Trying To Make Sense, part 3
A matter of Responses, not Answers
Or: I Tried To Bring My Whole Heart
I have written in two previous pieces about the challenges occasioned by the death of my friend and the response of his brother in rising out of the mess of violence and pushing beyond his own borders. In his doing, so did I. I was brought into the story and found my own participation exceeding any expectation (see “Trying to Make Sense, parts 1 and 2).
For me, I felt myself thinking it through. It was challenging to me, being a part of it to the extent I was drawn in by my love for my friend and his (deceased) brother. For my friend, the brother of the deceased, I think he was following instinct and a few basic principles guiding him in his own life, in a non-theoretical way, that has prepared him in ways he did not imagine to face the most difficult challenges that have been laid in his lap.
For me, I was sometimes confidante, sometimes rabbi to this Catholic family, sometimes officiante, mostly friend.
As I was writing these pieces, I met with my friend and we discussed the ideas I was tracking with words. My assumptions were basically correct: my friend was working on instinct, what it felt like to do the right thing when he wasn’t sure what to do at all. “It just felt right,” I often heard him say, and one action led to another action until there was a sequence of events that led to what felt to me a startling and challenging shape of story.
The newspapers and such picked up some of the story as it was well known in my town, but I felt the story was larger than the treatments I had read and I wanted it told correctly. It felt like a big story to me.
For my friend, he was rising out of the mess of the tragedy of his brother’s death and creating a memorial in character that honored his brother and cleansed himself of something of the residue of senseless death. He had also given a boy who made irreversible mistakes another chance at life. Whether the boy takes it or not only time will tell. As for the boy’s family, also willing to burrow deeper into the story, they have a chance to create something out of this tragedy that may some day do more good than they know. Much unimagined reclamation, repair, possibilities were emerging out of the simple act of – what do I do next? It feels right.
Was it right? I was asking myself. Was it right for my friend to invite the family of the perpetrator to the memorial at the site of his brother’s death, so fresh, by a tree in the parking lot at the coffee shop where he was run down? This was such a hard question for me at the time, too hard to answer, so I didn’t. I went with my instinct too. If my friend felt it was right, that was good enough for me. I tried to bring my whole heart into the events.
Later I would think through: was it right? I was looking for that answer and I realized that the expectation was wrong. The answer wasn’t clear so I gave up on the notion of answer entirely, and I came to the notion of response.
As a response, my friend’s acts of magnanimity, openness, willingness, largesse of spirit, release of negativity, his unburdening felt like a darn good response to an awful situation. I had entered the realm of responses, good responses, a much more shaded and intuited and gradated realm than the simplified ultimatism of answers.
I learned a story a long time ago from a book of classic stories. I read the story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps, first published in 1957.
One of my favorite stories in that book begins with a man being chased by a tiger. The tiger pursues the man off the edge of a cliff. The man hangs on to a ridge just below the edge. Above him is the tiger, below the rocks and the sea. “What does he do?” the master asks.
The students offer all the standard, that is obvious, answers. He takes his chances with the tiger, he climbs down the cliff, he jumps into the sea, he distracts the tiger, all to which the master shakes his head. Negative.
“He is hanging on a ledge by his fingertips,” the master says. “He looks next to him where a vine is growing out of the rock. On the vine is a strawberry. He picks the strawberry and he eats it.” End of story.
I told this story for years before I understood it myself. At first hearing, it seemed to be about living radically in the present, but that seemed too obvious, and not satisfying to me.
One day I was telling this story and someone in the group interrupted with, “what the heck does that mean!?” I couldn’t answer. After having told the story myself dozens of times, I could not articulate clearly what it meant to me.
I knew the story was powerful for me. I knew it the first time I heard it. I knew it meant something large, but I couldn’t say what it was. The story moved deep inside me and there it lurked for years without definition. Now I wanted it out, I thought about it for weeks, I waited, I wrote about it, and it came.
I will now violate a principle taught to me a long time ago about explaining stories. You can say too much, especially about great stories. The world’s great stories are big enough for people to enter and find their own way around, but I am going to identify some of the ideas that moved me through this story.
Firstly, we are not likely to answer the master’s question because we are inhibited by our own thinking. We have been set up to think about the tiger, the cliff, the sea, etc., but not about vines growing out of the side of the cliff, and surely not about strawberries. We are thinking about the tiger and the sea. There are other possibilities.
Secondly, what the master suggests is not an answer at all, not in the way we are accustomed to thinking about answers anyway, but it is a response. Responses are different from answers. Could it have been another response? It could have been. The problem, of course, in some sense still exists: the tiger above, the sea below. Or does it? Perhaps the problem has been transformed by a response. What the master offers is a response.
There may be no answer. Or: the answer may be so elusive and difficult that we cannot locate it just then. How difficult it is to be moved away from answers and given to responses, how hard to be stripped of solutions and given to strategies, to be led away from arrivals and onto journeys, from “supposed to be” to “what is,” from linear to lateral, from being there to getting there, from goals to process, from answers to darn good responses.
Find your response, the story taught me. Make it a good one. Think differently than you are accustomed to thinking. Make your response informed and careful. It may be exceedingly lateral, that is, not obvious, like learning something new, growing beyond your complacency, something unexpected and challenging. Whatever it is, it is a sacred gift back to the world. And so individual.
Your response may be political, it may be entirely personal, the push beyond the present limits of your self where you used to feel right but no longer. You do not have to do everything, said the master (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16), you only have to do something. A darn good something: your holy response.
Changing the world, one person at a time. When it feels right, good, you just have to move your feet and grow. I understood this from a story about strawberries, from the crucible of life, from the experience with my friend, from a terrible death and its aftermath of grief and recovery, from the poetry of existence–nothing loftier than the stories of our own lives.