Oct 102015
 

Note: The following will be published in the November-December issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I am thankful to Suzanne & Steve Heronemus for their friendship, kindness and wisdom.

Twenty years later, the paradox grows even more relevant. We long for stable, creative lives. What if that is impossible?

Many years ago, I worked with a large trade association. The president, who founded the association 25 years earlier, was nearing retirement. I requested an opportunity to chat about his thoughts on retirement, and the history and future of the organization.

Early in our time together, I asked what would most benefit the association going forward. “If we had a more predictable income stream—if we enjoyed more stability—we could plan so much better,” was his immediate reply. Later in our conversation, as he reflected on his tenure, I asked what he would miss most. Again, without hesitation, he exclaimed, “I’ll miss the early years. There were days we came into the office not knowing if there would be a future. It was a very exciting, creative time.”

It wasn’t long before I realized the paradox defined by the incongruence of his recollections and his dreams. He relished the chaotic nature of the early years…the moments that demanded creativity and innovation beyond what they thought possible. What he hoped for going forward was control and stability…a future barren of the creativity that uncertainty demands.

Nature is inherently creative. It continually crafts new ecosystems and species, and does it by remaining on that edge between order and chaos. To introduce planning, stability and control into natural ecosystems is to plant the seeds of their own destruction. On those occasions, for example, when we impose control by preventing chaos-inducing fires, forests build unhealthy levels of underbrush. When fire eventually comes—and it always does—it is intensely hot and destructive, often beyond that which the ecosystem can survive.

When I ask people to recall a time of deep learning and creativity, they are reminded of junctures imbued with confusion, turmoil and disarray. They recount the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or unexpected physical displacement. In those moments, of necessity, we must regain our footing, and redefine who we are in relation to life itself. Living on that edge, the insights we gain help us create new futures for ourselves and those around us.

I have spent time recently with a man who has become a friend and treasured teacher. Steve Heronemus was diagnosed more than ten years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS. Today, he is wheelchair-bound, can no longer speak, and receives sustenance through a feeding tube. And yet, he wrote a book, Shells: Sustained by Grace within the Tempest, using his eyes and infrared sensors to choose letters on a computer. He is working on three more.

On September 5 of this year, using only two fingers and his teeth, he sailed on Lake Michigan solo on a specially equipped boat. He has sailed twice more since. His dream is to help create a fleet of boats that will make the joy of sailing accessible to others who have limited physical ability. Steve is fortunate to have Suzanne—who is one of the most resilient, resourceful and creative people I have ever met—as his wife. She just smiles and rolls her eyes when Steve reveals ever-more audacious dreams.

When you converse with Steve, using only his eyes, he forms words and sentences that exude wisdom. He refines the ore of his life, through the pain and heartache of ALS, into the lustrous gold of understanding, joy and love. Steve says ALS has been a huge gift, and that he has never been happier. The chaos of ALS has forced him to focus the remainder of his days on only that which has meaning. His smile…his joy…his generosity, bring tears to my eyes in this moment as I fumble for words to scratch at the depth of my affection and appreciation.

It is exhausting, and often terrifying, to live on the edge of chaos. Just ask Steve and Suzanne. Are the creativity, wisdom, inspiration worth the oft-paralyzing fear and arduous struggle? Steve Heronemus shouts, with his very life, “YES!” Who am I to say otherwise?

 

Note: I highly recommend Steve’s book, Shells. It is filled with wisdom. There are short, inspiring documentary films of Steve’s recent victory on Lake Michigan. Search YouTube.com for “The Hero in Heronemus.”

Jun 142015
 

As we approach the 4th of July, my thoughts turn to the founding of this nation, and a person I particularly admire: Thomas Jefferson. I admire his wisdom and depth of knowledge across many disciplines. In this moment however, what gives me pause is not his insight into the failure of the Divine Right of Kings and emergence of democracy. I am reflecting on what I can only imagine was his, and his wife Martha’s deep understanding of the value of human life.

Martha Jefferson had seven children. John Skelton, conceived with her first husband, died at the age of three the summer before she married Thomas Jefferson. Of the six children she bore in her ten-year marriage to Thomas, only two daughters, Martha and Mary lived into adulthood. Two daughters and a son died as infants. The sixth died of whooping cough at the tender age of two.

Burying children must be one of the most difficult things any parent can do in life. Today, we consider it to be contrary to that natural order, but in times past, it was certainly not unusual.

For most of human history, life expectancy has been short… perhaps 25 years for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.  Life expectancy was under 25 years in the Colony of Virginia, and in seventeenth-century New England, about 40% died before reaching adulthood.

I wonder, as a result, if our ancestral parents had a very different sense of the miracle of life. Did living with such a profound understanding of life’s fragility permit them to look upon their adult children with deeper appreciation and love?

Judi and I had, and still have, two children. In the 30+ years since David was born, I spent few moments worrying about his or Kathryn’s successful journey into adulthood. Medical science gifted us with a sense of safety, and belief in the vigor, rather than fragility, of human life. I always believed, regardless the malady, a trip to the doctor or the emergency room would present an appropriate remedy.

I wonder how my relationship with them might be different if Judi and I had had six children and buried four of them before David and Kathryn reached adulthood. How could it not be? How could I not see them as even more miraculous than I do now? How could I not worry every day I might yet have to lay one or both of them to rest before my life ends?

Not long ago, I was introduced to a man whose 18 month old son succumbed to sudden infant death. My heart breaks for him. But it cannot possibly break in the same wrenching way it would if I had shared the horrific experience of having to say goodbye to a child.

I am thankful there are support groups for parents who have lost children. But in this age, a grieving parent must search for others who share their unimaginable pain and heartbreak. Martha and Thomas did not have to search for support groups that would gather from hither and yon. In virtually every direction, there were others who shared intimately in their loss. Caring hands and hearts were everywhere. No matter where they traveled, there were others who understood, as did they, just how astonishing and miraculous human life truly is.

Do I wish a return to a time of ever present grief from the loss of children? No, I certainly do not. But I am aware of the paradox that, in our safety and comfort, we have surrendered some amount of wisdom and appreciation—perhaps significant amount—for the miracle of life itself.

Oct 042014
 

Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.

Dee Hock

Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.

2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.

If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.

It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?

The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.

With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.

The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.

Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.

If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?

I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.

So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.

Apr 072012
 

 

As I reflect on the human journey, today is the eve of the most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar. I am informed, and confused, by words attributed to Jesus as he neared death: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”that is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” In this moment, I wonder if even Jesus, who tradition tells us could see beyond the reality of this world—what I call the finite—into the Infinite, had moments of doubt about the Infinite? In his excruciating moment of pain, it would not be surprising if, even Jesus’ understanding of the Infinite was obfuscated by his experience of the finite?
Even though I hope never to experience the finite in that same horrific way, I wonder if the Infinite is hidden from me also by my experience of the finite. For more than 60 years I have read hundreds of books that attempt to describe this world—from Quantum Physics, Evolutionary Biology and Moral Psychology to Buddhism, Confucianism and New Age Spirituality. Each with its explanation of what this world really is, and why we are here. What if every explanation we attempt actually prevents us from seeing what is beyond them?
I have come to believe the Universe is ineffable—beyond words. It is beyond anything we can understand from the perspective of the finite. And yet, we continue to manufacture concepts, images and paradigms to help us understand that which is ineffable. What if, instead of helping us understand, the paradigms obfuscate, distort and confuse?
What if we are actually in the Infinite—what many refer to as Heaven—right now, but are unable to see it, or experience it, because we remain so confused by what our minds think they are supposed to see? What if nothing I see is what I think it is? What if life has been gifted to me, not to comprehend the finite, but as a brief opportunity for me to see that what lies beyond is not beyond at all, but right in front of me, concealed by my thinking? But then, that too would be a paradigm, perhaps also keeping me from witnessing what is beyond. It is as if the paradigms that make up my world keep me locked in this place…keep me from the Infinite. It is as if, every time I try to see beyond, another view from the finite reflects me back to this world and this place.
Hundreds of teachers ask me to see that life is in being, not doing. They encourage me to see this moment—as I allow life to be lived through me and, to the extent I can, give up my ego—as filled with grace. It is in not knowing that I even glimpse what might be beyond the finite. The Buddha would have called this Beginner’s Mind. True knowledge is not found by thinking, I am instructed. But how do I approach their thinking, if it is about the non-belief in thoughts?  Is it permissible to use thoughts to get beyond thought? All truly is paradox. Yet somehow I feel that beyond the paradox…beyond the thinking…beyond the paradigms is the Infinite.
If the wisdom of the ages is to let go of all, to stop trying and simply be, then the ultimate paradox, the meta-paradigm if you will, is that it has taken so many words, concepts and paradigms for me to see that the Infinite is only available when I let go of all that led me to this moment.