Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sweet Surrender

Faith consists in believing
when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

Sweet Surrender © 2010 by Melissa Johnson.

My friend Jimmy got into a bidding war on eBay for the purchase of a human soul.  He didn't go there looking for a soul, but he was charmed by the illusion of buying one when he found it was for sale. “Well, I thought it might be nice to have an extra one in my pocket just in case…” he joked when I teased him about his near purchase.  Ultimately, he missed the cut-off time for entering his final bid and the random soul was sold to the highest bidder for $50.

And to think … the Devil went down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal.  Now you can buy one on eBay from the comfort of your living room--and relatively cheap!  The world is flat, indeed.

All joking aside, Jimmy’s eBay auction really got me thinking: What is the value of a human life and the soul that dwells within?

I contemplated the extraordinary capacity of survivors to rebound from tragedy and loss—like those who lived to tell of the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany; children rescued from brothels after being sold into slavery by their families; ordinary people beating the odds of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; rising from the ashes of violent crimes, disfiguring accidents or financial disaster—and I wondered, what allows these people to surrender with grace to their crushing circumstances?

Sure there are stories of human survival aided not so much by a spiritual belief system but by a strong will to live, rising up from somewhere deep within their DNA—fight or flight. But more often than not, the common thread running through these stories of survival can be traced to a fundamental faith in something far greater than the individual even when the events of their lives made no sense; even when it seemed that they had been forgotten.

When things run amuck in our lives,
without a spiritual root,
what do we hold on to?
What do we surrender to?
How do we hope for something better?
Where do we put our faith?

Consider these equally tragic examples with very different outcomes.

Rwanda in the 90s was a dark place. Tensions ran high as the two main political groups—the Tutsis and the Hutus—were pitted against each other in much the same way that Hitler seized political control of Germany, turning Nazis against Jews. As it was in the 90s, if you had the great misfortune of being born into a family of Tutsis, regardless of your independent beliefs, you were a target for political genocide.

Imaculee Illibigiza was one of the few Tutsi women who survived. On the run, she was taken in by a Hutu minister and hidden from her would-be killers, while her parents and brothers were slaughtered along with a million others.

Her refuge was a tiny bathroom measuring 3 x 4 feet, hidden behind an armoire in the minister’s bedroom; she shared this space with six other women for more than 90 days as they waited and prayed for their rescue. They couldn’t speak out loud or make any noise for fear of being heard. They were instructed to flush the toilet only when someone was using the adjoining bathroom. Believing that the minister was hiding the enemy, Hutu soldiers repeatedly raided his home in search of more Tutsis to kill. Yet they never found the tiny bathroom concealing these women.

While in hiding, Imaculee prayed and meditated for hours each day. In her state of exhaustion and hunger, she saw a vision of herself working for the U.N.; she believed it was a vision from God. And she knew that she would have to learn to speak English so that she could communicate with the other U.N. workers. Trusting her vision in spite of the circumstances surrounding her, she convinced the Hutu minister to bring her a French-English dictionary and some other English-language books. French was her second language; but there, in that tiny bathroom, while hiding from vicious killers, she taught herself to read and speak English without ever saying a word out loud and with no guarantee that she would even make it out alive.

In her memoir, Left to Tell, Imaculee recounts her long and painful ordeal. What strikes me most about her story was her path of sweet surrender. She didn’t panic or freak out. She accepted the circumstances of that tiny little bathroom as being temporary, while never losing faith in God and what she knew to be true despite outward appearances. She believed with all of her heart that there had to be a reason for her survival--why she was the one left to tell this horrific story--and she was right.

Not long after her release from the refugee camps where she stayed after her confinement in the minister’s bathroom, she was offered work with the U.N., helping to rebuild Rwanda and using her English-language skills in the process. And while grieving the loss of her family, she met the man who later became her husband and loved her through her pain.

But what makes one person surrender to life
and another surrender to death?

In September of 2008, in the throes of financial disaster, Kirk Stephensen, a 47 year-old husband and father of one, and the chief operating officer of a private equity house, stepped onto the tracks at a rail station west of London. He was struck by a train and killed instantly. His death was ruled suicide.

Later that same year, in New York City, just two days before Christmas, Frenchman Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet slashed both of his wrists—found dead at his desk next to a bottle of pills—after losing $1.4 billion of his own money (and money belonging to his family and clients) that he had invested with Bernie Madoff, making him one of the biggest losers in Madoff’s fraud. Having tried unsuccessfully to recover the money, his brother described him as “totally ruined.”

Then at the beginning of 2009, German billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a moving train, taking his own life and leaving behind his wife and four children. His spirit broken by helplessness and fears of financial loss and devastation, Merckle’s suicide is yet another casualty of our global economic crisis.

As I watched these events unfold in the news, I felt sick. What is wrong with a society that supports a mindset where an individual’s worth is measured by their bank balance rather than their acts of kindness, or the kind of parent, friend, spouse, lover, boss, or brother they are?  Where financial loss leaves people not just devoid of cash, but bankrupt of all faith in the ability to recover and create something better for their lives?

In his compelling book, Creating a World that Works for All, Sharif Abdullah suggests spiritual starvation as the root issue. He writes:
“Lest you believe that spiritual starvation is the by-product of race and poverty, let me present a nightmare about the children of affluence. From 1992 to 1994, I was on the core faculty of the Oregon Governor’s School for Citizen Leadership (OGS)...The students were predominately white and middle-class.
"One of the exercises we would conduct with them was 'Stand Up If . . .' On a purely voluntary basis, participants were asked to stand up if certain statements were true of them. Among the items was 'Stand up if you have either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide.'
"Consistently, 60 percent of the students would stand up. They wanted to kill themselves. Why would these mostly middle-class kids attempt or consider suicide? As children of material affluence, they are told they have everything this society can provide. But they are still hungry. So they incorrectly surmise that something must be terribly wrong with them. Or they choose to leave a society that seems to have nothing else to offer... They want connection and instead get materiality. They want meaning and instead get a life devoid of cultural and spiritual richness, a life ripped free of context—historical, social, spiritual, communal… America’s middle-class children face spiritual starvation on a mass scale.”
It's not just our children who are starving.

So maybe we're not ready to sell our souls on eBay or throw ourselves in front of a fast moving train, but at some point in our lives—probably more than once—we will face some form of hardship and intense life challenge. And while I am not suggesting a course of pounding people over the head with our religion, I do believe there is a quiet, gentle way of influencing others by looking first within and shoring-up our own faith.  After all, believing in a higher power and actually surrendering to it are entirely different things.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Opportunities surround us everyday to practice faith and surrender in our lives, especially with the small stuff, which prepares us for the greater challenges.  And perhaps in so doing, we will send a calming, healing energy into the world, like ripples in a pond.

Here are some ideas to start:

1. When faced with a challenge, set-back or great difficulty, STOP SPINNING. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of at least one time in your life where you have overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or survived a tragedy. Consider the source of your strength and how you made it through your ordeal. Follow that thought with a memory of a good time that came later. Look for the lesson.  Remember, you are strong; you've already worked through many challenges in your life. In every instance you have a choice in how you react to the problem.

2. Stay calm when possible and ground yourself. Seek sound, practical advice before making any hasty decisions. Get clear about what you need to do; stay alert and aware of all that is happening around you. Remember that love engages; fear reacts.

3. Connect with the comforting rhythm of a routine; yes, even in the midst of difficulty. Think about Imaculee in that tiny little bathroom with 6 other Tutsi women for more than 90 days. Even though she was hiding for her life, she still devoted herself to prayer, meditation and studying her French-English translations rather than surrendering to the fearful mind. Especially in difficult times, routine can bring peace and help us feel as if we have some command of our life. Eat nutritious meals whenever possible, take care of your hair and skin, exercise, sleep, pray, meditate, read books that inspire, and believe in good times to come.

4. Meditate on the image of a lion; contemplate his strength as you connect with your own spiritual strength—life-giving and eternal—radiating out from your heart like the energy of the sun itself.

5.  Be gentle with yourself.  As the saying goes, Everything will be okay in the end.  If it's not okay, it's not the end. (Unknown)

And as you move through the world, be ever mindful of the true value of Life and the precious liquid of your soul:  PRICELESS. . .


Anonymous said...

Oh my, Melissa – what a terrific story – your writing is just so wonderful, inspiring and uplifting. Thanks for sharing your God given talent – I love it!!! Have a blessed day! ~ Margaret

JAJ said...

WOW! LOVED that!

And the picture struck me (not literally-because it is a picture after all!) but I have such trouble with my left hip. I have been told that you take in energy on your left and it flows out of your right. Well,any injury, problem, ache, or pain is ALWAYS on my left side. Since I've been jogging, you can bounce a quarter off of my IT band on my left hip. I have broken fingernails down to the quick...on my left side. I have a mole near my left boob that I almost scratched off (yeah-thats a weird one!) but it goes on and on. The right side is all good....

I am really trying to be more open and open myself up to receive more energy and blessings. I just finished reading "How to Listen to God" by Charles Stanley-I have to tell you he writes of meditation. That is not something I have ever seriously contemplated but I felt led to do so. I was really drawn to the floor in front of my couch. So I grabbed a blanket and sat there and then...I meditated. Didn't really know how but did it anyway. I pretty much talked to God and told Him I was ready to hear what He had to say-I said that I had been doing a lot of talking and no listening and I was ready to change that. Well, I was sitting quietly and I put my hand on the floor to shift position (stupid hip) and felt something......crusty. As it turned out, I was sitting right beside a smear of cat puke. I know, nice, right? Just proves that God has a sense of humor. And He did answer-he told me to be patient. The one thing I struggle horribly with. But I can be patient doing what I am doing.

And I can be so thankful that I am not sharing a tiny space with 6 other women. I know we can all say 'well-I know I should be thankful-I COULD be blind, or I missing a leg or whatever, but your story really did make me thankful for what I do have so I'm glad you wrote it. And I am glad I read it this morning. I hope your patience is holding out and you are hearing from God too.

Love, Janine

Janet said...

Oh, so beautiful. Thank you for that perspective . . .


Anonymous said...

My goodness... How thoroughly explored. Yet I know you took a great deal of time to edit it down. I LOVE EVERY WORD of it, too. You insert quotes at just the right time, the flow is gentle but strong... Leaves me thinking. Perfect. I want to publish your book! (smiling)

Yes - affluence, money, like your grandpa said, "it's all an illusion." When my Daddy died, I put a photo of all of us as a family in his suit pocket along with some candy - he ate candy all the time. He did not take any expensive watch or precious jewels, no money, he was left with only a soul. His body was dead. It was over. Our soul lives on, though. That's forever. A starving soul is truly hunger. Marie Osmond's son jumped from his 14th? floor Los Angeles apartment just recently - he left a suicide note. We watch Britney shave her head, Chasity change her sex, Anna Nicole Smith OD... whew... read a book! I say! :)

I'm gonna' make my next book that one you mention in your blog about the woman in the bathroom learning English. That's got to be inspiring... (like you). I'm reading "Eat, Pray, Love" right now. Have you read that one? She's funny! :)

Well, sweet Lady, keep writing and I'll keep reading. Love you! -Jenna

Anonymous said...

Jimmy like!

Flora said...

I totally felt your passion in this article.  Great Job!  It made it fast moving and left me wanting to know more.  In addition to what we were talking about today, your Grandmother has that will to live, to be well, to recover and never give up.  I think we all have a sense of that which has rubbed off on us, too.  Nice blend of current events, literature, and spirituality.  Always your greatest fan - MOM