by Troy Chapman
(published February 06)
You’re having breakfast with a friend when she suddenly slaps the handle of her spoon and catapults a bomb of oatmeal across the table where it lands on your chin and slides down your neck. Then she laughs out loud and claps her hands in pure joy.
It’s the kind of behavior that could cause some serious tension in a friendship, if not a recommendation to get on some sort of medication. Yet your reaction would be very different if your friend were, say, two years old. You might still be annoyed — especially after the eighth time — but you would understand.
My question is why? The answer, of course, is because we’re talking about a baby. We make allowances for babies because we understand that they are going through a stage of development. They are, in fact, beings in transition.
Material processes and themes often mirror larger (but more subtle) spiritual processes and this is a case where that’s true. Just as a baby is a being in physical and mental transition, so we are all beings in spiritual transition. In fact, we live in two worlds. Christian theologians refer to them as “the transitional world” and “the consummated world.” The universe is trying to wake us up and open our hearts — very much as a parent guides a child through childhood. We, and all of creation, are in transition.
This is important because when we forget it we lose our rationale for spiritual or intentional love. This love makes no sense without an understanding that we’re going somewhere as a species.
A good friend of mine recently got a new cell mate. The new guy didn’t have anything so my friend shared coffee, smokes, and other items with him. The man repaid this kindness by stealing from my friend every chance he got. When finally there was a confrontation and the thief was moved to another cell he went around telling people my friend had stolen from him, literally adding insult to injury.
As fate would have it the thief ended up right across the hall from me. I see him when I walk out to use the bathroom or get coffee water. I walk to meals with him. My opinion of cell thieves isn’t very high to begin with and this guy has the personality of a spider to boot — one that might lay eggs under your skin if given the chance.
Why should I love this person? Or for that matter any of the child molesters, predators, extortionists, corrupt and hate-filled staff, and countless others I encounter here daily? I can’t find a reason in the immediate reality. If immediate reality is the whole story, love is stupid.
But it’s not the whole story. When I see this cell thief I remind myself of the world we’re moving toward. I hold up my vision of this world and in it I find the logic of loving him. At my best I live with one foot in this other world and act from that perspective. I know that every time I manage it I move us one tiny step closer to its realization. Conversely, every time I fail to act and think from that world I delay its coming and insure that the one we’re living in now lasts a little longer.
This is true both spiritually and practically. Spiritually it’s a matter of investing energy/attention into our realization, our higher potential (and consequently, withdrawing this energy from what we are today). Spiritual attention is like an invisible tow rope that we cast out. It attaches itself to the object of our attention and begins to draw us toward it. Practically, acting and thinking from what we want to be breaks up the relational patterns that keep us caught in our destructive world. Intentional love, in this sense, is doubly subversive to the present order, undermining it spiritually as well as practically.
When enough of us unhook our ropes from this order and attach them to the next we will find ourselves rapidly moving into that world which now seems so impossible.
As much as we may dislike the present order on one level, on another we feed and uphold it because it serves us in some way. America, for example, would lose her very purpose and identity if she suddenly had no enemies. We pretend we would like to get rid of our enemies but the truth is, in our present state of consciousness, we would shrivel up and die without our enemies. Witness the “war on crime” in which we quadrupled the size of our prisons, brought our death chambers up to full steam, wrote countless new laws, and shifted enormous resources from other areas of our society over a 20-year period beginning in the early 1980s. It’s no coincidence that this “war” began at almost the precise moment the Soviet Bogey Man crumbled.
We needed a new enemy and since nothing else was happening we decided criminals would do. If you listened to politicians and the media at that time you would have thought the nation was on the verge of collapse due to crime. Then 9/11 happened and suddenly our “crime wave” disappeared from the news and the national attention. The terrorists will serve us for a long time but eventually they’ll be replaced by another enemy in this circular process.
It’s not merely a political process but rather a spiritual process that’s expressed politically. Individually we need and extract meaning from enemies. And it’s through trying to meet this need that we uphold the world we say we dislike.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other ways to find meaning and identity — seeing ourselves as ambassadors of a future better than our present, for instance — but the fact is that right now we turn again and again to enemies for these things and in so doing we attach the rope of our attention to the present dysfunctional world like an anchor dropped from a boat.
To view this present as transitional is to refuse to drop anchor here and to instead keep our sights on that shore up ahead. It not only gives us a rationale for adopting the mores of that future world now — intentional love, for example — it also gives us the strength to do so. When I look at the cell thief I remind myself he’s in a transitional state.
When I do stupid things or hurt others I’m able to forgive myself if I remember I’m in a transitional state. Indeed, I am gentler with all of creation. I keep returning my attention to the task of helping it through this difficult stage. I remind myself that that’s why I’m willing to love: Because all this is about something more than me.
If I were living this out perfectly I would be completely unoffendable, I would always respond to people according to what they need rather than what they deserve. Of course, I’m not and I don’t. But I am learning; I am in transition. And that knowledge is a piece of thread which, if I can keep hold of it and pull, can unravel the world we live in now and weave a better one in its place.