Hiking Towards Humility

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Every spiritual tradition I know of says that the greatest obstacle between God and me is my ego. The Bible warns of what happened to Adam and Eve after the serpent tempted them into believing that they could become like God simply by eating a certain fruit. (A little, come to think of it, like the guru I just read who tells me I can live practically forever if I drink a glass of kale juice every morning.) Ralph Waldo Emerson called egotism a disease. Thomas Merton wrote that we tend to worship the ego instead of God, while the Dalai Lama says that ego is the number one enemy of compassion. An acronym for ego—“Easing God Out”— is included in the Alcoholics’ Anonymous Handbook.

So what do I do to stop listening to my ego, become more humble, start focusing on God? A woman in the spiritual writing group I facilitate has begun a book on incorporating the Zen Buddhist principal of “wabi sabi”—which she describes as “the celebration of the incomplete, impermanent, and imperfect”—into her pottery-making and into her life as a way to counter her competitive perfectionism, her ego.

Hiking also works.

For example, my wife and I are walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, the 62-mile hike from Melrose on the Scottish Border to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland Coast, and I’m admiring views, trying to achieve a walking meditation (“Breathe through your feet … move your attention slowly to your ankles, the calf muscles, the thighs … relax … now focus on the chakras … feel the wind, the sun, the way your clothes touch your skin … become one with your surroundings …”), and then ahead of me is one of those damn hills. Jaws clench. Hands tighten around hiking poles. Head goes down. I’m seventeen years old, diving for a loose ball in the 1961 State Basketball Championship; I’m twenty-one, arm-wrestling a smoke jumper after a few beers; I’m forty, hefting a boulder out of my new garden. I can do this! I charge up the hill. Until about halfway up, my chest is pounding, my lungs are burning, I can’t see from the sweat in my eyes, and I have to stop or die.

Or, later into the hike, I’m trying to become Emerson’s Transparent Eye-ball: becoming nothing; seeing all. I hear voices growing louder and clearer as two hikers catch up with us. It was okay on Maine’s Bold Coast to be overtaken by twenty-year-old anorexics in microfiber, but not in the UK by 75-year-old women in wool hats bounding by us while talking about a new chowder recipe. I try to quicken my pace, become irritated at Mary Lee for stopping to look at the wildflowers, and then, as the women go by us saying, “Cheerio, lovely day for a ramble.” I paste on a smile while my pride hangs its head in shame.

I know—I knew it then—I was being ridiculous, but as my wife and I walked on, I started to make sense out of something I’d never understood before, something more serious: how embarrassing grief can be. Embarrassment explains why, after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I refused to put her obituary in the local paper. I told my family, upset by my decision, that nobody knew Laurie in this part of the state, but the real reason was because I imagined former classmates looking up from their newspapers and Cheerios and saying, “Too bad about old Ricky. He always was a loser.” For years, I answered the question, “How many children do you have?” by saying that I had two stepsons, before trying to change the subject. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, I told myself. No, the truth was I didn’t want to feel embarrassed myself. I’m still not sure I fully understand where this embarrassment came from, but I think it had to do with feeling like a failure as a father for not being able to keep my daughter alive. In other words, ego.

Some three days into walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, I began to experience discomfort in one of my Achilles tendons. Of course, I obsessed—“Will I rupture it? Need to be helicoptered out of here?” I finally realized, however, that every time I’d charged up one of those hills, I wound up waiting for Mary Lee, putting all of my weight on that ankle, cooling it off prior to heating it up again. It also dawned on me (if you can call something that takes you three days to recognize a “dawn”) that we weren’t going to get to our next stop any faster than the slower of us could go. So I slowed to a steadier pace, practiced my walking meditation, noticed more birds and flowers and trees, gave my best “Jolly fine day” the next day when the same two goddamned women bounced by us on the trail again, and still made better time.

I wish getting over the embarrassment of grieving were that easy.  I do feel, however, that the slowing down and paying attention I’ve learned in contemplative prayer has helped, watching my feelings and not trying to judge them—“I shouldn’t be feeling: (pick one) a. embarrassed; b. sad; c. angry; d. all of the above”—and realizing that the most egotistical thing I can do is think I can stop being egotistical through my own efforts.

But it’s hard, especially perhaps for us adult children of alcoholics. One of the slogans I often sit in front of once a week is “Let go and Let God.” I find that easier said than done. I’ll sit with some obsessive thought, thinking, “Let go … Let go … Let it go … LET GO … LET IT GO, GODDAMN IT!”

Recently, I’ve found it more beneficial not to think in terms of letting go, but of surrendering. Tucked into the blotter on my desk these days is a poem, “The Man Watching,” by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Robert Bly, which ends, “This is how …[one] grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”

Like one of those hills along St. Cuthbert’s Way.

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Don’t Ask Why, Just Ask For Help

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The Desert House of Prayer

Cortaro, Arizona

April 22, 1999

Sitting in the chapel, watching through the large window behind the altar as sun rises over saw-toothed mountains, splashing light over cactus—prickly pear, cholla, barrel, a saguaro—as well as sage, creosote, and mesquite bushes. The air is full of doves, cardinals and pyrrhuloxia, wrens, thrushes, and house finches. Just outside the window, a scrawny rabbit hops out of some sagebrush and down a path toward the guesthouses.

I’ve left Maine’s mud season behind, but not my ongoing anxieties. Last night, as the wind rattled windows and coyotes howled like elementary kids on a playground, I continued wrestling with God, with Jesus, and with what I should do with my life after leaving the high school classroom—all compounded by yesterday’s news from Colorado.

I suppose the lesson here is that even on retreat you can’t escape the world. I’d gone for a walk through the Saguaro National Park, hiking along washes through red cliffs sentineled with saguaro, expecting any minute to run into John Wayne leading a cavalry troop singing “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” returning from my reverie to find Mary Lee in tears as she told me of the shooting of 25 high school students by two of their classmates. Violating my resolution to avoid reading the newspaper while on retreat, I read of the horror show that was Columbine, imagining the scene—the baggy pants, the hats worn backwards—seeing I don’t know how many students I’ve had over the past thirty years, either dead or wounded or pulling the trigger.

This morning, unable to sleep, I’ve come to the chapel to sit in front of the butcher block altar and the candles in their wrought-iron holders, and wait for 7:00 a.m. and morning prayer and to look out the window and wait for some kind of answer, some kind of serenity.

The sun has crept over the mountains, setting the top of the giant saguaro aglow. All of a sudden I’m not looking at a cactus in the desert, but at a birch tree swaying in the wind, and I’m sitting in front of another altar, staring through another window, this one overlooking the Penobscot River in Bangor, Maine.

I haven’t spent a lot of time with my daughter this week. Oh, she’s been here, sort of like the sky overhead, but, two thousand miles away from home, wrestling with this other stuff, I haven’t paid much attention to her. Now, however, I think of the November day a month or so before she died, when I discovered the chapel in the Eastern Maine Medical Center.

It had been a particularly ugly day in Room 436. Laurie developed a fever of 102°, Mary Lee’s latest letter complained about bouncing a check, I’d argued with Laurie’s mother, who wanted me to complain to our daughter’s primary physician about one of the nurses.

When I left Laurie and my ex-wife to go back to the Ronald McDonald House, I took the elevator as usual, but, still upset about the day, got off on the wrong floor. Just as I realized my mistake, I found myself in front of a door marked with a small brass sign: “Chapel.” I didn’t know the hospital had one. Tentatively I turned the doorknob and walked in. The first thing I saw was a large round window framed by brown, gold, blue, and red glass behind the altar, looking out over the river. Along the riverbanks, a large birch tree metronomed in the wind. I felt as if I were looking at an animated stained glass window.

I lit two pillar candles on the altar, sat down in the front row of chairs, and stared out the window at the rushing water. This room seems so quiet, I thought. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the beating of my heart and the word “Why?” pounding in my head. Why couldn’t anything be done to make my daughter more comfortable? Why did she have to get sick in the first place? Why was she dying?

I stared into the circle of stained glass. The window blurred. Wet flakes of snow lathered the glass, turning the circle white, scouring me to bone. The candles on either side of the altar seemed to glow more brightly, their light dancing. As I watched, the flames seemed to come together, enfolded by the stained glass around the white window. Then, I too become enfolded and from somewhere I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.”

At first, I didn’t realize what I’d heard. When I did, I became angry. Okay, help, I thought. Help me make sense of this mess. Help me understand the reason for Laurie’s pain and why she’s going to die before she’s ever really lived.

But I couldn’t take my eyes from the candles. From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The stained glass seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

“Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” The words didn’t come from a “voice” and they didn’t come as any kind of sudden epiphany—just a gentle, insistent, ever deepening understanding, as if the words had always been there, but that only now, in the silence of the chapel, could I hear them.

My sense of peace, of course, didn’t last. When I returned to the hospital that evening, Laurie was vomiting dark green bile, and although I began stopping regularly at the chapel after that, I didn’t think much about the words I’d heard until after my daughter died.

And it’s not until now, over ten years later in Arizona that I realize that “don’t ask why, just ask for help” is the only response I know of to the death of a child, whether from cancer or from a bullet. I think of all the help I’ve received over the past ten years—from counselors, from clergy, from spiritual directors, from friends and family, especially Mary Lee, who may have kept me alive. And I wonder if it’s not time for me to start thinking about trying to help others. God knows I don’t have much advice, but maybe just telling my story and listening to others is enough.

So while I haven’t been able to leave the past behind, perhaps leaving home and coming here has given me a new perspective on that past—a new way to respond to it. I look again out the window at the giant saguaro cactus, standing with its arms upraised, as if in prayer or praise. Sometime this week, I learned that these cacti, which often live to be a hundred and fifty, even two hundred years old, don’t start growing arms until they’re sixty. Next week I’ll be 56.

I’ve got time.

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