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Thursday, September 24, 2015

The dark shadow that the truth casts

The below is a passage from Frederick Buechner's Now and Then, an autobiographical memoir of his journey of vocation - as a minister, teacher and author.

The particular passage that I've selected is not about any of those things however. It is a passage, essentially, about love. It's about what love is; what it means to love; and the potential for hurt that necessarily comes with loving another human being fully - the dark shadow. Through this passage, Buechner comes to the conclusion that loving someone else can be crippling, both for ourselves, and for the ones we love, and that for that reason, "a distance must be kept". Buechner writes that, "if love is a matter of holding fast to, and identifying with, and suffering for, the ones we love, it is a matter also of standing back from, of leaving space for, of letting go of."

I don't know why it has stuck with me, this passage, this idea that we need to preserve distance from those we love. But is has stuck with me, ever since I first read it, dreary-eyed, on a flight from Sydney to Bangkok a few days ago.

Perhaps it has stuck with me because in Buechner's propensity for "helpless brooding and worrying", I recognise much of myself. As I do in his admission that such personal characteristics have been, throughout his life, "crippling both to myself and to the ones I love".

To love too much. That is the essence of it. To feel another's pain to the point where it ceases to be in any way empathic or helpful for them but simply (and selfishly?) a reflection of my own pain and worry in them. A confirmation of my suspicion that the world does have the capacity to do cruel and hurtful things to us before we are done.

Perhaps it is that.

Or perhaps it is that, although I've never thought deeply about it before, I've never thought it possible to love too much.

Or perhaps it is my stubborn, inert belief that there is nothing to be gained by holding back, by keeping distance, other than self preservation, and that it is ultimately through the sitting with, the engaging with, the working out of darkness and pain and sadness, that we ultimately learn something new about ourselves, and each other, and therefore our sense of being as humans on this earth. And although I would struggle to point to any empirical proof, I can't help but suspect that it is only by knowing ourselves, by having a self to be, that we can truly enter into relationship with all the other 'selves' out there. That we can enter into rather than simply pass beside. So to be told to 'keep distance' seems to me, in a sense, to be told to stop short, to shut the gates, to isolate ourselves from the possibility of knowing ourselves and others fully.

Or perhaps it is simply the fact that, somewhere deep down in me, I suspect that Buechner is right, and that much of the way we love others is not helpful, either to ourselves, or to the ones we love.

Although the passage is lengthy, I've felt the need to write it out in full here. Perhaps that in itself is sign enough that the words are important for me.


"As a writer I have spent so much time trying to bring my dreams to life that, looking back over the years, I remember occasions when life itself seemed dreamlike by comparison. There was the departure of Katherine and Dinah for boarding school, for instance. I knew perfectly well that they were going. We had driven them around to this school and that school till finally they found the one they liked best. And for the whole summer before they left, there was all the talk about it and the getting ready for it. And when the day finally came, Judy and I drove them there ourselves and met their roommates and lugged endless bags, boxes and suitcases up endless flights of stairs for them and kissed them goodbye at last, knowing that in a few weeks we would be seeing them again because the school in Massachusetts was only a couple of hours away after all.

What I did not see was that even though they were only a couple of hours away, and even thought there would be years of weekends and vacations for us to get together whenever we felt like it, there was a sense in which, when we kissed them goodbye that September afternoon, we were kissing them goodbye for keeps. From that day forward, Vermont would never be home for them again in the way it had been. It would be a place to go for weekends and vacations. From that day forward, home, for them, was theirs to find wherever in themselves or in the world they ever happened to find it, if they were lucky enough to find it at all. Two of the four most precious people in my life had left for good, and I had been looking the other way at the time. Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still.

It was not just that I greatly missed them but that I feared for them more greatly still. The world does cruel and hurtful things to us all before it's done with us, and with little more to defend themselves against it than their bags full of clothes and their boxes full of rock records, coat hangers, hockey sticks, it was out into that would that they went. The adventures that they have had since are theirs to tell, not mine, but insofar as from time to time the world has worked them over as it works us all over, I have suffered vastly more from such pain as they have known than I have ever suffered from any pain simply of my own. As Buddha well knew, that is the price that love exacts from us all, but since from childhood I have always been given to helpless brooding and worrying and darkest, most doom-ridden imagining, the price it has exacted from me has often proved crippling both to myself and to the ones I love.

Love is a key concept in Buddhism and Christianity both, needless to say. Buddhism, in the long run, seems to come out against it except in the sense of something like upekha, which is a love so vast and passionless, so disembodied and impartial, that it ceases to resemble the Christian form in any very apparent way. Buddhism, comes out against it not just for one's own sake in the sense that to love another is to open the door to a whole new realm of vulnerability and suffering for oneself, but for the sake of the other also in the sense that unless we can break all the fetters, including love, which bind us to the wheel of rebirth, we can never achieve that Nirvana-like state of selfless detachment which is the only state in which we can be of any real use toward helping others to achieve it. Bloodless, remote, and mythical as these Buddhist insights are apt to seem from a Christian perspective, they are nonetheless greatly useful, I think, in deepening our understating of love in a Christian sense.

That to love other people is to suffer when they suffer is a truth of life which Christianity recognises no less than Buddhism does. It is a truth which has much to do, of course, with what the Cross is all about. To say that Christ takes upon himself the sins of the world is to say that he takes upon himself the suffering of the world too. It is to say that in a sense his suffering on the Cross continues for as long as any of us suffers. Furthermore, in being called to take up our own crosses and follow him, we are called to participate in his suffering. But unlike Buddhism, Christianity nevertheless affirms this love that suffers and, what is more, affirms it not in spite of the fact that it suffers but because of it. It affirms it for the reason that to love others to the point of suffering with them and for them in their own suffering is the only way ultimately to heal them, redeem them, if they are to be redeemed at all. It is God's way in Christ, and as we are called to participate with Christ in his suffering, so we are called to be partners with him in his work of redemption. For our own sakes as well as for theirs, we are called to be Christs to all humankind, in other words, and that is close to the heart of our faith and of our lives together as Christians.

And yet. And yet. Having spoken this Christian truth, we must also, I think, remember the Buddhist truth which may be closer to it than at first glance it appears. If love is a matter of hold fast to, and identifying with, and suffering for, the ones we love, it is a matter also of standing back from, of leaving space for, of letting go of. To become, through loving and needing them, as involved in the lives of others as I was involved in the lives of my children is in the long run to risk being both crippled and crippling. Because we love our children as helplessly as we do, they have the power to destroy us. We must not let them, for their own sakes no less than for our own. A distance must be kept - not just from our children but from everyone we love. I think of the Buddha sitting under his Bo-tree with his eyes closed upon an inner peace which he would not permit even his great compassion to disturb. I think of the staff of the East Harlem Protestant Parish with the pale northern blue of their compassion, their sad gaiety, their utter lack of sentimentality. I think of Jesus himself, who in the profoundest sense bled for people but was never what is meant by 'a bleeding heart'; who did what he could for the sick and suffering who came his way and then moved on; who wept for Jerusalem but let Jerusalem choose its own way; who kept his own mother at arm's length and, when Mary Magdalen reached out to embrace him at the end, said, 'Do not touch me.'

We are to love one another as God has loved us. That is the truth of it. But to love one another more than God has loved us - to love one another at the expense of our own freedom to be something like whole and at peace within ourselves, and at the expense of others' freedom too - is the dark shadow that the truth casts. This is what I started to learn when Katherine and Dinah went away to school in 1975 and launched forth on lives of their own. What event could have been less earthshaking? Yet for me it shook the very foundations themselves and marked the beginning of a new leg of the journey which I am in the midst of still."

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