I am hearing an observation and a question repeatedly these days–in the media, in interviews, in podcasts and articles. It goes something like this: when bad things happen, human beings demonstrate some of the most heroic acts of compassion. All divisions–political, economic, racial/ethnic, language, gender and religious–seem to disappear. And then the question: Do we (human beings) require a crisis in order to transcend the things that divide us, the things that bring out the worst in us?
Something about an earthquake, a series of tornadoes (which are as I write this doing their damage in our midwest), the arrival of a hurricane or tropical storm (which are doing their damage on our east coast as I write this), flooding and blizzards seem to snap us out of our small minds and into some clarity that we belong to a tribe that is one, the tribe of all beings.
As I pondered these observations and questions and what they might mean, a line from Mary Oliver kept coming to mind:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?*
It seems an inquiry into an individual’s life and on some level, it is. It is also the last line of the poem, a poem in which Oliver explores the wonders of a summer day: who made it all, the bear, the swan, the grasshopper . . . She observes this little grasshopper in great detail, and then she tell us that while she doesn’t really know what prayer is, she does know how to pay attention to what is right in front of her, and the implication is that doing so is her reason for being. Then the question: tell me, what is it you pla to do with your one wild and precious life?
Crises force us to pay attention. Oliver reminds us that we can also choose to pay attention. We can practice attention, and when we do, the extraordinary acts of heroism, compassion, salvation and safeguarding of life begin to become ordinary.
*”The Summer Day” published in The House of Light