We’re Crashing Into Each Other

We’re Crashing Into Each Other

Stuart Higginbotham

Just the other day, I was driving to the office in my new little hybrid car when I stopped in road construction some three miles from our house. I was singing my heart out with Christmas carols (Mariah Carey, but don’t tell anyone), when a large truck suddenly crashed into the back of my car. It knocked me over to the left and sloshed the tea out of the cup in the console into my lap. I managed to slowly drive over past the construction cones, put on my hazard lights, and stop the car. I vividly remember thinking to myself, “Well, this has happened.”

When I stepped out wearing my clerical collar, the younger man who had hit me took one look and said “Oh, are you ok?” I smiled. I smiled and told him that I was fine and asked how he was. Aware that my legs were cold, I told him that I had not peed myself; tea had sloshed over onto my lap. One has an image to uphold, right? He was ok, and I told him that this was a terrible way to start a day, but I was grateful that we were alright. He smiled. 

He called the police while I sent a text to my wife and some of my staff colleagues, letting them know I was fine but would be delayed for a while. I had been diverted from my usual path to church, and I wasn’t sure I would make it in time for the noon Eucharist.

Thankfully, I was able to drive the car just fine, and when the officer released me, I took it to the repair place we knew. When I went to the desk with the information, the kind lady at the desk told me simply that they would not be able to get me in until February 10. Thinking she had toggled over two many times on her desk calendar, I asked again. It turns out that they were completely full for over two months. 

I was confused and had the chance to ask the estimator (yes, that is his official title which intrigued me) what he would recommend, and he thought I should call the young man’s insurance and get their recommendation.  The result was that, after a few more calls to other shops, I ended up at a body shop near our house with a plan to bring my car back on January 10. 

The owner of the shop came out to look at the car, and I asked him what was causing every repair shop to be so full. “I guess you have such a struggle with supply chains right now,” I asked him. 

He looked me in the eyes and said, “Oh no. This has nothing to do with supply chains. The delay is because of people. I have done this for fifteen years, and I have never seen people acting the way they do. Everyone is crashing into one another, and they are angry and distracted. It’s awful.”

I took a deep breath, thanked him for his time, made the appointment to return on January 10 with my car, and told him that the sermons just write themselves these days. 

People are crashing into each other. 

I dread turning on the news these days, even as I know I need to be aware of what is happening in the world in which I live and within which I am interconnected with all life. A couple days after the car crash, I was talking with my dear friend Justin, and we ended up reflecting on the teachings of prititya-samutpada, which in Buddhist philosophy can be understood as “dependent arising,” and which in Christian practice we perhaps see in Jesus’s teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves. Within life, we are called to recognize the reality of our connection with one another. We are called to live out of this awareness, letting the truth of it shape the way we live in the world. 

I remembered how years ago I read one of Roberta Bondi’s fantastic books on the desert mothers and fathers where she taught about Dorotheos of Gaza’s image of the wheel whose spokes are each of our lives. In a Christian image, Dorotheos imagined how each spoke extends to the wheel’s edge while also being connected to the center, the Source of our existence. The Source, the reality of wisdom and truth, unites us all to one another, and as we grow closer to the Source we realize how we are growing closer to one another–and vice versa. The distance between us persons diminishes as we grow closer to the Source that unites us.  

The wisdom that we are all connected challenges so much of how our world seems to work today. Things feel askew, shaken, breaking, crumbling. People are crashing into each other. So much of our culture seems to reinforce a zero-sum mentality with various interest groups pitted against one another. It feels like politics has been reduced to a cynical exercise in leveraging one anxiety against another with the aim that any one person can reach a critical mass that will enable them to retain power. 

Now is the time for a deeper reflection on the wisdom of interconnectedness.

While I am no expert in Buddhist philosophy, what study I have done reminds me of how the insight of prititya-samutpada challenges me to ask what is coming into being at this moment in my life–in every moment of our shared life. What are the conditions that are being nurtured at this moment? Put another way, when I become aware that life feels like it is crumbling at the moment, how do I respond? What intention do I cultivate out of that awareness? So, I ask myself what is actually crumbling, what is broken, and what may be coming to new life. Christians, of course, should see the essential pattern of death and resurrection here and that should give enormous hope.  

Interestingly, I was also recently reading Andrew Harvey’s travel journal A Journey in Ladakh. He describes the way that, in Buddhism, the practice of tantra offers enormous potential to work with our present circumstances in order to cultivate awareness and compassion.  One doesn’t experience healing by circumventing; one nurtures transformation by going through, so to speak.  Christians, of course, should be able to see the wisdom of the Incarnation here and how God entered (and continues to enter) into created reality, challenging us to see, as others have said, that “matter matters.” Harvey’s words are helpful to me:

The Tantric way is harder and demands a greater purity and fearlessness. It is harder to love the world than to leave it; it is harder to accept with joy and gratitude than to renounce; it is harder to work with our emotions of greed and desire and anger, to face them and transform them slowly into loving power, than it is to cut them off, to deny them. And because it is harder the rewards are greater. The Tantric Way is one of discipline without dogma, renunciation without contempt (Harvey, 160).

People are crashing into each other. Life is painful at the moment. We are confused and angry and fearful. And, we are aware of this and can work with it, so to speak. Perhaps our willingness is key here, a willingness to admit that we are here and that where we are is not where we want to be. Then, our desire for healing and wholeness can be the seed within our hearts that begins to take root even more. 

Later in his book, Harvey describes how Drukchen Rinpoche quotes Milarepa, the great 11th century Buddhist sage in his teaching to “contemplate all energies without fear or disgust; find their essence, for that is the stone that turns everything to gold” (Harvey, 219). In other words, pay attention to where you are in the moment and reflect on that awareness with a desire for compassion in this world. What energies are you experiencing these days, and what energies do you want to nurture, enhance, and cultivate? Then, what practices can you do that will nurture those compassionate energies, so that we can all, perhaps, stop crashing into one another and live together in a greater alignment? How can we kindle the flames of compassion so that light shines in the darkness?

Here, I think of Symeon the New Theologian, the great Byzantine mystic whose earthly life ended just as Milarepa’s began. He challenges us to be light-bearers in the world so that our presence promotes the union that lies at the heart of all existence. Symeon had a radical vision of participating in the Divine Light to such a degree that, for him, we become the Light we give ourselves to. We are called to share in the light at the heart of reality. In his great Hymns of Divine Life, he states,

That You are, we can know it and Your light, we see it,

But what You are and of what kind, we are all ignorant of it.

Nevertheless we have the hope, we possess the faith

and we know the love that You gave us,

boundless, indescribable, which nothing can contain,

which is light, inaccessible light, light which operates everything.

This light we name Your hand, we call it Your eye

Your most holy mouth, Your power, Your glory.

We recognize Your face in it, more beautiful than everything (Hymn 18).

So, we find ourselves here, at this crucial moment. There is so much defensiveness, anxiety, anger, and fear. Mostly fear, I think, fear of feeling that life has gone off the rails. At such a time as this, let us reaffirm the absolute centrality of our practice of prayer that dares to see where we are and commits to an intention of compassion and healing.

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