There’s nothing wrong with loving things that cannot even stand. – Nick Cave
A Nor’easter blew in for three consecutive weeks in October. The wind has the character of a lost and injured animal. It is the polar opposite of the quiet of winter storms in the Rocky Mountains. One morning after listening to the trees wildly thrash for several hours I gave up on sleeping and started slogging through the morning rituals, when I was distracted by the light from a window next door. There was a woman illuminated by the cold glow of computer monitor who was apparently having the same problems as me. I’ve never seen anyone in that space and had assumed that it was an upstairs office for the bar next door. In that moment I went from dully running through a routine in semi-darkness to paying attention. When things don’t go as expected it becomes easier to pay attention to life as it happens. When things are not running smoothly we try to make them more smooth.
For example, my wife bought me a weighted blanket because she read in an online article that they are supposed to help with anxiety and sleep. It’s like having a lumpy, unloving dull gray animal lay on top of you. I never thought that I would be the kind of person to own a weighted blanket that allegedly helps with anxiety. If you are struggling in any way in American culture, you are supposed to feel guilty about it and start a new exercise routine, eat more kale, self-care is some kind of mantra that keeps all of suffering at bay, and all of the suffering that you experience is within your control at all times. You start trying to avoid even the appearance of neediness because someone has an easy regimen to instantly fix everything about your existential crisis.
Why can’t you just get it together man? These cumulative shortfalls and oversights mark whole seasons of life.
A stigma is a mark of shame, within my faith marks of disgrace are aligned with the suffering of Christ. To be crucified was an act of disgracing a human body while conveniently executing them at the same time. A two-birds-one-stone kind of deal. The same word has two meanings. A stigma is the wounds of Christ projected onto the body of a saint. The weakness of a body susceptible to death is at the center of the narrative. To those who suffer it may be the only relatable part of the story. I pay attention to suffering. Sometimes attention is the only kind of reverence that I have to give. When suffering is not theoretical but a part of your lived experience you have no choice but to pay attention.
There is pressure in my back sometimes when I bend downward. At about my age my father started having back problems. Something about a vertebrae out-of-alignment pinching a nerve. All words that children do not understand. The words and the experience of the reality of those words are always so far apart.
Once you get a single fragment of life into alignment (a spine, a job) another part of life has slipped out of place. If change is the only constant then it does help to be aware that not all change is super comfortable. It does help to have consistent relationships.
I have a church group that meets at my house every Thursday. We talk about our lives and pray for one another. Sometimes that is the only thing that we do. In this setting you learn that not only are you not isolated in your pain, pain is commonplace. What most people want prayer for is the hard shit. They want prayer for the unresolved and the disappointing. It is a relief to hear that someone else shares your same exhaustion or pain, not because you wish it upon them, but because loneliness is what makes suffering feel unbearable. It is all of the work that goes into pretending that suffering is manageable that makes suffering even worse.
The language that people direct towards God in prayer for one another is gentle and straining. In a time when online conversation is utterly without mercy, this other language, the praying language, feels like medicine. It is easy to forget that a voice can be used on behalf of another person. The words feel like weight barely lifted. They are a glance at some neglected corner of mercy that generally goes unnoticed. The language of prayer is sharpened toward generosity and in that generosity has a tendency to become moving and poetic in a way that resists sentimentality because it is for things that will in all likelihood go unresolved. To offer up a prayer is to understand that faith moves in and around and with knowledge of it’s own sense of futility. To hope in anything at all leaves plenty of room for disappointment and frustration. Sometimes things get worse, not better.
Every week has a Thursday, so it is cumulative.
I mostly think that we are bullshitting ourselves about how nice we are in church. I wish that we were less nice and more tangibly and actively merciful, but man, sometimes having people over on a Thursday night is about all the mercy I can muster in a week of not sleeping. Just because a mercy is small does not render that mercy irrelevant. Sometimes I think that all of the back-patting, all of the credit that I want from fancier, more educated people to prove my own self worth is an excuse to not participate in stupid minor kindnesses. I want to distance myself from the suffering and align myself with the comfortable so I direct my attention at people who will keep me far away from the complexity of pain.
One winter night on the way back home in Denver I stopped at a gas station for a pack of cigerretes I swore to myself I was not going to buy that night. There was a man sitting outside on a crate of those Kool-Aid blue gallon bottles of windshield wiping fluid. He had crutches so when he started talking I stopped to listen. I expected the usual request for money, but he wasn’t asking for that. It was starting to snow and he had just been released from the hospital. He wanted a place to stay for the night. I lived alone at the time, so I offered the couch at my house. He stayed and we talked for a bit, smoked on the stoop outside and watched the snow fall. When I got up in the morning to head out for work he quickly shuffled off the couch and headed out into the cold with me. I stood on the crunching, frozen street for a bit and watched him and what I felt was the towering futility of kindness in the face of the cruelty of the world. I didn’t know what else to do. In that moment the pain of the world felt like a wave so large that it could tear down buildings. The wave was always there hanging in the sky, but I was just busy with other stuff.
It is really complicated to care for people because attention is time and I spend so much of my attention worrying about whether or not I am buying the right product, or if I will get fired tomorrow for no discernible reason, or that one argument I had a decade ago where I could’ve said something really clever but didn’t. I live in a me-centered cloud of nonsense. It is easy to live in auto-pilot and forget that other people have the same deep oceans of neediness and hope drifting around inside them, that they are not just background objects for a really important story about my success.
I have had the Nick Cave album, Ghosteen on repeat frequently for the past month. In his album, he recounts a Buddhist story about a woman named Kisa Gautami who cannot stop grieving for her son who died young. So she travels to speak to Buddha who tells her that the only solution to her grief is to visit the homes of all of her neighbors, collecting mustard seeds from anyone who has never experienced a death. She starts out expecting a solution to her grief, an easy resolution, but every home that she visits has experienced loss and grief. Everyone has lost someone that they loved one way or another.
I have been looping the album because I have been unknowingly longing for someone to just mourn. I’ve needed something to address the cumulative early mornings, something to address the struggle with depression, something to account for all of the howling nothing clawing at the windows. I just wanted someone to say,
“And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something. And we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are…It don’t mean we can’t believe in something…”
Sometimes just saying the pain out loud, without being interrupted by some stupid over-simplified solution is enough. Sometimes you can just listen and the pain becomes a song that doesn’t need fixing so much as it needs hearing. The attention all by itself is hopeful.