The Never Ending Project

Photo by Nathan Cowley on

Life is a never ending project. We might create routines for ourselves that feel comfortable, but all too often we get so caught up in things we must do that we lose sight of what is really important, what really brings happiness and contentment to ourselves and those around us. Sometimes our world is blown apart by death or illness or loss of a home or income. Suddenly everything feels different, out of control. Our anxieties flare and we feel as though we are trying to single-handedly hold back a tidal wave. In those moments of darkness we long for the way things were. We want the familiar even as we realize that we can’t really have it, at least for the time being. 

This is a difficult summer for so many people. Once we all thought that maybe the worst of the pandemic was over we all began to scurry for a semblance of normalcy, but the ebbs of flows of life don’t always give us the breaks that we desire. Some people are taking glorious vacations and filling social media with smiles and lovely scenes. Others are dealing with the anniversaries of losing loved ones to violence or death. Some are laying beloved family members to rest. People are still becoming infected with new strains of Covid and being hospitalized for weeks. Countries are experiencing wars, food shortages, fires, extreme heat. The costs of virtually everything we purchase are soaring all over the world. 

It would be easy to forget the suffering if we are having fun or to feel alone and isolated if we have not yet been fortunate enough to have a sense that life is getting better. All of the conflicting stories and emotions bring out our human flaws. People are angry, jealous, lonely, in pain. When that happens we begin to misunderstand and argue with one another. We want to blame somebody for our sorrow. 

Last week I wrote about my dear friend Sharon Saunders. She understood that when people are hurting they often act out in ways that confuse the people around them. Instead of punishing them for bad behavior she listened intently to what they were saying. She wanted to know what was making them feel so lost, so angry. She practiced what the Buddhist monk, Tich Naht Hanh, called compassionate listening. She had no judgement, no agenda. She simply heard and accepted every word that they uttered. She let them know that she had heard them and that their feelings were normal. She helped them to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together.

Tich Naht Hanh tells us that there are four mantras that we should learn a practice in our interactions with each other. The first one is: Darling, I am here for you. The second is:Darling, I know you are here. The third is: Darling, I see that you are suffering. The fourth is: Darling, I am suffering, please help me. The word darling is important because it tells the other person that you have true affection for them. My sweet friend, Zerin Sahai, uses that word often. She calls me “My darling, Mrs. Burnett.” I know that she loves me when she does that.

How beautifully simple and powerful are these ideas! They help us to fully focus our here and now on the individuals who pass through our lives just as my friend Sharon Saunders always so beautifully did. They help us to understand that it is only in hearing the actual reasons for the way people are feeling or acting that we might come to a compassionate solution for our differences. It is a willingness to admit when we ourselves are struggling. 

We humans have a tendency to compartmentalize ourselves into groups. We look upon those who are different as suspect. We compare and rank people as though they are little more than objects to be treasured or tossed away. We often listen with our minds already made up. Our conversations are really debates. This is how friendships shatter. Marriages fall apart. Politics become toxic. Wars begin. Too often we are unwilling to admit that we might be wrong or even that there is more than one answer or solution. 

Being able to really see and hear and understand the people around me and even those who are far away has been a lifelong project for me. I have role models like Sharon Saunders and Zerin Sahai whom I attempt to emulate. I practice living up to their example and I falter. I have to learn to forgive myself for speaking without thinking, thinking without love. I know that I am not alone in being this way. Each of us stumbles. Each of us knows suffering. 

The rising of the sun on a new day gives us another opportunity to get things right. It shows us that we will not be immune to sorrows or that everything will go our way even when we work very hard. Storms come to beat down our efforts and even wash them away. We are misunderstood and we misunderstand. 

Perhaps we need to learn how to take a deep breath and remind ourselves to stop and take the time to let the people that we encounter know that we actually care about them. We must be here for them. We must see that they are here for us. We need to acknowledge their suffering without platitudes or advice. We must be willing to admit to our own suffering and ask for the help that we need. If we can do such things as we go about our days we might find more happiness than sorrow, more belonging that loneliness. 


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