“When did you become free?” he asked me. And we talked about watching city lights at night, embracing suffering (ours and not ours), learning to lean into the depths of our being. We talked about these things and I never directly answered his question.
I move through the days with a mind that moves too quickly, with ears that hear too little and lips that say too much. I move through the days with a heart as empty as it is full, a heart that carries pain and hope and mystery.
When I walked the trails at Radnor in early August, a kind of numbness set in. Images of disfigured Palestinian children were burnt in my mind. How many dead? How many orphaned? How many maimed? And here in the U.S., my mind linked to all the places where people are not free: Those tethered and clinging to their wealth out of fear. Those in solitary confinement and on death row. Those who waste away in slums and die on our streets. The undocumented children, so young, locked in holding facilities while politicians spout rhetoric. Black bodies strangled by police in Staten Island, riddled with bullet holes by police in Ferguson. The insidious nature of wealth; the trauma of war, poverty, and racism; the vastness of loss… my mind and heart could not hold them.
So I walked the trails in silence pondering the question of how to respond to suffering. I walked the trails in silence watching my feet pound the dry earth, watching blood red cardinals flit from branch to branch, watching sunlight shift through trees.
I cannot comprehend what it would be like to live in fear, to live in hell, to live in desolation or shame or want. I cannot comprehend how much the body would yearn for touch after years of isolation, how one would grieve a lost limb, a lost home, a lost child, a lost life. At a loss of words, unable to pray or even feel, I walked the trails in silence, trusting some spirit to intercede, as Paul says, “with sighs to deep for words.”
Later that week as we prayed, we read the names of the men, women, and children who were killed in Gaza. It was all we could do. We read the names and sent them, like a prayer, out into the universe pleading for the violence to end, for the bombs and gunfire to cease.
As the numbness persisted, I poured myself into tasks, I poured myself into things I could “fix.” Lists were made, out-of-state birth certificates were ordered, people were housed. When we are overwhelmed by things beyond our control, we often seek to control something smaller, something more manageable (or maybe that’s just me). We grasp for order, for things to be in their place. It is much harder to sit with the chaos, and this is the reason I so rarely make time to sit in silence, to meditate.
A friend once suggested that when I meditate, I should picture myself by a river. “Then,” he said, “as worries and concerns come to your mind, imagine them floating downstream before you, beyond you.” In other words, let them go.
The numbness has since melted away and I’m not sure why or how. Perhaps it was through reciting the names of the dead. Perhaps it was learning the names of wildflowers, coming across half a dozen deer at dusk. Perhaps it was being seen, being loved, being found. Whatever it was, I’m awake, I feel. Whatever it was, I’m thankful.
I still sit with the question of how to respond to suffering and I’m learning, through my own failures and those of others, what not to do. I have lived in the darkness of guilt and learned that it will devour you if you let it. I have seen the harm, the damage I’ve done, by trying to fix everything and everyone. I have watched my friends and colleagues burn out so hard, never to return to the work. I have watched their relationships unravel, their candles flicker, their footing slip. They couldn’t sit at the river or shake the numbness. They couldn’t watch the deer at dusk. So I’m praying that I’ll continue to learn these things. Some lessons are far more difficult to learn than others. So what, then, should we do?
Simone Weil, who, at the age of 34, hollowed her body and died, like the poor, from starvation and disease, offers a striking revelation—“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” she writes. Attention. Yes, with her life, she paid attention to human suffering, to the plight of factory workers and the poor, and she joined their struggle. Her attention, her solidarity, was her generosity. So like Simone, I pray that we will remain awake, that we will hollow our hearts to the pain of others, that we will struggle alongside those who struggle.
But unlike Simone, I pray that we will learn to take ourselves less seriously. When did she, in her genius, ever laugh? When did she, in her brilliance, ever play? Even as a child, she gave up sugar in solidarity with soldiers facing rations. And this is good. But can our guilt, our fasting, our death, bring redemption? There is a time for both fasting and feasting—human life is made for both. So my prayer deepens: I pray that we will remain awake to both the staggering and the stunning—the sound of a child crying halfway around the world and the song of raindrops in the forest.
St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit” or “Be at peace with yourself ,” as one translation reads, “and thousands around you will be saved.” Did Simone ever learn this kind of inner peace, this centeredness, like a fish awakened to the water in which she swims? This kind of peace holds the tensions of suffering and joy together, it laughs and cries and lives in awe. Perhaps this convergence of attention, solidarity, and inner peace is the way to answer suffering, is the most powerful form of resistance that there is.
How, then, do we respond to suffering? I’m still not sure, but perhaps I’m learning where to begin. Perhaps we begin by remembering the names of the dead, learning the names wildflowers, watching the sunlight shift through branches, resisting numbness and injustice with all our might. We begin by paying attention, by showing generosity to others and ourselves. We join the struggles of the oppressed not out of guilt, but out of a deep place of hunger and love. And somehow, we journey down to the river to learn the hardest lesson of all—to let go of control, to be at peace with ourselves. Perhaps in this place, we will begin to find our own freedom, our own liberation. And perhaps in this place, we will realize the great truth that our liberation is inextricably bound up with the liberation of others.
So when did I become free? I’m free every time I pay attention to city lights and wildflowers, every time I stand in solidarity with those who suffer. When did I become free? Every time I lean into the depth of my being without criticism and guilt, every time I sit at the river in the midst of chaos. These are lessons I must learn, things I must practice, every day. So I’m learning, gradually, to move through the days with open eyes, an open heart, and open hands.