In 1819, a blind soldier named James Holman, was invalided out of the British Navy.
His reaction? He promptly set out to “see” the world.
He traveled alone, except for one brief stint with a deaf man. James spoke none of the languages he encountered, and moved about by public transit. When he returned to England, he published several travel books about his adventures. He wrote that he “rarely felt he missed anything because of his blindness.”
When people would notice his condition, they would invite him to “squeeze things,” as a way of perceiving them.
“And this is what the contemporary travel writer may have to do,” wrote Anatole Broyard in his essay about Holman. “He may have to squeeze places until they yield something, anything.”
Yes. I want to “see.” I want to squeeze every bit of life. This life.
To be engaged. To partake. To be present. Even with the gloomy and unsettling bits that differ from the hand I (or we) “should” have been dealt.
It’s just that there is any number of reasons not to squeeze life. Or, at the very least, to wait… for the right moment, day, person, circumstance, you name it. What we fail to recognize is that our reluctance (from all manner of disconnection) literally shuts us down, and in the end, truly blinds us. And only serves to flip life on its head. As a result, it is no wonder we feel hemmed in, overwhelmed or something akin to spinning out of control.
Speaking of spinning out of control. In the 1950s, a few highly trained US Air Force Pilots were recruited for a life or death mission: to fly at altitudes higher than ever before attempted. Ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer existed. Tom Wolfe writes that, “a plane could skid into a flat spin like a cereal bowl on a waxed Formica counter, and then start tumbling—not spinning and diving but tumbling end over end.” (The Right Stuff)
In the first attempts, pilots responded instinctively, frantically working to stabilize their planes. They applied corrective measure after corrective measure. And yet, the more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the ride became. Until pilot Chuck Yeager; who, from the tumbling is thrown against the cockpit and briefly knocked unconscious. His plane plummets toward earth. Seven miles later, the plane reenters the earth’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies can be implemented. Yeager regains consciousness, steadies the craft and after stabilizing, lands.
Let me get this straight: our first lifesaving response, do nothing.
Literally. Take our hands off the controls.
It is just that letting go is counter to all our tutelage, and even our basic survival instinct. My kneejerk is to gain control (or at least some veneer that makes me look good).
Fighter pilots in free fall. I get it… when life is catawampus, when hope is fleeting, when the math doesn’t add up. And I get the panic or frantic impulse to make everything okay. I have not yet learned that refuge and wellbeing can happen in a place of yielding. A place of waiting. A place of letting go.
It’s hard to let go of our assumption that we are in control, isn’t it? After all, with the right techniques or belief system, life conforms, at least to one of my plans.
What’s with our need to cling? Many of us live with rope burns on our spirit, from the dogged clinging.
So, while it is not my druthers, I too, can live stingy with my heart.
And when I do, it affects the way I see. It affects the way I give. It affects the way I receive.
Not unlike the story about the woman who lived in an elegant house with windows looking out onto stately trees and an English style garden. (My kind of garden.) And yet. She kept all of her shades drawn and sat in darkness to save her carpets from sun damage. When asked, she said, “I know that outside is an interesting world, but I am afraid to breathe the fresh air.”
Of course she sounds crazy.
And that’ll never happen to me, I tell myself. Right.
And yet, how easy it is to close the door to our minds, our hearts and our spirit.
When I do not let life in, of what am I afraid?
Here’s the irony; I’m most often afraid of the really good stuff—awe, touch, tears, beauty, delight, grief, surprise, joy, gladness, astonishment—wondering if I do deserve it after all.
Here’s the good news. Holman’s invitation to squeeze is not an exercise in will power. (You know, that attribute we call on every New Year, only to make us feel inadequate, as if we were shortchanged.)
No. This invitation to squeeze is a gift and is born in gratitude. Available to every singe one of us. This is important. Gratitude is powerful medicine because gratitude opens my heart. Gratitude always puts us smack dab in the present moment. And instead of fighting (believing that I am a victim or at the mercy of life’s whims with suffering as my narrative), gratitude transports us from our agitated state.
So, Holman’s story is about paradigm change. It is about the narrative every one of us chooses to inhabit.
In other words, Holman could hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. On the one hand, the world is a place of brokenness and suffering. Blindness is real. And so is the pain. And yet. Holman chose to live from a greater truth: blindness is never the whole story. And I love this part. He didn’t just resign himself to this greater truth. No. He chose to fall into the wellbeing of this truth. And he chose to go all in. To squeeze.
I confess that I didn’t hear this in my religious upbringing. My faith (and my life) was about righting the ship. And control. And never enough. I didn’t realize that letting go allowed me to draw from an internal reservoir of sufficiency.
Here’s the deal: Even in a world of brokenness and suffering, we can be arrested by (surprised by) beauty. Yes. And from that truth, we squeeze. Meaning that we engage in the world. We pause to “see.” We squeeze… to listen, to share, to include, to make space. To find joy. To give joy. To find compassion, serenity and hope. To not be afraid of the tumbling in the cockpit.
In this New Year, James Holman invites me to slow down—even as I feel stuck—in order to be present, to live with intention, to be moved and alive with wonder.
Sign me up. Where do I begin?
That’s just it. There is no script.
Lew Smedes helps, “Gratitude dances though the open windows of our hearts. We cannot force it. We cannot create it. And we can certainly close our windows to keep it out. But we can also keep them open and be ready for the joy when it comes.” Yes. Just like the Air Force pilots.
I guess that change comes one open window at a time.
I’m going into 2018 more optimistic than I expected. I hold my cards close to my chest, do my best not to get overwhelmed or hurt, and like the lady in the garden, keep some of my shades drawn. Its no wonder I let the weight of noise or vitriol, or tribal exclusion or gracelessness carry the day. Which means that it is as good a day as ever for a new paradigm.
Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany (or, Three Kings Day) (the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas). Which all means that the Christmas tree comes down today. I cannot image the weather that besets our east coast friends. Mercy that’s cold. Please stay warm. Please remember that community is the source of safekeeping.
Quotes for your week…
Dear God, I didn’t think orange went with purple, until I saw the last sunset You made on Tuesday. That was cool. Sara, Children’s Letters to God
If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a Child… in finding that Child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves. Pope Francis Feast of the Epiphany, 2018
(1) The James Holman story adapted from The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau
POEMS AND PRAYERS
I Want to Surrender
God, I want to surrender
to the rhythm of music and sea,
to the seasons of ebb and flow,
to the tidal surge of love.
I am tired of being hard,
tensed against tenderness,
afraid of softness.
I am tired of directing my world,
making, doing, shaping.
Tension is ecstasy in chains.
The muscles are tightened to prevent trembling.
Nerves strain to prevent trust,
Surrender is a risk no sane man may take.
Sanity never surrendered
is a burden no man may carry.
God give me madness
that does not destroy
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…