Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ice Shards that Pop Soap Bubbles of Comfort

Philippians 1: And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.  Philippians 1:9-11
Somehow, despite a half-century of experience to the contrary, I still find myself clinging to the idea that growing in love will somehow be easy. I set out to expand the reach of my own compassion without weighing the cost, or pausing to review what’s already clear: love demands surrender of our own agendas, our own self-protective impulses. Our own self-sufficiency.

Last week I asked “What’s it like to be you?”

Then plunged into a week of being me that stirred a host of new questions, a tsunami of revelations.

The week started with a snowstorm. A predicted four to six inches dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow, disrupting plans, demanding attention.

Then came ice. The ominous tinkling of falling ice late Tuesday night was soon joined by the groaning of tree limbs, then wild, cracking sounds and the thud of falling limbs.

Then darkness, as the bedside clock went black and the neighbors’ porch lights vanished.

We’ve never lost power for more than twenty-four hours, so expected to have lights and heat back soon.

Despite warnings that more than 80% of our county had lost power, that repair would be hampered by wind, ice, and cold.

One day stretched into two, and makeshift attempts at normalcy gave way to next steps: daylight hours spent elsewhere. Nights in the cold, blankets piled high.

Two days stretched into three. A plea to friends for a warm, well-lighted guest room.

While lights went on in neighborhoods around us, ours stayed dark. Apparently a very large tree, loaded with snow and ice, took out a crucial utility pole and the network of wires surrounding it. When we finally discovered the web of downed wires, draped across snowy sidewalks and streets, persistent hopes that the power would be back any minute gave way to more thoughtful plans for facing the days ahead.

This post is being written in a corner bedroom in a lovely home twenty minutes from my own, with coffee, wi-fi, all the comforts of modern life provided by gracious friends who two days ago were wondering when their own power would be back on.

I confess, in the middle of disruption, it’s hard to care about anyone else. Which makes me wonder: is compassion a luxury for the comfortable?

Another confession: I have never expended much thought on those whose lives are disrupted by war, tsunami, hurricane, drought. Yes, I listen to news stories, think “how awful.” Give a nominal contribution to those hard-hit by disaster. Join the prayers of the people on Sundays when we pause in our worship to pray for those in trouble.

But I’ve never invested much imagination in picturing lives unexpectedly derailed. Never spent much time in genuine prayer or thoughts of assistance for those plunged into the misery of not knowing where the next meal will come from, or exhausted by lack of a safe, quiet place to sleep.

Last July Pope Francis spoke in Lampedusa, the Italian island off the coast of Tunisia, about the thousands of asylum seekers who have drowned trying to cross from chaos to safety:
Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged.
The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
My week of discomfort has shaken my soap bubble of comfort, opening my heart, just a little, to those who live in misery: cold, hungry, unable to think beyond the next meal, the next cup of water. Mothers with small children, men and women past the age of resilience. Desperate people with no home to return to. Refugee camps, erected to provide shelter for a few weeks or months, still
housing families years, even decades, later.

Easier to say “it’s none of my business!”

But if it is my business, what then?

Pope Francis suggests a first step in compassion would be to grieve:
We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – "suffering with" others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! . . .  let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. 
It’s not just grief that’s needed, though.  “Suffering with” demands rejection of easy answers. If we imagine that suffering only comes to “those people,” over there, it’s easy to affix blame: somehow it must be their fault? Did they do something to deserve it? If so, isn’t it okay to distance myself? To walk by on the other side of the road?

When the bubble of comfort pops, when we find ourselves asking the hard questions of “why?” the easy answers and self-protective defenses are stripped away.

Yes, some bring suffering on themselves, through foolish choices and rash decisions. But much more suffering is caused by external circumstances, invisible causes, forces beyond any one person’s control: tribal conflicts, global trade policies, chemical spills.

Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Ice storms. Tsunamis.

I repent of my indifference.

I repent, as well, for my self-sufficiency.

I hate to ask for help of any kind. But as I read through Paul’s epistles, consider the signs of a healthy community, I’m forced to acknowledge: love that imagines a one-way flow of care is something other than love.

In the introduction to his collection of essays, No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:
Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In so doing, it perfects itself.
The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.
Hardest for me this past week has been the feeling of neediness. Needing help to get through the day: provision of coffee, meals, showers, warm bed. Encouragement. Advise.

A week older, and wiser, I give thanks for friends and family who have offered help, not just now, but other times, other ways.  

I give thanks that grace and generosity offered are not dependent on my own offerings of grace or generosity.

And I consider, from a humbler, more vulnerable point of view:
What is it like to be you?

To be me?

How do we continue to grow in love and understanding?
How do we give and receive love in a world where global indifference is the norm?
Is experience of pain, loss of our “soap bubble of comfort,” an essential part of our growth in depth of insight? 
If so, how do we embrace that more fully, while still longing for our own warm beds, our own safe, quiet corners? 

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this is the second in a four part exploration of love.  

  1. What's It Like to Be You?

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