What a week. Days after my car accident, I attended my daughter Alex’s graduation from college. And as I sat on a lawn at a beautiful college under a blue sky, watching my daughter process across the stage, I suddenly realized a college graduation is not unlike a car accident. It is another kind of heightened moment that invites us to see what we don’t usually see—including the impression that we usually don’t like to empty ourselves of ego and take life in. We want things to unfold the way our ego wants them to unfold. The commencement speaker Jane Lynch, the star of Glee, supported this realization, urging the graduation class to see that life is always a surprise and that the best way to receive it is the way an actor does improvisation. She gave the graduates this mantra: “Yes, and….”
Lynch moved in the same direction that Alan Arkin does in his marvelous interview in “Alone and Together.” She encouraged these hardworking, high principled, fresh-faced young people not to plan and try to control what is going to happen to them because many of the biggest events in our lives take a form and happen in a way we could never predict. In spite of all our long preparation and hard work, what happens—the creative or scientific breakthrough, the true love—comes as a surprise. Usually, these surprises come to us when we abandon all hope of pleasing others or otherwise controlling events.
Most of us can provide our own examples of this truth—about the time we almost didn’t go here or there and yet we did, only to meet the person we married or step on a path that led to destiny. It was the last thing we wanted to happen—the car accident, the lost job—and yet it opened up something unexpected. Out of work, out of hope that our lives would ever be or look like we wanted them to, despairing that we would ever win our parents’ or society’s approval, we threw up our hands and embraced life. We said: “Yes, and….” Embracing and then adding our own presence and intelligence to what life was serving up. As the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff once said, playing a role can be the highest undertaking a human can engage in—provided we can empty ourselves of ego (oh, that little detail again).
Sometime during the graduation weekend, I began to associate this truth, this “Yes, and” with St. Benedict and hospitality. This had something to do with my sister and brother-in-law (whom I associate with St. Benedict by way of their scholarly and religious pursuits) hosting a whole crew of us for dinner. Also, my sister and her partner, who were among the guests, volunteer at a church-run homeless shelter called “Room at the Inn.” Every great tradition includes this wisdom about letting life in, welcoming every being and every happening as a divine guest.
Benedict of Nursia abandoned his studies in Rome and found his way to a cave in the hills of Subiaco. This cave would become his sacro speco (sacred space). For three years, Benedict listened deeply, searching for God. Our of this deep listening in this cave of solitude came this Rule of St. Benedict.” The Rule opens with St. Benedict setting forth the main principles of the religious life — the renunciation of one’s own will and arming oneself “with the strong and noble weapons of obedience” under the banner of “the true King, Christ the Lord.” He proposed to establish a “school for the Lord’s service.”
I sat in a folding chair taking in the rich impression of my daughter’s college graduation—finding myself there, in a situation I had long pictured only to find it completely different and surprising because I, my daughter, and everything else in the picture is completely different than I could ever have predicted. It struck me then that Jane Lynch was right, the only sane way to treat life is as a school—and a school of improvisation. Yet I feel that St. Benedict found something that is deeply and enduringly right—and not just for monks but for all of us. How liberating it would be to live life as a school for service—to welcome everything that happens to be a teacher sent to deepen and open us so we can hold more life, respond more swiftly, love more. There is an article from Scientific American currently being passed around on the internet exploring the concept that depression may serve an evolutionary function, that it may invite a person to shut out distractions and analyze. I’m not inclined to agree that major depression is the most reflective state to be in. And yet I have known dark and difficult times that became sacred spaces, places to “be still and know” that there was a majesty and wholeness to life beyond my wildest imaginings. And that I was welcome to take part, to add my presence, to play my role.
What a week: a car accident, a graduation. I come away a bit frazzled and tear-streaked but wishing to welcome life—not just the good times but the difficult times. May I remember that even the most unlikely messenger may be divine.