I’ve done a number of challenging things over the years, at least they were challenging for me. One summer I biked up the west coast of Ireland with my husband, nephew, and two other friends. The most difficult day was biking from Galway to the ferry take off point for the Aran Islands. When we started out, it was raining hard. We crouched behind a bus stop wall as we left the city, watching the rain blow horizontally, hoping it would let up. When we could tell that it wasn’t going to, we pushed out into the wind, riding against it the whole way, making it to the ferry five minutes before it took off. After another fourteen miles of riding once we landed on the islands, we arrived at our bed and breakfast. There, I opened up the bicycle guidebook to read that the ride we had just done should the easiest day of riding up the coast, as it was flat. Obviously, this statement didn’t account for riding into a fierce oncoming wind and driving rain the entire way. What seems like it should be easy can actually be quite difficult.
Several years back my husband and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft. The climb up takes hours–most of the day, as I recall, and you pass through several ecosystems as you rise in altitude. Then you stay the night in bunks at the guest house, and rest up a bit before getting up at 3:00am to climb the rest of the way to the top so that you can be there soon after the sun rises, and before the mists engulf the peak. Because you are climbing in altitude, it can be slow and difficult walking once you are at about 10,00 ft. We made it to the top, and the views were truly stunning as the mists rolled into the sun and over the pointed granite peaks and saddles. We began the descent as the mists thickened into cloud, and the clouds began to rain. The walk up to the peak the second morning, and then back down the mountain again took nine hours, and was the most physically difficult thing I ever did. The trail up and down the mountain is made of steps of varying height, and we were walking down them in what eventually became torrential rain. For hours I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on putting one foot in front of the other. There were no rest stop areas, however. What could we do but continue on? So we did. It amazed me how when it had to, the body could move beyond what I thought was its absolute limit.
But challenging as these things were, these physical experiences were, they weren’t the most difficult thing to bear. The most difficult thing I’ve done was sitting by my father’s side day after day the month that he lay dying—knowing he was dying, and just sitting with him, being with him as he climbed the highest mountain, and continued on through the rain and wind, to cross over to the other side.
In California, it has finally begun to rain after months of winter filled with drought. In Montana it is truly winter. Today as I bicycle through our New Delhi neighborhood, the sky has a hint of blue after months of pollution and fog. I glide past smoke from burning heaps of garbage, and women crouched over blankets spread out on the sidewalk, sorting grain, and children playing cricket in the streets. I think of the estimated 100,000 who live on the streets in Delhi.
When someone we know is dying, or suffering, and we don’t know what the end of it will be, we feel open, raw, and especially aware of how frail our strengths really are—how fragile the line between life and death. All we have and are could change so easily, and it has made me realize how every day our very breathing is a kind of sacrament. Our life is and becomes day by day what we are paying attention to. It is what we open our hearts to, how we are listening to the people around us, to their spirit, and what is being said underneath the words.
Or not. Many people from developed countries are removed enough from the suffering in the world to remain comfortable while others in many other places suffer. Ilya Kaminsky in his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” talks about how those who are well off in the world hear the suffering around us, or see it, and feel badly about it—enough to protest, yet still we are able to sit outside on the porch in the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
In this life there is suffering. We might be from the great country of money, but everyone suffers. We might be comfortable now, but in actually, we don’t know what the future will bring. We spend so much effort trying to make ourselves comfortable, aiming to fend off suffering. Suffering comes to all. How will respond when it does?
Recently, a friend of ours who seemed perfectly healthy began to have prolonged unexplained fevers. In the hospital, he learned a rare bacterial infection nearly claimed his life. We don’t know what is in our future. I want the people I ride by on my bicycle, and the people I meet to be well. I want those I love and know to be well, to be whole. There is so much suffering in this city, so many needy, and as I think about and see those who are suffering, I feel each time I’m being asked how am I responding to the needs of the world? Even the planet suffers. What is the suffering telling us? Can we hear what it is telling us about our choices? How can we be whole inside of and in spite of our suffering?
This past week I read these words by Henri Nouwen, “Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu…Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something.” As Nouwen suggests, ours is a society that admires toughness and roughness, values getting things done over being present with another, over listening. Do we counteract suffering by taking action, making change? Maybe the place to start is by being gentle, keeping an open heart, deep listening, presence—these are not easy qualities to cultivate, yet in our deepest selves, we long to know that we truly matter. So much suffering begins, continues on, and expands even into violence because people do not feel that they truly matter, do not feel that their life rests in the heart of someone else who holds them precious. Again, as Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Do we have the courage to be gentle? Can we hold it above productivity and success, above accomplishment? Can we learn to be humble? We don’t necessarily have to have answers, we can simply sit with another in shared awareness of helplessness. That can be powerful, even life changing.
How do we know what path to follow in the days we have remaining on earth to live, so that when we come to the end of our days, we will be able to climb the mountain, or find our selves able to keep peddling into the wind and the rain though we feel our legs are leaden, so that we can find the boat that will carry us onward? How easily we get thrown off track of what is important, pulled in to world of worrying about the uncertainties. Thomas Merton in his book, Thoughts on Solitude, suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers. In his prayer, he says, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” We don’t have certainty. Even Jesus’s own disciples asked who Jesus was. And they walked and lived with him. All of us are incomplete. The path we walk isn’t about achievement or accomplishment. It is about walking the path—the journey. It is in our reaching out in the intention to love, to be, and to be made whole that matters in spite of our questions and uncertainty, our incompleteness.
I noticed the trees were filled with leaves today as I rode down the streets, biking not necessarily to anywhere, just weaving back and forth along the pavement, practicing what it is to move, to be alive in this moment just as it is. Breathing in, I said to myself, “peace,” as I lifted my leg on the pedal. Breathing out I thought, “blessings.” Blessings on those around me who suffer. Blessings on the world that suffers because we don’t know how to be gentle. Blessings to all of us traveling from uncertainty to uncertainty.