There are airstrikes (again) in Iraq. Brief, uneasy ceasefires notwithstanding, there is fighting (still) on the Gaza Strip. Ebola continues its somber rage across West Africa. Airplanes are blown from the sky or fall silently to points unknown and never found.
Closer to home, frightened children are detained at the border. Mothers fall to their knees as senseless shootings crackle through summer nights again and again and again. Smart and willing souls struggle to find sustainable employment. Women still battle for the fundamental right of privacy and reproductive autonomy. Corporations are people.
In our own lives, we tenderly try to find our way through fragile relationships, domestic uncertainties and sharp turns that we never saw coming. Life hurts in ways we couldn’t have conceived of. Trust becomes an elusive and precious commodity. And time pushes us gently onward, down the path.
These are bewildering days. We are flooded and we are weary.
So what do we do? Where do we start? What does it all mean anyway? Sometimes “the wisdom to know the difference”– between when we can have an impact and when we can’t– is difficult to ascertain. Do we write an email to our Congressman or woman? Do we post gruesome photos of bombing victims, of children, on our Facebook page? Do we pray? Do we get a second job or sell the car? Do we reach out again, knowing full well that another bloody punch is coming? Do we read another self-help book?
How do we choose?
The thing is we can’t know for certain. There is no clear directive. We can only speculate. We can try. Anything. We can reach deep to get back to something that is inherently true, even if it’s just the simple fact of our breathing. Or pulse. We square with the here and now because it’s all we can really grasp anyway.
We can find a mantra. Any will do. We can borrow from the Buddha or Jesus. We can make something up. We can chant methodically and reverberate to the cosmos. Or we can whisper silently inside. Our mantra is like a piece of driftwood that we cling to in a desolate ocean. Lately I’ve been using a title (and lyric) from a song by Shawn Colvin– “Steady On.” This mantra worked for me years ago, when my infant son slipped through my waiting fingers, only to brush quickly past this life and on to something greater. These two simple words “steady on” tethered me to the world, to myself. And in the staggering madness of the day, this mantra still resonates: the evening news, trigger-happy cops, teenage fury, critical plans that fall through…steady on. Steady on. When we don’t know what to do. Steady on.
As long as we’re feeling it, we can use anything:
“Om mani padme hum”
“rock & roll, hoochie koo”
“peace, hope & love”
Our mantra might not solve anything. The world will spin furiously on and the days will have their way with us. But it can bolster us lest we crumble, overwhelmed and defeated. It can keep us from bailing in despair. And if our mantra can’t lead us to solutions, it can possibly bring us to a more balanced perspective. While bombs are dropping over Bagdad, hardworking scientists are finding new ways to treat cancer and other diseases. Companies may be dumping chemicals into rivers but devoted volunteers are planting community gardens. Nefarious destruction coexists with inspired creation. The beguiling irony of this whole wretched dance is that numerous things can be true at the same time.
The other night I had the blessed pleasure of seeing the Alessandro Penezzi Trio at the Triple Door. Intertwining the voices of mandolin, guitar, clarinet and fiddle, they performed choros and other traditional styles of music from their homeland of Brazil. Their virtuosity was stratospheric and they played with joy, humor and a clear reverence for the music and each other. The evening was blissful and transcendent. As I walked away from the theater, I pondered the big mystery. Life is full of suffering. But it’s also full of beauty. If we avail ourselves of the latter, are we turning a blind eye to the former? Or is there some kind of grand equilibrium in place that we don’t have the capacity to understand?
A few days before his death, my father, who was slowly succumbing to pancreatic cancer, playfully said, “I’m about to get a few questions answered.” Perhaps from his perch now, the madness of the world finally makes some kind of sense. As for the rest of us, we’re still here, sorting through it all. What do we do? Where do we start? What does it all mean anyway? We are flooded and we are weary.