Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.
--Rain and the Rhinoceros, Thomas Merton
Sometimes, when I walk down the street in New York City, I am overwhelmed by sorrow. All I seem to see in the faces around me is pain. And as I walk by the people all around me, I am just smote with sorrow for them. I'm not sure how this started, as usually when I walk by people, I am struck by their beauty.
But for some reason, in New York, people bring me pain.
One day, last week, I watched Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The violence was surely gratuitous, but in addition to the overwhelming sight of blood and guns and violence, a strange sadism pervaded the film. Particularly the climax of Vince's death in the pawn shop. The camera watched this men bound and gagged with a lascivious eye. The violence felt beyond indulgent and, frankly, pornographic.
Violence seems to us to be a part of our daily milieu. Not only does it pervade our television and movies, but stories of real-world violence fill our newspapers and inboxes. There are refugees dying, there is a morass of civil wars in the Middle East, there are stories of gun violence, murders, protests, riots, suicides all around us.
In some ways, we think that we are used to violence. We imagine we are desensitized to it. But really, we are not. We live our lives in the perfect happiness of safety and security. I do not walk around the streets anticipating the sort of violence that Pulp Fiction narrates. That sort of violence is foreign to me. I implicitly trust the people all around me on the street to not to tear me to shreds.
I am saddened by injustice.
There are sometimes when I am riding the subway, and I keep my head down, looking into my book. I am not reading, the words are disappearing behind a thin glassy layer of tears. I look down so that the man in the tweed coat, riding the rails to 42nd Street Grand Station, where he will hop on the Metro North to Greenwich cannot see the tear that falls and smudges the clean pages of the library book.
I am crying because
of lethal injections
of rude internet comments
of injustice at the hands of the law.
Of the constant victories of lies over the truth.
And I am dismayed. I am dismayed at my own inability to help turn the terrible hurts of the world into goodness.
And I think: I wish that I could just sit in a monastery all day and pray for all the people who need praying for. I wish I could just retreat, and spend all day ministering to the wounds of the world through prayer. I know that there are those whose vocation it is to do that; to pray for all the rest of us, and they do so continuously. And I (senselessly) envy them that.
But that doesn't seem to be quite enough, I think, for me. That is not enough. I cannot simply become a reactionary to the darkness, but it seems essential that part of the mission is to roll back the darkness with light. Not only must I cry for the world, on occasion, and shed tears for men and women's sins and my own, but I must love the world. Embrace it. Live in it. Build something beautiful within it. It is not enough for me to mourn all the sinful brokenness. I must find Joy in the midst of the world. I cannot reject it, run from it--run from the people who inhabit it--I must build beauty and pursue Joy in the world. And this seems to be the greatest challenge: to let the sadness of the world not overwhelm me, but inspire me towards greater joy.