Contents: May/June 2002
In Praise of the Imperfect Life
by Philip Simmons
All winter the beech trees hold a few leaves, reminding us of what we've lost. Even into April, as buds fatten, the old leaves hang on, pale scraps rasping in wind. From a passing car you see them, scattered through the woods like litter caught in branches. Then one day they're gone. The new leaves have split their shells and pushed the old ones off. Good riddance, we might well say. Spring has been long in coming, and we're ready to get on with it. For a few weeks as the trees unfold their wrinkled leaves we're staggered by good fortune; we wander out through fields, snuffling the loamy scent of earth warmed more deeply by the hour. We tilt our faces sunward, celebrating with e.e. cummings "the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue true dream of sky." We squish mud between our toes. We press our faces into flowers. After five months of iron earth and wind-driven snow and sleet, we have earned our spring revel.
Yet some part of me holds back. To balance e.e. cummings, I need Robert Frost's warning that these trees "have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods." Spring is a darkening. The shade thickens about my house; my view of the Ossipee Mountains vanishes behind the fringe of trees at the far edge of the field. The vernal pools in the woods below our field will soon be gone, as Frost observes, "not out by any brook or river, / But up by roots to bring dark foliage on." Spring enlivens us, yet from our human vantage not all resurrections are equally welcome. Our allergies awaken with the flowers, pine pollen sifts a yellow film over the furniture. Our neighborhood bear, newly tumbled from his den and hungry as well, a bear rouses the household at 3 a.m., trashing the bird feeder and terrorizing the dog. And then, in case we still thought all was perfect in paradise, the insects arrive.
If you don't live in the north woods, you won't understand what I mean by this. Vacationers who come for a week in August have little idea that the year-round folks have just survived plagues rivaling those visited on Pharaoh's Egypt. From early May to late July, the in-crowd is exoskeletal. Ticks make an early go of it: climbing to the tips of grass blades, they will hitch a ride on any passing mammal but seem to prefer me. After a half hour's walk in the field I find a dozen crawling up my legs. They hide in clothes, in sheets. I wake to the sensation of one plodding up my back, seeking a place to burrow and bloat.
Luckily, we have black flies to take our minds off the ticks. Black flies look like mouse droppings with wings. Outdoors in late May, each of us travels with his or her own swarm. Around town you see gardeners shrouded with olive drab bug-net helmets, as though ready to handle plutonium. Black flies don't sting, they bite, leaving us pocked with scabs that we tear off when scratching. The flies crawl up sleeves and noses, burrow into ears. If New Hampshire people are tight lipped, perhaps it's that black flies have taught us the cost of opening our mouths.
All nature clamors for our blood, and who can blame it? Bugs seek nothing we don't seek for ourselves: to eat before being eaten, to be fruitful and multiply. But what designing genius fashioned the mosquito? Who decided that it needed seven mouth parts no more, no less to grip and drill and pump and suck? And who developed the tag team format whereby, just as the mosquitoes tire in July, the deer flies arrive to burrow through our sun-warmed hair and chew our scalps?
There are advantages, I suppose, to living in a country under siege. For one thing, the bugs, along with the winters, keep the human population in check. Or, counting your blessings, you could say that only during bug season does your skin feel fully alive. And if, like me, you're a philosophical sort, you might welcome the bugs as a spiritual challenge, and ask what they can tell us about the place of suffering and imperfection in our lives.
All right, I admit it. I suppose it is perverse of me to go outdoors on a breezy, sunny spring morning and roll my wheelchair past wildflowers nodding in the meadow down to my quiet cabin in the woods, all so that I can shut myself up and think about suffering. Well, it's tough work, but somebody's got to do it. And perhaps my life circumstances have pushed me, more insistently than most, to consider how a flawed life can still be a full one, how broken dreams can bring us more fully awake.
Traditional religion teaches us to accept our afflictions as belonging to a larger scheme beyond mortal grasp. We're to trust the one or ones in charge. As I heard one unhappy young woman say recently, "I guess God's got his rhymes and reasons." It was late on a Friday afternoon, in the employees' lounge of a school for developmentally disabled children, and at the end of a long week a child in this woman's care had been hospitalized for seizures. It would indeed be comforting to think that the suffering of these children, with their scrambled circuits and skewed limbs, belonged to some larger dispensation of justice and mercy. But this woman did not feel comforted. Laying her head on her arms, she announced her intention to cash her paycheck, go home, and drink herself numb.
But maybe we're asking the wrong thing of God. Rhyme and reason, after all, are human values, not divine ones. Wanting human suffering to fit some divine plan is like wanting to fly an airplane above tornado wreckage and see that it spells out song lyrics or a cure for acne. At some point in life, in the face of illness, violence, accident, or injustice, each of us confronts the possibility that rhyme and reason may not be on God's agenda. This, of course, leads many people to dispense with God and religion altogether. In workshops I've led, when people explain their reasons for turning away from religion, most often I've heard them cite some instance of suffering, either global or personal: religion hasn't ended war; it doesn't explain why a boy's sister had to die of leukemia. I'm not sure how to answer such charges except to suggest that perhaps we shouldn't turn to religion for solutions and explanations of this sort. The first of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths is the one that our experience most easily confirms: that to be human is to suffer. God, the power that creates and sustains the universe in each moment and has given us our very lives, doesn't owe us reasons.
In the biblical tradition, no one learns this lesson more powerfully than Job. Job, you'll recall, is that cosmic schlimazel who has the misfortune of being around when God, on a sort of dare from Satan, decides to test a good man's faith. Though Job is an upright and pious man, his children are killed, his worldly goods destroyed. Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and falling to the ground in worship, saying, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." But this doesn't satisfy Satan, who argues that Job is merely bargaining for his life. To test him further, God allows Job to be covered "from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head in loathsome sores." Job then retires to sit in the ashes, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery, and cursing the day he was born.
At this point Job's wife, wishing an end to her husband's suffering, urges Job to "curse God, and die."
And here Job makes the most extraordinary answer: "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"
In these words I find a challenge that shakes me to the core. For those who dismiss traditional religion as offering a simplified and sentimental version of reality, Job offers a darker, more complex vision than those we may remember being taught in Sunday school. For those who think reason has the final say in human affairs, Job reminds us how little reason avails us when we try to understand all that befalls us. For those who are religious yet want to think of God only as the God of goodness and love, for those for whom prayer is always a turning toward the light, for those of us who seek in spiritual experience nothing but sweetness and harmony, Job offers a severer, more inclusive view. "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" Job now knows that God is the God of good and of evil, light and darkness, sweet and bitter, harmony and discord. Hindus embody this truth in the god Shiva, who both creates and destroys. The Qur'anic phrase, La'illaha il'Allahu, teaches there is nothing that is not from God, that everything, birth and death, joy and suffering, the green spurt of youth and the slow decay of age, bread, and excrement, our sweetest singing and our cries of agony, all of it is from God.
When God finally does speak to Job, out of the whirlwind, he doesn't come to explain himself. Among the most powerful rhetorical passages in all literature, God's tongue-lashing of Job boils down to saying: "I'm God, and you're not." Before God makes his appearance, Job has eloquently argued his innocence before his friends, who assume that Job's troubles must be punishment for some wrongdoing. And even though Job is right he really is innocent once God arrives on the scene, Job sees that his arguments are worthless. In the presence of the creator of the universe, he can do nothing but fall silent and "repent in dust and ashes," surrendering all he thought most precious: his intelligence, his reputation, his righteousness, his rhymes and his reasons, his very self. In that wordless place, beyond all niggling over right and wrong, Job's surrender moves us toward a wholeness and connectedness in which all things, good and evil, are divine, all part of the sacred dance of creation. And in confronting Job's vision, in facing every day the failure of my own flesh, in facing every day the reality of suffering all around me, I have found my life's greatest spiritual challenge.
The title of this essay was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens. "The Poems of Our Climate" begins with the lines: "Clear water in a brilliant bowl / pink and white carnations." It's a conventional poetic image of beauty and perfection: a bowl of flowers, pure, simple, and, well, dull. The poem goes on to argue that even if one could achieve such purity and simplicity, "one would want more, one would need more," for "there would still remain the never-resting mind" calling us back from the cold purity of perfection to the hot, bitter delight of human imperfection. The poem's climactic line announces the truth at the heart of this book: "The imperfect is our paradise."
There are two ways to seek God, Stevens's poem reminds me. The first way fixes on images of beauty and perfection, shunning all that is evil and ugly. This was Plato's way. When Plato banished the poets from his ideal Republic, he did so to protect the impressionable young from depictions of ugliness and evil. Plato insisted that enlightenment could be attained only by training the mind on the good. But then there is the other way, the dark way, the path of imperfection and suffering. This is the way of Dante, who, following Jesus' example, knew that to reach Paradise he had to travel through the Inferno. Dante's way is also the way of Job, and the way expressed by the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi when he writes:
Be a full bucket,I have become, perhaps by force of necessity, a seeker of the second kind, a seeker of the dark way of the well, traveling upward toward the light, but knowing that in the end some force larger than me must lift me out.
I say that I'm now a seeker of this second kind, but it wasn't always so. Once I was a seeker of the first kind, on the path of beauty and perfection. In my spiritual questing through my teens and twenties, I sought transcendence, enlightenment, bliss. I learned meditation, retreated alone into the wilderness, and experimented with drugs, waiting for the transforming vision, for the voices of angels robed in fire. I sought God in the extraordinary, in things not of this world.
The summer after I finished college I took a bus to California, and after various adventures sublime and sordid, I hitchhiked to a religious commune that I knew of, in the basin and range country of eastern Nevada, a land of sagebrush and dust, jackrabbits and coyotes and rattlesnakes and antelope, a few cattle and fewer people. At the base of the Snake Range, this commune was no hippie hangout, no faddish Age of Aquarius retreat but a community founded in the 1930s by a Methodist minister's son who had spent years studying yoga with an Indian spiritual master. I spent a week at the commune, doing farm chores: I learned to pick apricots, to make a garden fence that deer couldn't jump over. I learned that before you chop a chicken's head off, you should swing the chicken by the feet to calm it down. But for much of my time there I meditated and studied, did breath work and kundalini yoga, seeking the sort of mystical, transforming experience that to me constituted the one true glamour of the spiritual life.
At the end of the week I went up into the mountains, for there above the farm the peaks of the Snake Range rose to 13,000 feet. Now it so happens that on the shoulder of the highest peak there lives a grove of bristle-cone pine trees, some of them over 5,000 years old, the oldest living things on earth. Having been a tree-worshiper from a young age, I saw a journey to these trees as a fitting end to my pilgrimage. So I got a ride up the narrow road that takes you to about 9,000 feet and then hiked in several miles until I came upon them. Perhaps you have seen them in photographs: gnarled trees, seeming almost lifeless, the bark blasted from their gray weathered trunks except for one thin lifeline that snakes up to sustain the green bottle-brush needles. These grotesque forms grow where nothing else survives; in a high place of wind and snow and stone they push up through glacial rubble with their delicate offering of green. I walked among them, in silence, while sheer walls of stone rose above me a thousand feet to jagged peaks, their crevices veined with ice. Though this was July, snowfields slumped at the shadowed base of the cliffs. Turning my back to the cliffs, I could look out across thirty miles of sagebrush valley to where the next range of peaks glittered in sunlight. If ever there was a place for transcendence, I told myself, this was it. On the tortured trunk of a tree several thousand years old, I found one sticky, golden drop of bristle-cone sap, which I plucked off and solemnly placed on my tongue, wishing for long life. And then I prepared to meditate. Settling down with my back against the ancient tree's trunk, my legs crossed, my spine erect, the sun warm on my face, a gentle breeze lifting the hair on my forearms, I closed my eyes, ready for my vision.
I waited. I waited some more. I quieted my thoughts, stilled my breath.
It began as an itch, a small one, low down on my back, something that with discipline I could ignore. I bore down, counted my breath, focused on my crown chakra. The itch had become a tickle, and moved higher on my back, disturbing my focus. I held on, projecting a cone of white light from my crown to the heavens, seeking contact. The tickle rose between my shoulder blades, becoming a torment, and I could bear it no longer: I writhed and scratched, trying to hang on to my perfect moment.
What was this thing? Was this the stirring of the kundalini energy, rising up through my chakras, heralding my enlightenment?
No. It was an ant. An ant had crawled up inside my shirt, on business known only to itself. It was stubborn and elusive, and after more violent contortions, my meditation spoiled, I removed my shirt, shook out the ant, and spent the rest of the afternoon rambling over the rocks before hiking down to the road.
I had come for a miracle. What I got was an ant.
Only now, years later, have I come to understand that the ant was the miracle.
More than in those ancient trees, more than in the mountains, more than in the vast space stretching out before me, the true nature of God was revealed to me in the humble climbing of an ant, after an intriguing smell, perhaps, or the pleasing salty taste of skin. It was the ant that returned me to the world, that called me to another way of worship, the way of all things ordinary and small, the way of all that is imperfect, the way of stubbornness and error, the way of all that is transitory and comes to grief. The ant was my messenger, calling me back to a world that in truth I had never left. As T.S. Eliot writes:
We shall not cease from explorationAnd so I have returned to become a seeker of the second kind, a seeker of the dark way. I've grown suspicious of perfection, seeking not a perfect life but a full one. We have all had our magic moments, when we enter that forest clearing where dragonflies dance and sunlight descends as a kind of grace. But we know such bright moments only because of the darkness that surrounds them. The clearing needs the forest, and I've learned to be thankful for its shadows.
The other day, my wife, my children, and I watched toads breeding at Bearcamp Pond. Their loud trilling drew us to the sheltered lagoon where toads slid and tumbled over one another in the shallows. Our eyes were drawn to one mating pair, the smaller male clinging to the larger female's back, out in deeper water, now sinking, now rising to the surface, now resting, now stroking their rear legs together, a languorous and lovely dance. Not for some time did we see, with a slight shift of focus, the snapping turtle just below an old giant, half boulder, half jaw, big as a hassock waiting in the depths to devour them. Who's to say where God lies?
We have all heard poems, songs, and prayers that exhort us to see God in a blade of grass, a drop of dew, a child's eyes, or the petals of a flower. Now when I hear such things I say that's too easy. Our greater challenge is to see God not only in the eyes of the suffering child but in the suffering itself. To thank God for the sunset pink clouds over Red Hill but also for the mosquitoes I must fan from my face while watching the clouds. To thank God for broken bones and broken hearts, for everything that opens us to the mystery of our humanness. The challenge is to stand at the sink with your hands in the dishwater, fuming over a quarrel with your spouse, children at your back clamoring for attention, the radio blatting the bad news from Afghanistan, and to say "God is here, now, in this room, here in this dishwater, in this dirty spoon." Don't talk to me about flowers and sunshine and waterfalls: this is the ground, here, now, in all that is ordinary and imperfect, this is the ground in which life sows the seeds of our fulfillment.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Let us pray, then, that we do not shun the struggle. May we attend with mindfulness, generosity, and compassion to all that is broken in our lives. May we live fully in each flawed and too human moment, and thereby gain the victory.
Philip Simmons is a contributing editor of UU World and an associate professor at Lake Forest College. His essay collection Learning to Fall is available from the UUA Bookstore (800-215-9076). Now disabled with Lou Gehrig's disease, he lives and writes in New Hampshire.
Copyright © 2002 Unitarian Universalist Association