I’m a 59 year-old father of two young children who have taught me that you can be in love with a flower, a piece of music, a cat − and with another person.
I’m the son of a 96 year-old mother who’s taught me that you can be in love with yourself, with others and with life, despite the hardships and uncertainties.
These people give me a beautiful gift – something which I know I can so quickly lose touch with, in my busyness. So often I speed-skate through the day, doing all sorts of necessary things and hopefully doing them well. Yet my efforts to be efficient and effective claim a great price.
Most of the time we live in a space I call ‘complexity’ − a space in which we’re so quick to compare and contrast ourselves with others and ever-ready to prove and protect our cherished perspectives. As someone who accompanies others on their faith journeys, I know we’re all in similar boats. We can so quickly retreat into our defensive positions, eager to justify why we had no other choice but to do this or that.
When we’re caught in complexity, we’re never happy or content, because we fear that something is going to come along to show us up or spin us out of control. Our sense of self becomes precarious; it seems that a fall into self-loathing or a need to exact revenge is but a breath away.
In complexity, I can’t do what my children and my mother can do. Their eyes are much more ready to behold reality with openness, hope, even reverence. When I’m caught in complexity, I can’t behold anything. All I can do is critique with suspicious, sceptical eyes. In complexity, I can scrutinise life only with the mind; my children and mother encounter life with their souls.
My children’s perspectives are immature because they haven’t tasted the beauty and brokenness of being human. I call this ‘naïve simplicity’. My mother, though, has certainly experienced the scarred and sacred sides of living, and can still respond with a sincere “yes” to what is before her. I call this ‘deep simplicity’.
There is no chronological age when we finally throw off the yoke of complexity for the relative freedom of deep simplicity. Some days it doesn’t take much for fear to topple us from our sense of connection and participation into an icy sea of isolation and dread. One moment we can be in love, relationship or communion, and the next we‘ve fallen into lonely and needy isolation.
There are people in their late twenties who understand life far better than some in their sixties. What might be some characteristics of those who have let life circumstances teach them?
The first is the capacity to let failure meet and teach them. Failure and suffering are the great teachers and spare none of us. We can deny them or let them tutor us about what’s valuable and what’s lasting. Failure and suffering rip off the false self, the endless disguises of the ego that goes to extraordinary lengths to prove, promote or protect itself. Those who let the years teach them can learn to trust that if they let go this false self, they fall into a deeper, larger and richer life than they could have constructed.
A second characteristic of these spacious and gracious people is that they have a capacity to hold paradox. They don’t have to deny that they are mixtures of darkness and light; loving one moment and indulgent the next; courageous and wise, then hesitant; sagacious and imprudent; striving for the good and the true and then captured by compulsion. These people are at home in their own skin, for they know they’ll never ‘have it together’. At least on their better days, they remember that life is a mixed bag: they carry their amalgam of sharp edges with a wisdom that can forgive reality and themselves for not being perfect.
A third characteristic is a capacity to let woundedness be a source of compassion and mercy, rather than a toxic pool of bitterness and resentment. No one escapes being wounded and we can’t relate honestly without an awareness of this. In this litigious society, it’s become easy to blame another for how life’s turned out and this fault-finding can get into our very cells. It’s a temptation to find someone to blame so we can gain pleasure from being the one who’s been wronged.
The space of deep simplicity is always there and sometimes we just drop into it. We might hear a voice whispering an invitation that takes us past the known, through the untrodden and into the unexpected. We’re not meeting the world with the same cynicism or sarcasm, but seeing through fresh, hopeful eyes.
From this space we have a less controlling grip over what should be and can operate from a broader vision. It’s where we can trust that laying down life for love is neither naïve nor a trap.
A space of deep simplicity gives the grace to no longer need to tote grievances. We choose to extend universal amnesty towards ourselves, our adversaries, and towards the way life has worked out.
Here we notice that what should have destroyed us has actually recreated us, and we can love again without rhyme, reason or reward. We want to be aware of others’ soul pain, rather than forever sojourning in the land of blame.
Here our spirit can sing even amidst uncertainty, for we don’t have to keep airbrushing the past or micro-managing the future. It’s from where we sense a voice that whispers that we’re not our ups and downs, our opinions or plans, our past or what’s to come. We can trust that grace can be at work even in the midst of the seemingly absurd.
Our 4 year-old daughter will inevitably leave the land of naïve simplicity and soon enough bump against life’s brokenness and blessedness. And my 96 year-old mother will leave this earth, probably slipping out in an attitude of thanks that life has taught her what love is all about. May I too grow more completely, to be able to proclaim the words of Dag Hammarskjöld: “For what has been, thank you. For what will be, yes.”
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