Several years ago, I spent two months living in the guest house of a Trappist monastery.Visitors from many parts of the world would pass through, spend of a few days, have meals together at a common table, and pass on. I met a lot of interesting people.
One day an elderly couple passed through. They had retired twenty years earlier, travelled the earth, and seen many of the world’s greatest sites. They were describing all of this when someone asked them: “Of all the things you’ve seen on earth what, singularly, was the most impressive?”
The husband answered: “This will sound strange, but it’s true! Of all the things we’ve seen, what impressed me the most was the stones on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They’re only stones! But, as we were standing on the floor of the Grand Canyon, I was reading the tourist brochure and it said: ‘The stones you are standing on are 2 billion years old.’ Two billion years! When I think of my life in relationship to that, it isn’t even as long as a snap of my fingers. I believe in eternal life and so two billion years from now we are all going to still be alive. Putting life against that background kind of puts us into perspective now, doesn’t it?”
It certainly does … and how badly we need that! The pains, tensions, and preoccupations of daily life habitually pin us obsessively into the here and now, making it almost impossible to think of life beyond our present problems and concerns. Our hearts, bodies, and heads ache, and the pressures and tensions of our lives simply overwhelm us and we cannot see beyond them. We spend most of our lives pathologically obsessed with our heartaches and headaches and, because of that, chronically depressed.
In terms of an analogy, this might be understood as follows: Imagine a young child breaking her favourite toy. She’s disconsolate. Her mother tries to console her and reassures her that this was only a toy,that she soon will completely forget about it, and, years later, will joke about this incident and find it amusing.
That’s easy for the mother to say. She’s lived long enough to know that time heals, opens up new perspectives, and colours the past in altogether new ways. She knows that life is long, that we outgrow the toys and obsessions of our childhood. From her perspective as an adult she can see how insignificant and transient is this particular experience of loss.But it’s not so easy for the child. In her young mind and heart there is nothing to give perspective beyond the present loss and desolation. She sincerely believes that she will never be happy again, that nothing can heal this hurt.
As we grow from childhood to adulthood, gradually our perspective widens and, from that vantage point, we can look back with calm and amusement on many of the losses and hurts of our childhood (at least at broken toys and fractured emotional crushes!). Within the perspective of a long life, they can appear as incidental, growing pains, amusing.
However, even as we see our childhood losses in this light, the tensions and obsessions of the present moment (fractured relationships, lost innocence, lost youth, lost health, lost limbs, lost jobs, lost honeymoons, lost families, and so on) make us just as disconsolate and narrowly depressed as did the broken toys of our childhood. When we suffer loss, we still believe in all sincerity that nothing will ever really make us happy again.
When this happens, it is hard for God, the great Mother, to console us and to assure us that, within the larger perspective, these heartaches and headaches too will pass and too will be eclipsed by perspectives beyond our present imagination and experience. When we ache inconsolably, it is hard to get through a given day or night … let alone think two billion years down the line! Yet to keep perspective, to keep our hurts from crushing us and our achievements from inflating us, and to keep ourselves from being old and despairing when we are still young and have eternal possibilities, we need to see our lives against this larger horizon. In terms of real life, in God’s eyes, we are all still in eschatological diapers, irrespective of age! We are children, babies really, crying over broken toys.
That’s also true with respect to our moral failures. We are children bumbling selfishly through life, needing to be challenged daily to share our toys with others. God, like any understanding parent, especially as one who has watched so many children grow up (and foul-up!) is, I am sure, doing more amused smiling at our smudged faces and dirty diapers than condemning.
When we live in depression or obsession we have lost perspective.We’ve forgotten how young we are, how understanding God is, and how old are the stones at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.