How can an impoverished underdeveloped community living amidst trash and sewage be some of the most free and warmly hospitable people you've ever met?
How can I personally experience feelings of both anger and impatience then genuine compassion and grace in the same hour?
How can I come up with any grounded sense of identity within all this paradoxical tension?
I've heard of a Buddhist method of instruction called the Consequential Debate. In this way of teaching, the Buddhist master presents the student with a problematic situation. The student is required to describe all the negative aspects of the situation until he has exhausted every possibility. After how ever many hours that takes the student is then asked to communicate all the imaginable positive aspects of the situation. And that's it. That's the teaching. Through our western paradigm it appears as if there's no real clarity, conclusion or answer in that process. Simply know the good. Know the bad. And recognize the important reality that there are two complex sides to every coin.
In the first question from above it'd be far easier for my psyche if I could determine that the young woman I mentioned was either a responsible student with vast potential or a reckless menace to society who could care less. There seems to be an intense pull in me toward making a judgment on her that contains black and white clarity. I pondered her seeming contradictions as I together with some good friends prayed over the spot in the neighborhood where her life tragically stopped as she was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in north east Denver a few weeks ago.
The second question comes from my experience last week in the slum neighborhood of Aquas Negras in the Dominican Republic. Aquas Negras, spanish for “black water” is located on the northern coast at the base of the city of Puerta Plata. The waste of the city ends up funneling down and collecting in Aquas Negras (hence the name). As I talked and prayed together with the people in the community it was strongly conveyed to me that their experience of depression and anxiety is no more severe than ours here in the States. Actually, I've never seen people smile so genuinely wide and hug so warmly and sincerely as I did last week. It's awkward to admit that my mind was in an uncomfortable space of unrest to learn that their emotive response to their impoverished environment didn't seem to match up the way I'd expect.
Through my fear or naivete or both I struggle recognizing the paradoxical and often contradictory nature of everything. I'm reminded of Jesus' strange teachings like 'the first shall be last and the last shall be first' or 'if you want to find your life you must lose it.' Huh? Why couldn't he just give me something solid and simple so that I can get my footing and form some confident opinions and judgments? Who are my friends and who are my enemies? Isn't the point of religion about me knowing what is truly right or wrong? Arriving at a firm place of conclusion sure does seem to help me sleep better at night.
If all of reality contains the tension of paradox it's easy to see why we'd live the majority of our lives in the illusions of the consumeristic matrix. Landing in Miami last Sunday at the conclusion of our trip we all pulled out the iPhones and Blackberry's as quickly as we could so that we could escape back into emails, voice-mails, and texts that often hold us captive from the tension that is our truest selves.
The darkness most sets in when I begin to learn that those contradictions that are so hard for me to explain are not limited to places external to me. The humiliating reality is that I exemplify the contradictions right here within my own story. I can often act out of genuine humility and other days my ego goes off and runs wild. I can be full of compassion in one moment and ridiculously narcissistic in others. When I'm able to determine that I am capable of both the holy and profane I move a little closer to a place of honest self-knowledge.
And as I grow in self-knowledge I can be assured that somehow I'm learning to see as God sees. John Calvin echoes many saints throughout history when he wrote, "There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God."
This process of learning about the paradox of me creates a terrifying darkness that no one would invite, but it's a process that we can't mask or run from either. If we truly desire to love others, to experience sincere empathy and concern for the human condition I start by removing the masks recognizing my true self and learn to love those aspects of me that are hard to sit with. And this never occurs without some significantly dark experiences of great suffering and feelings of abandonment.
The dark moments of suffering the paradox of abandonment and communion seem to best prepare us to enter into a relationship of solidarity with the 'Other'. If it's in our darkest most liminal moments that we are closest to God, then what most unites all of humanity, what binds me to the 'Other' is this shared and basic experience of abandonment and suffering.
It's important to see that we belong to a great tradition of growth in the dark. Mother Theresa was said to live her entire life in the liminal space described as the 'Dark Night of the Soul.'
Last week's time in Aquas Negras provided many lasting memories and metaphors. But perhaps the most significant for me is the image of open hands which was the posture we struggled to maintain throughout the week. It's only with hands unclenched in a posture of expectancy that I can engage this idea of paradox that myself and this entire world as we know it is a mass of contradictions. Knowing myself and that I quickly default back into the closed fists of expectations rather than the openness of expectancy I find myself needing ongoing reminders. This is why I'm growing in my desire to be present with the poor. Those who find themselves on the margins, whether here in Denver or abroad, truly have a head start on us in regard to faith and this is why they remain my best teachers in this season of life.