Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.
Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.
Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.
Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.
What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become
but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.
Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.
Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”