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Friday, June 11, 2010


"We are the leaves of one branch,
the drops of one sea,
the flowers of one garden."

~ Jean Baptiste Henry Lacordaire

The Mosaic

On NPR yesterday was an interview with Terry Tempest Williams, the author of Finding Beauty in a Broken World:

We watched the towers collapse.
We watched America choose war.
The peace in our own hearts shattered.
How to pick up the pieces?
What to do with these pieces?
I was desperate to retrieve the poetry I had lost.
Standing on a rocky point in Maine, looking east toward the horizon at dusk, I faced the ocean. "Give me one wild word." It was all I asked of the sea.

Williams writes that the sea answered "mosaic." She took this message literally and signed up for a mosaic apprenticeship in Ravenna, Italy. She found out that she wasn't any good making art out of broken bits of tile.

"And because I couldn't create a mosaic out of tessera," Williams says, "I wanted to see if I could create a mosaic out of words.

And I just finished reading "Everyday Survival" by Laurence Gonzales. He discusses the patterns in nature that come about as entropy acts in the universe. That the very structure of things evolves from the law of entropy, which ultimately leads to total randomness, but paradoxically, in the progress toward randomness creates all the patterns and structure of the substance of the living and non-living world.

A mosaic is a pattern that takes random bits of brokenness and creates a beautiful new whole.

It all came together when my son failed a class in his senior year. We knew he would fail, yet he had to finish the class, and take the final, knowing he would fail. He had passed the first semester, and was going through the second semester to get as far as he could before needing to take it in Summer School. He has a severe disability, and the school struggles to accommodate him with what he needs to succeed in regular education classes.

He had gone to a college group at our church, during which a discussion came up about all the disasters around the world, and he told me it was suggested that God allowed these disasters to help the people change course because they were headed the wrong way. But then he asked me that if that is why bad things happen, then why did God allow him to be born with a disability? He had done nothing wrong.

He asked me if I thought it would be appropriate if he could ask the minister this question. I said it was a very legitimate question, one of the great mysteries of existence. It might put the minister on the spot because the question doesn't have an easy answer and might take more than a few sentences to answer.

So we talked and it got me to thinking. Everyone has to come to terms with this one on their own, because it is not going to be helpful to anyone to just tell them a single way to understand the problem of suffering in this broken world. And perhaps that is the point. Suffering grows our souls, but who would choose to suffer if they could avoid it, just to grow some invisible part of us that we cannot see or measure? And so the world does this for us, its something we can't avoid, although we can try to spend our lives minimizing our suffering.

And who would presume to tell anyone that their suffering is somehow good for them, or was given to them on purpose, or as a punishment? Well, not anyone you cared about...

It reminds me of some things said to us and other parents who had lost a child at funerals and other rememberances. "Its God's will" sounds hollow when it is your child lost to you.

After many losses and tragedies, and times when I ran from suffering, was angry at God, depressed, and apathetic, I have come to think that the right answer is the answer that helps you to put one foot in front of the other, and continue to reach out to others, and to still be open to love and be loved. No other answer is sustainable for the long term.

I know faith is not logically deduced. It is inspired within us. Yet as a fairly logical person, the answer came to mind that the only thing that makes sense is that we have existed before we were born, and had some say in the basic framework of our lives, as part of God, before birth. I think God directs us toward expansive experiences, and just as we put away the Candy Land game for Checkers, and then perhaps Chess, we decide to try difficult circumstances to test our strength and skills. This makes sense especially if we survive death. Because from the vantage point beyond death, no suffering can seem that fearful. In a way, then, no one can truly be hurt. Although during this life, developing compassion and the urge to take action to help alleviate suffering is part of that expansive experience. The suffering is real, here and now. And if it wasn't, it wouldn't have the effect of developing our souls in this way. Perhaps that is why we all forget where we came from after we are born, although I think I remembered for a long time before I lost the sensation of having existed in some way before being born.

So I think it is somehow with our consent, perhaps even reluctant agreement, that we need to be here, in the midst of all this imperfection, damage and suffering, so we can become strong working toward healing, toward creating beauty and being part of the beautiful mosaic of life.

I compare this world to a deep forest with all kinds of trees, some tall, some bent, some missing a limb, some growing in different patterns. You can look at any individual tree and probably none of them are the perfect specimen of that particular tree type. Yet taken together, they form a beautiful, calming, even majestic experience. Compared with a field of corn sown in identical rows, all the same height, the experience might still be pastoral and beautiful with each cloud scuttling overhead a unique shape, it is somehow the forest that reminds me of God, and brings me a feeling of everything being in its place, even as my feet crunch in the layers of dead plant material from which everything is growing. Death, disability, and deformity, coexist with vigorous life growing chaotically yet with definite patterns, like music.

If we were to hire a large corporation to build a forest, they might come up with a tree pattern that all their carpenters follow, with a few different sizes, but essentially all "perfect" in shape and construction. Imagine a forest built by us, by a corporation, or by a committee... It might be too messy to have forest litter on the ground, and so no fallen leaves to crunch as we walk. In fact, it might be silent except for perhaps some piped-in music. People might decide that rocks are too hard to sit on, and fallen logs might mess up our clothes, and so nice benches would be placed around neat paths. Now its beginning to sound like going to the mall....

One day I was in the forest, and I saw this magnificent tree that had obviously been hit by lightning half growing and half fallen, and it stood in beautiful contrast at an angle to the straight up and down of the other trees. I thought of my son, growing strong, but providing contrast. Would I have had the tree removed to make the forest look "neater?" I looked at the lovely thick flowering moss growing at its base, the place where an animal had a nest between some roots, and some unusual flowers and mushrooms growing right out of the tree where it was near the ground. All that would be gone too.

I told my son that someday the solutions to his problems, were we to solve them, would help a lot of different people, perhaps all of us, as we age and need more help with things. His suffering provides me, and his relatives and friends, and Doctors and researchers the motivation to invent new ways to deal with tricky situations humans deal with. In the process we learn more about ourselves and how our bodies work and how we interact with our environment and with limitations, and we learn better how we heal, and how to help, and when not to help. How to encourage independence, and when to accept and tolerate differences. How to accommodate all types of abilities, experiences, sizes, shapes and ages.

And in the process we get to see how suffering can be turned into beauty, and better usefulness, and we see ourselves getting stronger, smarter, braver, more compassionate and more resourceful.

I believe we are all one, each individual unique yet part of a whole pattern of humanity and sentience and material and spiritual existence. A mosaic, a part of the vortex of energy that creates beautiful holographic patterns as it moves toward entropy. Some of us have sharp edges, like diamonds, some are smoothed over by time and rough experiences like river pebbles.

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