Rather than relinquishment, I am thinking of Lent as a time of permission—to pause, to eat mindfully, to renew relationship, to let go of “pleasures” that have become dry or burdensome, and seek deeper pleasure in quiet, solitude, prayer, meditation, making music or art or poetry. To enjoy the early hour before the day’s demands impinge. To light a candle and accept its invitation to inwardness. Maybe even imperatives can become permission: “Don’t do that” could be heard as “You don’t have to do that.” Reframing is helping me reclaim the possibilities of this season, and appreciate in a new way the wisdom of the liturgical year.
“To survive spiritually as a member of an organisation, one must possess some special talent which makes one so indispensable that almost any outrageous behavior is pardoned.”
W.H. Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer
It is as important to bypass bureaucracy now and then as it is to skip occasionally so your walk won’t turn into a trudge. The “special talent” Auden refers to here, required to survive the flattening weight of tiers of institutional hierarchy, might simply be a capacity for play, which is to say the ability even to imagine the outrageous behavior that might require pardon. Professionals who remember how to play are a rare breed. I met an enterprising entrepreneur who gives workshops to business people on how to bring laughter back into the workplace. The very fact that she markets spiritual vitality as a skill testifies to the atrophy she proposes to arrest. The play impulse is one of our deepest survival instincts.
Organizational life, even at its most humane, tends to suppress play. Protocols forestall inspired shortcuts. Parliamentary procedure squashes all but the most determined spontaneity. Legal language precludes the pun as an agent of insight, and turns wit-flexing pith to syntactic soup. Ad hoc committees perpetuate themselves, and so hoc becomes nunc et semper.
The sickness most deeply imbedded in the bureaucratic body is intolerance for eccentricity. No virtue in itself, selective eccentricity nevertheless often provides a needed goad to collective self-reflection. CEOs need a good eccentric on board as urgently as King Lear needed a fool. Eccentricity of the kind I am thinking of is almost synonymous with playfulness. It is willingness to tinker with what works–hence to defy the tyranny of the tried and known on the off chance that something else might work better–or be more fun. It is, for that matter, a conviction that what is more fun does work better. It is the mental athleticism required to switch point of view, step outside the frame, or suddenly recognize an unanticipated success in the very moment of failure. It is not always convinced that forward, onward, or upward is the obvious direction in which to move. Or that a straight line is the best way to get there. It is willing to sacrifice efficiency for a little ecstasy or progress for process.
Play is not buffoonery. It is eminently serious. The play energy the truly playful person expends is generated by hard work, thought, and focused interest in the problems at hand. Real play is not distraction, but concentration. The paradox is that such concentration and exertion is as revitalizing as deep rest.
Play is a response to the call of the moment. It works through the muse of sudden inspiration. It is not calculated performance. Divested of ego, it is pure consent to what is suddenly recognized as possibility. So the person who plays is not a slacker, but does his or her own work well, and finds in that work occasion for play as the calligrapher does not neglect the word to be copied in designing the decorative flourish. Play has a quality of what the old theologians would have called “moral beauty” or the philosophers, “intellectual delight.” It comes from the spiritual center, it calls forth creativity in others, and transforms the court or the corridors of power into places of discovery. It is, to return to Auden’s observation, work done so well and with such utter attention that the act of working “heats up” and expands into play–not departing from the task at hand but doing it as though for the first time.
Abraham Lincoln’s legendary playfulness is a case in point. His epigrammatic observations (“I can make more generals, but horses cost money”) stopped people in their tracks and invited them to reframe. He introduced quirky criteria by which to judge people’s ideas (“I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it”). He loved the kind of paradox that spun conventional wisdom in a new direction (“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”), and the kind of simplicity that subverted the often self-serving complexities of institutional protocols (“I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.”)
Lincoln amused his intimates puzzled his colleagues and outraged his enemies. The “special talent” he possessed—the kind Auden recommends we seek in hiring and promotion—is one worth cultivating in ourselves and our students: the capacity to dislodge what is stuck by the sudden reframing laced with wit and grounded in humility. And willingness to play the fool—a role, Shakespeare taught us, indispensible to the health of the state.
For those who observe Lent, this is a season of self-examination and spiritual exercise that begins with confession. “Against you only have I sinned,” we read in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, “and done what is evil in your sight.” “Confess your sins to one another,” James writes, enumerating the practices that make for spiritual and communal health.
Protestants gave up the ritual of sacramental confession nearly five centuries ago. Instead we confess our sins to God in private prayer or to one another in a corporate confession read aloud on Sundays, not requiring us to name the particularly embarrassing offenses that burden, and eventually blunt, the conscience. Or sometimes we find ourselves in groups whose intention is to provide a safe space for confession. These can be enormously helpful—twelve-step programs, for instance, where people can tell stories of brokenness in a climate of acceptance that for many is the beginning of healing.
I remember thinking about confession in a new way a few years back when I heard a chapel talk by a college faculty member who had been asked to share his spiritual journey. I was expecting a fairly standard conversion narrative, including a chapter about waywardness, repentance, and return. When we came to that part of his story, however, he said, “I’m not going to enumerate the sins of my youth. They’ve been forgiven and they are gone. I’m not going to run the risk of making them sound juicy or lively or even interesting by naming them here.” The wisdom of that restraint has come back to me on other occasions when I have found myself in groups where storytelling took a confessional turn. Public confession, I’ve noticed, offers a variety of temptations. Here are a few of the more obvious ways confession can turn into self-deception, self-exoneration, self-aggrandizement, even self-congratulation:
— I have been bad in ways that are unusually interesting. My kind of bad is more psychologically and spiritually complex than most. It has a kind of bouquet, like fine wine. This can be elaborated with hints of dark humor, lustiness and Byronic mystery.
— When I tell you how bad I am, you’ll see how humble I can be. The more details of my badness I tell, the more you will admire my humility. By the time I’m done here, you’ll be walking out shaking your heads and murmuring, “Wow. She’s so humble. Wish I could be that humble.”
— I have been bad in ways that offer fine grist for the entertainment mill. I have stories of prurience, squalor, betrayal, and clever falsehood that might really inspire a good movie script. You’ll laugh. You’ll think of characters in mafia movies and double-agents and midnight cowboys or (in the female version) of kindly hookers and sexy double-agents.
— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how good my motives were. You’ll even see that all that badness was really for the sake of something good—a kind of fidelity, even—misguided, perhaps, but kind-hearted.
— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how it’s really a parable: good can come out of evil. Maybe the evil is even necessary for the good to happen. Maybe what I did was actually a kind of service.
The grain of truth in each of these versions is what makes them so tempting. The thing I want to remember this season as I undertake examination of conscience that will, I hope, open up the places where I am obstructing the flow of divine energy to and through me is that confession is a precarious business, mined with traps for the needy ego, not (as they say in the marriage rite) to be entered into lightly. When the liturgist says “Let us prepare our hearts for confession,” I’d like an extra moment to do that, because a few boulders may need to be moved out of the way.
A colleague of mine used to append this dark reminder from Jeremiah to all his e-mails: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Some of us laughed about his choice of tag-line. And yet I remember it, some days, with gratitude. Self-deception grows deep with roots that branch and clutch. So here’s one of my prayers for this season: May I see myself more clearly, confess more truly, and accept more gratefully the forgiveness that sets me free.
Because sentences can’t say it all
Because metaphor matters
Because lines linger
Because lyric accommodates epiphany
Because poems teach you to listen more astutely
Because poems unmask euphemisms
Because poems teach negative capability
Because poetry is an antidote to propaganda
Because figures of speech reconfigure thought
Because poems are not about ideas
Because poems heal
Because poems connect the dots differently
Because Lear’s fool was a poet
Because poems move us toward music
Because prophecy leads to poetry
And poetry leads to prayer
A colleague of mind began her “Bible as Literature” class quoting a rabbi who said of reading Torah, “These words are my very life.” The connection between words and life energy, blessing, and well-being crosses traditions; as far as I know every tradition preserves sacred words, sacred texts, and some sense of the sacramentality of words, themselves. Linguist Barry Sanders points out that for the ancient Hebrews, utterance—forming a word from the breath of life—was a form and likeness of divine power.
Watching a child begin to speak is among the most awe-inspiring moments of parenting. Most children are awed, themselves: they say the word “light,” they point to the light, wide-eyed, and then laugh in surprise and delight. Watching a child begin to read is similarly stirring. When I sat down recently to read to my favorite four-year-old, she firmly took the book into her own lap and said, “No. I want to read to you.” And she did—slowly and proudly, having something of her own to offer in an empowering and exhilarating exchange.
I’ve also sat with children who were illiterate, or virtually so. The pain of staring at a word, knowing it means something, not knowing what, the humiliation and the hunger and the shame are heartbreaking. Some fake it as well as they can. Some go sullen. Some ask for help over and over, repeating the words provided then asking again.
I’ve also sat with college students whose literacy, for all their hours in school, is largely limited to reading what’s on the page and making literal sense of it. There is a kind of deep illiteracy that remains undiagnosed because it is masked by an ability to read that stopped with phonics. Just as vibrant health is more than survival, life-giving reading practices involve far more than word recognition and correct inflection.
To read well is to play what’s on the page the way a musician plays written notes, interpreting, nuancing, feeling one’s way into the text with a lively awareness of the many hermeneutic choices being made at every turn. It involves identification, empathy, imagination, a capacity to see and tolerate ambiguities, the authority to infer and interpolate. It’s joyous, inventive work.
And, as Larry Dossey, MD points out, reading bears a direct connection to health of body and spirit. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting wrapped in a blanket in my father’s big recliner reading Gone With the Wind for three days straight while I skipped school, recovering from tonsillitis. It was healing. It was life-giving. It gave me access and energy. I would wish an experience like that for every kid, and for every adult—to get lost in words and find a path through them. To know one’s own journey as story. To let words heal, by distracting and redirecting and inviting the mind and heart to the other side of the looking glass.
Midway through “The Bridge,” one of Alicia Ostriker’s series of “mastectomy poems,” the speaker switches from the indicative to the imperative. “You never think it will happen to you,” the poem begins, and continues into a deftly rendered scene in a waiting room where a technician opens a door to deliver what will be the first of a series of blows that will change her body and her life.
Then description turns to urgent direction:
Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth
Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.
I have seen this shift before. I have felt it, in the midst of writing, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of prayer, when a voice comes from somewhere giving direction, and you know it’s not your voice, and you know you didn’t make it up, and you know you’re being spoken to with authority, clarity, and a kind of wisdom that meets the need of the moment. Once the word that came to me in the midst of wrestling with the day’s demons was “Don’t Control Anything.” (Jolted into a fresh level of awareness, my instant response was “Anything?” And it came again, clear and firm: “Don’t Control Anything.”
The commanding voice that appears in this poem seems a little more like that of a friend who knows the speaker needs to be guided through the emotional fog and kept moving so that fear won’t paralyze her. “Try saying fear.” “Put your clothes on in a shabby booth / whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.” Just do it, the voice insists. It’s humiliating and cold. It’s impersonal and anticlimactic and you are filled, oddly, with shame like a sheep shorn of its one beauty and protection, but the thing to do is walk the gauntlet of clinical rituals, accept the exposure and the confinement and the isolation and the sterile effacement of shock and grief. That will get you home to where you will be free to lay the facts and their terrible implications out on a tabletop with your tea and pore over them while you weep.
“Feel your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth,” the voice continues. Notice your body. In group meditation and body work instructors always tell you this: notice what’s going on in your body. Notice where you’re tense, where there are flickers of pain, which parts of you are objecting to the way you’re sitting or are tired, or want to move. “The body never lies,” Alice Miller wrote. And Karen Horney insisted, “The body is the unconscious.” The body will tell you what you need, and will identify for you what is needful, sometimes to the point of preventing you from doing anything else until you locate the deep energies that will serve your needs. When the tongue cleaves, an imposed silence enforces thought, and offers time, perhaps, for a poem to begin. And a poem, if you are Alicia Ostriker or if you are not, may be the thing that equips you for what is to come.
I have been waking early. Very early. When at last, after adjusting the pillow, pitching it overboard, lying on my stomach, my side, my back, trying to remember the lines of a poem, dithering over the to-do list, choosing a sacred word in hope of dropping into centering prayer, and wondering who is riding a motorcycle in this quiet neighborhood at this hour, I get up. My ambivalent efforts to 1) return to sleep or 2) make good use of wakefulness have failed. I make coffee quietly so as not to disturb my slumbering spouse. He also has wakeful nights. This isn’t one of them.
I light a candle. Candlelight soothes me and helps me focus. When the wick catches, a new bit of life happens. “Light of Christ,” I think, remembering the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Easter vigil. The small flame is a revelation: God is light. All light speaks of God, “whose robe is the light.”
A mentor told me one time to step out at night before going to bed and spend two minutes gazing at the moon. He wouldn’t say why. “Just try it,” he said. I do, sometimes. It’s not always two whole minutes; when it’s cold, or the moon is partly clouded over, or the phone rings I may spend only a few moments. I don’t do it every night. But when I do, something happens. Perspective shifts. Some ancient pagan impulse to bow before a natural mystery surges in me like a wave of adrenalin. Beauty I did not make and cannot comprehend brings me back to awe, which seems a proper state of mind for “human merely beings.”
Moonlight is worth staying up for. Candlelight is worth getting up for. As daylight comes “a ribbon at a time,” I am ready to welcome it. I begin the day with a small, familiar prayer from the liturgy: “In your light may we see light.”
Virginia Woolf reminded us that “Love has a thousand faces.” Oliver Sacks has taught me that curiosity is one of those faces. I think of the endearing way Robin Williams (playing Sacks in the movie Awakenings, with Sacks’ blessing and to Sacks’ own delight) gazed, peered, pondered, watched the patients in his care, looking for signs, clues, small individuating details that might guide him into the intimate empathy he seems to have found for one patient after another. He seems never to have thought of them as a category—“patients”—but always one after another, as persons with stories, who suffered in ways as various as their quirks and facial tics.
He seemed to live by the questions that opened windows into others’ lives and kept his own heart and mind open in situations where many might have closed them. Who are you? What is it like to be you? What exactly are you experiencing? Can I find a verb for that? Has anyone given it a name? Maybe it’s medical, maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual—but what is it, really?
His empathy seems to have been oddly separable from sympathy—or at least to have little of that pity that so easily dissolves into sentimentality. The objectivity about his own death that enabled him to write with such startling clarity and care about it in his final months came from a long practice of the kind of detachment Buddhists talk about—the emphatic opposite of indifference. The detachment of the fully engaged witness.
He left us that to remember and hope for and practice.
“Be not anxious.” It’s the title of a beautiful sermon by the German theologian Karl Barth. It’s also good advice. It’s hard to follow. When I am anxious I get sick. Sometimes people say, “Be well” at the end of their letters. It’s a little like saying “Be not anxious.” I want to say, “I don’t choose to be anxious. I don’t choose to be sick. Those things come upon you.” But I do choose: somewhere in the darker rooms of psyche and memory, when I have the time and temerity to venture in there, is a place of choice that offers a chance to take the way of sickness or the way of health. “Every choice we make,” a dear friend once said, as though it had just occurred to her, “takes us in the direction of life or the direction of death.” “Therefore choose life,” my favorite line in Deuteronomy, has come since that conversation to mean something much more ordinary—a daily practice—a criterion for even the small decisions. Which option allows for laughter? Which opens a quiet space of contentment in the midst of busyness? Which gives me what one poet called “the wish to be generous”?
Anxiety arises in the body—in my belly, along the right side of my neck, or on the old pathway of the vascular migraine. I can feel it beginning to throb. But now I know how submissive it is, like a child who really only wants attention, and doesn’t know how to get it if she doesn’t whine.
My girls laugh about how, when they were little, I would grab their chins, look them in the eye, and say with great clarity, “Don’t whine at me. You can say what you need and I will listen, but don’t whine.” I think those were fine mothering moments. I call upon that particular voice these days to address Anxiety. Anxiety is a whiner. Not quite so dignified as worry that seeks information, not as intelligent as informed concern—just whiny and irritating and relentless until I stop and look it in the eye and say, “Don’t whine. Say what you need.”
The need is often legitimate, and one about which I can be compassionate. I need help. I need rest. I need clarity to help me out of a thicket of confusion. Anxiety sharpens the need into suffering. Breathing slowly, asking questions, laughing at what is overwrought or at dithering prognostication, help, or reminding myself that, as Annie put it in her lovely poem, “every earthly darkness has given way to light thus far.”
I become anxious when I feel guilty. I become anxious when I have overcommitted. I become anxious when someone I love is angry, even when it’s not at me. And the guilt and the overcommitment and the fear of others’ anger or judgment or disappointment are never as big as they become when I see them through the cloudy lens of anxiety. They are manageable. Most things are manageable. I think it was Ambrose Bierce who wryly said, “Few things matter very much and most things don’t matter at all.” I wouldn’t adopt that as a general statement about life, but it has been useful. It puts me at a healthy distance. It makes me laugh. And laughter, I believe, is a reliable sign of spiritual health.
What, rouse thee, man! thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew’st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten’d death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.’
Friar Lawrence’s admonishment to Romeo, who is awash in self-pity, is an appeal to recognize all the particular blessings, reprieves, and privileges that fate or God have poured upon him. He urges the self-dramatizing adolescent to recognize what has been given and to receive it.
In English, as well as in German and French, a lineage can be traced from happiness to notions of fortune, fate, luck, or the will of the gods. “Haply I think on thee,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29, meaning not “happily,” but “I happen to”—but when the speaker happens, haply, to “think on thee,” it seems, he becomes happy in some of the most exquisite ways English can afford him: “and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate, for thy sweet love, remembered, such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
The occasion of happiness here as in Romeo’s case, is something given—a happenstance, a sudden occurrence of something unbidden, but recognized and received.
Among the many ways to define or imagine happiness, one that makes sense to me is that it is something available, like ground water (for the time being) or radio waves that we can tap or tune into and receive. It is not so much a human condition as an ambient condition—perhaps a condition of the God “whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere” in which we are invited now and then to share. The more we accept the invitation, I think, the more practiced we become at tuning in and receiving happiness, broadcast like the Spirit that is described in scripture as “poured out” upon mankind. We can be drenched by it, or, huddling in our self-constructed shelters, we can miss it the way we miss the weather when the blinds are closed.
I imagine every doctor has seen people inexplicably happy in the midst of suffering that would seem to provide ample reason for despair. I think of one account of a woman with end-stage breast cancer, who lived day to day in considerable pain, but who while she had a voice sang with a visiting friend an old hymn with the refrain, “Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” When her voice went, she urged her friend to sing it for her. She wasn’t being insipidly pious. She was asserting a kind of happiness evidently not dependent on happenstance. Another line in the same song reads, “No storm can shake my inmost calm when to that Rock I’m clinging…” Happiness described there has something to do with finding a source of stability and confidence that is finally psychologically and spiritually independent of circumstance, somehow surviving slings and arrows and the ills that flesh is heir to. That seems the kind of happiness to hope for, pray for, receive, claim, and live into. It’s available. It’s not too late. Therein we are happy.