Saturday, November 9, 2019

Honor, Healing, Hope, and Death: Reflections on Service on a Holiday Weekend

"A Mess" by Susanne Nilsson 
In honor of Veteran’s Day weekend, with no school Monday and the beginning of three days of rest, I spend more time than usual in bed over coffee, thinking about the things that come up on such occasions. “Wow, I’m tired,” is among these, and this is immediately followed with a sense of gratitude for the chance to rest, as well as irritation that such a level of fatigue is such a constant symptom, one I share with pretty much every person I know over the age of twelve.

It goes without saying: “I’m tired,” is a constant refrain, but why is everyone always so tired? If everyone were as busy as our ancestors might have been in harvest season, this might make some sense. But if those ancestors were to spend a day inside the average body today, they might find that outside of prescribed moments of regular exercise afforded to a certain class of people, our physical exertion is relatively little as compared to prior eras in history.

Perhaps the cause of this relentless fatigue is something other than physical. There’s something relentlessly mechanistic in the way that the extant order of the "Real" day -- as measured by any number of authorities on topics such as “Healing,” “Self-Help,” “Recovery,” and (this problematic word, so often overused and misappropriated that perhaps it means nothing anymore) “Spirituality” -- is now largely comprised of glossed-over and commodified abstractions, separate from the grit and mess of everyday living.

I think when people refer to "Spirituality" as an interest or describe someone as "Spiritual" as though such a word denotes a demonstrable way of being, they are usually meaning to refer to someone possessed of concerns beyond what passes for everyday commerce. This seems to underscore how much the noise of getting, spending, mindless distraction, and the pressure of keeping up with the relentless schedule of most days — has polluted the everyday experience of being, such that matters once considered everyday: births and deaths, illness and recovery, friendship and grief and sharing regular meals in community — are relegated to the sidelines. You don’t have to be particularly “Enlightened” (another capitalized, commodified concept of the moment) to intuit that something in the order of this is wrong by an order of magnitude quite a bit more vast than anything our ancestors could fathom.  But when this shift occurs at a time when religious institutions have also, by and large, been pushed to the sidelines of community life (except in cases of “Communities of Faith” which aim to recreate what was lost) — people lack language to express the pull towards something more than what is so commonly accepted as capital-L Life.  “Spiritual,” becomes a descriptor widely used to designate such an awareness, as if it is a distinctive quality. “Human” might serve the same purpose.

Contemporary philosopher and social critic Henry Giroux makes a distinction between being “at war” and “in war” and deftly observes that most people in the United States today live in the shadow of a machine that places them perpetually in a state of vigilance against attack, a backdrop of violence, and a constant state of watchfulness against imminent destruction.  Another symptom of living in war is that the war itself becomes invisible. Fish, if they spoke, could have no word for water; our constant immersion in war makes us similarly ill-equipped to recognize it for what it is. Add to this an aversion to death, a simultaneous glorification of Youth and War, and the compartmentalization of death, dying, illness, and old age into institutions separate from the places where daily lives are lived. Gone also are most everyday occasions for recognizing these deaths, these losses, this aging we all experience. Enter the age of anxiety, a rise in suicide rates among the young, and a sense that to grieve is to be unable to function in a world that makes no room for grief.

Enter also the rise of whole industries and “Wellness Communities” devoted to such abstract concepts as “Healing,” “Recovery” and “Mindfulness.”  Many fine people come to visit an engage with what has been commonly relegated as a set of practices widely described as “alternative.” It is perhaps flattering for some among these to consider themselves members of an elite and it is certain that access into such capitalized Communities is generally something that is only available to classes of people with enough time and resources to devote to what was once called Leisure (In his 1948 essay on the subject, Josef Piper follows the connection of leisure and culture, while lamenting the simultaneous demise of both in a workaholic world).

These things are on my mind because I have a moment to pause in a world where such a hiatus from frenetic noise is rarely allowed, and also because I was recently asked if I would like to participate in such a community, a request that forces me to notice the aversion that I’ve developed to the packaging of the spiritual. Also, it’s Veteran’s Day weekend when I write this, and with this comes regular and neatly patched-on sound bytes on “Courage,” “Service,” and “Honor,” against the din — all of which rightly apply to the men and women who have served courageously in military service, and all of which, like “Spirituality,” tend to be grossly overused and drowned out by mechanistic noise in such a manner that they become abstract concepts separated from the tangible source.  The source is human. An abstraction is the opposite; it belongs to the language of machines.

image by Leonie on flickr
In these times of war, where the sleek abstractions of capital-letter ideas tend to replace the lowercase grit of our sweating humanity,  it seems as critical as ever to recognize that any capital-H Honor we wish to recognize in our veterans should never be placed on the same stage where death is smiling and wearing a cartoon bow, and capital-W War is stealing the show as hero of the moment. Life goes hand-in-hand with death, and war is an affront to both the living and the dead. In these times of “in- war,” survival of what is human demands that this be recognized.  Healing is not shutting eyes tight against violent destruction, scorched earth, and the bodies of brothers and sisters bleeding out from senseless attacks, from children behind bars, or from hungry brothers and sisters denied the dignity of a shower and a toilet.  I want lower-case healing, the kind that actually treats these wounds one by one and individually: one scratch, one mouth, one crying child and one funeral at a time.  Let's not rush so quickly to celebrate Recovery. Let us stay in the mess for a while, among those hurting most. The healing I want takes time; it takes silence, it takes stepping away from the noise of war as well as from the brightly-lit, organically sourced temples by which certain basic birthrights of all human beings: healing, recovery, spirit, to name a few — are commodified and distributed as products for purchase, to be stored like ammunition against the enemies elsewhere.

Healing, hope, and rest don’t need to be relegated to holidays or to a particular aesthetic affordable only to a woke elite. It’s hard not to notice how rarely  the words “hope” and “death” share space inside a sentence, and there’s reason to push back against this kind of compartmentalization — in the name of accessible healing, the kind that actually renews and rebuilds individual humans as well as the communities in which we were meant to live. Not those specifically self-designated as “spiritual,” as the designation is redundant. All: the messy, the unclean, the uncentered, broken, fractured, dirty, corrupt — which is to say, all of us, taken as whole individuals, instead of the abstractions of our profiles and "brands."

I’m not sure what to make of the brand of hope that seems to have an aversion to standing in the stinking face of death. I don’t have patience for the sort of window-dressing, scented candle version of “Spirituality” that seems best suited to selling $40 candles. You can shove that kind of hope inside a dark place, as far as I’m concerned, and try to light it there.  But for those of us in the actual dark, the kind touched by death and dismemberment, I need something not so quick to balk in the face of an impolite thought.

I’m tired of being asked to pretend I’m not tired, and grateful to step outside of the noise of the moment long enough to remember why. I know I’m not alone in this; most people I care about and speak to regularly feel the same. This weekend, in the name of rest, I am glad to be afforded an opportunity to observe the relentless pace of the machine so vast and intricately connected to most of what passes for day-to-day that it might easily go unremarked, and in the name of healing, I’m grateful for the chance to notice certain injuries — my own and others — that might otherwise go unobserved, and in the name of life, to acknowledge the dead and the dying, and in the name of honor to acknowledge a call to act. It’s not a capital-C Call, although such a thing would certainly be gratifying to my ego. It’s a multiplicity of calls, from a multiplicity of lives, and I can start at any given moment, any time of day, to answer. Responses may be equally varied, and they will rarely be glorious. Here a hand, here a first-aid kit, here an invitation to share a meal. Here an off-color joke at a time when gallows humor is all that will do; here is a blanket, here is a shower, here is a toilet, here is a hand. Please ignore the untrimmed fingernails. Here’s a mug of coffee, here’s a chair, here’s a blanket for your lap. Come here, sit down, stay awhile. I have nothing to offer but the silence of this shared space between us.

In the book of Revelation, when a war breaks out in heaven, Michael and the angels battle the dragon. In the folk version of this story, the voice of Lucifer shouts back, “I will not serve.”  The voice, sometimes called Lucifer, sometimes Satan, but always representative of the great Deceiver of the world, embodies an unwillingness to submit.  And Michael, leading the angels responds, “I will serve.” The Latin word Serviam is one I learned early from the Ursuline nuns of my high school. When the church leaders were waxing authoritatively about Doctrine and Salvation and Heaven and Hell, the nuns and laypeople I admired were embodying the proclamation of Michael. “Serviam,” was something they rarely said aloud. Instead of speaking or proclaiming, professing or pretending to have some elite access to the elite kingdom of capital-S Salvation, they were doing the daily acts of service and saving, one hungry mouth, one deathbed, and one new package of diapers at a time.

I pray for the wisdom, whenever thoughts of Healing and Recovery arise — which, given the times, should be as often as possible, and Courage, too — that I may remember the service of these early teachers, and also of countless others who gave their lives quietly and with surrender to something much larger than themselves which they knew better than to try to name. They did not shout, they did not run; they did not turn their faces from destruction. They simply looked the dragon in its gaping maw and announced allegiance to another order, each with the quiet conviction of one who refuses to abandon the urgency of real needs for the convenience of pretend answers.

It’s almost too much to bear, but so is knowing that one day I will die and so will everyone I love.  If what happens between this moment and that one is Spirit, I’ll be here waiting for a visit and tending to calls for as long as I can muster the courage to listen. In these quiet spaces of mess and disorder, of seeming chaos and constant loss, in chorus with the living and the dead, good company waits, bearing no title, no badge, and without the pretense of being able to fix anything. It is blindingly bright.