Our Story Isn’t Over

Life is difficult for everyone. The Wall Street hotshot is suffering and the homeless prostitute is suffering and the White Supremacist is suffering and the Antifa protester is suffering. When I lament my lot in life, Dante tells me “It’s time to take a walk.”

And then I look at my neighbors in Washington Heights. I see in them the suffering like usual, but they make me stop and look at the rest of the story. They don’t mope around and weep like a child. They make love, they play basketball, they heckle the cops, they hang out with the cops, and they just get on with life.

As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Life is the story of suffering and of the overcoming of suffering.”

I always forget to be vigilant and watchful for the part that is yet to come. I suppose I’m as guilty as the next Christian for making the Cross seem like a miserable curse instead of a transformative blessing. No wonder people turn their noses up at religion. There are plenty of reasons not to believe in God and most of them are at the front of the church preaching every Sunday doing their best to make the Word a dead letter.

But the Word isn’t dead and we’re not done. Not me, not the cops at the 33rd, not the drug dealers and hookers and bodega guys and old ladies picking up aluminum cans. And not my dog, Dante, and my friends who drag me out to see a movie or to share a bottle of wine over dinner when I would just as well mope and weep and lament.

What kind of Christian am I? Not a very good one, but then most of us aren’t. And even the otherworldly Buddhists, it turns out, aren’t very good at being what they’re suppose to be. I don’t suppose that’s much consolation to Muslims, like my friend down at West 145th Street or like the kid behind the counter at the bodega who makes sure that I don’t overpay and that my egg and cheese on a roll is exactly what it’s supposed to be.

The Muslims I know — in truth they are few — are awesome, happy, positive, kind people. They always make me smile and laugh, as if they know that I won’t smile and laugh if left to myself. Joy. My Muslim friends keep joy in my life. Would that Christians and Buddhists valued such human, earthy, real things.

But naturally, they do! Like every Muslim and every Jew, each Christian and each Buddhist is not really good at being what they’re supposed to be. In effect, we’re all in the same absurd situation.

If it were to happen that one day there were no more Christians, that would be okay. But it would make me sad that no one else would find the love that the religion of my birth and ancestors helped me experience. It almost happened that my elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people, were annihilated and removed from the face of the Earth. Thank goodness that some of my Christian monastic brothers — those fearless Benedictine and Carthusian monks come to mind — refused to sit by and let it happen. They didn’t save many, let alone everyone, but even one person matters.

What kind of Christian would lead Jews to the slaughter, like cattle? What kind of Buddhist dares to become indignant before the world when someone simply points out the truth: Buddhists in Burma are complicit in genocide. Just as Christians not so long ago did the same to Jews. What the fuck do they think the Buddha would do if he were walking in their land today?

No need to worry about Christian sanctimony. My people are not innocent either.

What kind of HUMANS would we be if we just sat down and waited for everything to slowly come to an end? I’m not going to let the Apocalypse happen so long as I’m able to do something. I still believe that God meant what he said to Noah. It’s the same thing every father wants for his son — that he might go on living and making life and giving life for as long as possible.

It’s not just the story of us, you and me on this rocky planet in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a reason to live and to go on living.

And when there’s nothing worth living for, then you just have to make something the reason. Create a reason. Be a reason.

We live as though we will never die. But everything we love will pass away. It’s true for you. And it’s true for me.

But we will not let the story end. Let harbingers of the End Times get what they’re looking for. The rest of us have life to live and life to make.

I had a dream not long ago, that once in the Universe there were tens of millions of civilizations but no one did anything when one disappeared. Or when thousands vanished forever. And when it was almost too late, those few 16 remaining civilizations woke up to the beauty and preciousness and passing reality that everyone is in the end.

And they said: WE WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

They found a reason. But that was just a dream. We don’t need to look to the stars to find a reason. We just need to look at each other.

I WILL NOT GIVE UP. I WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017

The Cry of Jonah

The other day I read a news report detailing the arrest of a young woman accused of prostituting herself for $20 and a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Naturally, every headline emphasized that this person was prepared to trade her body for chicken nuggets. The beautiful, affluent, sanctimonious public figures who tell us what to think and how to live via newspapers, TV news shows, websites, radio programs, and polished pulpits no doubt delighted in the chance to deride and mock this woman. These are the same people Jesus encountered in a well-known Gospel passage.

The powerful of our nation turn their backs to those in need. They despise the poor and the weak. Their hearts are hardened against the plight of the hungry and homeless. Should our nation be utterly annihilated and its name perish from the face of the Earth, even that fate would be too merciful given the crimes we commit collectively and as individuals every single day. We have turned natural abundance and the favor of Providence into a curse. And still you and I delude ourselves that the United States of America is some fabled City Upon a Hill.

The voice of Jonah the Prophet echoes through the ages: Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!

~BT Waldbillig
May 3, 2017

Disposable Humans

To the eyes of a miser a guinea is more beautiful than the sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes.
~William Blake

Let’s be clear: we regard the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, prostitutes, drug addicts, prison inmates, and the like with disgust and disregard. They frighten us. They burst the comfortable, sanitized bubbles we build around ourselves in order to feel safe and superior, reminding us that each person contains within himself or herself the entirety of humanity, not just the clean, happy bits. You and I are far more unclean than the grubby homeless man in Brazil who recently sacrificed his life to save a woman he didn’t even know. He died on the steps of a church, like so many homeless men and women who freeze to death on cold winter nights while their priests and bishops, bellies full of rich food, sleep comfortably without a thought to those without a bed or even a blanket.

Despite the soaring rhetoric of politicians and religious leaders who talk about human dignity and the value of life, we live in a society where certain groups of people are considered disposable. Whether you know it or not, you and I are complicit in this in a thousand small ways every day.

“Criminals” are one such group. No one really cares about the violence and rape that occur routinely in prisons. “Those people” deserve any wickedness that might befall them (we think to ourselves). Even when offenders serve their time, we often continue to punish them in freedom by denying them voting rights or restricting their employment opportunities.

The truth is this: As a nation we don’t so much desire justice as lust for vengeance.

We all would do well to examine our consciences honestly. And this applies in a particular way to those among us who wax eloquent on issues like abortion or persecuted Christian county clerks, yet remain smugly silent in the face of our collective abuse of men and women behind bars.

~BT Waldbillig
September 9, 2015