The Supermarket Effect

part of the butcher's job  L1052659

(Photo credit: Susan NYC)

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to really see other people in a supermarket?

It’s a weird little truth about human nature: we’re all still hunter-gatherers, there in the supermarket. Our higher cognitive processes break down when we walk through the automatic doors and grab a cart; it’s instant reptile brain. We have a list and a budget and no time to waste. Our eyes focus on the shiny, colorful shelves, searching for glimmers of what will bring us life.

We do that, and we miss the crazy diversity of life at this watering hole. We miss the single dad with three kids, pondering whether to buy the cheap or the healthy peanut butter while his progeny sneak boxes of Lucky Charms into the cart. We miss the older couple holding hands in the cat food aisle, the woman with swaying dreads whose cart blooms with produce, the man in the apron arranging pears and dreaming of being the next Cezanne.

We don’t see them as people anymore. We see them as traffic.

Don’t believe me? Try it. Even if you manage to notice others, obstructing the main aisle as you stop and stare, the next level is still a challenge: try making eye contact. I’ve found, eerily, that it does not work the great majority of the time, so well have we trained ourselves to ignore each other.

And the supermarket effect goes on and on, our half-willful forgetting of other people. I, as a pedestrian, forget there are people in those giant hunks of metal I’m trying to avoid. My survival mind refuses to acknowledge there’s at least one irreplaceable life inside each. I am quick to judge people for who they are now, right this moment, inexplicably forgetting they grew out of innocent children and will too soon return to the earth.

We live contentedly on a thin crust of soil and forget what a little distance separates us from simmering metal, from icy, airless space, from the untouched depths of the sea.

We go to the store to get what we think we need, but neglect our hunger for mystery. No, we don’t neglect it: we don’t even know it. How can we be so divorced from our deepest selves? Why do we keep eating what just makes us hungrier, all the while stifling our appetite for meaning and connection?

Reader, I don’t want you to go through life hungry. I want to feed you bites of the story that’s filled me, take a taste of yours. Thank God, I don’t have to hunt (yet) for food, and you are not my competitor. We both have life to share. Let’s let our eyes meet, and look, and smile. It’s free. And for a moment, in the middle of this world for sale, so are we.

Has a connection with a stranger fed your soul lately? How do you pay attention and respect to individuals in supermarkets or other impersonal places?


Double Victory

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon for Peace,” Dec 24, 1967

This is my favorite quote by the man whose life we celebrate today. When I reflect on it, two questions come to mind: How can anyone actually live this way? and How can there be any other way to actually live?

On the face of it, this is a crazy thing to say, isn’t it? Forget for a moment that this guy has a holiday named after him. Forget that he’s now almost universally respected and honored. Pretend you’re in his audience, and you live every day under the shadow of hatred, violence, even death, and he’s telling you to defeat your enemies by soaking up their hatred like a sponge, absorbing their blows, and wishing them life even as they plot your doom. He’s telling you that these people who spit on your children have hearts and consciences and deserve to be saved from the consequences of their own evil actions, and that someday, you and your oppressors will celebrate your mutual freedom in a double victory.

I wonder how many people in that room wanted to shout “Yeah, right” instead of “Amen”?

This is what Jesus’s disciples used to call a hard teaching. This is Sermon on the Mount hard. This is “be perfect like your Heavenly Father is perfect” hard. Oh wait, that’s because they’re the same. And delivered in similarly tense and very often violent circumstances, I might add.

I mean, who wants to wear others down by their capacity to suffer? That doesn’t seem like a fun way to spend your day, much less the rest of your life. What if they never learn? What if it doesn’t work? What if it’s all a waste? It feels much more satisfying, appropriate even, to hate your enemies and wish their demise.

We do this every day in the subtlest of ways. We do it on Facebook, when we throw around insults like “baby killers” and “bigots.” We do it in person, when a certain tone of contempt creeps in when we say perfectly normal descriptive words like “Republicans” or “Mormons.” We do it in our minds when we walk past a person on the street inwardly sneering, Put some clothes on, or Get a job, or Why do those people have so many children? We do it when we nurse our hatred toward the ones we’re tied to by blood or years: She’ll never change. Why doesn’t he apologize first?

What we’re really doing when we do that, me and you, is giving a tiny push to the wheel of pain. We’re saying We deserve to win and They deserve to lose, and there’s no such thing as a double victory.

How can it be that, forty years later, we Americans have forgotten the way love can start to change the fabric of an entire society?

How can it be that, two thousand years later, we Christians have forgotten that when Jesus was getting arrested for no reason, not only did he not let his disciples attack his captors, but he actually healed an enemy one of his friends had just wounded? That he calls us to follow him on the peaceful, painful way of the Cross?

I pray we’ll grow into this hard teaching, that it will work its way slowly into our thick skulls. Thank God that God is both loving and patient. As a wise man once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Geography, Love, Migration, and Mystery


I want to love you Midwestern,
prosaic, every goddamn morning
with your coffee and toast.
In blizzards, across cornfields,
like my great-great-grandmother
filling up the empty prairie.

Oh, to love you Northwestern,
through cold and damp with our socks on,
rocking the whole Pacific Ocean.
In a tree or a library,
feet planted on the San Andreas Fault
daring the world to wake up and break.

I want to love you all Southern,
slow and sticky with cups of sweet tea,
in every greasy spoon on the highway.
I want to love you deserted,
living on cacti and canteen water,
watching the sun fall out of the sky.

I want to love you long-distance,
with postcards, the faintest of phone calls,
hoarding the scent of your skin on my sweater.
I’d love you lost, finding my way
by the stars and the moss.

But you want me to love you nowhere.
You drive me from this lonely country.
I seek your equal on Mars, in Heaven,
at the bottom of bottles, in other people’s mouths.
Without you with me, the world may do its best
but it is not my permanent address.
It may be holy, but it is not home.

* * * * *

I wrote the poem above exactly six years ago, as luck would have it, on a sunny Sunday between chores and cooking brunch, with the Minnesota sun making the snow dazzle. My college years are chronicled in quite a few poems, and most echo this one with themes of loneliness, of searching. “This is the time of migration,” begins another, “of always being halfway home.” Having moved to the snowy Midwest from the desert, flying south in the winter for Christmas, I did start to feel like a migratory bird. In my free time I rambled from one coast to another, even continent-hopped, but I desperately wanted a place to weight me down, a place to put in bookshelves and settle down, but even more, a person with whom to weather the years.

I sent this poem to a good friend of mine shortly after I wrote it. “I like it,” she wrote back. “Is it about God?”

“No,” I replied, frustrated and amused in equal parts that she could misunderstand such a simple thing. As far as I was concerned, this poem was about nothing more than my train-hopping heart, searching and searching for a person who could love me, a person I was not sure existed.

That good friend turned out to herself be the love of my life, which is a different story. She was right about the poem, as she’s been about many things since. Aside from my feelings of romantic hopelessness, it turned out to also be about God.

Jesus asked his would-be students to follow him, not merely to sit at his feet and learn from him, but to follow him. They were on the move to a mysterious place called the Kingdom of God, which existed among them and yet was not a physical place as they could comprehend it. I was right all along to feel like a nomad, a migratory bird, when none of this was ever meant to satisfy me. This world is holy, but it is not my home. Not that I’m waiting for death to transport me to some alien world where I’ll instantly know how to play a harp.  The Kingdom of God is among us, although it hasn’t completely catalyzed just yet, and there are glimpses of the eternal in the temporal, in sharing bread with friends, in lifting our eyes to the stars.

My poems used to be my prayers, prayers that God would satisfy me, take away my hunger for love forever. Now I pray God will increase my hunger, give me more questions without answers, show me more things I don’t yet understand. As theologian and mensch Karl Rahner said it, “Mystery is not merely a way of saying that reason has not yet completed its victory. It is the goal where reason arrives when it attains its perfection by becoming love.” As I say it, in my mortal life, with my puny understanding, I’m not meant to truly come home, but I am meant to enjoy the wild road trip I’m on, unsure of the detours I’ll take tomorrow, but sure that mystery will keep unfolding with every sunrise.

Embrace 2013

embrace imperfection

(Photo credit: lonely radio)

A head cold. Working overtime taking calls from cranky customers in a windowless cubicle world. Discouragement, stress, the gray raininess of winter. All these things have smudged the first white page of this new year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to paint a picture of tragedy. I know full well I am and always will be one of the lucky ones, globally speaking: life full of literacy and opportunity, food and clean water practically jumping down my throat. An embarrassment of riches. But sometimes it’s the inside of me that feels poor, gray, windowless. It’s my reactions to things that get me down, the same petty problems over and over, caught in the wheel of self-made suffering. My friend Joel thinks the little things are harder than the big things sometimes, and I think he’s right.

I’ve always found refuge in words, so of course I’ve been wondering which word to scrawl over this year. And the one that keeps rising to the surface of my mind is: embrace. I need to embrace all of this, gray walks to cubicle world with a cold and all, every moment of my only life. I need to look past the dirt of the glass and glimpse the truth of the matter.

This year, I want to embrace my relationship in a new way. Several years into what is, God willing, a lifelong love, it’s eerily easy to become the one half-listening from behind the laptop screen.  Surrounded by the stresses of our daily lives, it’s easy to forget the joy all the mundane moments build toward. I want us to be the great Love writ small. I want to do her good and not evil all the days of our lives. I want to pour my life out in moments of serving, healing, listening, celebrating.

This year, I want to embrace my church in a new way. Several years into the adventure of living in the same congregation, it’s too easy to take for granted the fact that I have a home. It’s too easy to think I know every person, every tradition, and every song. I want to show up, sing loud, take risks, talk to strangers, ask nosy questions, and savor each moment of the wonderful worshiping community into which I luckily stumbled about this time in 2009.

This year, I want to embrace my friendships in a new way. Several years out of college, it’s too easy to forget how bad I am at keeping touch with faraway friends until I’m writing them a holiday card and suddenly wonder whether we’ve even exchanged emails since I sent the last one. My loved ones are scattered throughout the world like dandelion seeds, and while sometimes this makes me feel wonderfully rich, I don’t want to assume I can always pick up where I left off. That’s part of why I write this blog: to take what I generally keep locked away in my head and my heart and unleash it on the world. I want you to know me, really know what’s important to me, and I want to know you in the same way.

And this year, I want to embrace suffering in a new way. Perhaps that sounds a little morbid to you, like I’m one of those masochistic Christians, like the Catholic Guilt Monster is lurking just around the corner. Not so. It’s just that, as the Buddhists so succinctly put it, life is suffering. Even when it’s not That Day that the earthquake comes or someone you love dies, there’s a lot of painful stuff around us all the time, and we cannot participate in life without choosing either to touch it or to ignore it. Even if we don’t watch the news, there are people around us who are drowning in their pain or trying to drown it out.

Henri Nouwen said, “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” No kidding. I want to embrace others in their suffering, and (what is often harder for me) let them embrace me in mine.

So here’s to embracing it all in 2013, not in a perfunctory or awkward way, but with sensitivity and wholehearted care. Whether sweet or bitter, I want to drink this cup to the very last drop.

What words are calling to you this year? What do you hope to embrace in 2013?

I’ve Already Broken All My Resolutions

night sky

(Photo credit: Dave Young)

First day of a new year and I woke up too late, spent a lot of my day cleaning up literal and figurative messes I can’t blame on anyone but myself, whined to my partner, made a dinner that wasn’t worth the effort, screwed up some other things that aren’t worth going into right now, cried, and now, look, I’ve stayed up too late.

I give up on all those wonderful resolutions I made yesterday (well, technically the day before yesterday now). I’ve already broken all of them. I love making resolutions; I love self-improvement, checking off boxes, feeling accomplished. But it’s all vanity. I know me. I do self-destructive things, stupid, disgusting things. I return to my vices like a dog returning to its own vomit. I neglect all the best things, choose sleep over sunrise, a wooden idol over a living God. The wildly beautiful universe calls my name, and I’m holed up in the windowless room of my ego, throwing a tantrum.

I hereby give up trying to pretend I’m so great and if I just follow the instructions everything will be okay.

But the thing is, that admission makes the weight on my shoulders lift. It’s only when I realize the limitations of my own power that I can look to a higher one. When I admit I hate my dingy ego-room, I can fling the door open and run into the arms of the sea and the stars. When I stop trying to examine my soul for perfection, I can see the beauty all around me.

So here’s to admitting I have no one to be but who I truly am. Nothing to do but glory in the Good. Nowhere to go on my own, but every hope that I can follow my Teacher’s footsteps to freedom.

Bring it on, 2013. If you need me, I’ll be out trying to get his dust on me.