If I could sum up this age in word, it’d be “hostility”. Wherever we go, whatever do, there it is. Petty nastiness over even the smallest differences. Hostility on social media, on TV, in the news, hostility between left to right, fringe and center, young and old, poor and fortunate, hostility, enmity, oppositionality, polarity, all day, every moment, endlessly. How does it make you feel?
I want to tell you a little story.
When I was ten or so, at school, they asked me: “what do you want most in life?” Imagine asking little children that question for a moment, which implies that life is about the pursuit of desire, not the price of love. They were training us to be little warriors, you see. So the little ones dutifully replied “money!” “cars!” “a mansion!”, and so on. Until they got to me. I frowned, thought very hard in my tiny mind, and said, “I think what I want most is peace.”
“Peace?”, the teacher replied, puzzled. “Like…world peace?”
“No,” little me said. “Just peace in me.”
The kids tittered, as kids do, the teacher frowned in disapproval, as teachers do, and never again was that awkward moment mentioned. Peace. What does a child know? What does a child not know? The child in me already knew something, just a little something, of the battles raging in me, and already wanted respite from them. Me against the world. Me against everyone else. Me against life. Battle. That’s what they teach us life is, isn’t it? Not how to really be ourselves, but how to make these wars, in this truest and most deadly of ways.
Fast forward a few decades. I’m a good warrior. I’ve won all my battles. My books have been published, I’ve won some tiny degree of fame, money, respect, and so on. There’s just one catch, one price, one problem. Everyone’s also an enemy when all you are is the world’s greatest warrior. So my life is one long, endless, wearying war, in which relationships, happiness, meaning, truth, people are all expendable. Casualties. Friendly fire. And slowly, though I’m young, war, which is death, is asking its price: me. In a true and real way. Of my possibility to love, to know, to feel. I’m becoming dead relationally, mentally, physically, socially, to love, to life, to grace. War. The most deadly of ways. The battles raging in me. They are also the battles raging in you, too.
What I wanted was peace, yet all I’d really earned, in this adversarial way of life I’d been taught, was the opposite. Rage, turmoil, fury, becoming the storm, and do you know what those really are? They are forms of hopelessness, powerlessness, numbness, despair. They are prisons of the human soul, because every instant you live them is an instant you are not (by definition) happy, self-aware, capable of appreciating or enacting beauty or truth or wonder or mercy, even upon and within yourself. That series of little wars that I’d been taught was the one true way to live, to be, to achieve, to have, hadn’t gotten me any closer to fully living. Only, somehow, an endless distance away from it. It’s a terrible price I’m paying. But I don’t know any other currency to use than hostility in this little life.
And then I get sick. I don’t know it yet, but I’m fighting the one war I can never win. The sun is killing me. Can a man fight the sun? What will he use? A mountain to block the sky? A net made of comets? Such hubris, such folly, is what tragedies are made of. So there I am, fighting and fighting. It’s all I know. My teachers have taught me well. And yet the harder, the more desperately I fight, the idea, the truth, the terrible knowledge, that I am sick, and maybe I will never get well again, that maybe this is it, goodbye, the end, the more I can hear fate laughing at me. This is the one war you can never win.
One day, into a long and painful illness, I’m just watching people. Bam. Something is different. Really different. Not in them, in me. I can’t see them as enemies, adversaries, rivals, opponents, in a great and endless series of contests for all the pleasures people tempt each other with. Can’t. Which is what I’ve done all my life, because it’s what we are taught to do. I just see them. Their suffering and beauty and pain. Their fear and hurt and love. I’m as transfixed as I am transfigured. It’s not some kind of miraculous superpower. It’s right there, on every face. Don’t you know? A little dog does, a child does, the stars do. They see us as we truly are. So why don’t you? Why didn’t I? My teachers taught me well. But they didn’t teach me much at all.
Then, at last, there was peace. From where? Just from nothing but perspective. Nothing between me and people had changed. I hadn’t suddenly gained it by having more money, fans, friends, dates, things, wishes, small mercies, charity, or even kindness. Only now I had a sense of grace, which means just seeing, accepting, knowing, holding everyone as they are. Just as they are. Then you become the sky that holds every storm, and transforms it into the rain that waters the soil of the garden.
So peace comes to us through grace. And grace comes to us not from winning wars. Not wars to be wanted, desired, respected, admired, nor even wars of kindness, mercy. It comes to us only through the wars we can’t win. The wars we can’t win teach us what is really universal, constant, necessary, worthy, beautiful, true, in life. Suffering is always with us. But so is love. Love is greater than suffering, because one can undo the other, but the other cannot undo the one. And so the wars we can’t win teach us that life is not really a war at all. It is just a way home, a crossing to the other shore, a return.
We are always coming home to love, in this way, in every instant and moment, every thought and action, every feeling and perception, and in that return to the garden is grace, and in grace is the perfect stillness of the human heart. A river flows, but is still. A heart beats, and it is still. Then we are home. There is nothing wrong with life, there is nothing right with life, there is just life. But now life is greater than us, and yet, it is the same life. Just lived in countless ways, to express all the infinite names of love. The wars we can’t win teach us all that.
So. I don’t think that you or I can heal this broken world’s hostility. We are not here to do that, are we? That is another war, too. Just to become the sky, instead of only the storm. To plant some little part of us in the garden. To let our rivers flow. Just one of those is enough for a life, any life, every life. Then we are touching grace.