I’ve long struggled with insomnia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve resorted to herbal remedies, prescription tablets, breathing exercises, diet changes, and the like with little success. These days I occasionally take a melatonin supplement but mostly just take the advice of a good doctor I had some years back who encouraged me to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and read or do some writing, take a walk, or play with the dog. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I lazily watch TV; that was the one thing my doctor counseled against! What can I say, I’m far from perfect.)
Lately, in the full throes of summer, I’ve been waking up quite early, often before 5:00 a.m. This morning Dante and I went for a long pre-dawn walk and ended up strolling down Saint Nicholas Avenue and over to my favorite street in the neighborhood, Convent Avenue, where I always gawk at the incredibly beautiful old townhouses. We passed a few older individuals with push carts hunting for glass bottles and aluminum cans, and on a side street I noticed a sign at the entrance to a community garden. ‘Cooling Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ — the garden is transformed into a refuge for people with no access to a cool space during these brutally hot summer days.
This reminded me just how easy it is to be out of touch with the day-to-day, practical challenges many people face. Sometimes these problems are quite serious and can become matters of life and death. For a low-income, elderly person with no family or friends, a couple of days of intensely hot summer weather can be a death sentence. That’s something you and I probably don’t think much about. We don’t have to.
Not long ago I read about a sort of theological war being waged among the cardinals of the Catholic Church over a recent document by Pope Francis. I recognized some of the names on both sides — some are men I once knew, some are thinkers I once admired. It struck me that while the cardinals are bickering over a theological document, the refugee crisis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond continues to rage. Every day children become orphans, women are raped, entire families are slaughtered, and human beings slowly die of hunger and thirst.
I can’t help but think of the Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean friends from my seminary days. Some of them grew up in the Middle East; almost all have family there. For them, there’s nothing abstract or distant about the horrors of war.
Somehow papal documents and cardinalatial quarrels seem far less urgent in light of such unspeakable suffering.
Truth be told, over the past few years I’ve learned more from my mongrel dog and from the birds in the nearby park than I ever learned from a cardinal, theologian, saint, or guru.
Maybe that’s how it should be.
July 21, 2016