Rev. Dr. Ryan is an ordained Unitarian minister affiliated with the Unitarian Christian Emerging Church.
If we, as Christians, are to pursue spirituality, then it seems reasonable to posit that one of the foundations on which spirituality must rest is some sustainable measure of serenity.
Serenity! Oh, how we pine for serenity! We crave it! We, somehow, allow ourselves the self-delusion that serenity comes – or not – of its own accord, and lucky the person who receives this rare gift. We look at people who have this precious condition as if it was purely the luck of the draw, that the possessing person had virtually nothing to do with it other than simply to receive it, presumably with welcoming open arms. We are so envious of them. “Oh, how lucky they are!” we acclaim. “Oh,” we sigh, “Oh to be in such a situation that such a wonderful condition might come to us!”
In the back of our minds, somewhere, is the understanding – another aspect of the unexamined assumptions we live by and the self-delusions we create – that if we abandoned everything in our lives and became a Buddhist or Taoist monk and really worked on it, then serenity, or some reasonable facsimile, might reasonably be attainable. Otherwise, serenity is the private domain of old people – really old people – who, having lived a long life, have developed wisdom and have achieved serenity. How lucky the old people are to be so happy and to be serene!
We are happy to accept this piece of fiction, refusing to really look at the lives of the elderly, the decrepitude of ageing, elder abuse, abandonment by children, depression, the deaths of friends and life-long friends and acquaintances, doubting the veracity of the religious dogma and deceptions and self-deceptions that they have accepted and lived by for a lifetime; reliving all of the regrets, the loses, the deprivations, the depression, the smelly discomforts of the senior home that is little more than holding cells and warehousing while waiting for them to die; stomachs revolting at the carelessly prepared, absolutely atrocious food; the indignity of the soggy and excrement-filled diapers; the spirit-deadening unstimulating surroundings; the denial of person-hood; the lack of compassion by those who are supposedly employed to be providing care – these people living with their own self-delusions and cynicisms about their own possibilities for serenity, not failing to observe that it is the rare, very rare, elderly person who has managed to achieve either wisdom or serenity and, in fact, most of the serenity that we find among these older folk is that which comes out of the pharmacy bottle, the psychotropic medications that have muted almost every aspect of their person-hood.
When we gather the courage to really observe elderly people, really observe the really old, or not so old, we pretend to ourselves that another bubble had been burst and all that we see is bitterness and sadness, and grief and loneliness, and regret at wrong decisions, and relationships that we have allowed to be broken – or have actively sabotaged. We also see the many diseases and debilitating ravages of life, some of it self inflicted in one way or another, suspecting that not so far back in our memories, that some of them could have been prevented or avoided or delayed, that, in fact, much of it has been self-inflicted, even if not quite deliberately, but at least knowingly, carelessly.
We also despair for ourselves when we observe those with Alzhimers, or other dementia, those with electronic anklets or bracelets, those in the fetal position on the hard chairs, keening, clutching stuffed toys or children’s dolls, those going around trying the doors, those who are terrified, the utterly confused, those whose children are too busy to come to visit or exhibit any care or concern. We have to admit that that is not where serenity or wisdom lies.
We turn away from the elderly people, maybe because we have allowed ourselves to see that most of the elderly have achieved neither wisdom nor serenity as if , somehow, they have deceived us, that they are failures, when, in reality, they may simply be survivors, full of or lacking wisdom, serene or otherwise.
We look at ourselves and we despair that we will, very well, end up as cynical as the elderly, primarily because – in our brutal honesty with our private selves – we suspect that we are doing little, if anything, differently … but failing to see the occasional elderly person who has, in fact, developed wisdom and has found serenity. There are some of them, however few and far between they might be. Typically, we fail to see them and we miss an opportunity to ask them about their lives and how they, in circumstances not unlike the others of their cohort, have managed, despite the chaos of life, to pull it off.
Then, in our search for models or paradigms whom we might emulate if we are to find serenity, we look at the lives of priests and clergy, those who presume to be in God’s pocket. Surely they have attained serenity and wisdom?
In fact, it appears that, if we have sufficiently broad experience and have met enough clergy, we are, indeed, able to identify one or several who have achieved some measure of wisdom and, maybe, a little serenity. We are, however, forced to recognized that many more of them are living lives of self-delusion, fear of their terrible and contradictory god, and general ignorance.
In fact we find fascism more than anything else, people who obey without question, the supposed dictates of their dictator God, afraid to examine their faith. As one retired clergyman said to me, “We should not ask too many questions. It would destroy our faith.”
They have not achieved any serenity that would be satisfying to progressive Christians. If we cannot question our faith and its basis, then it is not a serenity that we wish to have. Any faith that cannot be questioned is not a faith; it is simply religious hegemony.
I am lying on my back, looking at the few clouds of amorphous shapes, slowly drifting across my field of vision, not managing to discern anything identifiable however hard I try …. although that one off to the left, out over the bay, could be made to look like Uncle Hugh, gone, now, these dozen years, and I smile at the memory of that wonderful curmudgeon who had absolutely no wisdom, that I could discern, but may have managed to pull off some serenity in his arrogance and uncouthness and caring little, if anything, for the opinions of others. I may be unfair. He could laugh in a storm, even the storms of life. He once told me a bawdy joke as we were emerging from the church after the funeral service of a dear one. It was one of his defence mechanisms, a way to deflect grief, a ploy in order not to break down in an emotional morass.
I hear some birds quarrelling: robins, sparrows, maybe, warning away a chattering brown squirrel who has wandered uncomfortably close to the nest and the fledglings. By the sounds, I deduce that several birds gang up on the squirrel, causing him to beat a hasty retread to his burrow, farther down the tree, retreat being the better part of valour in the kingdom of the wild as well as in that of man, retreat to regroup and reconsider strategy. There is wisdom there. One has only to watch.
A crow, that had been halfway down the lake, turns aside from whatever quest it was on – and it is not hard to guess – and comes to investigate, wondering, I suppose, if there might be a succulent nestling that it can swipe for its mid-day meal, or a snack that it can convey to its own nest for its own ever-hungry fledglings while the robins have been distracted by the squirrel. How it can tell in which order of rotation of all of these four or five gaping bills in which to drop the morsel is a mystery unto itself. Crows are supposed to be intelligent. Whether they have serenity or wisdom is more than I would speculate on, although there was no hesitation on the part of the writers of Holy Script: Consider the lilies of the field ……
I also see a Blue Jay on the large aspen limb just above my head. It is now in full view. It is beautiful. It gives me a quick once over and decides that I am no menace to him. It may be the same jay that I tossed some cracker crumbs to a half hour ago. Taking quick glances at me, every now and then, it tries to focus on where the sounds may have come from, no doubt its curiosity similar to that of the crow, and with the same objective.
A dragonfly – locally called horse stinger – circles my head. I can hear its mandibles snap as it captures some of the flies or other insects that were seeking to feast on me. It is good to have it around. It keeps the biting insects at bay. Then, unexpected for me, it alights on my frenzied mop of hair and contentedly finishes its snack. I can hear it chewing – or whatever it is doing. After two or three minutes of rest, it flits away, not having a lot of time to waste, not concerned about either wisdom or serenity, its purpose and objective in life already established for it; its meaning, whatever it is, ordained millions of aeons ago, serenity automatically endowed in its limited gene complex, not having sufficient neuronal connection possibilities for it to conceive of anything such as wisdom in any way that a human can understand. Even if we could communicate with it in an attempt to determine if it had anything like a concept of wisdom, it is too late for that particular dragonfly because the blue jay was distracted from the robin nest by the initial clumsy efforts of the dragonfly to get sufficiently air-borne and it, along with its serenity and modicum of wisdom, is now in the blue jay’s stomach.
For the moment the robins have fallen silent, supposedly having the innate wisdom – it that can be called wisdom – of not revealing the exact location of its nest to the marauding, opportunistic crow, its curiosity and interest not merely inquisitive.
Flies, driven to propagate their species, are seeking the ideal place to lay their eggs so that their maggots can go through its cycle during the heat of the summer They are buzzing around the partially decomposed trout, there on the beach, the faint stench reaching me on the gentle south west breeze wafting down the lake. But the stench is not overly offensive. It is more than compensated for by the aroma of the wild tea roses, along with the pleasant sensations of other plants, especially the wild strawberries. But, there are other, much more pungent, smells: maybe the musk of a fox – maybe mates are scarce – or the extrusions from the aspens. The two scents seem to me to be rather similar.
I hear a careless crashing in the forest, at whose edge I have been lying all along: sticks breaking underfoot, limbs and boughs flexing and switching back as the large body makes its way. Undoubtedly, it is a black bear. There are always dozens of them, has been since I was a boy here, maybe has been since the world was made. I hear a crash as, I suppose, the bear knocks over an old stump, seeking nests of black and red ants so that it can raid the fresh eggs as well as the ants themselves. I can image it sticking its paw in the ravaged nest, waiting while hundreds of enraged ants emerge in force to attack it, then sitting back on its haunches contentedly licking off the bewildered ants. Then, having exhausted the ants, it completes the destruction of the nest at leisure and licks up the thousands of eggs, larva and pupa.
Then, the bear turns over the nearby log and delightedly gobbles up the worms, grubs and slugs that it finds there – a succulent dessert after the anty meal, it much too early for it to feast on berries, their being few yet, except some dewberries and some small early strawberries. The bar scratches in the damp earth, the compost created by the worms, and finds and eats several chrysalises, their potential to become dazzlingly beautiful butterflies, and whatever serenity and wisdom it could potentially manage to generate, now forever lost. Who can know the lost potential or what part it could play in its aborted contribution to evolution?
I raise myself on my elbow and slowly raise myself, somewhat painfully, to a full standing position. I am no longer a young man. I am feeling the effects of my age, the arthritis, the muscle atrophy. I used to be strong, at one time. I do not want to face the bear in a head-on confrontation. I have my bear-shirker by my side, just in case I have to use it. This is a six-foot piece of quarter inch iron rebar at one end of which I have fashioned a handle and at the other I have fitted a series of inch and two inch steel washers. Oh, I am ready to face the bear, if necessary. But, I am also ready to beat a hasty retreat. I am not afraid. But why dare the fates? I am not as supple or as flexible as when I swam here as a boy or when I worked on this lake as a young man. I do have a little wisdom. I am not Hercules, and some of these bears can reach 800 pounds or more: five or six times my weight.
I swing my bear-shirker at some branches and I shout, making a terrible racket. I listen. There is a new, receding, crashing in the forest, my supposed bear also having the wisdom to avoid any unnecessary confrontation, neither of us absolutely sure of the outcome.
As I lie back on the tough but compliant wild grasses at the edge of the lake, I take a last glimpse of its now-gentle, almost mirror-like surface – the wind now almost non-existent. I see trout jumping after flying insects. It prompts me to surmise that I have seen such callousness from people. The trout can be excused its predictable behaviour that is necessary to its existence, part of the homoeostasis of nature. But, why humankind?
I have witnessed absolutely unnecessary and avoidable human grief and misery and wanton disregard for other’s needs and rights, and the brutal and deliberate single-minded psychopathic pursuit of the destruction of another human. To some degree, I have shared some of the results of that. I examine my heart and memory in order to determine if I have added to human misery. I blush to recall several incidents that I participated in as a prepubescent. It would break my mother’s heart to know that her beloved boy used his intelligence to cause pain or distress to another, even if it were not the physical kind. But, I console myself with the realization that as I grew into pubescence, my teen years, as a youth and adult, that I had developed sufficient empathy – and maybe a modicum of ethics – so that none of that was repeated. It is terrible to admit that I was not, sometimes, a good boy. But, why be a hypocrite?
I was, for many years, a school administrator and a school district official with many duties and roles. Many teachers didn’t like me, calling me – behind my back, of course – a tough skinned SOB, But, what they were seeing, I think, was simply my refusal to be swayed by irrational pressure. An example is how one young teacher responded when I told him that I had approved his tenure and asked him his evaluation of the process: “ I think that you have been unfair.” I asked him why so. He explained that whereas I had visited his classroom umpteen times and had given him numerous written assessments with suggestions for improvement – which he was afraid not to follow (smart man!) p- his friend in the city had just been granted his tenure and that the latter had not had a single supervisory classroom visit.
I asked him who he thought was now the better teacher: his friend, who had not had any advice whatsoever in his two-year-long probationary period, or he, even if there had been some anxiety and pressure associated with the process. He had received from about twenty visits, post-visit consultations, and a written record of all of these suggestions for improvement. He thought for several minutes. Then, he said, “Maybe I owe you an apology. I had not thought of that. I think my teaching skills are now vastly superior to that of my friend. You have helped me, but I was not focused on that. I was thinking about the anxiety I have felt. Please forgive me.”
That led to another memory. I met a young Buddhist monk in China. We had three meals together over the course of two months, for two of which I had the pleasure of preparing the “western” part. My wife did the honours with the Chinese dishes.
I liked him. Through a translator we were each able to satisfy our mutual curiosity – he a celibate Buddhist priest; me a Unitarian “priest.” I admired him at one level. He seemed to have developed a serenity, a security in his faith and practice, pragmatic in some of its more austere aspects, acknowledging, for example, that the Blessed Buddha did not declare that enlightenment or paradise or freedom from the cycle of reincarnation depended on strict vegetarianism. This young monk, maybe 26 years old, had studied for many years, from about the age of eight, and had earned one or more doctorates, was conversant with quantum theory – for obvious reasons for those who understand some of the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism and of Physics. He was also able to dispense wisdom, advising people, for example, to tend to their human relationships.
Embarrassingly, I find myself in the un-position of standing in judgement.
That Blue Jay is back on the Aspen branch, staring at me, flitting down to a lower branch, edging closer and closer, maybe in anticipation of some further pieces of cracker. He had succeeded in retrieving several of the pieces that I had broadcast first when I had arrived, having, then, to compete with the Robins and Sparrows, the Yellow Hammers, Pine Siskins, and Foxy Furkers. He chitted at me. Did I have any more morsels?
I had been informed that the young monk owned only what he wore and what he could carry in a tiny satchel, mostly books, a change of underwear, another robe, and his beads. Although he received literally millions of dollars a year in donations from wealthy patrons, he gave it all away to needy people and to poor schools (which includes most schools in China).
But, I have a different perspective. Even though his activity in helping the needy is laudable, as is his collecting of finances for that purpose, I wondered about the beliefs that were being encouraged in those who made donations, whether the donations were substantial or less so. I understand that some of these donations were substantial in any language! Some might argue that, in this case, the ends justify the means. I disagree.
It is general thought that Buddha is not God, as most Buddhists of my prior experience have proclaimed. The Dalai Lama, for example, says “Buddhist teachings are not a religion, they are a science of mind.” However, I had been in China for a sufficiently long time, I think, and had sufficient exposure to Buddhists and to Buddhist practice, there, to realize that the Buddhists of China treat the blessed Buddha as a god or as God – and not a particularly smart one. Buddha is a god that can be manipulated by gifts and obeisance – exactly like the pliable and gullible God worshipped by most Christians.
If the monk has achieved serenity, at what price? Celibacy and poverty? To my Western mind – and, I admit, that I am looking at this from outside the culture and from the paradigm of a sceptical Unitarianism – serenity and wisdom are to be attained from engagement fully with society, not from withdrawal from it; as part of human (and sexual) relationship, not in the rejection of it; in acceptance of our full humanity, not denial of it.
On several occasions, while in China, I had seen garbage pickers and sorters at work. On one particular occasion, from the vantage point of a 10th floor hotel room at Xian, to the west and south of Beijing, I could look down on the compound of a garbage sorter’s family compound.
Truckloads of garbage had been dumped, now awaited processing. The previous day’s sorting had been completed: cardboard, there; plastic bottles, here; metals in that pile, over there, and so on. In this early morning they were busy at work. The temperature was already about 35 degrees C (95 F) and would get much hotter. It was already uncomfortably hot for me, and all I had to do was laze around. Besides, I was suffering from “travellers’ complaint, “ the result of bad food or eating too much unwashed fruit, or fruit washed in unsanitary water. I was not going anywhere. I had the leisure to watch.
As I watched, I was pondering serenity and wisdom and I asked myself who it was for. I assumed that these people whom I was observing had little education. They may have been some of the millions of Chinese internal refugees, those hords of people who were swarming out of their poverty- stricken lives in rural areas and heading to the cities – where they were not always welcomed – in search of work and a better life for them, and educational opportunities for their children.
Is serenity and wisdom available to such as these – or to the likes of my own illiterate parents, who never had the opportunity for schooling and who, for the whole of their lives, laboured at jobs that we would now consider to be menial. Can they develop serenity and other than pragmatic wisdom? Can they live without it? Do they achieve it in their not thinking about it? Are they capable of wisdom? Is wisdom dependent on a certain level of education? For whom is the wisdom? Is it such that it can be shared with others? Is it intensely personal and private? Can those who achieve it articulate it? Do they know when they have it? How is it different from intelligence? Is it more that the accumulation of experience, the Zen of some occupation?
I was not denigrating the value of the labour of these people, either the Chinese peasants or my own peasant parents. Honest labour is honourable.
I was left pondering the questions.
In my early manhood, I worked on this lake for a lumbering company, usually in a small rowboat or small motorboat, husbanding the logs through their passage from the watercourses near the forests where they were cut to the ships waiting at anchor at ocean-side, and retrieving errant logs. I worked, usually, with a team of 10 or 12 men under the direction of a foreman. It was he who managed to convince the superintendent of operations that I should have one of the hourly paid jobs, that I was of one of the poorest – if not the poorest – families in the cluster of villages impacted by this operation, and that I was trying to garner some monetary resources in order to go to university, my own family absolutely unable to provide any financial assistance, not in the least.