When I was a little girl, we had a book of children’s moral lessons told in story. Several of the tales were from the Bible, and I didn’t realize until much later that the story of Bobby putting his baseball through his neighbor’s window wasn’t actually from the chapter right before Daniel in the lion’s den.
I loved that book. I have very vivid memories of it. I’m a word person, and a book person. It’s not too much to say that my entire moral self was shaped by that story of Bobby putting his baseball through his neighbor’s window. My whole idea of wrong and right was shaped by those color illustrations, in which Bobby learned that going over to the neighbor’s house to confess and apologize (and pay for the window) wasn’t only something he needed to do for his neighbor, it was something he needed to do for his own heart.
This week has been the kind of week where you want to check this world for a return policy. You want to unplug it and plug it back in to make it work right. There’s never been a better time to be into food self-sufficiency, or self-sufficiency of any kind. But there’s also never been a better time to know how that relates to your moral self.
I’ve asked this kind of question a hundred times, since stepping out on my path to live the simple life. Whenever the world cries out in pain, I wonder if I’ve made the most cowardly choice. Is this yurt-in-the-woods deal possibly a moral pathway? Or a selfish one? Is this a stand for something that matters? Or a grand exercise in escapism?
A Buddhist teacher once shared a spiritual teaching with me — one passed on in through many versions from another great Buddhist teacher. She said, “If you are finding that the world is covered in thorns, will you set out to carpet the entire world? Or will you wear shoes?”
It sounds callous and careless, to think, “The world is falling apart, I’m going to take really good care of myself.” It sounds criminally selfish to say, “Things are getting really bad. I’m going to seek out as much joy and beauty and relationship as I can.” But you know we’re grown ups and we’ve learned things wrong. We’ve forgotten how to be compassionate for the reason little Bobby knew to be compassionate — not just for the neighbor with the broken window, but because it is so clearly what we need for our own hearts.
It is a radical act to become healthy. In this world of chronic anxiety and physical disorders and pervasive suffering, it is a radical, powerful, and rebellious act to become healthy. Healthy people don’t contribute to a culture of scarcity and desperation. Healthy people don’t lash out or act in fear. Healthy people don’t perpetrate cycles of hatred and violence.
Healthy people are free to make good choices. And free to care.
Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down. — Natalie Goldberg.
In a healthy person, self-care and compassion merge into one single, self-serving, life-saving goal. We do right because we know how it feels to be right. We care for others, from our blood family to our community to the plants and animals around us, not because we feel guilt, but because we feel love and belonging. And we fix our mistakes, like Bobby paying for the broken window, because it’s worth it to keep our hearts intact.
We can never have enough reminders that we belong to each other, especially in these hard times. We can never have enough reminders that we are interconnected, more deeply and completely than words can tell.
But also we have to be careful how we take that soul-medicine. If we experience those connections as triggers for ingrained feelings of guilt and shame and insufficiency, we only make the problems worse. If we associate relationships — especially across perceived differences — with stress and guilt and feelings that we should be doing more than we are, we’ll just avoid them like anything and the energy will all backfire…and when the time comes that we are tested, we will fail.
I’ve been doing some of what Natalie Goldberg suggested in the quote above, lying down on the ground to let the muscles in my chest relax, and letting go of that “ignorant state” of stress. I don’t think it has made the world any less dangerous, but it’s making me less dangerous. I’ve been counting baby squashes and green tomatoes in the garden, and capturing every little bit I can of the berry season.
I know we’ve been told that being whole and being selfish are the same thing, because “look out for number one” and “survival of the fittest.” (I wish I’d never heard that.) I know we’ve been told that being humble and being broken are the same thing, too. (Even worse.) But all the wisdom teachers of all the years, for centuries and centuries, have told another story. They’ve told a story about neighbors, and love, and loving your neighbor as yourself. They’ve told a story in which Bobby isn’t really paying for anybody’s window but his own.
I wish for you all that you can shake some stress this week. Maybe by gardening, or walking, or resting, or breathing, or some other dangerous thing like that. It may be there’s action on the other side of the stress, for you. I don’t know what kind of action — that depends on who you are and where you are and what your heart is telling you — but you will know. Maybe there’s sorrow on the other side of it, or joy, or both together. But you can survive it. You can survive the beautiful, devastating chaos of becoming healthy. Even if it really is the most rebellious thing.
I wish for you all a bit of the almost painful beauty of good self-care, which is a part of loving anything at all. And if you have a garden this year — even a very tiny one — will you tell me something about it? Because mine is okay, but all of ours together might be amazing.
(Here’s a picture of hollyhocks at someone else’s garden gate.)
Love, from the yurt,