existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Haves and Have-nots

I recently had an article published in Unbound, the social justice journal of the Presbyterian Church (USA). You can read it here.



Abide in me

Amylase begins
to catalyze the sugars,
the brain registers
the deluge
this the beginning
I in Thou in I in Thou

Grief: isolation and communion

In grief, there is both isolation and communion. This is like all experience. In all experiences there is a dimension of isolation and a dimension of communion.

Grief is isolation in two ways: in its isolative nature and its isolating potential.

Grief is isolative in nature because it belongs to the person. It is matter of the person’s own experience. It has a private nature which is of infinite dimension.

As a result of its isolative nature, grief also has the potential to be isolating. It is characterized not only by being private, but can make us feel more isolated from others. It drives a wedge between us and others. In other experiences we relish this privacy. But grief makes our privacy painful because it makes us feel the distance between us and others. Suffering can easily overtake our sense that we are a part of the human race and make us feel very alone. We feel that no one understands us, or that we have been marked and abandoned by others.

Just as grief is isolation in two ways – its isolative nature and its isolating potential – it is also communion in two ways. It is both common in nature and communing in potential.

Grief is in common as well as in private. It is common to human experience in the world. It is common in a general way, in that all grief flows from the one experience of lack and loss. It is common also in a particular way, in that it is formed by regular features of our environment that are shared by others. For example, it is common for people in some parts of American society to feel that life is disjointed, cacophonous, and without meaning. This is due to the fact that we live in a society with others, and that society forms a common reality for us.

Because grief is common in these ways it is also potentially communing. That means that grief does not only create wedges between us, but it also builds bridges between us. It knits us together as much as it tears us apart, and in fact knits us together in a much stronger way than would be possible otherwise. This happens in a general way, in that grief signals our inclusion in our deepest humanity. All violence and pain flow from the same river of human longing and grief. It happens also in particular ways, in that grief gives us the ability to resonate more fully with the experiences of others. Because we have suffered in particular ways, we are able to hear and understand others who suffer in the same way.


Farther up and further in

I’m off to a monastery for three days. Woohoo! It’s going to be -5 degrees in Vermont tonight. Woohoo!

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

One of my favorite poems:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

~wendell berry


The story behind this post is: I posted a comment to someone else’s blog asking her what happens when we can not find in ourselves the capacity to forgive ourselves. Instead of just answering the question, she took the time to write a blog post wrestling with the question. She offers a lot of fine insight, and I recommend reading it. It stirred thoughts in me as well, which I wanted to also share.

She says that grace is a process.  I could not agree more. Grace is a process. It is a process that, I think, begins with the hard road of authenticity and honesty. I say that it is a hard road because authenticity is often given as a encomium to the self – “Just be who you are!” “Don’t let anyone make you different!” Although we do need to learn to celebrate our selves in our mere being, rather than for anything we have earned or accomplished, the state of perceiving our moral failure undercuts our ability to do this.

Authenticity also includes experiencing what I would call lack (also known as privation, sin, disease, sickness), which is honesty about my limitations, destructiveness, and consequences of choices that I have made. In the moral realm, I especially lack the will to restrain from behaviors that are bad, and activate behaviors that are good. I also lack understanding: of what is bad, of what is good, and of what will lead to a better, more flourishing life for me and others.

For me, the key to beginning forgiveness is a willingness to allow all of those uncomfortable and painful feelings that accompany awareness of my moral lack to be really and totally present – a willingness to be aware of the real consequences of what I do, of my feelings of inadequacy, failure, etc. This is what I think Carl Rogers meant by radical self-acceptance, and his big little idea that we do not change until we accept who we are. Feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, self-loathing… we should not once again feel as though we must hide those things from ourselves and others, but allow them to be brought out into the light.

Those feelings are expressions of sorrow. And we know that grief can not be chased away or reasoned away, but only swallowed up in the work of compassion. A hard road, as anyone who has lost someone precious can tell you. We must be allowed to grieve our own destructiveness and failure, which does, unfortunately, mean experiencing it in a totality that we do not usually do.

She brings up another good point – we are better at forgiving others than we are at forgiving ourselves. To turn it around a bit – I can learn to forgive myself by experiencing the love and acceptance of others.

This is, ultimately, the reason that the Christian church has practiced confession of sin, both to spiritual leaders and “to one another.” Unfortunately, in practice this is often a matter of compounding guilt rather than acknowledging and honoring guilt, and meeting it with compassion and grace. So this is why the author referenced “spirit” – that which looks at us with a loving gaze. By not allowing people the opportunity to name their sin for what it is, or washing it away into some denial that there is that in us which is destructive, we will only compound its damage.

Of all the place I’ve been, the place where I have most seen a willingness to entertain this radical self-acceptance as well as to extend the hand of compassion and fellowship is in addiction recovery. Because then you have to face yourself, and all the consequences of your choices.

If all else fails, get a dog. They just look at you and accept you!

P.S. Ultimately, there’s no “answer” that can be neatly packaged. It is a journey that is hard. It takes courage. And not a little bit of wrestling and confusion.

The things that have helped me over the past year or so

This is a list of resources that have been an important part of my eudaimonia over the past year. I am excluding things that would not be available to most people – such as, for example, my friends. They are not in a particular order. Many of them were somewhat serendipitous. I will explain how I came by each of them so you can see for yourself!

They are vaguely in chronological order in terms of when I started paying attention to them.

Read the rest of this entry »

The colored world wakes up

After so much time time in the city, finally got to breath some country air and walk through the woods. No matter that it was in ~12 inches of snow. It was 61 degrees! Wonderful. I saw two pileated woodpeckers(!), some green shoots growing in a puddle of snow melt, and the most amazingly blue sky I can remember. When I got home there was a torrent of starlings in the trees behind my mom’s house all talking about the weather. They are an invasive species, but that isn’t their fault.

The green like jewel shoots under a
sapphiric blue sky blasted away
the numbing white noise of winter

One poem and one haiku

The Pangs of Memory
Even in the city, I remember the stars;
In the winter, I remember the bath of spring;
In loneliness, I remember laughter;
In the cold, I remember the salty sea air;
In adulthood, I remember the wooded kingdom;
In the town, I remember the Brandywine;
In my body, I remember the garden;
In the city, I remember the stars.

in Pennypack Park:

as the red-tail soars
a single maple leaf falls
and floats towards the sea

In defence of myth

The world is metaphor. Metaphor is not a cheap, “emotional” replacement for facts. Reality itself is metaphorical, and our metaphors are portals to reality. Before we learn the “facts” of life we experience life in spatial extension. The body is the first metaphor, through which we resonate all the joy and sorrow of the world. The shaking in our knees, the shiver down our spine, the warmth in our heart – this is our most intimate experience of the world. Nothing else can take its place. When we finally do what we need to do, a weight is lifted off of our chest. When someone is taken from us, they are torn from our heart. The fact that our literal heart is still in tact is of secondary, and nearly inconsequential, importance. Love, anxiety, anger, gratitude.. these are whole-body experiences. The claim that they can simply be wrapped up in a simple conceptual understanding of reality dies in the face of our lived experience: life is a given; it is a gift.