From The Logic Of Faith
Have you ever noticed that you move back and forth between what can seem like parallel universes? Do you ever have an experience when, one moment, you feel absolutely no hope for humanity; and then in the next you see someone do something completely selfless, brilliant and daring, and all of a sudden you feel overcome by the beauty of it all, and everything seems perfect?
You might keep these experiences to yourself, because in certain contexts, saying that “everything is perfect” could make people wonder what planet you live on. After all, from one perspective, when has the world ever been perfect? We are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. War, destruction, abuse, trauma, and natural disasters seem integral to the human experience. Even when you sit quietly to meditate, you may, at times, feel bombarded by the jaggedness of your thoughts and emotions—as if you were being attacked by your own mind. An unsettled mind feels far from “perfect.” This is not to say that you can’t find plenty of beauty and wellness in the world, but my point here is that sometimes saying that things are “perfect” can sound a lot like you are living in a deep state of denial.
I want to make a case for “perfect” as a way of talking about the experience of grace. “Perfect” in this context does not refer to seeing things as sublime as opposed to ordinary, or desirable as opposed to undesirable. It is not a denial of suffering or an attempt to live around the challenges we all face. And it is not a philosophy through which to view the world. Perfect does not take place in the dualistic world of our preferences. Rather, perfect reveals itself to us only when we step outside the system of dualism altogether. What I am trying to get at here is that perfect belongs to the mind in awe of its fathomless universe.
You may appreciate moments of awe, but think that such experiences have no practical purpose amid the gritty realities of your daily life, where you are often forced to confront serious decisions and focus most of your attention on the work you need to do in order to sustain your basic needs. This assumption is something I want to ask you to reconsider, because awe does indeed have a specific function in our lives. In life, awe is fundamentally linked to our sense of wellbeing. As we have discussed at length, disturbing emotions arise only when we have already decided what something is—when we fail to look at people or situations as part of the play of mutual causality. More specifically, awe serves as a protection from fundamentalism, rightness, and despair.
When we deprive the mind of openness and curiosity, even our noblest attempts to effect change become militaristic and righteous. We might helicopter into a situation in order to save the day, with a strong conviction that we know what’s going on and how to fix it. But, when all of our ideas and activities congregate around the truth of our hypothesis, it won’t even occur to us that others may have something to offer, or that there is something we ourselves can learn. This is when even good intentions express themselves as rigid forms of political correctness, or when a vow, which is intended to open up an inquiry, becomes something limited by shoulds and shouldn’ts. Reification gives way to reactivity and deprives us of a sense of awe, and we lose our ability to respond with clarity, efficacy, and tenderness.
Another iteration of rightness becomes apparent when we fail in our attempt to affect change—at least in the way that we want to see it—and find ourselves collapsing under the weight of our own hopes and fears. In realizing that the world is not something we can resolve, we give up. There is no awe in this approach either. Why? Because, yet again, we have decided we know how things are: and, this time we conclude that they are hopeless. Joanna Macy gave some advice to a sincere young woman at a teaching I attended, who asked her, with tears streaming down her face, how to work with the despair she felt regarding environmental degradation. Ms. Macy gave an unexpected reply: she said, “You wouldn’t want to be devoid of the capacity to feel unpleasantness, would you?”
What I understood Ms. Macy to be saying is that it is only through our ability to let life touch us that can we awaken to the fullness of our human potential and our ability to respond to the world with accurate empathy. After all, life demands a bit of heartbreak, doesn’t it? A tender heart has unlimited give—it can accommodate the full spectrum of sentient experience. If we allow our heart to continuously break as a practice, we will make space for the infinite suffering and beauty of our world, excluding nothing and no one. So why not let it break?
What happens when we expose our despair to a little curiosity and awe? In its non-frozen version (or should I say “our” non-frozen perception), despair begins to look a lot like compassion. And as we begin to break free from the stagnation that comes from the assumption that we are right, an effortless flow of unexpected creativity, insight, and natural responsiveness releases. What’s not practical about that?