Sunday, August 3, 2008

In appreciation of suffering

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack
in everything
That's how the light gets in
-from "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen

Last week, a senior student at the Zendo played this song by Leonard Cohen. He also used these lines as an opening into his talk. Last night, at the end of the movie, "Duck", this song played while the credits rolled.

I had never heard this song before this week. It's not popular, and even if it was, I don't listen to anything but talk radio.

I don't like these kinds of coincidences. The chances of them happening are too small. Another one happened this week, which had an even slimmer chance of happening, but I can't remember what it was. Perhaps I blocked it out of my memory, for I remember that it was truly freaky, and even Dick, who is more of a skeptic than I (if that's possible) was unnerved.

Odd coincidences aside, I like what these lines have to say (or at least what I think what they have to say). I have often felt grateful for my the "cracks" in my personality and history, for they have always been openings towards a greater understanding and appreciation of being alive. These "bad things" have given me insight into others and myself and made me, hopefully, more compassionate.

I have often wondered (and have written about it here) about the connection between creativity and craziness. At times I have thought it a myth that without a certain amount of craziness or "bad experiences", there would not be the impetus to create. In the last few months, I have more or less decided that this is not a myth and that without some suffering of some kind, life tends to go unexamined.

This is not to say that when suffering ceases, so does creativity. Poetry that reveals nature (or the nature of things) is very beautiful. But, who is the one who looks at the bird sitting on the rock, the one who wrote that poetry? Intuitively, I think the author must have seen or experienced suffering, for it is in these moments (or after them) that we tend to see what is beautiful.

When my mother died, after I left the lawyer's office where I signed some papers, I came out onto the street and noticed the smell of the river. When had I ever noticed it before? Never in that neighborhood, filled with swarms of people, buses and cars.
But that day, I did, and I followed it until I came upon a restaurant with outdoor seating. The white tablecloths fluttered in the breeze. I looked at the menu and saw that the prices were too steep for me. I wanted to sit there, have a bite to eat and enjoy the beautiful day, so I examined the contents of my wallet (for that was all the money to my name, literally) and figured out that I could indeed buy an appetizer and have money for the tip, so I sat down and ordered something. I ate leisurely and with a deep appreciation for life.

My mother died as a result of a car accident. She was on her way back from a weekend in the country. At her apartment, hand washed clothing hung from a wooden drying rack in the bathtub. Of course, she expected to come home, fold up these clothes and put them away. But she did not. Seeing those clothes in the bathtub woke me up to the preciousness of life (and the cold reality of her death).

We do not expect to die, even if it's inevitable for all of us. We go about our everyday business, like washing clothes, with the expectation that we might be wearing them tomorrow.

I ate that overpriced meal near the river even though I couldn't "afford it". Was I thrown out of my apartment for non-payment because of this one little luxury? No.

That day, I realized I could not afford to live my life afraid of what might be. I realized that every day was an opportunity to truly appreciate what is. No, I don't remember this every day, for I'm pretty clouded by my aches and pains and neuroses. I'm not the Dalai Lama (at least not yet).

Recently, I've spent a lot of time explaining to people I know that everything is okay. I've got some undiagnosed problem involving my back which hurts like hell and makes it difficult to walk or stand for more than a few minutes. I'm filing for bankruptcy. It's okay. The star gazer lilies are blooming. Juvenile hummingbirds and rose breasted grosbeaks are practicing flying in my back yard.

I do not live in Darfur. I don't have cancer.

I know I'm repeating some of what I've written before, but in different words. This concept bears repeating, I'd say. So many of us walk around in desperation, when we really have much to appreciate.

I know I've hated it when people have told me things like "god gives you only as much as you can handle." What kind of god is that? I've also heard this story from an Orthodox Jewish friend, who said that god picks a certain number of people to give extra troubles to because he loves them the most, for those problems make them into people of extra strength and spirit.

I don't believe these things (though I have to say, I don't believe in god either). Yet, I do believe that we must make sense out of nonsense or adversity. It's not that it's been given to us for a reason. It's that we must make reasons, or in other words, learn.

Mistakes, accidents, adversity. . .they all have something to teach us, if we want to grow. This is life.

Photo note: The set from Shelagh Stephenson's play "Enlightenment"

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