present. In fact, I was alone, completely alone in that borough of 1.626 million people. Basking in that moment of perfect solitude, I reflected upon some of the facts I had recently learned on a tour of the park.

IMG_3287Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmstead in 1858, it consists of 843 acres, running from 59th St. to 110 St, and between 5th Avenue and Central Park West. Its initial construction may have taken only 15 years or so, but its upkeep has been continuous and reflective of the city’s economic trends. When the city thrived, so did the park; when it struggled, the park’s neglect could be striking, the worst occurring in the 60’s and 70’s, an era of such disrepair that it inspired concerned citizens to create the Central Park Conservancy, the organization that currently runs the park through a partnership with the city and its people. Possibly, though, the most interesting detail I learned was this: other than the rocks in the park, nothing else is natural to the original state of that piece of land. Everything, absolutely everything, was intentionally designed, structured, built, and planted to fulfill the designers’ vision. Even the water in all the Park’s lakes, ponds and streams comes from an artificial source, the city’s water system. Taps and drains are used to maintain water levels and the health of their surrounding eco-systems.

20140806_193732In recalling that fact regarding the park’s artificiality, I pondered the many, many people who have been responsible for my ability to experience a moment of solitude in such natural beauty. Yes, Vaux and Olmstead planned it. Yes, specific people designed particular elements within it, Jacob Wrey Mould many of the park’s arches and bridges, and Emma Stebbins the Bethesda Terrace fountain, “Angel of the Waters,” to name only two. And, of course, many wealthy donors have supported the Park throughout its history, their many names commemorated on the Park’s plaques, benches and paving stones.

On that day, however, my attention focused on the thousands of people, who through their sweat and labor, brought the dreams and visions of others to life. These were the men who drained the swamps that once pervaded much of the area and then lay miles of pipes to maintain the new landscape. They, too, bore through yards of rock to create the tunnels through which the city’s streets could cross the Park without breaking it into distinct segments. Others crushed tons of that rock to pave the many paths and roads that ramble through the Park, while still more carved out steps, poured concrete and planted thousands of flowers, plants and trees according to the plans. In reflecting upon the contributions of so many unnamed folk, most of whom were paid less than $1 for a ten-hour day, I couldn’t help but be grateful. Now nameless, indistinguishable from each other in the texts of history, it was these people who were the foundation of what is today Central Park. Without them, I would not have been on that rock on that beautiful day, experiencing such a moment of ideal solitude within a city of millions. Without them, those people whose names we celebrate would never have seen their own visions fulfilled. Without them, the legacy that is Central Park would not exist.

In pondering those facts, I returned to the questions that haunted me:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,                  my own short story of life?

All my life, it has seemed, I have been told that I could become whoever I wanted, that I could fulfill the greatest of dreams, if only I put forth effort, if only I believe. And, so, for a long time, a part of me longed to become that someone special, one whose memorable mark on this world would be known for years to come. I wonder, though, if such a quest actually misses the point entirely. Yes, a few people do develop radically new ideas that enhance life for all of us; yes, some bring forth such unique talent and beauty that we are enchanted and enriched for generations. However, it is only through the collective efforts of all that any one person may fulfill a dream, may bring to fruition a stunning idea. And with that thought in mind, I could not help but wonder,

What has been my own role within our collective community  through which dreams and ideas not only come to life but also bring forth a shared legacy?

Humbly, I must admit, it hasn’t always been a gracious one. So focused on attaining my own identity, my own dreams and goals at times, I have overlooked not only the gifts of the community, but also its needs, forgetting that, even if I happen to stumble upon that one idea that will be my hallmark, whatever I achieve will be entirely dependent on the support and efforts of so many others. Sadness filled me as I realized that in being so focused on the need to promote and defend my own efforts, I may have trampled those of another person, not only one who may help me, but also another whose own gifts and ideas may surpass my own. A certain peace arose as well as I realized something else.

Really, for my life to have significance,
I need not worry about establishing an individual identity that will be known for generations.

I need accept my life only for what it is – one in a thousand or so in Times Square, one in seven billion in the world – and to accept the responsibility of fulfilling my unique role within it. In doing so, I commit myself to the legacy we create together, each of us having distinct roles, some through which a few names will be remembered, the vast majority of them not. Whether or not I am one of the named is irrelevant.

What matters is the relevance and the significance of our shared legacy, one, I hope, that will ensure our planet’s health, enhance all life, and weave together in peace all our myriad communities.

God? Who’s that?

20130714_211621It’s about impossible for anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written to not notice how much I reference God. It’s a lot! In fact, it’s actually more difficult for me not to reference God than it is to do so. Why? Well, as much as I’ve tried at times to avoid God throughout my life, God just won’t leave me alone. It seems wherever I go, whatever I do, there’s God. And, I also suspect, that as I acknowledge this continual presence of God, most people just might assume this is how I see God: as a superhuman figure who has such a particular plan for me that s/he will actively intervene so I can fulfill it. After all, what else can one think upon reading the words in one of my recent blogs: “But God wasn’t done with me.” So, let me say this loud and clear:

I do not know “God” as a superhuman figure located somewhere in “heaven”.
Neither do I believe that God seeks to actively direct any of us in one way or another for two reasons:
Not only do we possess free will, God loves us unconditionally.

But yet, my actual language seems to indicate otherwise. Furthermore, I must admit this – there was a time when I actually did believe in that superhuman, muscular old man perpetually watching over us from up above. How could I not have believed as such, given the countless Saturday afternoon visits to the confessional where I was required to give a precise count of how many times I may have hit a younger brother or lied to my mother? And, of course, in reading the parable of the Prodigal Son so many times in CCD classes, how could I not come to experience God as a forgiving father with arms wide open willing to forgive everything I could ever do? Or what about being immersed in Catholic Social Teaching, being told that God expects each and every one of us to work for justice by actively serving the poor and vulnerable in our midst? How could I not feel that if I didn’t do such service that I was personally letting God down? Yes, I will admit, that for much longer than I care to admit, when I thought of God, I reflected upon a rather concrete figure – sometimes male, other times female – but definitely one that, well, took human form. Now, I must also admit that those reflections did provide me not only with the comfort I needed – they also inspired me to grow. But yet, but yet…. no longer do I accept such a specific figure for God. So, what then is God? Who is God to me? And here I must say:

I don’t know!
Oh, I can tell you through images and sensations what I have experienced while bumping into the presence I identify as God, but as to what or who God actually is, I will say it again:
I don’t know.

I have found that just as so many mystics have said, God is utterly beyond comprehension, a truth stated within The Catechism of the Catholic Church when God is described as being, “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” (42). At the same time, though, quite a few people, myself included, have experienced God’s presence and so, to describe and share that experience with others, we must use words, words that can capture the essence of what we’ve known, but words that are also limited in their ability to say it all. Again, The Catechism: “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude” (43). As I said, though, there once was a time when, not only didn’t I not quite comprehend the meaning in these words, I actually believed God was the image in my mind. What changed?

Not God…. rather my level of consciousness.

For several decades, psychologists and other researchers have been documenting the progression of growth within the human mind. Most recently, Ken Wilber has published several books on the topic, specifically on human consciousness. In having extensively researched several, maybe even all, of the leading theories, he’s developed his own scheme that documents how each and every person (and human societies as well) move through stages of consciousness as they grow and experience life. He insists that each stage must be experienced (no skipping a grade here), while, at the same time, acknowledging that most people stop somewhere along the way, never attaining the highest levels which he designates as being those of unitive consciousness. He also explains that while at a particular level of consciousness, a person will experience reality (and God) in a particular way, one that is shaped by the values, needs and common desires of that stage. For instance, a person who is at a “tribal” level of consciousness will experience God as a protector so intent upon saving “his” special people, that the deaths of any outsiders may be justified if threats are perceived. In great contrast is the experience of someone at a “global” awareness of God. While identifying with all people at that level, such a person could not imagine God approving the death of anyone, even an enemy, because in that experience of God, God would not make such a distinction.

In having read some of Wilber’s works, I can now more easily accept not only that my experience of God has changed, but also the validity of my earlier imagery. Yes, as a child I did fear that all-powerful God who was capable of seeing everything; yes, as a teen I came to know God as being so forgiving that I could do almost anything I wanted; and yes, my view of God who wanted me to spend as much time as possible working for justice was just as genuine. And now, well, although there is something of a dominant image that lingers – that of a flowing life force calling all in creation forward through evolution – something has changed in me. No longer do I need to insist that this is it! That this particular experience of God is the most correct, the most accurate the most real! Rather, I do suspect, it’s more a reflection of who I am in this moment than of God. And so, I must humbly say when asked as to who or what God actually is, I don’t know.

And yet, I keep bumping into God… and I keep longing to share those experiences with as many people as I can. And so, to offer these moments of grace to all, I will need to use words and images that can convey something of my experience, and in writing about an experience of the past, I need to respect my reality of that time, knowing that even if I, today, might interpret a particular encounter of God a bit differently, back then I could only experience God as I could – and it was that experience that affected me so profoundly, that called me to such growth, that even, at times, cracked open my heart just a little more. And so, I treasure them all – even if I really have to smile at that little girl standing in the confessional line who so earnestly counted up each and every sin she could think of – and even adding a few more just to be sure – to please that old man up in the sky.