Thursday, November 22, 2018

Back from the Future - A Thanksgiving Day Reflection

Traditionally on this blog I repost the same essay each year on Thanksgiving.  I continue to get positive feedback on it and I am very grateful for everyone's kind words.

This year I thought I would do something a little different and share with you something a little person and a little strange.  Bear with me as I walk you through a mental habit I have acquired over the years.  I don't necessarily recommend it.  Perhaps its overall tone is too dark for you.  But I have found that it is a reflection that has born good fruit in my life. 

There is a quote attributed to the Buddhist Ajahn Chah which reads: “Do you see this glass?  I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

This is perfectly in line with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence: the belief that everything in this material world is going away.  This world can be so lovely and there are so many people and things to love in it.  But this world can also be so cruel and it can take all of those people and things from our lives.  

As I've gotten older I've found that I have become more, not less attached to this world.  Perhaps this is a spiritual failing on my part.  I don't mean that I have become consumed by greed or lavish wealth, although the material comforts of life have become more appealing.  What I mean is that when I come to realize my affections for something, I have this horrible desire to hold onto it tightly and not have it leave my life.

I am a collector.  Right now I am sitting in my makeshift library surrounded by not only hundreds of books but also hundreds of DC Comics action figures organized all over my shelves.  Hal Jordan is pointing his ring right at me while Barry Allen runs on his cosmic treadmill.  Sometimes I will have my nieces and nephew over or my friends and their children.  I give them free reign to play with any of my collectibles.  I do this understanding that children are prone to breaking things.  I accept things will be lost and destroyed, although I have been pleasantly surprised by how little damage has been done.  This is in no small part to their parents' careful attention.

But when something does break, there is a part of me that hurts a little.  Most things can be repaired, but there is a tiny loss.  I know that these are small things, but they reflect the same attitude I have regarding large ones too.  

I loved my first car.  I had essentially lived in it when I was at college.  As a commuter, I would sometimes have long hours between classes.  The back seats folded into a bed and I would take naps in there while staring at the ceiling that I decorated with colorful pictures.  When it was time to give the car away, even though I was upgrading, I was filled with a strong sense of sadness.  I was losing something which had been a big part of my life.  It was just metal and upholstery, but I couldn't help how I felt.

And this story repeats over and over again throughout my life: affection followed by loss.  The only way to avoid the sense of loss, it seemed, was to withhold my affection.  Yet it seemed wrong not to open my heart to these things.  Again, these are only things, but it seems somehow wrong to not enjoy them.  But the more they are enjoyed, the greater the loss when they go away.

I thought about the above quote from Chah.  To think of the things as already broken seemed a little too dark.  To imagine these things cracked and crumbled in their present state seemed to put too much of a pallor over them.  And yet that is where they are destined to go at some future state.  And that is where my mind wandered: to this future state.

At some point in the future all the material things will be broken.  This is a certain truth.  What I could do in my imagination was go to this future and get a sense of that brokenness.  Then I could return to the present and see the thing in its present state.  This would put a concrete sense in my mind of how precious the time is and how I should cherish it.  

When I was a kid, I had a plastic Luke Skywalker lightsaber that would make sounds as the air passed through it while playing.  It has been broken and lost for a long time.  When I think about it, there is a small sense of sadness.  Part of me wishes I could go back in time, just for a moment, and hold it again.  My wife bought me a Master Replicas Luke Skywalker lightsaber.  It is one of my favorite possessions.  But I know that I cannot hold it forever.  One day it will break.  So sometimes when I have it, I close my eyes and I imagine some future date at which it is broken.  I then get in touch with that feeling of loss and the deep desire to go back in time, just once, to hold it again.  I then open my eyes and I am holding it and am filled with a deep sense of gratitude.

We are surrounded by so many blessings.  And yet I often forget to be grateful.  The old saying that you don't appreciate something until it is gone still rings true.  By doing this little reflection and imagining that it is gone, you can increase your appreciation of the thing in the here and now.

And this does not have to be only for material things.  

When I was in the hospital and couldn't walk, I felt so lost and helpless.  By God's grace I have made a full recovery.  And yet I know that time, age, and injury could steal away my mobility again.  Sometimes when I am doing simple chores around the house or walking down the long hallways at school, I close my eyes and take a moment and imagine some future date where I will be back in a wheelchair.  In that moment a feel the sorrow over the loss of my mobility and I feel the wish to go back in time just once and experience what it was like to walk again.  And then I open my eyes and am filled with gratitude that I am upright and walking with ease.

Time will take even more from us.

When I was babysitting my nieces and nephew over the course of several days I was exhausted.  Not having children of our own, the overwhelming time commitment hit my wife and I hard.  There were times all I wanted to do was crash on the couch.  But then my niece or nephew would ask to play a game with me.  As tired as I was, I would take a moment and close my eyes.  I imagined a future, not too distant I am sure, where they will be too cool to play with their uncle.  They will be more interested in hanging out with their friends and then they will be gone and grown with families of their own.  I feel how much I missed being with them as children and I wish I could go back just one more time and play one more game with them.  And then I open my eyes and I am filled with gratitude that I get to play their games.

Last year my mom got sick.  We thought she was getting better, but then she went back to the hospital and began her month-long decline towards the end.  I will never forget looking at her there in the hospital.  Her eyes were a little glassy, not with unconsciousness but with sadness and depression.  She was never going to get out of the hospital.  She would sit there so silent, so lifeless, just numbly watching TV.  We'd ask her questions and she would often just answer with a limp shrug.  It was hard to be there with her sometimes, to see her suffer in body and spirit like that.   

But then I closed my eyes and imagined the not too distant future when I would be sitting there at the funeral home looking at the casket as the closed it one last time.  It would be the last time I would ever see her face.  I was filled with an overwhelming, choking sense of loss.  I felt so deeply that I wished I could have one chance, just one chance to go back and tell her how much I loved her.

And then I opened my eyes and I was filled with gratitude that she was still here.  I held her hand and with tears streaming down my face I told her how much I loved her.  I told her I was sorry for everything I ever did that ever upset her.  I told her that I have a great life because of her.  I told her that if by God's grace I help people know the Lord and put them on the path of salvation, then it is only because she put me on that path.  All of the good things I've done in my life I owe to her for giving me life.  I told her how grateful I was to be her son.  I told her how grateful I was to be with her now.

Even now just writing that last paragraph, that moment hits me hard.  And when the time came soon after where they closed the casket for the last time I wished I could go back and have one chance, just one chance to go back and tell her all of those things again.

But I can't.  

Real time allows for no do overs.  The only time we get them is in our imagination.

As I said, this reflection may not suit your personality and is perhaps too dark.  But if you want to give it a try...

This Thanksgiving, if you are having a bad day with the kids or at work or with your spouse or in your broken down car, then close your eyes and imagine a time in the future when you will no longer have around you the kids, the job, your spouse, or that broken down car.  Let that unpleasant loss touch your heart for as long as you can stand it.  And feel yourself wish for one chance, just one chance to go back and enjoy those kids, that job, your spouse, and that wonderful broken down car.  

And maybe, just maybe you will feel a renewed sense of gratitude when you open your eyes and come back from the future.

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