Love and Courage

Today is Michaelmas. My daughter’s school holds a celebration of Michaelmas every year with a play to celebrate the victory of the heavenly host over Lucifer (God’s apparently a delegator) and a picnic to celebrate the harvest. The play is always adorable with the 7th grade playing the part of Lucifer in the person of a giant dragon who ravages the village, much to the consternation of the 4th grade villagers. The play emphasizes that love and courage overcome evil better than might.

While on the 45-minute drive to the school, I thought about love and courage and faith. I was raised a Catholic. The thing I love the most about Catholicism is the amount of ritual. If you go to Mass, there’s going to be standing, sitting, kneeling, talking, singing, eating, drinking. And there’s the best part – the kiss of peace. You turn to the people around you and say “Peace be with you.”

While I was saying those words and shaking hands and kissing people on the cheek, I meant them. I loved those people. I completely forgot that this one had cut me off in the parking lot, or that one had spoken sharply to me or another one owed me five dollars I wasn’t going to see anytime soon. In that moment, I truly loved them and wished them peace.

Later, I became Buddhist. Let me clear something up for you: there’s nothing in Buddhist doctrine or in Catholic doctrine that says you can’t be both. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a god, nor do Buddhists worship him in the same way that Christians worship God. The big difference is that, while Catholics filter their experience of God through priests and other church hierarchy who put a lot of rules in place, Buddha encouraged his followers to believe only what they could prove to themselves. Catholics have ten commandments and a million other rules, but Buddhists only have one rule: every action has consequences.

If you open your hand and drop something, whether you’re the president or a prostitute, whether you’re a stockbroker or a stock clerk, it’s going to fall. There’s no judgement involved.

Being Buddhist has meant that I now spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of my actions, but nobody is good at that 100% of the time, and every time I make a poor choice and experience negative consequences, I feel like a failure. And, like everyone else, I’m hungry for success. Humans are all hungry. We’re hungry for love, hungry for money, hungry for approval. Starving for it.

Here’s where love and courage come into it: you can’t feed yourself. No amount of staring into the mirror and saying “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” is ever going to fill that hole of doubt inside you. But you can feed other people. Everyone around you is as starving as you are, and the easiest thing in the world is to feed them. You feed them by actually listening when people talk. By paying strangers compliments. By smiling at people. By asking someone who looks upset if they’re okay.

The flip side of only being able to feed others is that when others feed you, you have to open yourself up to the nourishment they’re offering. When someone smiles at you, feel the goodwill they’re giving you. When they compliment you, don’t just say “thank you,” but really feel grateful. When someone offers you that kiss of peace, kiss them back.

Happy Michaelmas, everyone.

Radio Free Silence

There are three of you out there who remember my podcast “Satellite of Grace.” In it, I talked to people from all over about their religious beliefs. I talked to people from just about every major religion, I talked to people whose religion was a central factor in their lives and people who were largely indifferent to faith. What I really loved about doing the podcast was the freedom it gave me to listen. Really listen.

When interviewing someone, I normally had a loose agenda of things I wanted to know about the person’s religion or their own personal experience of it, but I never knew in advance what people were going to say. Sometimes, people expressed surprising views about their beliefs or their doubts. More than once, people tried to convert me. Listening carefully, with my entire heart and mind, meant that I was able to experience the unexpected with excitement rather than consternation. Someone coming up with something new was an opportunity to take the discussion in an exciting direction, not a failure to follow format. Listening to people with my whole heart and mind meant that, as I heard them speak, I felt humbled and privileged that they chose to share something so personal with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a therapist, and last week, we had what struck me as sort of a summing up. He said that I’d been seeing him for about five months, and when I first started seeing him my complaints were basically stress and anxiety and an inability to sleep and elevated blood pressure (are you sensing a theme, here?). He wanted to know if I still felt that way. While the specific incident that made me seek help in the first place has long since played out, the fact that I’m constantly stressed hasn’t changed. When he asked me “What exactly do you want help with?” I realized that all I want is to be able to relax and enjoy life a little more.

I realized that when I was interviewing people for the podcast, I was so completely outside myself and into their stories, that I felt utterly happy. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys things like skydiving or white water rafting (although I do miss my motorcycle), but there was something very in the moment about talking to folks about themselves. I’m considering taking an extended break from talking (read: Facebook, Twitter, email) and concentrating more on listening. It might be a way to get out of my own head and into some other people’s.