We are separated from God. As a consequence, we tell stories – narratives of denial and projection from which a vast and complex world arises, full of misery and woe, spiced with interludes of pleasure. It keeps God distant and mercurial, and obscures our role as makers of hell.
In my early twenties I quit drinking and doing drugs. It was a good decision. I was living a kind of hell – familiar in a family history sort of way but nothing you’d wish on someone you loved. It was die or stop drinking and most days my response to that dilemma was “I’m thinking about it.”
I chain-smoked unfiltered camels and drank cheap coffee twenty hours a day. I walked miles and miles with my head down. I wrote grim poems on scrap paper and threw them away. I didn’t want to be clean and sober and I didn’t want the alternative either.
And I started reading Charles Bukowski poems.
If you know Bukowski, then you know that he is perhaps not the ideal poet for a sensitive young writer who is trying not to kill himself with booze and drugs. I was going crazy in those days anyway and Bukowski didn’t help.
I told a friend about my problem. He was older than me by a decade or so and had worked out his drinking problems. I told him that I cared more about truth and art than anything – even my life. Bukowski suffered to make poetry; who was I to seek something brighter and easier?
My friend shrugged and said, “so don’t read him.”
I remembered that story yesterday. I met my new students and we read a poem by Bukowski – what can we do? It’s a good poem and he’s a good poet. I teach him a lot these days, but in those days he wasn’t helpful.
Until my friend told me that I didn’t have to read Bukowski, I didn’t know I had a choice. We were sitting on a park bench in Burlington, Vermont and the wind was coming off the lake and I felt as if somebody had just thrown open a window that had been closed for decades. I didn’t have to suffer? I could choose something different?
I went to the library that day and found a book called What are People for? by Wendell Berry. That book – and everything else he wrote – held me up for years. The madness of homelessness faded, leaving in its place a yearning to know the the calm quiet and sacred center from which Berry clearly lived and wrote.
The thing is, we always have that choice. This world is a dream of death and evil and hate. But we don’t have to dream it if we don’t want to. Seeing it for what the hell it is, we can simply set it down. We can ask our inner teacher for help in seeing it anew.
When we ask for help, the help is there. It is given.
[U]nless the Holy Spirit gives the dream its function, it was made for hate, and will continue in death’s services. Each form it takes in some way calls for death. And those who serve the lord of death have come to worship in a separated world, each with his tiny spear and rusted sword, to keep his ancient promises to die (T-29.V.7:4-6).
If we are willing to put fear down, then we have put it down, however briefly. And in the interim, the Holy Spirit will transform what was made to keep us broken and lonely into a shared dream of forgiveness. We will no longer see each other as separate bodies with separate interests, as others with whom we are in competition for scarce resources.
We see what is Christ in each other – and so perceive it in ourselves – and are moved then to service and kindness and happiness.
When dreams are shared they lose the function of attack and separation, even though it was for this that every dream was made. Yet nothing in the world of dreams remains without the hope of change and betterment, for here is not where changelessness is found. Let us be glad indeed that this is so, and seek not the eternal in this world (T-29.V.8:2-4).
Looking back on that park bench a quarter century past, I doubt my friend practiced A Course in Miracles. I doubt that was a religious moment at all for him. But he cared about me – I have never for a moment doubted that – and in his caring, his love, it was given him to say precisely what I needed to hear. He saved me that day, surely.
I am saying that this business about being each other’s savior doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be attended by angels and the Hallelujah chorus. It’s mostly just a question of seeing what doesn’t work and being willing to give Jesus or the Holy Spirit a shot at running the show. Saint Augustine said “love and do what you will.”
Bukowski saw the problem clearly – that we are dead and doomed in this world and need a way out, a path home. And for all his rough and bruising exterior – and even if he did not himself find the way – he knew that there was a way. There was always hope.
I have not escaped
but I have not failed in trying again and
before my death I hope to obtain my
Keep it simple and keep it kind. If it’s not working, put it aside. Never forget that we aren’t doing this alone. Kindness is always possible.
Forgiving dreams are means to step aside from dreaming of a world outside yourself. And leading finally beyond all dreams, unto the peace of everlasting life (T-29.V.8:5-6).