My Uncle Bill died at the ripe age of 92 in physical pain, mental alertness, and spiritual security. He was considered by many to be a giant of a human being. Shortly before he died, circumstances brought me alone to his bedside where I took the opportunity to seek the wisdom carried by one who had lived long and learned well along the way.
Sitting by my Uncle Bill, I asked him, “What do you regret the most in your life?” His eyes turned reflectively inward as he answered, “I grew up in a community of immigrants from four different countries, all speaking their native language and living out their unique customs. In all the opportunity there was for me to play with children who had come from a country different than my own, I chose instead to play with the German boys because that was what I knew. I could have learned new words, played new games, tasted different food, and made new friends, but I chose to stay ‘with my own kind’. I regret to this day that I missed out on so much.”
It’s hard to convey the tangible heaviness in Uncle Bill’s voice as he spoke; it’s also hard to convey my own surprise that in 92 years of living this would be his biggest regret. But I witnessed the cost to my uncle and I am witnessing it today in a world that seems bent on defending what is familiar and attacking what is different. The resulting wars and suffering speak for themselves.
It is risky to reach across the boundary of difference because difference always carries an unknown outcome, and for whatever reason, unknown outcomes seem to frighten us. It is risky to step out of the circle of familiarity and extend an invitation of friendship. Fear and blame come so much easier for us.
In a world of growing polarities where each group is clinging to its own familiarity, my Uncle Bill’s words still live. They invite us to take the risk and the opportunity to “play with others”.
Even though I don’t carry my cell phone with me all the time. Even though I have non-tech hours built into my day. Still, I am amazed by the power that little device holds over me in its insistence to be swiped, clicked, checked, and played with.
It reminds me of the experiments B. F. Skinner did with rats. In one experiment, he created a lever inside a cage for rats to push. By pushing the lever, there was a random possibility that food would appear. What he found was that the rats had a little rush of excitement to the brain each time they pushed the lever, whether food appeared are not. The result was the rats kept pushing the lever.
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The world feels too hot to me. Hot tempers, rash decisions, and revved up speed are warning signs that trouble has found us. Like the gauge in a car warns us when the radiator is over heating, we humans are being warned that the pace we are keeping is non-sustainable and down right destructive.
When the radiator gauge indicates overheating, the sensible thing to do is to pull over to the side of the road and turn the engine off. Stop and let things cool off so the damage can be assessed. If we choose to keep driving, the car is in grave danger of being totaled or in need of expensive repairs.
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The holiday season for many of us is filled with customs. I can remember as a child the yearly Christmas Eve candlelight service. My eyes would fill in wonder as the lights dimmed, the candles were lit, and the congregation sang Silent Night. I remember how grown up I felt when I could hold a lit candle by myself. Then there were other customs of leaving cookies for Santa, and the early morning rush to the tree to open presents. These were the customs, the “as usuals” I waited for every Christmas.
This season of the year is filled with customs; we all have them whatever our faith tradition. Some of these customs we continue to live out each holiday season, others we relive in the memories of our childhood. The customs, the “as usuals”, of our lives are important.
As we begin a New Year, it is easy to focus on the big stuff, but in truth it is the routines, the consistents, the “as usuals” upon which our life is defined and our character sits. As we enter this New Year, what are the “as usuals” that will define your life?
For the many years I have been practicing yoga, “letting go” has been a major theme for me. I have carried a deep conviction that yoga is a process of subtraction, not addition. To finally rest in the essence of who we are requires a discipline of letting go of all that stands in the way. I still hold this conviction, but on my recent trip to India I caught a glimpse of the importance of also “holding on.”
My final ten days in India were a unique opportunity to travel with a woman fondly called Sister Lucy. Born into a family of 9 children that barely had enough themselves, Lucy watched her father generously share with neighbors who had even less. Perhaps it was partly this influence that led her to become a Catholic nun whose goal was to serve the poor.
Through the circumstances she encountered, she developed a passion for the many children left to survive on the streets of India. Facing impossible circumstances, she began to take these children in, feeding them, getting them an education, teaching them to respect all religious traditions, and transforming them through love. To date, she, plus the committed housemothers and social workers who support her, have saved over 1000 children from the streets of India.
Has this been easy? Not at all. Sister Lucy continuously faces government corruption, lack of funds, and children who haven’t learned yet that love can be trusted. But Sister Lucy fiercely holds on. She holds on to each child. She holds on to her dream for all children. She holds on to the transformative effect of education, respect for all religions, and love.
Hold on? Yes, some things are worth fiercely holding onto.
For men, the traditional pant worn in India is a dhoti. A dhoti is one long piece of cloth wrapped around the body from the waist down to the ankles. Although this style provides some freedom of movement, there are certain restrictions placed on the body. One obvious restriction is speed. This garment does not allow a man to walk quickly. That fact alone can change the whole day and demeanor of the man. Because he has to walk slowly, he is able to be more relaxed, more aware, more available to the moment, and more available to life in general. The same can be said of women and their traditional saris.
I live in a culture that prides itself in the freedom of quick movement. In almost an instant I can have whatever I want: any drink of choice, any food of choice, access to temperature control to facilitate my comfort, the ability to order anything I “need” from an online catalog and have it delivered overnight or local access to 24 hour shopping, instant access to information and entertainment for my own pleasure and interest…and the list goes on. In my culture the speed of movement and availability are supposed to make my life easier; they are supposed to make my life enjoyable. But they don’t. In fact, what I notice is how much these things steal my life from me.
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“Love all and exclude none.” – Swami Rama
There is a growing misery on our planet. In response, we are witnessing many lines being drawn to shut out the plight of the suffering and marginalized. Hungary is building barricades to keep out Syrian refugees. Kim Davis, an elected government official in Kentucky, is drawing lines between who can and cannot receive a marriage license. Donald Trump, currently leading the Republican Party, promises to build a wall that will not only keep immigrants out, but will be paid for by the immigrants themselves. It is easy to draw lines to keep others out. It is easy to justify the walls we build. It is not easy to face the truth of why these lines are being drawn or to address these challenges with more than a guilt offering.
For those of us still somewhat safely removed from the pain of so many of the worlds inhabits, the time is ripe for self-examination. Distance can no longer be a place from which to live our lives; the world is asking more of us. Can we take this time to open to the pain and suffering that so many humans, animals, and other species are now feeling? Can we take this time to examine our own fear and the rigidness of the boundaries that fear creates? None of us can any longer afford to excuse ourselves from this deep soul searching the world is begging for.
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I have just spent a week with 3 of my grandchildren, all of whom are in their 20s. I love watching their uniqueness, love of life, and growing wisdom. I feel proud of them and hopeful about the future. But there is a problem. I also see the immense amount of stress they feel and the high standards they hold themselves to.
I want to shout, “No!” Don’t you see? The very fabric of the universe is love and delight and joy. Like the Creator of the universe whose being elicits endless possibility, potential, and play, we are here to dance, to sing, to be, to experience, to eat strawberries, to smell pine trees, to feel water caress our skin.
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