Greatest Regret – “Failures in Kindness”

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane things as “the need for more kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what George Saunders spoke about in a speech that went viral last year.

As the mother of someone suffering from addiction and the stigma of addiction, Saunders’ words touched me deeply. More kindness is what we all need when we are suffering.

You can read the whole speech HERE.

Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We’ve all been there, I think. But kindness is something we can learn, he says, and lists ways how to do that:

Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

Yet kindness, as hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.

Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.

YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life.

Or for anyone whose life is winding down, for that matter. Here are the first 12 lines of that poem by Hayden Carruth that he mentioned:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.

(From “Testament” by Hayden Carruth)

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A Flash of Insight, or Magical Thinking?

cloud-ground-lightning National GeographicHave you ever had a dream so devastating that you woke with a headache and unshakable sense of doom? Yet so powerful it provoked flashes of insight about life and reality?

The Dream

I woke from such a dream recently. It was my daughter’s wedding day and everything that could go wrong went wrong. We arrived at the church only to discover no one had come to decorate it. The food we’d ordered was half-prepared. My daughter showed up in her beautiful gown, but we’d forgotten to get her hair done or her make-up. It was so horrible, we cancelled the wedding and sent everyone home. The wedding party climbed into a car and was driving away when my daughter said, “Stop! I can’t wait, I just want this over!”

So we stopped at a tiny diner, and that’s where the wedding took place. I tried to talk her into going to someplace nicer, where it wasn’t so shabby and depressing. But she insisted. I had wanted to take photos of the wedding to hang on our walls, but how could I take photos of this? It was too awful.

The beautiful wedding day we both had dreamed about was ruined, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Our worst nightmare had come true and it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have left the wedding planning up to her. I should have taken charge. I should have had a check-off list and made sure everything had turned out as planned. But it was too late. I screwed up. I let this happen. And now there was nothing I could do to change it.

Then I woke up. My head was pounding and I was gripped by sense of failure and doom.

It was crazy! Why was I having this dream? My daughter had already had the most beautiful wedding imaginable just last year. And she had planned it all! I hadn’t had to lift a finger. Why would I be worried about her wedding?

Then I had a sudden flash of insight. A whole series of them. One after the other.

Flash of Insight #1

This wasn’t a dream about my daughter’s wedding! It was a dream about my son’s life. About the terrible drug addiction that had ruined the beautiful life we both had dreamed for him. And I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have left something as important as his life up to him! I should have taken charge. I should have planned better. But now everything was ruined and there was nothing I could do about it.

Flash of Insight #2

My daughter’s ruined wedding had only been a dream! There had never been a reason to be so upset and despondent. I could have changed the dream at any point. I could have decorated the church, fixed her hair. I could have insisted to go to a beautiful restaurant. At any point in the dream I could have taken charge and created the perfect wedding. If only I had known I was just dreaming. If only I had realized I had the power to do so.

Flash of Insight #3

Maybe I’m still dreaming! I remember how real the ruined wedding had seemed in my dream. Like it was really happening. Like this was reality. So much so that even when I woke, I couldn’t shake the sense of sadness and failure. Maybe I will wake up and find out that my son’s ruined life, his addiction, was just a dream too. Maybe in “reality,” he’s living the perfect life I’d always wanted for him, just as my daughter had had her perfect wedding.

Maybe I’d wake to find him in his perfect house with his loving wife, surrounded by his beautiful children, happy and healthy. He’d flash me a big grin and put his arms around me and say, “Silly mama. Why so sad? You were just dreaming!”

Flash of Insight #4

Maybe in this current “dream of reality” we can change things. Maybe we have the power to practice a type of lucid-dreaming. The power to wake up enough to know this isn’t real, and to change the dream into something better. It’s possible, right? Isn’t change possible?

Flash of Insight #5

Maybe this is what they call “magical thinking.” What we do when every other avenue of escape from a reality we cannot tolerate is closed to us.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Spirituality and Science

I keep thinking of some talks by Alan Watts about Christian mysticism and Asian philosophy that I listened to not long ago. He talks about the inter-connectivity of the universe and how it has evolved into human consciousness. How the very cells of our bodies and brains are made of star stuff. How we are in some strange way the universe made conscious. “We are the eternal universe,” he tells us. Each of us, individually, is a pinprick perception of the whole, and altogether we are the whole itself.

The Christian mystics and Zen masters and Hindu gurus all seem to tell us this is so. We are sparks of Divinity.

But the stories of science, of quantum physics, and cosmology also include fantastic tales about the nature of reality that seem “magical,” even “mystical.” And the reality science depicts sounds strangely similar to these spiritual teachings.

Think of it! How strange is this: The story of the Big Bang, how creation exploded spontaneously out of empty space, a void. How an infinite number of galaxies are spinning through space, some being swallowed by gigantic black holes. How our own bodies which seen so solid to us are actually composed mostly of empty space. How an infinite number electrons and neutrons spinning are spinning through our cells like tiny galaxies. What could be more fantastical or magical than reality science teaches us! The reality we accept on “faith” because we believe what science has revealed.

Watts tells us that we each are sparks of the divine Creator, living an infinite number of lives over and over. Sometimes we choose easy paths, sometimes difficult ones. Sometimes we just want to see how much we can take, how far we can push ourselves, how bad it can get before we turn ourselves around.

Did my son choose his path? Did I choose mine? Are our night dreams and waking dreams just various stages in the ever-expanding understanding of who we really are? Will we wake to another understanding of reality and realize this life is just a dream within a dream within a dream . . . and each life is just as “real” or as “magical” as the next one?

We once believed the earth was flat and the distant ocean spilled off into nothingness. Later that the sun circled the earth, and we felt smug and special at the center of the universe. Then we woke up.

What more will we come to understand about reality–the universe and ourselves–as the eons unfold?

Wake up, I tell myself, wake up.

I still don’t know if this is “magical thinking,” the desperate hopes of a mother afraid to let go, to face the fact that there may actually be nothing I can do to help my son, to change his life.

Or a faint faraway flash of insight about reality that is yet too radical to be believed by most.

What do you think?

Suffering is Relative, But Love is Absolute

Rodin_-_The_Prodigal_Son_-_LACMA

Rodin – The Prodigal Son

Two blog posts I read recently remind me how all suffering is relative, but love is absolute.

The first blog post was by writer Christian Mihai. He starts with this quote:

“You cannot save people. You can only love them.” ― Anaïs Nin

Then he goes on to say:

“[N]ot every battle can be fought with someone holding our hand. Some battles, we are meant to fight alone, to try to conquer our fears and insecurities. . . . . You can only love people, and that is more than enough, more than anyone should ever ask for.”

The other post I reblogged here yesterday, which includes this quote by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He writes about a revelation that comes to him during a death camp march, with fellow victims dropping by the roadside. He is remembering his beloved wife as he marches, and this is what saves him:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”

The take-aways for me from these post while I try to help my son in his battle with heroin addiction is this: I may not be able to save him. This may be a battle he has to fight alone. But the love I bear him can help bear me up when I feel like falling by the wayside. And perhaps knowing I love him helps bear him up when he’s falling under the weight of addiction.

If Frankl could bear his suffering during his internment at the Nazi death camp with only love to bear him up, surely I can survive my far lessor suffering. And so can my son.

My new truth: While suffering is relative, love is absolute.