Last week at work, a colleague left a strange-looking “edible” on the cabinet usually reserved for shared treats (a dangerous locale for the calorie-conscious). It looked like some kind of burnt offering, oozing with a viscous brown liquid that resembled motor oil… genuinely unappetizing. I hate to say it, but my first reaction was… “Yuck! What is that?”… and then I saw the note: “Home-made s’mores: Messy but delicious. Try one!” So I did! I grabbed a napkin, broke off a piece, closed my eyes and… mmmmmm! Heavenly! It was so good, I helped myself to another, and only self-restraint (plus a few witnesses) prevented me from sneaking away with the whole dish.
Life’s just like that, I thought, just like that s’more… messy, but delicious. But before we can discover and enjoy that delicious dessert we have to open ourselves up a little. We have to get beyond our initial impression of the surface dimensions, our aversion and even, perhaps, revulsion at what life is offering up.
In the West, we like to hide from and cover-up the messiness of life. I remember a photograph a friend had taken on his first journey to India, many years ago, of a street beggar. The black and white photo did nothing to hide the imperfections… the missing limb, the boils on the skin, the filthy cotton garments… yet, on this beggar’s face was the broken-toothed, crooked and most beatific smile I had ever seen. It was if he was saying… look at me! Aren’t I the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?!
Here, in the West, we see the beggar’s condition as a problem. The more enlightened of us might see the beggar’s circumstances and look for a solution to his homelessness. The less charitable might blame the victim for his lot and dismiss him outright. In any case, what we want to do is sweep the beggar away so that we are not confronted by him, by the whole truth of what he has to offer – both the ugliness and the beauty. Furthermore, we are more concerned about our wants and desires, not the beggar’s own. In his Indian home, the beggar’s situation is no less dire than the homeless in ours, but the difference is that he is fully participating in his society – he has a role, a place in the community.
We go to great pains to avoid looking at reality. We hide our old away in homes for the aged, we put our sick in hospitals and nursing facilities, we segregate our disabled in special schools or work programs. It doesn’t have to be the case.
In 1964, Canadian humanitarian, Jean Vanier, distressed by the institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities, founded L’Arche (the Ark), an organization dedicated to integrating these vulnerable members of society into the communities in which they live. He began by inviting two individuals to live with him in his small home in France. From there the movement grew. There are now over 130 L’Arche communities operating in the world. Jean Vanier said:
My vision is that belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we all belong to a common humanity, the human race. We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all of humanity.
No matter how we try to order or sanitize our lives, every once and a while we are confronted with messiness: a family member becomes ill, a friend confides in us her depression, a parent or a grandparent dies. To speak of death, however, is considered morbid and unnatural.
The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh had this meditation after attending a good friend in New York who was dying:
“I had a wonderful image — the shape of a wave, its beginning and its end. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive the wave, and when conditions are no longer sufficient, we do not perceive the wave. Waves are only made of water. We cannot label the wave as existing or non-existing. After what we call the death of the wave, nothing is gone, nothing is lost. The wave has been absorbed into other waves, and somehow, time will bring the wave back again. There is no increasing, decreasing, birth, or death. When we are dying, if we think that everyone else is alive and we are the only person dying, our feeling of loneliness may be unbearable. But if we are able to visualize hundreds of thousands of people dying with us, our dying may become serene and even joyful. “I am dying in community. Millions of living beings are also dying in this very moment. I see myself together with millions of other living beings; we die in the community. At the same time, millions of beings are coming to life. All of us are doing this together. I have been born, I am dying. We participate in the whole event as a community.”
Sometimes, as in the case of the s’more, we need to see beyond appearances and not be fooled by first impressions. If we dig a little deeper, pause and reflect and trust our intuition, we can discover the fertile ground of our common humanity and delight in all that this rich soil has to offer.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.