Children are said to be “at risk” when certain conditions are present – or absent – in their lives. A kind and working father is missing. An abusive or addicted one lurks and festers, a boiling and unpredictable giant behind the front door of our denied safe harbor, the refuge of home after our day negotiating the uncertain and often demeaning paths of the classroom and playground. Disease, or the need to work two or three jobs have broken the arms of mom’s affection and care.
These things make life harder. They carve away at confidence and shape a world view. Often the result, by choice, certainly, but under overwhelming pressure, is a generational cycle of poverty, addiction and despair. Often, but not always. There are spirits that in their time choose to climb out of the despair, spirits that find a life that transcends oppression, despite the powerful odds.
I have a neighbor and friend, Gordon, whose body has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. In Gordon’s case, the breakdown of the nervous connection between brain and muscles is progressing generally from the outside in, with loss of connection to limbs followed by atrophy and loss of large muscle areas. Gordon is now in a residential hospice facility, diminished bodily to little more than the ability to talk, chew and breathe.
Gordon demonstrates, he embodies, the choice of spirit to transcend suffering. He does this so completely that it is crystal clear that Gordon’s body has the disease, Gordon does not. Gordon’s welcome is wide open, even, it seems, to the adventure of his bodily diminishment. He names and embraces each loss, without denial of sadness or any of the range of expected emotions, but with full engagement, chapter by chapter. And he extends his welcome to each visitor and caregiver that enters his sphere. Many linger beyond their task for the joy and comfort of his tent of presence. He seems genuinely, equally and seamlessly interested in them, at the same time open and willing to the honest and objective sharing of his own experience.
Gordon’s choice pulls the mask off at-risk. We tend to think of risk as if it is related to suffering, with the ultimate risk being that we might die. But we are not ever at-risk of death. Death is a fact certain. Our bodies will die, whether for wearing out, in a mass shooting, an accidental misstep or the sudden failure of a heart. We are, in a certain physical sense, never really at-risk. There is no maybe, no uncertainty at all.
So what is it that we are at-risk of? We are, I believe, at risk of fear. Our fear of death is so overwhelming that we choose delusion and denial. Our favored weapons are wealth and comfort, the narcotics of a new car, dinner out and a trip to Europe. These comforts come, always, with hidden attachment to the suffering of others – the animal killed, the poorly paid laborer, the displacement of peasants, the extraction and exhaustion of resources. They fail, always, to avert the end.
Dylan Thomas, whether in brash arrogance or exploding despair, howls his mandate that we “not go softly into that dark night.” In my reading, he captures the shock and awe of the certain ultimate removal of the mask of our delusion, with the result being our hollow and futile “rage against the blinding of the light.”
Our desperation to preserve physical life and comfort, in the extremes that we have chosen, seems most likely to correct itself ultimately in extinction, or at least in some future adjustment of mass death followed by nature’s reassertion of its own millennially patient creative and re-creative processes. Life will urge forward in its evolutionary persistence, with or without the human race.
There is an alternative for us. We can choose to embrace the gift of our spirit – the Self that is beyond fear, the Self that is the observer of all, attached to nothing – no thing. We can embrace wonder. We can choose a life of true risk, the risk of engagement, of compassionate embrace of the full range of joy and suffering. We need not categorize. The arms of God are as certain in the air beyond the face of the cliff as they are in the physical rock of our desperate clinging.
Let go. Feel the splendor of the fall. Or is it a rise? No matter. Embrace it all, with attachment to nothing, and share it with others. Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, the all-in-all that is with us, is us, is beyond fear, beyond what we call death. Science has taught us nothing if not that there is always a further horizon, no true up or down, no large or small.
We grasp in delusion for what we call safety, the opposite of what we falsely conceive as risk, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But chapters of inevitable diminishment peel away the decaying flesh to reveal the true nature of the naked and unencumbered spirit. We can delude ourselves all the way to our ultimate collision with despair. Or we can choose today the reality of the spirit of all that is, living with joy, confidence and compassion under the Tree of Life.
© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden. Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.
Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078. Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.