“We’re living through a time/ that needs to be lived through us,” Adrienne Rich writes in her collection,“The Will to Change.”
The line is a little like a Zen koan, ripe for meditation. The poem’s words came to me this week after several conversations with friends who are experiencing anxiety and despair over the chaos in our country.
It’s hard not to internalize the anguish and anger coming from our African American citizens. It’s equally heart-wrenching to watch the violent street clashes between police and protesters.
Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to claim thousands more lives. Those who’ve lost their jobs continue to struggle. And a hurricane might be on its way to the southeast.
We can let events act on us. Or, we can choose how we want to act in the face of events. How do we want this time in history to live through us?
In the central Illinois community where I live, a few people chose to vandalize and loot. Far more participated in peaceful demonstrations over four days, including one that drew a thousand people. They came — blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asian Americans, students to 80-year-olds.
Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Universalist-Unitarian and Baha’i faith leaders organized a prayer service that over 100 people attended on Zoom in the middle of the afternoon.
Across the country, there were other signs of light amid many dark hours.
In some cities, police knelt with protesters. Sheriffs walked with demonstrators. In Louisville, a line of white women linked arms to create a human shield between police and African American demonstrators.
In my former home, Chicago, students and teachers marched for mandatory education on race. Health care providers held a silent demonstration in front of the old county hospital to protest inequities in the health care system.
One of the most eloquent statements came from Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde. She said members of St. John’s Church near the White House would continue serving protesters water and snacks — despite the fact that the parish house was damaged by arson — because “people are more important than property.”
I meditated as well this week on a line from the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict: “Be the first to show respect to another, bearing with the greatest of patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior.”
That passage returned to me as I was tempted to judge others who seemed more upset about property damage and the criticism Donald Trump is receiving for his handling of the protests than the event that led to those protests: the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd.
Some of the people defending the president I know. They are members of my family. Some are fellow Catholics — people whom I’ve experienced as kind and sensitive in other circumstances, people who volunteer in service ministries.
Can I have the hospitality of heart, as St. Benedict urges, to bear with patience the behavior and opinions of those with whom I disagree?
It will likely be an ongoing struggle.
My friend and meditation teacher Lama Tsering Ngodup Yodsampa offers a partial solution. He urges us to confront division with random acts of “loving kindness.”
Another friend, retired Mennonite and United Methodist minister Jim Bortell, reminded me this past week that God is both meaning — and mystery.
As Jim puts it, “Aware or not, we are always engaged with God, there is that seed — that spark — that inner light of God,” no matter the chaos around us.
The Trappist monk and spirituality author Thomas Merton was alive during the Spanish flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the assassination of an American president, segregation and the struggle for civil rights.
He died in 1968, a year when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were felled by assassins, violent protests erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Vietnam War was killing civilians and soldiers alike. Merton never stopped believing in grace. He wrote:
“People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no merciful God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice … the human race can still recover each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity.”
May it be so in the current time. May we be the women and men who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity.
It is the only sane way to allow these turbulent times to “be lived through us.”