“Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved,” writes Soren Kierkegaard.
All during college and long after I graduated, I often felt lost—and after many decades I have come to realize this was a good thing. Drop by drop, the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land—of being small and poor in the way of resources and surrounded by unknown forces– accumulated like water in an inner well. Do you know the feeling of waking up in a new place? There can be such a vivid feeling of being alive in body in a world that is also alive—and that feeling can come to sustain you.
Being lost can be an extraordinary gift because it reminds us of our embodiment. It returns us to the basics of our life—that we are vulnerable and very dependent on others. It can open our eyes and our minds. It can open a door in our heart and usher us through to a new kind of knowledge, a new way of knowing and relating to the world.
“Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries,” writes Theodore Roethke. It turns out that feeling lost in college, like a fish out of water, and afterwards blundering around in New York City without a clue or a marketable skill was a blessing. Very, very slowly, I came to appreciate values and qualities that are often overlooked in our culture, qualities like compassion and kindness and a capacity to feel joy when things go right for others.
The Buddhists call these qualities the “Paramitas” (from a word that means “perfection” or “completeness.”) The greatness of Christianity (to paraphrase Simone Weil) is to show us the use of being lost, vulnerable, suffering, that it can be a doorway. The Beatitudes are a testament and a contemplation and guide to the way these experiences can lead us to living waters, to that well that gives meaning and life.
This week, a dear friend of mine took her daughter, another wonderful young friend, to start college. My own daughter and I dropped by to give our friend a fuzzy blanket for studying and a journal. In addition to being a future engineer who may help save this wounded planet Sarah is a talented writer and a very sensitive being. We left happy and proud of all the hard work that had taken her to Columbia University, and all that is to come. A few days ago, I heard the terrible news that a girl in Sarah’s dorm jumped to her death before classes started. The newspapers said she was afraid of disappointing her parents.
I don’t wish to exploit or minimize the private torment of that young person, but it strikes with new force that our culture is out of balance—emphasizing intellectual achievement over inner heart qualities like compassion and wisdom. Sarah and her Mom are definitely not in this category—nor are the readers of Parabola and this blog. But the time has definitely come to make a stand for another way of life, another way of knowing—a way that may start with valuing what many people judge to be useless.
For now, I will leave with this: In an upcoming issue, “Science and Spirt,” we are thinking of including a piece about what helps when science (in this case medicine) fails.
Here is an excerpt from a posthumously published book by the famous Dutch priest Henri J.M. Nouwen. After nearly two decades of teaching at the Menninger Foundation, at the University of Notre Dame, Yale University, and Harvard University, he went to work with mentally challenged people at the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada.
Founded by Nouwen’s friend Jean Vanier in France in 1964, L’Arche Daybreak now has over 140 communities around the world where men and women with intellectual disabilities live, work and learn with assistants who seek a different way of life. In a world that usually sees people with intellectual disabilities as less than productive, useful, whole, L’Arche celebrates their creativity, transparency and great capacity for joy. These communities take the Beatitudes seriously.
Nouwen wrote about his relationship with Adam, a core member at L’Arche Daybreak with profound developmental disabilities, in a book titled Adam: God’s Beloved:
“My daily time with him had created a bond between us that was much deeper than I had originally realized. Adam was the one who was helping me to become rooted not just in Daybreak but in my own self. My closeness to him and to his body [Nouwen was charged with bathing and dressing Adam] was bringing me closer to myself and my own body. It was as if Adam kept pulling me back to earth, to the ground of being, to the source of life. My many words, spoken or written, always tempted me to go up into lofty ideas and perspectives without keeping in touch with the dailiness and beauty of ordinary life. Adam didn’t allow this. It was as if he said to me, ‘Not only do you have a body like I do, Henri, but you are your body. Don’t let your words become separated from your flesh. Your words must become and remain flesh.’”
The learned priest found the meaning of the Incarnation in Adam. When I read his words—and so many other stories in Parabola—I remember there is another life to be found in the midst of this life. I remember that failing can feel like dying but so does awakening. I respectfully ask you to dare to be lost. You may find a better way.