“Hope in the Taste of Life” by Tobias Kroll

My life is countercyclical. I’m told the 1990s were a time of oblivious optimism and celebration. If so, I had no part in that. I was a deeply wounded and disturbed young man, stumbling along deserted city streets, trying to make sense of it all.

Fast forward to 2022, and the tables have turned. Things are falling apart faster than the eye can see, yet I am happy and fulfilled. Trust is waning in our institutions, our past and future, even our neighbors. Yet here I am making friendships, forging bonds, extolling our common virtues and the (ever-lacking, always unfulfilled) promise of America. It may just be my turn to share what it’s like to keep up hope when hope itself seems lost.

***

I like my food spicy. But not too hot. Mild spice enhances the natural flavors and brings them to the foreground. Overdo it and heat overpowers flavor. If you put too little spice, of course, you get the opposite—a bland absence of taste.

I believe that’s what Jesus means when he exhorts us to be the salt of the earth. Bring out life’s flavors by the way you live. Taste it all, the sweet and the bitter, the good and the gory. If you become bland like the Pharisees, you miss the point of life—but the same is true when you overpower it with concupiscence. Salt is a greedy little substance: it sucks the living water right out of things. Taste life, but don’t stuff yourself with it. Take until you are filled and leave the rest.

***

I live by three different kinds of hope. The first we might call ultimate hope. This is the hope we are taught in religious faith: that all our sufferings will end eventually, that our tears will be wiped away and our weeping will be no more. Of course, this promise may come true only in the afterlife. Thus, to hold on to it, you must be comfortable with a considerable amount of uncertainty.

Since I have journeyed from wretch to healer in less than three decades, I can testify to the truth of penultimate hope. This is the hope that we may heal before our demise, that grace works in this life and not only in the next. It does, I proclaim, for it has healed me. And I see it work in so many things: in the passion of my students to help and do good; in small transcendences of partisan stupidity; in the simple gift of birds singing on a fresh summer morning.

But in this life, there are no guarantees. What is mended today may fall apart again tomorrow. In the realm where the morning grass withers before the setting of the sun, nothing is eternally secure.

Because this is so, I sometimes ask myself: what would happen if things began to fall apart for me? Would I still be going around trying to mend them? Or would I become aggrieved and bitter, and get sucked into the vortex of destruction?

God only knows. And because of that, I still hope.

***

This brings me to my final hope. I’m not sure if it should be called hope at all: for it is, truly, a hope-less hope, a gaze into the future that does not need the future to turn out a certain way. It is hope-less, mind you, not hopeless: it is devoid of material expectation, yet filled with grace and not despair. How can this be?

The answer is in the parable of the salt. Life itself may be unending, but in this life, all things must wane and wither. The point is not to hold on to them—not even to healing, not even to fulfillment—but to taste them. To truly bite into the fruit of life and let the sweet and bitter juice drip over you and stain you. Don’t overstuff yourself and throw it all up, but do not shy away from the mess either. Hope-less hope squints in the setting sun and knows it does not know what the new day will bring, or if there will be a new day at all. All it has is this day, and its hope is that if this day has been tasted, in the day to come this will have been enough.

Tobias A. Kroll, Ph.D., grew up in Germany and has been on a multi-faith journey all his life. Raised both Catholic and Protestant, he has explored atheism, 12-step spirituality, and Buddhism, and he has learned from Indigenous traditions and from Taoism, as well as from the Hindu religion of his wife. Now back in the Protestant faith of his baptism, he is a professor in the health sciences in Lubbock, TX where he teaches speech-language pathology and works on integrating spirituality into patient care. Tobias attends a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) and explores Protestant spirituality at https://medium.com/@tobias-a-kroll

Hope Now, More Than Ever! – The Prelude

I met Madeleine L’Engle decades ago. A year shy of college graduation, I had joined my childhood family on a visit to the Big Apple. Alongside our tourist itinerary, I made a side appointment to see the legendary author of A Wrinkle in Time, a favorite novel of my youth.

We met in the library of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she worked for nearly 40 years. When I look back now, I see how gracious she was to schedule time for a young man she didn’t know. As light streamed through the room’s windows, we discussed the metaphor of IT in her Newberry Award winning book, an evil force trying to consume inhabited worlds throughout the galaxy. In her narrative, Earth is already “partially dark.”

“IT is still a metaphor for the condition of our planet,” said L’Engle, her eyes tinged with sadness. “A reality yet to be determined.”

I recently recalled that moment while having coffee with a friend. His view of our world, especially our troubled country, has grown increasingly grim. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “seriously endangered,” he says we are at 11. He enumerated the reasons.

  • Climate change with its droughts, wildfires, and decimation of species.
  • The erosion of a woman’s reproductive rights.
  • The insurrection of January 6th and the conspiratorial assistance of Donald Trump – fascism raising its ugly head in America.
  • Racism cloaked in a cultic combo of the American flag and Christian cross.
  • Mass shootings and the unwillingness to restrict access to military-style weapons.
  • The widening chasm between the rich and poor.
  • Pollution of the earth through rampant consumption.
  • Pollution of our minds through predatory news streams.  
  • Continued wars fueled by nationalism, bigotry, and greed.

I agree with every element of his analysis. However, I felt compelled to ask him the question at that core of my new project.

“What gives you hope?”

For many of us, that query has taken on the weight of a Zen kōan. It demands deep reflection, a wrangling of our minds. And, to plumb the Buddhist notion even further, are some of us attached to notions of hope that no longer have realistic meaning in our chaotic world?

I think we can all agree that hope is like oxygen to our souls. Many writers have said so, and these quotes are some of my favorites.

  • Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. – Emily Dickinson
  • The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. – Barbara Kingsolver
  • Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic. – Laini Taylor
  • Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them. – Vincent McNabb
  • Hope is the most powerful force in the universe. With hope you can inspire nations to greatness. With hope you can raise up the downtrodden. With hope you can ease the pain of unbearable loss. – William H. McRaven
  • Hope is the fuel within all human souls. Eliminate hope — nothing moves, nothing grows. – Richelle E. Goodrich

We need that tune, that sheltering roof, that light, that grace, that power, that fuel! Perhaps now more than ever!

I am blessed to know some thoughtful and soulful people around the world. Many of them, like me, are struggling to get hold of hope. I also know that we are better together, that our mutual encouragement is one of the greatest benefits of living in community.

So, as I struggle with my own visions of the future, I have turned to members of my extended human family to ask, “What gives you hope?”

Over the next few months, you will hear their responses, arising from diverse perspectives. My hope is that their words will cause you to wrestle with the same question. I also hope that when you get hold of something central to your existence, you will share it with friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, even your enemies.

Hope now, more than ever!

Detritus (or Clothing by the Pound, Not the Ton)

I’m waiting my turn at the Goodwill Clearance Center on San Antonio’s south side. This is the last stop for unsold items. Their odyssey began in foreign and domestic factories, then on to retail stores, closets and drawers in countless homes, and now to the bins before us—a downward spiral of detritus. It’s a scavenger’s paradise with purchases offered by the pound, where an average pair of shoes costs about a dollar. As workers wheel in the flatbeds of jumbled objects, we wait for the go signal like we’re standing at the starting line of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Suddenly, I have a vivid memory.

I was with a group of community organizers in Mexico, working to build a children’s center on land that had once been part of el dompe, Tijuana’s municipal landfill. We had journeyed deeper into the wasteland to witness the daily activities of pepenadores (garbage scavengers) who comb through the mountains of refuse—entire families retrieving metal, glass, wire, cardboard, even food scraps. Rumbling garbage trucks continued to arrive in convoys, the air thick with clouds of acrid smoke.

The week prior, I had taken a load of my own junk to a landfill outside Los Angeles. As I surveyed this scene just a few miles from the California border, it struck that the economic status of a culture is certainly evident in its midden, its piles of artifacts that will entice future archaeologists.

I heard some children laughing and saw that they were hitting something back and forth with large sticks. I smiled and looked closer at their play object on the ground. It wasn’t a ball; it was a dog skull picked clean by maggots.

Back to that moment at the Goodwill Clearance Center. The staff shouts a go signal and we swoop in to look for treasures. For my part, I’m in search of used shoes or jeans, since my own pairs of both are worn and threadbare.

Why choose this place for my shopping spree? Call it a quirky conviction. I hear so many people bemoan the scientific reality that global warming has changed our weather patterns, leading to droughts and placing scores of animal species on the brink of extinction. The problem seems so enormous that it begs the question, “What can Ido as one measly individual?”

Surely, we can vote for political candidates that espouse green principles. We can volunteer with local organizations that work to protect our environment. AND, we can examine our own lifestyle choices, making those small changes that, when combined with the similar choices of others, have the potential to make an impact.

We can cultivate native plants in our yards, offering waystations for pollinators. We can convert sections of our water thirsty lawns to xeriscapes. We can buy more fuel-efficient vehicles or make the switch to electric. We can analyze our consumer habits in all areas, asking “how much is enough?”

Which brings me to clothing. For decades, my family and I have purchased 80% of our attire from thrift stores. Our motive is more than just saving money. It is based on our knowledge that the garment industry is one of our planet’s primary polluters. We also know that the U.S. exports roughly 700,000 tons of unsold secondhand clothes to developing countries. That tonnage suppresses local industry, with one estimate in Kenya showing that a secondhand garment costs five percent of a new one. Local industries simply can’t compete. The sheer amount of this textile waste ends up accumulating in these foreign locales. For instance, on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, lies a 30-foot mountain of rotting clothing articles, many of them with name-brand tags once worn in the U.S.

Back to my scavenger scramble in San Antonio. It’s a lucky day for me. I find more than what I’m looking for, and I admit to a bit of indulgence. I go away with a used pair of Vans and Adidas tennis shoes, plus a pair of khakis just my size.

Total cost: $5.25.

Clothing by the pound, not the ton.

Bill’s Miraculous Conversion

Many of us remember the cultural hysteria that surrounded the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Despite scientific evidence that the virus could only be passed through semen or blood, many people panicked. Those who contracted the disease became pariahs, what Time magazine dubbed a “new class of untouchables,” a prejudice that hampered their medical treatment.

Adding theological insult to injury, intolerant groups of Christians spread the notion that AIDS was a plague visited upon gay people and drug users for their sins. They dared to say such things while cloaking themselves in Christ’s teachings, an aberration that still exists in America.

I was serving a large urban church at the time. One of our vocal members (call him Bill for anonymity’s sake) embraced and espoused this theory of divine retribution. He proof-texted the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, claiming that God destroyed those cities because of homosexuality rather than inhospitality.

Meanwhile, I knew that HIV/AIDS had touched many people in our congregation through their friends and relatives, but they were reticent to publicly ask for compassion. They feared the stigma rippling through our society.

I talked to these folks and asked a question. Would they be willing to join others in a “coming out” evening, a public forum to share their experiences in solidarity? It would be a chance to counter destructive stereotypes, appealing for greater understanding.

I was warmly surprised by how many agreed to participate. Among them was a nurse who had adopted a baby born with the virus.

On that night, the church was full. Even the unfounded scare of contracting the virus couldn’t keep people away. There was a bit of sensationalism, even titillation, about the way we had advertised the event, and I was fine with that if it stimulated new awareness.

One by one, members stood and shared their personal stories. Some admitted having to unlearn their own fears and prejudice; others spoke of their unrestrained  love for family members and friends who needed them during a time of crisis.

When the nurse spoke of how she had connected with her adopted daughter, Chloe, it was especially moving. The agency she dealt with could not find a suitable parent. Who would want to take a child with HIV into their home given the fear of contagion and the prognosis of a tragically short life?

Chloe was with her, and as she spoke the toddler got down off her mother’s knee and began to wander along the center aisle of the church. I noticed Bill in a pew near the front, his eyes locked on the girl, his posture stiffening. When she came alongside him, she stopped and looked up at him. Then she did something I will never forget. She crawled on his lap.

Bill’s body lurched. You could tell he wanted to stand, knock Chloe of his knees and run for the hills. But then she rested her hands on his shoulders and squared her face to his, their noses nearly touching.

Most people in the assembly were aware of Bill and his prejudiced views. A hush came over all of us. How would he react? Would he create a scene that would forever mar the harmonious tone of our event?

Then something happened that we least expected. Call it a grace-filled moment of conversion. Bill wrapped his arms around Chloe and gave her the warmest of embraces. There was a collective sigh of relief and some people even clapped.

Fast forward. Bill became a lead deacon in our congregation. He was a changed person, a man on a mission. Our church had an unused manse on our property and Bill led a movement to get it certified as the only approved daycare facility in our city for children born with HIV. He helped form a ministry that provided hours of respite care for men whose companions were suffering the end stages of AIDS. Our deacons would relieve them for a few hours so that they could run errands, get some air, decompress.

One of the last times I saw Bill was at one of these homes. I had come to say a prayer with a young man who was in his final hours. I saw Bill from behind as he was leaning over the bed. He was helping to change the sheets, getting his hands dirty in the real and compassionate work of loving another human being.

He turned and said, “Hi, Pastor Krin. I’m glad to see you.”

“Not as glad as I am to see you, Bill,” I replied.

Every Story Matters

(I once wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in South Texas, collected in the book 52: Weekly Readings for Your Journey. My outlook and writing have changed a lot since those days, but I often recall this installment published on Veteran’s Day. It reminds us that every person has a story, and that some of these stories are from veterans who were caught in the tragic crossfires of history.)

For years, CBS ran a program called Everybody Has a Story. Host Steve Hartman threw a dart at a U.S. map, flew to that city, flipped open a phone book, put his finger down and called that household. If the individuals were willing, he highlighted their life stories which were often poignant. Then, before leaving, he asked the participant to throw a dart at the map to pinpoint his next destination.

There was a marvelous truth in this seeming randomness! It showed two things. First, the struggles and victories of being human are something we all share, no matter our age, race, or background. Second, our stories matter, especially when someone truly listens.

However, listening is a dying art. We fixate on TVs, computers, smart phones. Wired with sound bite mentalities, we wish people would just get to the point. We formulate responses before others finish speaking, cutting our attentiveness to zero.

Paul Tillich famously said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” In our raucous world, people long for someone to hear them. Our open ears and hearts provide an oasis of acceptance, and as we practice this art, we find that the benefits are reciprocal. Our worlds expand in astonishing ways. Here’s an example from my own life.

One day a short man with a warm, tooth-missing smile came to the front office of the church and asked to speak to the pastor (me). His dark skin was deeply weathered by the elements. He let me know that he was homeless, sleeping in his car, and he wondered if I could help him with lodging and food. When I agreed, he said, “Thank you, sir!”

That’s when I saw the military bearing in his shoulders and heard the respect in his voice.

“Are you a veteran?”

“Yes, sir. I served in Desert Storm with the First Mechanized Infantry.”

What followed was a gripping story, a painful page of American history, and it was my privilege to hear every word.

Raised in New Jersey, William Milburn inherited his family’s long tradition of joining the United States Army. He enlisted in the National Guard after high school, and when he got laid off from a factory job, he chose to go active duty. Eventually he was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, assigned to the First Armored Division.

In August of 1990, William was a frontline tank gunner when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As he recalled those awful hours, I could hear the roaring jets and the deep booms as William locked on to distant Iraqi targets and destroyed them. His traumatic memories still open fresh wounds.

“We saw trucks, jeeps and tanks with mangled, blackened bodies. The smell of death is horrible, pastor. I was a soldier, but as a Christian, any loss of life is terrible. I remember looking at one body draped from a jeep and thinking ‘man, that guy had a family.’ What was his story? It was war. I did my duty. But it was still so sad, and those images still haunt me.”

William received bronze stars for his valor. I thanked him for his service, then helped him find the lodging and food he needed for that night. I also invited him to contact me anytime, day or night, if he needed a listening ear. If found out later that William had gotten back on his fee, working hard as a certified nursing assistant, enjoying life with a new girlfriend.

Today, think of this as you shop, work, or travel. Every person you see has a story, and often the people we pass over the quickest have the most mind-blowing tales of all. A homeless veteran taught me this lesson.

All I had to do was listen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

A massive sinkhole opens beneath the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Buildings, freeways, and screaming people plummet through a time portal. They land 10,000 years in the past, where saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths are just a few of the surprises (and dangers!) they face.

Such is the premise of a new NBC drama called La Brea. I thought of it as I stood with others on the rim above Canyon Lake Gorge, a geologic wonder of Texas carved out by flooding along the Guadalupe River in 2002. 34 inches of rain fell in two days, setting off a torrent that sliced open the ground below the spillway, exposing limestone and fossils over 100 million years old.

Our guide points out some dinosaur tracks. An acrocanthosaurus,one of the largest predators to ever stalk the earth, once stood on this spot, perhaps scanning the terrain for prey.

Then we begin our descent, first to Area 51, a landscape strewn with square boulders that seem hewn from extinct quarries. Robert Rodriguez used this setting for his Predators movie.

“Bend down and gather a handful of sand,” says our guide. “Tell me what you see.”

I do so. Instead of sand, I find scores of tiny shells nestled in my palm!

“Those are remnants of an organism called Orbitolina Texana.,” she says with a smile. “You are standing on an ancient cretaceous seabed.”

Amazing! And it only gets better! We continue downwards to see exposed fault lines of the Edwards Plateau, remnants of collapsed caves, a waterfall, even a lagoon. In one  area, we examine scores of fossilized shellfish, including ancient sea urchins. It truly feels like a journey to the center of the earth (thank you, H.G. Wells, for the phrase!).

Then it strikes me that my fellow Master Naturalists are always penetrating deeper into the world, revealing its beauty and intricacy. On countless occasions, they have schooled me about the flora, fauna, and geology that surround us. I store their numbers on my phone. When I see an unfamiliar plant, insect, reptile, or bird, I capture an image or sound and text it to my peers. Their responses often include not only common and scientific names, but amazing facts about that species’ place in the ecosystem.

I’m currently writing a book about the influence of camps and conference centers, including their role as portals to nature. At Camp Gilmont in Northeast Texas, I spoke to Marie Nelson, Director of their Outdoor School for children. She reminisced about a naturalist and educator named Sarah Monk, one of their long-term volunteers. “Walks with Sarah” were a privilege, and when Sarah died, Marie wrote a tribute which I excerpt here. It stands as a tribute to all naturalist teachers.

Wake me early to see the dew on the spider web before it disappears.
Take me quietly down a trail into the woods and introduce me to the wonder.
Sit with me as a gentle breeze cascades through the forest like a waterfall.
Draw my attention to the flowers clothed in all of their radiance.
Take me by the lake to watch turtles bob to the surface for air.
Hold a dragonfly nymph as I study its special adaptations for survival.
Quiet me as a red-tailed hawk goes swooping overhead looking for its prey.
Show me the view to the west as the sun sets in vibrant purpose, orange, and pink.
Then watch with me as the veil of darkness blankets the earth.
Listen as the sounds of night surround us.
Open the classroom of nature all around me
and teach me how to study the gift of Creation.

Back to that day in the Canyon Lake Gorge. One of the attendees turns to me and says, “This is one of the most beautiful places in Texas!”

I smile and nod, even as my mind flashes to other exquisite environs: Palo Duro Canyon; the lush heart of the Big Thicket; Spicewood Springs and Gorman Falls at Colorado Bend State Park; crystalline depths at the Aquareena, headwaters of the San Marcos River; shorebirds cavorting in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay; scenic gems like the Chisos and Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend; ancient rock art of the White Shaman Preserve, perched above the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers.

So many breathtaking wonders in this state I love! So many places where we can journey to the center of the earth!

You can connect with me through my website here, Facebook here, or Instagram here

Loving Wastefully

Imagine an inner-city neighborhood on a sweltering summer day. A long draught has baked the pavement and buildings, coating them with dust. Suddenly, an enterprising resident devises a way to turn on one of the fire hydrants. It gushes into the street, attracting people of all ages who gather to splash and play. It’s like a Ganges River party in the middle of concrete canyons!

A man cries out, “You’re wasting water!” and a woman exclaims, “Exactly! Come and enjoy it with us!”

I’m reminded of a well-loved quote from John Shelby Spong who died in 2021.

“If the word “God” can be identified with the Source of Love that flows through the universe, always enhancing life…then the only way we can worship that which we call God is by loving wastefully. Wasteful love never stops to ask whether love is due or deserved. One simply gives it away. The more we can give love away, the more that which is ultimate, real and holy will be visible in us.”

As my friend and co-author, Heiwa no Bushi, says, “Love wastefully. Turn on both spigots and let it run until the soil is good and muddy, until there is a pool that forms where others can be refreshed.”

An early hymn in the Christian tradition is the Old 100th. Praise God from who all blessings flow. No matter our concept of a higher power, surely our calling is to let these blessings flow through us until we become conduits of love and grace!

Obviously, for this to happen, we must overcome any attitudes of heart and mind that cause us to restrict our flow, siphoning down the blessings poured so freely into us.

Jesus addressed one of these primary restrictors. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

Let’s be real. We all judge others. We justify ourselves by saying I’m just discerning, or I’m speaking truth to power, or I’m fighting the good fight.

There is a necessary place for discernment. But every one of us – no matter our politics, theology, or morals – can see how judgement erodes our common humanity. Even with noble intentions, we can easily foment division.

Judgment seems hard-wired into our human psyches. I imagine Cro-Magnon tribes already judging who among them was more beautiful, more athletic, and who they needed to hate enough for violence. From time immemorial, we have certainly inherited the “sins” of previous generations. Just dip your mind into the news streams of any given day. They literally reek of judgment.

Go even further. Think of how many people project this human proclivity for judgment onto their anthropomorphic images of God. Some point to this very passage from Matthew in Christian scripture, settling on the words “you will be judged.” Jesus himself had to break these shackles of judgement, his life culminating in a crescendo of forgiveness even for his tormentors as he cried out, “It is finished!”

This teaching recorded in Matthew is not about crime and punishment, sin and retribution. It is an invitation to light and freedom. It is pure genius.

When Jesus says, the measure you give will be the measure you receive, think of it this way. If our Creator has placed within us a wellspring of love, an inner fountain to refresh every moment, then our judgments restrict the flow of this love not only for others, but for our own experience of joy!

To use a contemporary analogy, consider our ubiquitous smartphones, attached like appendages every waking hour. They exist within a bandwidth. When we judge others, we limit our ability to stream love from the Source, narrowing our experience from 5G to 4G to 3G to E. Finally, beyond the Edge is a life with no sustaining awareness of connection to our Creator. Some people would call that hell.

Jesus implores us to experience a fuller measure of love that suffuses our lives. To use the image of water again, think of the words he spoke to a Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob, recorded in the Christian Gospel of John. “The water that I will give will become a spring gushing up to eternal life.”

As John Shelby Spong said, when we let this water flow through us to others, even wastefully, what is “real and holy will be visible in us.”

Amen.

A Part, Not Apart

On one of our American Road Trips, my wife and I visited the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, where we watched an Omnimax film called The Great Barrier Reef. Told through the eyes of Jemma Craig who grew up on a barrier island, it’s an urgent appeal to preserve this 1,400-mile ecological treasure.

As I sat there, it happened numerous times—those moments of wonder and awe when immersed in our natural world, even when transmitted through celluloid.

  • Tens of thousands of green sea turtles gathering at their largest rookery, Raine Island. They migrate up to 1600 miles to reach the exact beach of their birth. How do they do it? By relying on Earth’s magnetic fields. Each part of a coastline has its own magnetic signature, which the animals remember and later use as an internal compass. Awesome!
  • Pictures of endangered giant manta rays swimming together, some of them as big as 23 feet wide and weighing 6,600 lbs. Awesome!
  •  The reef’s many species of coral simultaneously releasing their mixture of eggs and sperm into the sea, as numerous as stars in the night sky. Awesome!

Like so many of you, I am drawn to nature because of its perfect intricacy, its reminder to just BE rather than DO, to humbly experience my place in the web of life. As a friend of mine says, this is what “stiches him into the fabric of the universe.”

These moments resonate from deep in my childhood. I remember walking on a hillside covered in wild mustard so tall it reached my forehead. I laid on my back and looked up through blossoms teeming with bees and butterflies, a sky of sailing clouds beyond them. The veil between observer and observed vanished.

I once read a compilation of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s writings that remains with me. He spoke of how our perception causes us to stand apart from the world rather than experience harmony within it. This disconnection is at the root of our cancerous treatment of the environment—bending it, shaping it, paving it to fit the contours of “progress.”

Krishnamurti’s words can seem odd to Western minds riddled with binary thinking. “There is no division between the world and you,” he said. “You are the world.” The key, he said, is in how we perceive, summed in these words.

“Can you see with your eyes the tree as a whole? Do you understand my question? Can you see anything totally, or are you always seeing partially? Are so we caught up in our own network of problems, our own desires, our own urges of pleasure and pain that we never look around, never watch the moon? Watch it. Watch with all your eyes and ears, your sense of smell—watch. Look as though you are looking for the first time. If you can do this, that tree, that bush, that blade of grass you are seeing for the first time. Then you can see your teacher, your mother and father, your brother and sister, for the first time. There is an extraordinary feeling about that: the wonder, the strangeness, the miracle of a fresh morning that has never been before, never will be.”

As a Master Naturalist, I join my fellow volunteers in passing on our knowledge of the natural world. We can catalogue flora and fauna; we can name those forces that shape the landscape and atmosphere. All this science surely deepens our appreciation of the planet. But perhaps the most vital thing we impart is to see our world through the perspective of harmony, a vision that instills a desire to cherish, protect, and nurture the gift of Earth.

There is so much dire evidence about the decline of our environment. We see it everywhere. On the very morning I am posting this blog, the U.N. has issued a new warning about the escalation of climate change.

Yet, I cling to the hope that more and more of us can be the change we want to see.

We can be a part, not apart.

You? No Comparison!

If you truly don’t give a damn about what others think of you, congratulations! If you are so at home in your own skin that nothing causes you to seek external worth, rock on!

If, instead, you are like many of us who battle with bouts of self-doubt, read on…

Certain liberating truths, like the encapsulated in the tile of this post, need frequent reiteration. We must plant our feet repeatedly on the same foundational wisdom. Why? Because so much of the world’s messaging conspires to undermine us. The sheer load and volume of this external bullshit is staggering!

Grading systems, balancing sheets, images of what is beautiful, popular, or successful. Skin colors and sexual orientations held up as normative. Scripts for living—indoctrination under countless disguises—passed on to us as proper roadmaps by our tribes and families. Religious dogma that demands allegiance. Internet news-streams, predatory to our browsing, a bombardment of polarizing headlines. Be very afraid! It’s time to take sides! Social media casting its desirability web of likes and follows.

When we internalize even small pieces of this external coding, it can lead to fits of self-effacement. Tabula rasa becomes tabula inscripta.

Sure, benchmarks of excellence can inspire us to better our lives. What I’m talking about is when those standards create a sense of lacking that sours our enjoyment of NOW!

As I write these words, countless individuals are evaluating their lives by metrics that are ultimately superficial. I see this clearly in the life of a good friend. Listening to him with compassion helps me in my own struggles.

He’s a remarkable person—gifted with intelligence, awareness, creativity, a sense of adventure that guides him to remote places and experience. He has a devoted wife, children, and grandchildren. I often think of him as a Renaissance person.

And yet, at regular intervals, he finds his mental health unraveling. We have talked for hours about it and eventually it boils down to a single word…

Comparison.

He begins, like many of us, to measure himself against others—internalized notions of where he “should be” at this point in his life. He’s embarrassed to admit that some of it is tied to financial gain. At other times, it’s about how much impact his life’s work has had. On deeper levels, it reaches spiritual dimensions as he wonders why others seem more liberated.

He knows the standard advice. He knows how to make gratitude lists, enumerating the people and accomplishments that give his life value. But even in that process, he begins to contrast himself with others less fortunate. It’s the pernicious flip side; using comparison to create a sense of superiority.

Comparison. Or, to use that old-fashioned word from the Ten Commandments, covetousness in all its ugly forms, those cravings for external validation.

As I said earlier, some truths need frequent reiteration. Like this one I have distilled from the wisdom of ages. Share a version of it with your children, your students, your coworkers and neighbors. Hell, shout if from the rooftops! 

You are one of a kind, a divine creation, as unique as the whorls on your fingertips. Your particular experience and history are yours alone and can lead you to the fulfillment you seek. Follow your own path! Seize your own destiny! As Emerson wisely said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Back to those talks with my friend. I do my best to help him reclaim his sacred identity and settle into the present with a thankfulness that overflows.

And often, after our talks, a sobering thought enters my mind.

I imagine us on our death beds. No matter how many people surround us in those moments, we will ultimately make that transition alone. And if our lives really do pass before our eyes, we will see clearly the absurdity of EVER wasting a precious moment in unhealthy comparison to others?

Please. Hear it again.

You? No comparison!