“Your task? To work with all the passion of your being to acquire an inner light, so you escape and are safe from the fires of madness, illusion, and confusion that are, and always will be, the world.”
–Rumi (trans. Andrew Harvey)
Inner light. What can seem more distant as we push through our daily lives, confined to routine and obligation, trapped by the illusion that there is not enough time or energy or resources to effect change? It seems no less that the human condition to dream of transformation and simultaneously cherish the belief that altering one’s situation is inherently impossible. Certainly there are the rare few who can truly be the change they wish to see, and we read their books and celebrate their vision, often with national holidays. The rest of us, however, seem mired in the world of dashed hopes and shimmering mirages.
Am I too pessimistic tonight? I only write of this sense of shared stultification because I am so afraid that I am just another victim who reads all of the right books and says the right prayers but forgets them as soon as her trust in the beauty of the world is called into question. At work the other day we discovered what seemed the perfect e-mail signature: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.” The unspoken sentiment that we all might prefer to be home with husbands and cats and perhaps even a Lord of the Rings marathon hung in the air as we drifted back to work. We just might like life better if we were not confronted with the madness and illusion that experience and the Sufi poet tell us are inevitable.
Recently I have found my capacity to walk through Rumi’s fires of confusion to be in serious jeopardy. I claim despair at the ugliness and cruelty of the world and the pettiness of the people around me. When I can call on the greater inner voice of wisdom that so often gets drowned out by my victimhood I can understand that such whining about everyone’s else’s attitude is as boring as it is useless. Perhaps it is just an adjustment period as I try to find my bearings even as my perspective begins to shift in light of all that I am learning. Or maybe it is a sign that I have to finally step up and make some of those changes that I imagine in the moments before I fall asleep each night. At any rate, I guess it is time to redouble those efforts to actually practice walking in the paths of those saints and visionaries who seem to be able to make dreams manifest. It is as simple and as tragically complex as cultivating that inner light that I know Rumi would say is already there, glowing within us all.
Reflecting on my day as I drove home tonight I thought about compassion fatigue, a phrase I was first introduced to while at a disappointing writing workshop that seemed less about language and more about the airing one’s pain. In this situation, the women and I who rebelled and decided to sit in the sun rather than listen to people recount their childhood horrors in prose (which were most probably valid, though such narratives had much more to do with therapy than with wordsmithery and we wished to discuss the latter) really could not stand any more tales of fathers who never told their daughters they were pretty. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had paid for another sort of week entirely and that we fielded quite enough suffering in our workaday lives.
Since I am not actually a professional caregiver, I probably have very little claim to compassion fatigue in what seems to be an official sense (I cannot speak for this website as I just stumbled on it, but apparently people are putting a great deal of thought into the subject). At the same time, I think anyone who pays much mind to the news these days must suffer from at least form of this nebulous syndrome. There are of course two options: absorbing reality television that has absolutely nothing to do with reality but quite a bit to do with avarice and cruelty best left on the playground, and actually doing something about the darkness in the world.
Actually, I take that back, there are many choices that lay between being a couch potato and quitting one’s job to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I must imagine that there are countless people who, much like me, would consider themselves to be decent creatures hoping to propagate some goodness and peace, yet are conscious of the risk of walking around with an open heart. How can one pass through the day and fulfill family obligations and hold the job that is expected of her if she is constantly consumed by all that is wrong out there? Perhaps these thoughts betray my own cowardice, but I fear I am not alone in my inability to act in the face of so many environmental crises and people in desperate need.
But I had to remind myself that there is so much to do without getting pulled out by the riptide of despair into an unmanageable sea of an imperfect planet. It all starts with the existence I actually do inhabit each day. That was when I started singing “Shape of My Heart” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (an album that, along with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy set the course of my high school soul). Something about love hidden beneath a gambler’s hand, passion masked by a card player’s face… My love for this world buried beneath what is expected and what needs to get done and who needs to be pleased – I am meant to be witty and a bit sarcastic and please the crowd with a punchline rather than with sweetness.
Really though, who is truly served if I berate myself for staying in and writing these words instead of volunteering my time somewhere or sacrificing all that I know for those who need me “more”? Isn’t there enough to do in living the truth of my heart and being profligate with my compassion to enrich the lives of those around me?