Not long ago a good friend of mine finished her degree and earned certification as a clinical social worker. Liesl and I first met at a “sit” (Buddhist slang for a meditation session) and quickly became good friends on account common interests and shared life experiences. A few months ago over lunch, we had occasion to discuss with each other our encounters with the mentally ill, the elderly, and the dying — she on account of her clinical training and me on account of seminary training — and both of us lamented the fact that too often “ordinary” people exclude altogether the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the dying from the orbit of their lives, thus creating for themselves a reductive sense of what’s actually normal and common in life. Essentially, they restrict their experience of what it means to be human, thereby impoverishing both themselves and others.
Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist abbess and accomplished anthropologist known for her work among the Dogon people, talks about the need to both normalize and sacralize death. What does that mean? Essentially, it entails overcoming the taboo that fences off death from the realm of the normal, natural, healthy, and whole in our experience of what it is to be human. It means you and I have to stop running from death and stop banishing the dying from our midst. Now, none of that makes death less ugly, less painful, or less frightening. But it does make us strong enough to face the ugliness and pain and terror.
And when we discover that we are — each of us — bigger than our greatest fear, stronger than death itself, we can start to see something of the Divine in ourselves and in each other. We don’t need to become “supermen” or “wonderwomen”; we don’t need to stop feeling the hurt that comes with life; we can still tremble and weep when we need to. But we will endure by choosing to be truly human. For most people, this involves handing on life in the midst of what otherwise seems a pointless existence. Whether by making babies or by caring for those who cannot care for themselves, we declare that our Family is worthwhile and that we will not allow it to perish.
Family is the most common and normal phenomenon for us, yet few of us appreciate that it is also the source and origin of the sacred in our shared experience. As I have noted elsewhere, it’s entirely likely that other beings like us from distant places in the Universe will have an experience analogous to what we call Family and, surely, it will be as sacred to them as it is to us.
By rediscovering the sacrality of Family, we will be able to perceive the value of even the weakest, ugliest, and most unwanted of human beings. And when we can do that we will be ready to encounter Alien Beings who will, no doubt, see in each of us a beauty worth knowing, sharing, and safeguarding. (Why else would they bother with us?!)
They will be as astonished at us as we will be at them!
December 29, 2017