do you see who i see?

A young, red-headed boy is seated in a wheelchair. A well-dressed adult male is facing him, bowing awkwardly in an attempt to bring himself to eye level with the boy. We hear their conversation:

Man: My brother, you know, he’s like you.
Boy: (excitedly) He likes motorcycles?
Man: No . . . I meant . . . He has what you have.
Boy: (obviously hurt) That’s my disease. That’s not me.

This young man better get used to it. His disease is neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder for which there is currently no cure. There’s no need to mention his name (Lawrence), since he’ll always be “the guy in the wheelchair.” We do it all the time.

The woman with the limp (not Karen).
The bald man (not Joe).
The Indian woman (not Shirley).
The rich businessman (not Bob).
The homeless woman (not Lisa).
The gay guy (not Michael).

Those of us who’ve been around a while learned long ago that, to most people, we’ll never be simply Pat, Bill, Jenn, Charlie, or Amy. We will always be known primarily by our physical appearance, our jobs, and our societal transgressions.

The blind woman.
The guy with the scarred face.
The black man.
The teacher.
The gal who works at the convenience store.
The guy who did time for a felony..

Many Christians (say they) believe that Christ (or God) is present within each one of us. They quote from the scriptures (John 1:6-9),

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light (Christ), that all men through him might believe. He (John) was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light (Christ), which lights every man (and woman) that comes into the world.

Centuries later, John of the Cross, explained this concept in a truly succinct manner,

To understand this union of which we speak, know that God is present in substance in each soul, even that of the greatest sinner in the world. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk.2, chap. 5)

In other world religions, I have encountered a similar understanding. I have read in Buddhist writings of the Inner Buddha or the Buddha Within. The Dalai Lama is frequently quoted explaining that all sentient beings have the seed of the Buddha within them.

Can it possibly be that when we look into the face of another person, we are seeing the seed and presence of God? Can it possibly be that there is not an exception? Can it possibly be that this holds true for:

  • the sick and the fit?
  • vegetarians and meat eaters?
  • Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims?
  • Republicans and Democrats?
  • male and female?
  • old and young?
  • saints and rapists?
  • Catholic and Protestant?
  • presidents and prostitutes?

If the Christian scriptures and John of the Cross have it right, as I believe they do, the answer has to be an unequivocal yes. We absolutely have to train ourselves to look into our neighbors’ eyes and see God. Only then can we experience what Jesus spoke of as the sum of all the law and the prophets.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Can we even begin to imagine what could happen (in ourselves and in our world) if we start training ourselves to look beyond appearances, professions, and misdeeds? Scraping away that first outer layer, we will begin to see Shirley, Mike, Lisa, and Bob. And then, looking even more deeply, we will see the Divine.

I feel like I’m making some slow and weak progress in seeing beyond the outer layers in others. My greatest impediment is my inability or unwillingness to see beyond my own outer layers. It seems like it’s easier to forgive others than it is to forgive oneself. It also seems that forgiving and accepting oneself, acknowledging the seed of God in one’s own soul is a prerequisite to experiencing God in others.

I have quite a few acquaintances connected to religious communities in which the participants practice distinctive dress. One of these acquaintances once explained how he was approached by a stranger with a pointed question, “Are you Amish?”

His reply came simply and without hesitation, “No, I’m David.”

I think he’s on the right track.

Notes

  • The opening dialogue is from the television series, The Guardian (2001), Season 1, Episode 3.
  • John of the Cross actually wrote, “Para entender, pues, cuál sea esta unión de que vamos tratando, es de saber que Dios, en cualquiera alma, aunque sea la del mayor pecador del mundo, mora y asiste sustancialmente.”

© panthera2, 2012.

dust to dust

I first heard about the Parsis from a friend who spent two years in India.  I was intrigued, perhaps even inspired, by stories about the Parsis and death. When a Parsi dies, the body is not cremated and it’s not buried. Instead, it’s placed on a platform where it can be devoured by birds of prey, typically vultures.

From an NPR news story this morning, I learned that the Parsis are facing a challenge regarding their ancient practice. In addition to humans, the vultures in India feed on cattle carcasses, and it appears that a drug administered to the cattle, and subsequently ingested by the birds, has nearly exterminated the vulture population. The problem the Parsis are encountering is obvious.

The Parsi problem troubles me. I admire their tradition.

Here in the USA, most of us do nearly anything possible to escape the reality of death. The corpse is embalmed to delay decay. It’s then encased in a steel or hardwood casket which is then enclosed in a concrete vault. All this is accomplished by paid professionals. If there is a viewing of the body, what is actually seen is a preserved shell with a lot of make-up, surrounded by flowers and soft, indirect lighting.

So much for ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Like the Parsis, most of the major world religions address and accept the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. We’re here for a season, and then we’re gone. We enter with nothing; we leave with nothing. At the end of the day, we’re all equal — food for worms (or birds). If it’s God’s design for our bodies to return to the earth, why do we want to fight it?

I’ve made my family and friends aware of my wishes for my body’s final disposition. I would like my remains to be dressed or wrapped in natural fibers that will quickly decompose. Then I would like my body to be placed into the earth without a container and covered with dirt. That’s it. No resisting nature. No hindering God’s design.

So with visions of Parsis, vultures, worms, and (green) burials all dancing in my head, I sat down this afternoon to see what Netflix had to offer. The movie with the cellist on the cover looked nice, so I hit the enter button and sat back with my (green) tea to watch Departures (2008).

After losing his job with a Tokyo orchestra, the cellist, the one on the cover, returns to his childhood home to try to rebuild his shattered life. Through a misunderstanding, he becomes an apprentice to a nakanshi, a man who dresses and prepares dead bodies.

Initially, his modern sensibilities cause him to see his new career as repulsive. He stays in it for the money, but a transformation occurs as he comes to experience his new job as a calling, as a loving service of sacred giving. In the movie, we experience many touching scenes of his tender interaction with the deceased and their families.

Some cursory research informed me that this Japanese tradition is quickly fading. The Japanese, like those of us here in the US, are putting more and more distance between themselves and the reality and finality of death. Too bad.

The physician cutteth off a long disease; and he that is today a king tomorrow shall die. For when a man is dead, he shall inherit creeping things, beasts, and worms.    ~ Sirach 10:10-11.

© panthera2, 2012.

danger of assumptions

The assumptions that guide and control our everyday thinking and behaviors are generally helpful, saving us the trouble of having to consciously consider our every thought and movement.

Assumptions become dangerous and destructive, however, when they stand in the way of our progress and improvement as individuals and as a society.  We assumed our (flat) earth was at the center of the universe. We assumed that a particular ethnicity or gender was inferior to others.

A movie I recently saw reminded me of one of our contemporary, cherished assumptions. In K-Pax (2001), Prot is a character who claims to be visiting Earth from some distant planet. At one point, he describes the social structure of his home planet to his psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell. When Powell asks him about punishment on his planet, Prot responds as follows.

You humans, most of you, subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody’s paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians. You humans. It’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.

Our assumption is that punishment and vengeance are necessary to keep individuals in society in check. We simply assume eye for eye and tooth for tooth. We assume that society has a right to its pound of flesh for every wrongdoing. We assume that vengeance is good and necessary, a God-ordained right. And it looks like the U.S. is very serious about this assumption. Consider the following.

  • The U.S. leads the world when it comes to prisoners per capita—730 incarcerated individuals for every 100,000 of the overall population. For comparison, we can look at some other countries: Russia (508), South Africa (310), Mexico (199), England and Wales (154), Canada (117), Italy (108), Germany (83), Switzerland (76), Japan (55).
  • The population of the U.S. is about 5% of the total world population. U.S. prison population is about 25% of the world prison population.
  • In 1980, about 350,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. By the end of 2002, over 2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. (at a cost of over $40 billion per year).
  • The majority of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are people of color. The percentage of people of color is even higher on death row.
  • Prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those in the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of only nine countries which has both the death penalty and life without parole. (The others are China, Comoros, Cuba, Israel, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge the acceptance of our assumptions concerning equating punishment, retribution, vengeance, and getting even with justice. We need to think about alternatives, but that’s not the purpose of this particular essay.

When Dr. Powell asks Prot why he chooses to visit Earth, Prot says he likes to visit class BA-3 planets (early stage of evolution, future uncertain). He also really enjoys our fruits and vegetables.

For further reading on this subject, you may want to consider the following links. Much of the information listed above comes from these sources.

© panthera2, 2012.