Last week, we spoke of kindness as an essential quality of a fulfilling life, beginning with kindness to ourselves and extending to those near to us, and even to those we meet only casually or on occasion. It implies both a sense of connection to others, who are somehow kin, as the very word suggests, and a sense of our own and others vulnerability. We referred to the story of The Selfish Giant, which suggests that we must have cracks in the walls we may have built around us. Only then can children–kinder–enter. Only then, that is, can new thoughts, new images, new feelings, new life enter, and bring renewal or springtime to our lives.
Leonard Cohen’s famous line from his song Anthem says: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” It seems that the beauty of his songs is forged in a crucible of sorrow. Perhaps its meaning is that if our sorrows are felt, acknowledged, named, and not inflicted on others, they can be transformed into creativity, compassion, and even gratitude. They can be transformed into a Hallelujah, however cold and lonely its origins.
The Hebrew Song of Songs has this marvellous line, “You have wounded my heart.” The Latin words are “vulnerasti cor meum.”It can be translated, not as an injury inflicted on us, but as an openness that allows another to reach our core. The Latin root of vulnerability, vulnus, means wound, and the word vulnerability literally means able to be wounded, able to be hurt. When we allow cracks in the defensive walls around us, we are open to new life, but also to the possibility being hurt. Acts of kindness, given and received, are cracks in our defensiveness that allow light to enter and shine forth.
When we open ourselves to our own vulnerability, we can allow the light of feeling and understanding to uncover what is within us. The light of compassion is the light that can envelop our feelings and allow us to see these feelings most clearly, even the difficult ones. There is a tendency to judge certain feelings as unacceptable, and either to condemn ourselves for having them or to pretend that they are not there. If we understand that these feeling just are, that they are not a judgment on us, and that we may or may not decide to act upon them, we can approach ourselves with more compassion.
In the experience of grief, for example, surprising feelings, such as anger, may arise and arise unexpectedly. And the message to get over it and get on with our life is often conveyed. To shed the light of compassion on our feelings is to recognize them, without considering them good or bad, to see that they are part of but not all of who we are. We may say, for instance, that we feel angry, rather than we are angry. Sharon Salzberg, writer and meditation teacher, suggests that when we experience feelings that are difficult, we should consider them as visitors, but not give them the run of the house.
Last week, in my final Children’s Literature class, we looked at the wonderfully amusing story, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. It is an excellent example of understanding and responding to feelings. The boy, Max, dresses in a wolf costume and makes lots of mischief. He is called a wild thing and sent to his room without supper. His room is transformed into a wild forest and he sails across to where the wilds things are, tames them, and becomes their king. But then “Max the king of all the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all” He returns to his room and find his supper waiting for him, and it is still warm.
Using food imagery, the story suggests that there are wild things in all of us–our powerful feelings, especially those we have labelled negative–that threaten to swallow us up and carry us away. Yet the wolf costume suggests that, though very real, these are not what is deepest in us. They are part of us, but not all of us. Max stares into the wild things, tames them, and becomes their king. In other words, once we recognize and face these feelings, they lose their hold on us and are contained within us. The end of the story suggests that it is in the context of love that these are best contained. This thought is expressed in the presence of a hot meal. Instead of being devoured by negative feelings, we are able to share a meal in love.
The ability to see requires light; it requires cracks where the light gets in. Many stories contrast the light that sees outwardly and the inner light that sees to the heart of things. It is remarkable that, in Greek mythology, the famous seer, Tiresias, who unveils the truth to Oedipus, is blind. So too is the poet who sings the story of Odysseus’ life in a way that causes his soul to groan. It is only after he becomes blind that Oedipus moves beyond a more surface cleverness to a depth of wisdom that emerges from suffering and flows into love. King Lear as well sees wisely with the eyes of the heart only after he is blinded. Only then does he realize and return the love of his daughter, Cordelia, the whose name means heart.
These stories suggest that the inner light of seeing from and with the heart requires that we move beyond externals, beyond mere looking outside for direction and answers. Rather we need to look within. This is not a matter of probing from without with, as it were, a pair of psychological pliers. Rather it is a matter of allowing cracks in our heart, a matter of allowing what is already within to emerge to the light of awareness–thoughts, feelings, images alike. It is letting our depth of sacredness emerge behind any walls of hurt, fear, or hostility. It is like the still waters that allow the clarity of its depths to be seen.
Our inmost core need not be seen as a blind alley or dead end. Rather it may be understood as the place where we emerge in our uniqueness and sacredness from the universe and whatever is within, behind and beyond the universe. It is the thrust that impels us to unfold, to grow, and to flower in wisdom and compassion. Certainly the cracks of openness that allow light to flow in and out are also cracks of vulnerability where wounds are possible. Yet is seems that, unless the hurt is totally overwhelming, our sorrows may be transformed into pathways to en-lighten-ment. They can be cracks that allow more light for ourselves and others.
May allow the sorrows and joys you experience allow more light of worth and purpose, of hope and love, to shine in your own life and reflect warmly on others who share our own life in ways large or small.
Norman King, November 28, 2022