I have been through hell recently. Another word for it is Christmas. There is this thing called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. As a live-away dad, I know something of this disorder. Sometimes the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas do nothing but remind me of how much I miss my son Jacob.
I can only imagine how my friends on the street are affected by the Christmas season. No, that’s not true; I can see how it affects them. The depression, the anger, the despair that is always present to the people on the street becomes heightened, becomes aggravated this time of year. Some of the people I hang out with deal on a daily basis with losses that I don’t know if I could endure. I see my son regularly, every other weekend. Some on the street have children they never get to see-- the legal system has taken them from them. This time of year must be very hard in the absence of family and friends, hearth and home.
So, it has been hell on the street and at our hospitality center lately. Tempers have flared. Fights have broken out. There were times when I questioned what I was doing here. (Traditional Zen temple life wasn’t that bad, really--maybe a little boring at times.) I found myself mentally rehearsing scripts of what to say to people to enforce more rigid boundaries of behavior. I flirted with the idea of lifting weights so more testosterone could course through my system. I began to feel an occasional sense of dread driving to the soup kitchen. I have been feeling a bit broken and on the run lately.
Scripting things to say, contemplating weight-lifting, are protective measures, defensive measures, born from fear, fear of a wasteland, a desert of pain and grief within and without—a desert that I don’t feel I have the strength to face. It is a sign of feeling inadequate and phony, a sign of seeking to buttress up my flagging spirits with some impressive posturing.
Sometimes people come with donations and praise the wonderful work we are doing at the shelter. I now know that the most appropriate thing to say in response is probably, “No, we aren’t doing anything wonderful. If anything good is happening here, it is happening in spite of us.”
In Christian contemplative circles there is a thing called the ‘Dark Night if the Soul,’ a time of despair and ennui. This is a desert time, a time when all spiritual enthusiasms fade, where all consolations cease. One is left feeling dry and empty. The teachers in this tradition say that the only thing for it in this dark night, this desert, is to continue your spiritual practices, even though you don’t want to, even though it seems pointless and dry. Say your prayers at the appointed times. Go sit on your meditation cushion when the bell calls you. This continuance, this persistence in spite of a lack of desire for it, is eventually what will see you through.
I sometimes think I could avoid this dark night in the desert if only I were practicing ceaselessly--if I were constantly on-point in my Zen practice, then maybe these feelings of falsity, despair and inadequacy would not have a chance to arise. Or maybe if I only thought about Jesus 24-7, then I would be OK. Feeling despair? Feeling inadequate? Just hit that Jesus button; on demand morphine drip of pure Grace. This is precisely spiritual materialism, a ‘spiritual’ equivalent of pumping iron to fortify oneself.
But the desert time is not something we must simply endure—this desert is a strangely fecund place, it is essential for spiritual growth. In the desert we are stripped bare, we no longer have the strength to maintain our pretenses and posturing. We are compelled to confront ourselves with all our contradictions and failings. We see the falsity of much of what we show to the world, and what can then arise is a longing for something more true, more real.
It is only in the desert that we learn to thirst for the Living Water. All else that passes for spirituality is just vanity and ego.
I don’t know much, but this one great and gruesome cosmic truth has been revealed to me: the places where we are most broken--these places are precisely the places where we are most blessed. (God seems to have a rather annoying sense of humor.) This stark fact with its equally stark beauty is the Great Koan, the great mystery that I must spend the remainder of my days contemplating, though I would rather not.
My son Jacob was with me in the day shelter during much of the uproar before Christmas. He was present during three of the most severe conflicts. The morning after one of these angry, violent scenes, he and I walked into the dayroom, and there was Jesse. Jesse was involved the previous day in a conflict that involved gross profanity and shoving, and almost resulted in an out and out brawl. When he saw us, Jesse said in a serious tone that gave me pause, “Rick, you need to get your son into the office, I need to talk to both of you.” The office was already crowded, so we opened up the donation room. Addressing my son, Jesse said, “Jacob, yesterday you saw me get very ugly. I owe your dad and you an apology. I’m so sorry that you had to see that. I’m very sorry I got so ugly in front of you.” His voice was cracking and there were tears in his eyes. There’s that stark beauty again. Grace filled that messy donation room. I don’t think Jesse would have been inclined to bare his soul in such a way if I were in the habit of pumping iron and assuming authoritarian postures to cover my fear of the chaos of despair.
It is Grace I need, not testosterone.