I once had a patient whose nurse thought he could use a visit from a chaplain. He was a young man living in poverty who had been on the neuro-surgical unit for several days following an accident without receiving a single visit from anyone in his family. He had repeatedly denied that he was lonely and had said demurely that his family must have been busy, that’s all.
I responded to the nurse’s request to see if I could get the patient to talk about his family situation and any feelings it might provoke. The man spoke very simply, without emotion, but with a gentleness I found endearing. Just as he had with his nurses, he denied that he was lonely or that he had any conflicts in his family or that he wanted us to see if we could contact them on his behalf.
I had pretty much given up hope of being helpful to him when I asked the generic question I often use to conclude a chaplaincy visit: “Was there anything else,” I said, “that you’d hoped we might talk about?”
“Nope….nope,” he answered, with his customary simplicity; then he paused and got a thoughtful look on his face. “There’s just….there’s this song I have stuck in my head, and I’m not sure why.”
“Oh?” I asked, leaning forward. “May I ask what song it is?”
He replied, “It’s Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You.’”
We all have moments when we yearn for love; paradoxically, we also have moments when we flee from it. As Sandra Maitri writes, the basic problem is that both our longing and our fear presuppose a basic estrangement between ourselves and others; they presume that we are not, already, one with all that is. We are “selves,” alone and adrift in the world, distinct from and isolated against the backdrop of being. Feeling we aren’t whole as we yearn to be whole, or loved as we deserve to be loved, we develop a self-image based on lack, so that even when our ego does try, compulsively, to get people to love us, it does so through strategies that only alienate them further: one person tries to be impressive and ends up being loved for what he produces rather than for who he is; another tries to be likable by neglecting ever to take sides, and people end up considering her boring; another who tries so hard to be morally impeccable is seen only as unforgiving or self-righteous; and so on.
Experiencing over and over again the difficulty of love, we may — all in the name of realism — become convinced that love will hurt us or that it couldn’t possibly exist for us. Caregivers of dying people often experience “anticipatory grief,” acting as though their loved ones have died before they actually have; this is human and natural. But it can become a pathological pattern of our everyday being when our own history of pain causes us to squander happiness because we naturally expect life to disappoint us. If friends have betrayed us, we may give up hope on new friendships before they’ve had a chance to develop. If a loved one has left us once, we may become overly suspicious that someday we’ll be abandoned again. If a child has disappointed her parents, they may become excessively critical, having written off the possibility that she will ever find her path. Like this, we reject possibilities of reconciliation or discovery or prepare unconscious escape plans from healthy situations we have no reason or desire to leave.
Our healing begins when we resist the inner sense of deficiency that triggers our ego’s defense mechanisms. This isn’t easy; we feel the pain of our separation from the holy so deeply even when (or especially when!) we don’t consciously recognize it, so that even when something comes along that can weave us back into the interconnectedness of being — like the love of another person or a religious experience — we may not be able to trust or appreciate it. Our happiness will seem fleeting, and before we know it, we are anxious again.
If the idea of resurrection means something to me this Easter, it is that anticipatory grief must turn into anticipatory joy.
It doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t happen without self-work. We may start by realizing that the self we think we love — with all its well worn behaviors and strategies — is not actually our truest self but a superficial form of personality. If we can recognize the patterns of our ego as obstructions of our vision, then we can see beyond them into a spirit that is infinitely vast, vaster than our ego, vaster than our compulsions.
What comes to mind is a traditional phrase in the Judeo-Christian heritage: “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” I think what this verse is saying, through metaphor, is that only when I grasp that I am already connected to a higher power (call it God or love or the universe or transcendence) are my ego needs, which try unsuccessfully to do the work of that higher power, put to rest. Only when I am aware that I am one with all that is and all who are — that I am not essentially deficient or existentially alone — am I able to accept the finitude of earthly life and everything in it and to live with generosity and gratitude. The key word is equanimity: a basic comfort with myself and my place in the cosmos, a sense that I am not identified with lack but with plenitude, an expectation that hope will not disappoint us.
Some may find it easiest to transcend their ego in nature, which grants us an intuition of the goodness and unity of things. Others may shake the ego’s hyper-controlling grip through vulnerability, which Thomas Keating defined as the decision, after we have been deeply hurt, not to love less, but to love more. Yoga can free the repressed memories contained within our body; once our mind’s protective mechanisms have fallen, we can feel our full humanity returning, sometimes through tears. For me, something as simple as going to my neighborhood coffee shop has become a spiritual practice: I see people walking their dogs outside in the park; tutors give lessons at adjacent tables; couples laugh over first dates; even to be handed tea by a barista is a human encounter. Experiencing my beautiful ordinariness alongside others’, I am able to let go of my egoic childhood belief that my life is in vain if I haven’t done or produced something extraordinary. “Just to live is holy” (Rabbi Heschel).
Whatever allows us to let go of our sense of neediness and lack helps us to enter the Easter spirit of anticipatory joy, of essential hopefulness.
In no way do I mean to be glib about situations of horror or abuse, or to suggest that every human relationship can or should simply “work out.” There’s a voice in me that protests that the “power of positive thinking” pales beside the need to stand in grief-stricken solidarity with the suffering people of the world. We need only open today’s newspaper to understand the validity of this point of view.
But if we are talking about the ego, which works differently in each of us, I must grapple with the fact that for me, this seemingly moral voice is, in part, a disguised plea for attention to my OWN pain, which I can cling to in the vain hope it will persuade people to pity and console me. Moreover, in point of fact, the people who have taught me the most about hope this year have been people who have truly suffered: the man who asks for money outside the movie theater on Chestnut Street in the cold, who tells me he has forgiven the people who beat him the other day within an inch of his life, who looks me in the eye and says, “Nicholas, you must believe that God has a purpose for you”; or a Syrian friend who — not without awareness of the lingering effects of her wartime trauma — gives thanks for being alive and goes weekly with others to enjoy celebratory concerts at the still-standing citadel of Aleppo, now wreathed in garlands of light.
There’s a paradox: I have wondered how to square the recognition that “I lack nothing” with something my chaplaincy supervisor — a South African who found his vocation to ministry in times of apartheid — once said: “Sometimes, wounds that are opened in a relationship can only be healed in a relationship.” I think of the gay person who has done so much important work in self-acceptance yet finds that his journey reaches a new level only when he has been loved and touched, sexually, by another. (The film “Moonlight” gives a marvelous example of this.) Or the way that various traumatized countries’ truth commissions set the stage for processes of social reconciliation. Or the way that I hoped against hope that after our conversation my patient would find a way to tell his estranged brother that he loved him.
Heightened awareness of our oneness with being does not imply withdrawal into self-sufficiency in our daily lived experience; it implies reconciliation and generosity. We are whole precisely insofar as the connective tissue of love is strong in us. Tillich defined love as “the drive towards the unity of the separated,” yet he also held out hope for the FELT experience of love and unity. It is our greatest treasure as human beings.
We hear about it in the Easter story where Peter, alone and grief-stricken after betraying Jesus, sees him at a campfire in resurrected form, and Jesus asks him an astonishing question: “Peter, do you love me?” What are we to learn from a God who seems needy — who doesn’t just say, “I love you,” but ASKS us for love?
For one thing, it is acceptable to ask explicitly about love! We already love and ask for love in countless veiled ways, and then we are hurt when these ways aren’t noticed or appreciated. Do we have the humility to hear someone’s desire for reassurance when they ask us, “Do you love me?” Do we have the courage to ask directly for what we need rather than allowing distance and resentment to grow?
Moreover, when we are asked this question, we are invited to the healing experience of saying to someone (especially someone we have hurt), “Yes, friend; yes, beloved: I love you”; of having our love seen and validated, just as Peter, so beside himself with guilt, needed it to be.
When I am tempted to anticipate grief, it has helped me to go outdoors and to imagine that on this very day, parents will kiss their children as they head out to school, saying, “I love you.” Prisoners will call their mothers and say, “I love you.” Friends supporting friends through tragedy will place an arm around their shoulders and say, “I love you.” Lovers coming home to each other at the end of the day will embrace by the kitchen sink and say, “I love you.” To live in a world in which so many people — thousands, millions, billions — say to each other every day, “I love you,” is not to live in a perfect world, but it is to live in a world of hope.
For some, the one to whom they most long to say these words is unable to hear them — because of death or divorce or distance of whatever kind. In fact, these are moments when the words are most meaningful, because they express the deepest desire of the heart. And my point is not that we should convince ourselves that we are happy in times of sorrow, but that we are capable of replacing anticipatory grief with anticipatory joy as a response to our present sorrow. It may not be easy to believe that new life follows endings, that wounds opened can be healed, that faith lost can be regained. When our very relationship to the holy is at stake, it may not be easy to believe what a surprisingly contrite and humble God says to Israel in the book of Isaiah: “For a brief moment I abandoned you — but with great tenderness, I will take you back.”
For those who are not yet embraced by the arms of love, who are still awaiting the moment when their tears will be turned into laughter, there are practices that affirm our continued ability to love and so help us to move beyond resignation and despair into an attitude of open readiness. We may, like Stevie Wonder, pick up the phone and call someone to whom we do not usually think of offering love. Or we may find a comfortable place to sit and play some meditative music (I like this chant from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastery) and, taking our time with each offering,
We send loving kindness to someone we have hurt….
We send loving kindness to someone who has forgiven us….
We send loving kindness to someone we wish to forgive….
We send loving kindness to someone we are grateful for….
We offer loving kindness to ourselves….
We hope that all living beings may be at peace, and that on this Easter, as on every day, each of us may love and be loved, heal and be healed.