Mystics live in a world that contains more dimensions than the ones we talk about in geometry. Along with the practical world – the world of edges and measurements and truths we can prove in a petri dish or double blind study – there are less tangible layers all around us. One of these is the layer of Myth – the overarching story unfolding right now that all of us are part of.
At this moment, my country is reeling from yet more mass shootings. A horrific earthquake in Turkey and Syria has caused unimaginable suffering and death. A violent war of aggression continues to unfold in Ukraine. Our planet’s climate change red flags grow ever larger, and political powers continue to be unmoved by the toll already being exacted, much less the toll to come. At last count, 37.9 million people live below the poverty line in the United States. For those of us who are above that line, the vast majority inhabit a reality where one missed paycheck could see us on the streets. Wealth continues to accumulate among the top 1% of the population and getting ahead and providing for our families grows ever more challenging. There’s a reason the birth rate here is plummeting so fast – no one wants to face a situation where they can’t afford to feed or care for the health of their beloved child.
It’s…bad. And some of my people have begun to come to me with their faith and connection in tatters. How do we navigate the shadows of this world, the ever-present threat of being the next victim of random gun violence, the obstacles stacking against us in ever higher and heavier falling towers, and still hold on to something good?
I hadn’t even really thought through my own understanding of what’s happening until I began to explain it to a friend recently. You see, the larger tides that humanity experiences are part of a reality that is best understood through myth. We are watching a Great War unfold right now, in real time, reported by the 24 hour news cycle in stunning, graphic detail.
This war is not between countries, or political parties (although they are influenced by it). Its boundaries are not held by geography or even culture. Even the names for the two sides of this war are a bit misty and confusing. The pattern is clear, though: this is a battlefield. And if we haven’t joined or been drafted, we will be the victims of the power struggle.
On one side is Pain. I hesitate to call this side chaos simply because chaos is more random than what we are seeing. Pain lashes out. In its agony, it causes destruction. The wounded animal in the trap bites all who come near it, whether they intend help or harm. No one who picks up a gun to solve a problem is in a healthy, emotionally balanced place. Every single time we learn about the newest mass shooter, we learn they are in agony: their fear and need saw them radicalized, they are off their meds, they are victims of abuse, they are desperate and angry, and so many more shadowy situations. This is Pain walking among us. Pain screaming for anything to stop the hurting. Pain lashing out in the misguided belief that externalizing the hurt will bring relief.
The seedlings of Pain began to grow when I was a little girl. The systems that once kept people from falling too far in the United States were systematically gutted. Trickle-up economics began when I was a child, and we are seeing its inevitable conclusion now – a vast majority of people who exist in a place of scarcity, fear, and need. The driving power of greed and the capitalist system that supports it meant warning signs, whether of economics or mental health or physical health or global climate, were ignored in favor of ever-expanding hoards of wealth. So many dragons with their fingers in their ears and visions of gold in their eyes.
Those for whom the system of Pain delivers ever-greater quantities of resources have no reason to wish it to cease. Indeed, there is recent science that indicates once humans have a certain level of resource abundance, their compassion circuits literally shut off. Concentrating wealth into the wealthy was always a bad idea, but we didn’t realize then what that kind of money does to someone’s brain.
There isn’t a good word in English for the other side, but I will try. I think of it as Hope – benevolent life and all of its supports: justice, cooperation, and healing among others. It is the force that rises up out of the earth in springtime, and the force that rises up out of our hearts when we support someone else. It is the attitude of not-harm, and many times of help. I do truly believe that humans are benevolent. We hold doors for each other, help strangers pick up their spilled change, apologize when we bump into someone, make pleasant conversation with the check-out person at the grocery store, and thousands of other small moments of not-harm. We are ultimately a community species. And those of us whose compassion has not been deadened by hoarding resources are able to see both sides of the war – the benevolent Hope and the destructive Pain.
All around us, the army of Hope is fighting: these are the exhausted social workers and health care workers, the folks who staff the local food bank, the dynamic young people carrying the flag of justice into the rooms where our laws are made, the people working to dismantle systems of white supremacy, the people working to dismantle systems that continue to line the pockets of the ultra-wealthy, the environmentalists sounding the alarm and becoming the headache of the multinational corporations destroying our planet, the community leaders and workers trying to get resources to those who need them the most and, of course, the clergy like me who are planting new, different seeds in the dark earth beneath us in the hope that we truly can make this world the garden we know it could be.
It’s a very real war, and for me, understanding what side I’m on helps a lot. It took many years for the battle to become so violent – the little saplings of Pain that grew when I was a little girl are a forest now, and resistant to being cut down. They rain poisoned fruit, and its juices coat our streets. So every day, I pick up my bucket and mop or my axe, depending on the day, and try to help Hope.
Turning the tide in this war means not letting the battle numb you out. It means getting back up again, even if you get knocked down. It means helping in the ways you can – building connections with people who are different than you, showing up and voting for the least-harm candidates, involving yourself in communities who are a helpful influence, making small changes that support the big ones, lifting up the voices who are the cavalry of our army, and, most importantly, continuing to tend to your own reserve of hope: the sure and certain knowledge that good, benevolent things can and do happen, and will happen again.
I know. I’m tired too. I’m afraid for the kids and the world they’re growing up in and the world they will have to mend when we are gone. But I’m not putting down this sword. I’m not putting down this torch. I’m not putting down this collection of seeds for the garden I know we can grow. I do my best to serve Hope. One of the phrases in one of the many books I read while training as a Lay Minister stayed with me: “make your life a blessing.” I am trying to follow that directive.
I still have my own hope. I still have everyone else fighting on the side of Hope. I believe. And so I will serve, even if I do so till my dying breath.
“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts – to bless, to protest, and to repair. Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when – even as shared aspiration – it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.'” – A House for Hope – The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century
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