I am going to Israel on Wednesday to see my mother. There will be quarantines on both sides of the trip, in Jerusalem and back here. Nevertheless, I decided to hell with it, she’s my mother and I want to see her.
I dilly-dallied with this decision for months. What finally broke the logjam of contradictory information and advice was my realizing that the virus is here to stay maybe past my mother’s lifetime. Things may well get worse before they get better, meaning that while now only a quarantine is required, we could have full shutdowns again in fall and winter.I decided to seize the pocket of opportunity.
I feel like I am living deeper and deeper in not-knowing about this world and how we’re living than almost at any time in my life.
By not-knowing, I don’t mean ignorance. Yes, I truly don’t know how things will work out, in that sense I am ignorant. But I keep on thinking of Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on experienced happiness vs. the memory of happiness, the moment-by-moment intimacy with sadness or joy vs. our story about whether our life is sad or happy. Not-knowing relates to letting go of our story of how happy we are, or what this life is, and making more and more room for the experience itself.
Life is not proceeding in any linear pattern that I can recognize. I am now 70 and used to wonder what it would be like to live in the middle of climate change. I now know that while it’s still not the middle, climate change is well into its very big start and here I am, in the middle of that. I have no doubt that covid and climate change are related, that life is responding (some might say reacting) to how humans live on this planet. Or, as Victor Frankl wrote, life is posing question after question to us.
I recently read Victor Frankl’s Say Yes to Life, which is derived from 3-4 lectures he gave in Vienna within 6 months of his return there after spending 3 years in death camps. He returned to discover that most of his family, including his wife, never made it. While other Holocaust survivors sank into deep depression, he gave the lectures that make up this book, pointing to his conviction that life has meaning no matter the circumstances.
I couldn’t help but be struck by a few parallels between his time and ours.
“If there is a fundamental difference between the way people perceived the world around them in the past and the way they perceive it at present, then it is perhaps best identified as follows: in the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today activism requires pessimism. Because today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely.”
We were captive for years to a story about the continuing progress of human life, especially due to technology and increasing wealth. Bernie was an optimist, too, convinced that we awaken more and more to our interdependence, to the fact that we’re One Body. He was sure the Internet was a big manifestation of that.
My sense is that Frankl is right, we now are aware that there is no real formula for progress, nothing inevitable about it.
“The present generation, the youth of today . . . no longer has any role models. Too many upheavals had to be witnessed by this one generation, too many external—and in their consequences, internal—breakdowns; far too many for a single generation for us to count on them so unquestioningly to maintain their idealism and enthusiasm.”
We’re not after a Holocaust or a world war, but we are aware of conflagrations the world over. When I look at how the young generation responded to Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, when I look at how passionate they are about ecology, food, and our relationship to the natural world, I don’t see wild, unfettered enthusiasm, but rather an enthusiasm tempered by sober realizations of what they are facing.
In Frankl’s words, they have no role models. Even the righteous ones among us feel somewhat quaint, our former lifetimes somewhat irrelevant. The young generation’s passion excites me no end. They’re not silly or naïve or innocent, in retrospect I think we were the ones who were silly and naïve.
I have fewer and fewer ideas about what awaits us, and it’s for that reason that I am ready to go through airports and planes, with quarantines on both sides, simply because I still can and I want to see my 92-year-old mother. I don’t have a clue what’s coming around the block.
I’m not afraid; I’m awash in curiosity.
Frankl wrote that even in the concentration camps, certain people knew they had a task, and this task gave meaning to their lives. He wrote: “[It’s] not what can I expect from life, but what life expects from me. What is my task at this moment, and at this moment, and at this moment? Living itself means nothing other than being questioned: our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to—being responsible toward—life.”
Last winter I decided to re-energize the Zen Peacemaker Order that Bernie Glassman and Jishu Holmes founded in the 90s. Before covid, I was preoccupied by the challenges of climate change. What is my task vis-à-vis future generations, I asked myself again and again. There were individual efforts, but I felt more was needed, so I decided to help create an international container of trained spiritually-based activists who base their work on a common Rule or practice and have a family—each other—to sustain their hearts. Life presented me with a question, and that’s how I responded.
I also respond now by traveling to see my aged mother. I also respond by finding caretakers for Aussie, by giving $1700 ahead of time to help immigrant families during these next 2 weeks. A friend told me of the illness and death of her service dog, and I cried. Question-response; question-response; question-response.
Let go of the story, and now bear witness. Let go of the story, and now live.