I promised a post about our Creative Journaling workshop for incarcerated teens. I told you that I’d reveal the details of my Connecticut project. I won’t let you down. But these thoughts feel more important to me today, so please indulge me a little longer.
We rush toward the detention unit at the far end of Juvenile Hall, stopping briefly at the last of several security points. A partially deflated basketball is trapped in a tangle of barbed wire atop the 12-foot-high fence. Wispy clouds float across the twilight moon, casting long shadows over the walkway and my shoes. "So dreary," I think to myself, but then the door clicks open.
A teenager peers out at us through the small, mesh-covered window of her cell. She waves (just barely) and smiles (just slightly). When I smile back, her eyes light up. I want to linger, but we’re already running late. When we turn toward the stairs to the classroom, her smile fades, as does the glimmer in her eyes. And when I glance over my shoulder, her tiny body is pressed against the heavy steel door.
Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya.
I’m idling at a stoplight on my way home from the workshop, reflecting on all that I’ve experienced in the past couple of hours. The light turns green but, before I hit the gas, an old man steps off the curb and into the street. He stumbles in the darkness, rights himself with his cane, and shuffles around the orange Hummer that’s inching its way into the crosswalk.
I switch on the radio, more out of nervousness than any desire to hear the news. I snap it off again, gut wrenched by the tragically familiar story of yet another fallen soldier. I send out prayers for peace, but as I roll away from the intersection, I’m still thinking about that soldier, still fretting about the old man’s safety.
Someone’s praying, Lord, kumbaya.
Home at last, I grab the remote. Maybe a mindless TV program will help mute the sadness? The screen flickers to life, and I stare with wide-eyed horror at the breaking news about Haiti. The entire city of Port-au-Prince was reduced to rubble by an earthquake! Survivors scramble over debris and dead bodies, in an increasingly desperate search for loved ones. Wailing infants cling to mothers who stare at them with hollow, expressionless eyes, blank faces completely drained of hope.
Oh, Lord, kumbaya.
From my vantage point, I see a very small sliver of all the grief and suffering in the world. And still, I struggle with its magnitude and meaning. In a brief flash of selfishness, I think, "There but for the grace of God, go I." And then I hang my head in shame. For in that moment, I am once again reminded that we are neither separate from–nor are we superior to–anyone.
I don’t understand how it is that tragedy strikes certain individuals, much less an entire city and its peoples. Nor do I know why some people create for themselves a life of pain and misery. Unlike the Pat Robertsons of the world, I choose to leave those questions to Someone who sees things more clearly than I. And yet, in bearing witness to this suffering, I believe we are called to a state of compassionate awareness. Of Oneness. And that perhaps it is from this vantage point that we are best able to “love one another as we are loved.”
Consider the homeless man on the street corner. One grimy hand clutches a cardboard sign; the other is an open palm, extended in silent supplication. Are you your brother’s keeper? Think about the untold numbers of Haitian women trapped inside collapsed buildings, bloodied hands stretched toward rescue workers who haven’t yet arrived. Do you hear the feeble cries of your sisters? Tibetan Buddhist philosophy suggests that they may be buddhas in disguise, manifesting themselves on our paths in order to help us grow in compassion and move toward enlightenment. Those inclined toward Judeo-Christian principles might consider them “angels unawares.” Religion (and other tribal affiliations) aside, I believe they’re calling on our own better angels.
I’m wondering how to answer, how I can be of service. "Guide me into grace and bless me into usefulness." This is my prayerful meditation.