Part 1 of a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image and World Religions
A shelf in our hall closet decided to fall down yesterday — for no reason in particular. No new weight or shifted materials. It was just the metal shelf bracket’s time to die.
Meanwhile, our fifteen-year-old freezer had a drainage hose clogged last month, and ice kept stacking up on the floor of the freezer. (I fixed it myself, with much grunting and swearing, by putting much frozen food out on the 23-degree porch outside, thawing and washing the fridge/freezer, and canceling some other plans for a fun activity as a family.) Oh, here’s a bad one: our four-year-old digital video camera –a fairly expensive one that does not even get used much– has nevertheless been “in the shop” twice since we bought it, and now needs to go back again. It’s a lemon, even though the name on it says Canon. In Wisconsin at the cottage, I put in a new sump pump when the old one stopped working back in the fall. And at work this month, I’ve found that the one copier all faculty must use is famously temperamental, and can put me in a real bind if it decides to have a bad day.
We’ve all heard it before. Life is 95% maintenance, and only 5% production… or something like that. But it still bears repeating, because we tend to forget such basic wisdom. Things get messed up. “The best-laid plans, etc etc”…. “Everything Is Broken“, sang Bob Dylan in 1989. He is one of the great Wise Men, the true shamans, of our times.
[ BTW, in case you are wondering: no, I do not have a motorcycle, neither functional nor broken. Nor have I read more than the first chapter or so of that famous 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though I did not have a big philosophical problem with what I read. Robert Pirsig’s catchy title, and motorcycles breaking down, and the role of religion and philosophy in body and spirit “maintenance”, are the main reasons I chose the above title. It was just meant to catch your eye. (Is that so wrong?) ]
So… Maintenance. It’s a pain in the ass. Yet we humans, mostly because we want to just relax and enjoy the fruits of our civilization, trend toward consistent and toxic denial of this reality: the fundamental reality being that life is hard. And that things fall apart. And that we make mistakes. And that we all die in the end.
And that sin is real, to put a Christian theological spin on it.
Victory over sin, over chaos, is possible. Yes. Life is also beautiful. Yes. God is there. Absolutely. But specific victories are not always certain, and they are almost never permanent, requiring no maintenance whatsover by God or Man. No. Instead, victory, joy, and the “peace that surpasseth understanding” (Phil 4:7) requires relaxed but vigilant attention, by God first and always, but also by us as we act in, or live in, God’s grace.
If we’re over the age of reason (which is seven, according to ancient Roman Catholic conceptions of human development), then to say that life is hard is probably to state the obvious. We know from an early age to expect that the system will break down, somewhere. We have seen it happen: at school when someone does not take turns but is not called on their misbehavior, at playtime when the $.39 plastic Chinese-made toy suddenly breaks under normal use, or at home when we destroy something or disobey our parents, despite full awareness of the rule that we chose to break. We can’t help ourselves sometimes. “The devil made me do it”, people sometimes used to say, half-jokingly.
So we cannot depend completely on any human system, nor can we depend on ourselves or our fellow travelers completely. Mistakes will be made. Accidents happen. Into each life a little rain must fall. (Ah shaddup, you cliche-monger…) This dawning realization can lead to anxiety, insecurity, maybe even a mild existential dread.
I’m seeing that anxiety dawning for the first time lately in my son, who’s six and a half. Like him, most humans intuitively come to know early on that the seeds of death (and birth) are present in each life, in each day, if one has the guts to notice them. A mild smell of decay or mold can remind you. A spiderweb in the corner of the room (the “hunter” in our midst). Stubbing your toe when rushing out the door too fast, i.e. not being present to yourself in the present moment, but instead running either toward or away from death in some vague, unconscious way.
This self-awareness, and our consciousness of mortality, are the main phenomena that separate us from the animal kingdom. (That and language. And Twinkies.)
Yet that awareness of our mortality, of the brokenness and limitations woven into each life, is also the reason for friendship, ministry, family and even compassionate selflessness itself. We bear it all, together. We can give, and live, unconditionally. Mortality and community are also reasons for a greater appreciation of each moment. We stop taking others, ourselves, God, and life itself for granted. We stop needing reality to be something it is not.
With what Zen Buddhists and 12-Step programs call practice (Christians call it discipline, and above I’m calling it “maintenance”), we can stay mindful that, by God’s grace alone, peace and fellowship and joy and fullness of life actually do attain the upper hand quite often, despite all that brokenness we discussed above. That mindfulness and gratitude — the increasing appreciation for the Gift of Creation — is actually one of the main points of connection Christianity has with Buddhism and Islamic Sufism, as alternate views of life. (I’m tempted to call them competing views… but that’s a whole other road to go down. Another day, perhaps.)
I’m going through some serious stuff these days, as you might guess from the above references. Battling some addictive parts of my own malformed brain, or soul, or wherever one wants to peg the source of addictions. Mostly I’m doing okay, but I’ll be taking the next few days up here on the blog to continue sorting it out, maybe looking for help from my readers. For fellowship happens on the internet these days, too, doesn’t it? We work the mine together, finding new ways to engage with this sticky problem of maintenance, growth, and recovery of a peaceful, secure self-image and a healthier relationship with others.
So put that motorcylce helmet on, and hop up behind me. It’s gonna be a winding, pothole-filled road for a few days.