One of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a while is Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork. So I’m going to do something a little different with this post. I want to share a lengthy excerpt from this novel with little comment.
First, let me set up the excerpt. Marcelo, age 17, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and attends a special school for young people on the autistic scale. His father owns a law firm and wants Marcelo to work there for the summer to “experience the real world.” This causes Marcelo much anxiety but he has no choice. While going through some files at the firm, Marcelo finds a picture of a teenage girl named Ixtel; half of her face is pretty, the other half is disfigured. Ixtel was in a car accident that took the lives of both of her parents. Her face was disfigured by a malfunctioning windshield. Marcelo discovers that his father’s firm used legal maneuvers to avoid paying for the surgery that could have restored Ixtel’s face. At great cost to himself, Marcelo gets his father to finally agree to cover the surgery.
In the scene I’ll share, Marcelo is meeting Ixtel for the first time at the Catholic home for girls where she lives. They talk for some time and Marcelo is struck with how at ease with herself Ixtel is. He asks her about this and Ixtel says that after the accident, she went wild for a while, taking drugs and selling her body. That’s when Marcelo asks:
“But how did you change? What happened? What made you different?”
We both turn to look at each other. I can feel her wondering why I want to know. Maybe she can see that I am not asking just out of curiosity or to make small talk. I’m asking because I want to find what she found.
“Little by little, I don’t know, what was eating me up went away.”
“But how did it go away? What did you do?”
“Like, at the beginning, I felt sorry for myself, I guess. Not like, you know, pity or anything. But then one day I stopped being so angry. ‘You’re just a little girl,’ I said to myself. ‘It’s not your fault your parents died. It’s okay you messed up. It’s okay to be angry about your face and hate everyone. You’re just a little girl. I forgive you, little girl, for all the bad things you did.’ Like that. It’s crazy, isn’t it? To have one part of yourself be nice to another part. Like, the nice part of my face saying nice things to the ugly part. After a while, the nice part and the ugly part stopped hating each other. There was peace inside of me, like the different parts disappeared and there was only one me. After that, I saw how the other girls were like me, and I started doing the same thing with them. I saw their ugly parts—and around here that’s not too hard, believe me—and I tried to be nice to their ugly parts.”
“We all have ugly parts,” I say to myself, forgetting for a moment that Ixtel is sitting next to me.
She gives a short laugh that sounds like a cough because of the shape of her mouth. “You say that as if you never knew it.”
“I never knew it like I do now.”
There’s a lot of wisdom here, but I will just make one comment.
We’ve all heard that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe Ixtel shows us that when we do the work of learning to love ourselves—including our ugly parts—we might find it easier to love our neighbor.
(Note: Issues we face today—issues of race and the value of an ordinary human life in the face of a pandemic—are, at their root, about how we see beauty in another person. So these reflections from Landon Saunders are especially relevant now. GM)
My friend, Dr. Richard Beck, poses the question, “Do you want to have a beautiful life?” An inability to see beauty in a human life costs us something precious to a good life, a flourishing life.
In 1962 I met a deeply troubled boy, thirteen, who had already been in a number of juvenile lockups. When something went wrong in the community, James Garner was the first suspected and accused. I will not describe here what he looked like the day I met him. I will only say I had never met anyone like what I saw…and visited with. His was a “throw-away” life in the eyes of most. This lad soon came to live in my home during his teen years.
And, slowly, something buried from sight began to appear—traces of something beautiful. He would never have known how to say it and would never have thought to use the word “beautiful,” yet, in spite of all his failures, he wanted a beautiful life.
Traces of something beautiful began to appear in an infectious laugh; in some drawings and small sculptures he created; in his instant forgiveness for any slight, any wrong, however unjust that was inflicted on him; the absence of grudges, resentments, blame, or feeling sorry for himself; no expectations for anything given to him but everything received with a bit of twinkle in his eye.
Without my knowing it at the time (the years were often trying, difficult), I was witness to something I have come to recognize as beauty in a life to which no one would have assigned the word.
Slowly, through the years and to this day, a sense of life that is wrapped up in the question Richard Beck raises and that I witnessed in the life of James Garner, has informed what I look for and treasure in the lives of those I meet—something called beauty.
Last fall, I received a call telling me James had died. At his wake and memorial, I listened to the stories told by his wife, his son and his daughter, the people he had known through the years— stories told with quaking voices and tear-filled eyes of how James had affected their lives. It was a time of beauty.
At the beginning I was to have been his teacher. What I didn’t know then was that he would be my teacher, one of the most powerful of my entire life. And so, I said “Farewell” with heart running over with emotions for which I have no words.
“Do you want a beautiful life?” Do we recognize beauty in a life?
One of my favorite passages in children’s literature is the opening scene from Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in The Willows. It’s spring and Mole is cleaning up his underground lair:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for [his] steep little tunnel…So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. “This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!”
I laugh every time I read that—especially when he mutters, “Up we go! Up we go!”
And I think: Not a bad metaphor for the journey of a human being through this world—especially in times like these.
We might think of our journey through a day, a year, or a life, in three overlapping phases that recur again and again.
Phase One: “Something up above was calling.”
No matter how buried we can sometimes feel underneath burdens, demands, problems or just routine, if we’re quiet, we can always hear the upward call of Spring, of sunlight, of the joy of living—a call to rise and transcend. A kind of divine discontent.
Phase Two: “Up we go! Up we go!”
This is about the climb—doing the work of following that upward call to light and joy and meaning and awareness in the midst of everyday things. Instead of letting things overwhelm us, we “scrape and scratch and scrabble”—we overcome.
Phase Three: “This is fine!”
This is about experiencing a breakthrough—overcoming the law of the gravity of life that can weigh us down with the law of levity, lightness, and joy.
We could do worse than have this as a goal: to be able to say at the end of a day or a life (no matter what happens), “This is fine!”
And along the way, we could do worse than this for a mantra: “Up we go! Up we go!”
Another guest post from my friend, Landon:
In 1967 a doctor told me I needed to take some time off. I bought a pup tent and set off on a journey through “The Great American West.” Every day, I saw something new to me.
In 1969 I set off on a world journey. Every day, for an entire year, I saw something new to me. Every day.
In Africa I found that Africans have a beautiful saying: “I see you.”
Sensing the power of seeing something new, I made it central to my life: every day I will see something new to me. That commitment has had a profound impact on who I am.
Seeing the new is especially important in long-term relationships. In my own relationships, I make it a point to see something new in each encounter. Otherwise, it is so easy to take for granted, to experience boredom, to fail to respect—to “re-spect,” literally “to look at again”—to see the other person in a whole new light.
So many relationships suffer from this failure—not to see a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, an enemy, even everyday experiences in a new way.
In times of strain and crisis, of suffering, of injustice, of feeling “stuck,” of feeling overwhelmed. To see something new, something I hadn’t seen before, opens the way for authentic life to keep emerging and for the best in us to grow. It changes us. It helps prevent the growth of prejudice, fear, unhealthy attitudes toward others, and trends toward polarizations.
Our humanness, our growth, is so dependent on opening our eyes each day to see the new.
“I see you.” Do you see?
Do you ever get the feeling that we’re drowning in talk, talk, talk today? That we are overwhelmed by noise and information? As poet T. S. Eliot said:
“Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?”
And he also said:
“Where can the word be found? Where can the word resound? Not here, there’s not enough silence.”
I do think we long for a word that really means something, a word that grows out of a rich, thoughtful silence. But instead we are bombarded by noise, talking heads, books, articles, workshops. As Kurt Vonnegut wryly observed:
“Folks have to talk to keep their mouth muscles working in case they someday have something to say.”
But what can we do about this kind of talk inflation and noise pollution? We could do worse than listen to Gandhi who said:
“I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen … We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time.”
Let me repeat: “A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen.”
I don’t know about you, but I felt a bit rebuked by those words! It reminds me of the line, “From speaking comes repentance; from listening comes wisdom.”
Words do matter. And in a noisy world, my neighbors, this is one thing we can do: make the effort to weed out thoughtless, harmful words—at work, at the dinner table, and yes, even online. To “only speak when we can improve on the silence.”
To do that, we’ll need to cultivate the kind of silence in our lives out of which more thoughtful words can grow. (Thoughtless words never accomplish anything anyway!)
As the Biblical proverb says:
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
Here’s another thoughtful guest post from …
Once there was a well. Four stones were gathered around the mouth of the well to mark its location. These stones were courage, honor, loyalty, and knowledge. And hanging down into the well was the bucket of faith.
One day, the land was infected with a raging thirst that led human beings to shed the blood of their neighbors. The thirst in the land became so great that the stones of courage, honor, loyalty, and knowledge were removed and used as weapons. Even the bucket of faith was taken from its place to be another part of the arsenal to injure and destroy.
With the stone markers and bucket removed, the people could no longer find the well or reach the one thing within it that could quench this raging thirst that had led them to hurt one another: the waters of compassion.
Courage without compassion is a killing force. Honor without compassion creates rigidity. Loyalty without compassion is blind allegiance. Knowledge without compassion turns stones and buckets into weapons. Faith without compassion is cruel.
Friends, as we search for how to respond to the pain around us and within us, I hope you will first spend time cultivating your compassion. Because it is only a deep well of compassion at the center of human beings that protects us from using our courage, honor, loyalty, knowledge, and even faith to hurt our neighbor.
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Maybe this is a good moment to again explore the question: what does it mean to love?
It’s a tricky word, isn’t it? A beautiful word, but confusing, sometimes, I think. A lot of hurt and foolishness can parade in the name of love.
And yet, isn’t it still true—in the lyrics by Hal David and Burt Bacharach—that:
What the world needs now, is love, sweet, love,
That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,
No not just for some, but for everyone.
(Everyone? Really? Even that jerk who…) Ah, there’s the rub. As good old Charlie Brown says, “It’s easy to love the world, it’s the guy next door I can’t stand.”
In the guest post last Thursday (see below), Landon Saunders talked about sitting with a a 13-year-old boy who had been mercilessly beaten by his father.
Speaking of this moment, Landon said, “What he feels in my touch, what he sees in my eyes, what he hears in the tone of my voice will either fully acknowledge his sense of worth and dignity as a human being…or in his heart he will wish I would just leave.”
He added, “How we are present with those in pain either creates solidarity or deepens alienation. How we sit with another can be healing, or the wounded might simply wish we would leave.”
I’ll confess, those words stopped me—made me question my own life. But then I thought, it’s good to know that even in my 70s there’s still much to learn about love!
Thinking of love in this way—as a way of being present that quietly and fully acknowledges the other person’s worth and dignity as a human being—maybe love really is what it’s all about. I leave you with the lyrics of another song by Hal David and Burt Bacharach:
What’s it all about, Alfie,
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie,
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or, are we meant to be kind.
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel;
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even unbelievers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie,
Without true love we just exist, Alfie,
Until you find the love you’ve missed, you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk, let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love every day … Alfie.
A guest post from my friend Landon Saunders:
I am sitting by the bedside of a thirteen-year-old boy who has been mercilessly beaten by his father. His eyes are black, one swollen shut, his lips are bloody, his back and legs bleeding. And this was not the first time it had happened—not by far.
I do not sit by his bed and launch into a discussion of how most fathers are good. That would be inappropriate and would reveal a moral insensitivity to the wrong he has suffered.
I do not sit by his bed and point out his own mistakes. That would be heard as justification for his father’s criminal behavior.
I do not sit by his bed and treat him to a discussion of how far we’ve come from child labor and other mistreatment of children.
Any of these approaches would deflect from indefensible and criminal behavior. And worse, they would reveal something terribly wrong in my own heart—a glaring moral immaturity or callousness.
I would be part of the problem.
Instead, I sit by the bedside of the beaten boy, and hold his hand—I look at him, I say quiet words to him. What he feels in my touch, what he sees in my eyes, what he hears in the tone of my voice will either fully acknowledge his sense of worth and dignity as a human being…or in his heart he will wish I would just leave.
Today, each of us sits, in one way or another, by the bedside of the deeply wounded among us. How we are present with those in pain either creates solidarity or deepens alienation. How we sit with one another can be healing, or the wounded might simply wish we would leave.
We want no one to be mistaken about with whom we sit. Only then is healing possible…for a beaten boy…or a wounded people.
It’s much quieter in our big cities right now. You can hear birds sing in Times Square.
And though, in some ways, the world seems so noisy today, for many of us, our daily routine probably feels quieter. For one thing—no hectic commute!
It’s made me think again about the value of quiet to our lives. On the wall of my office is a copy of Desiderata by Max Ehrman. It begins with these words:
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
What is it like to go placidly, go gently, go peacefully through our days? How do we stay in touch with the peace that may be in silence? And how can that silence enhance our experience of daily life?
These days, I try to intentionally have a few moments of quiet each day—moments when I turn off all the noise—not only the noise of TV and work but (and this is the hard part) the noise in my head.
There are many ways to go with a moment of quiet: being in nature, watching the sunrise, meditating, praying. Just being still.
I sometimes use it to experience anew what an incredible thing it is just to have a life and be a human being—even with all of the failures and successes, all the joys and disappointments. I quietly accept them all. I think about what an amazing thing it is to be unique—to be the only “me” there has ever been or ever will be. I think about all the people in my life, each with his or her unique story.
In her book entitled Quiet, Susan Cain writes about the accomplishments of some of history’s quiet people:
“Some of our greatest ideas, arts and inventions … came from quiet … people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there. Neither the theory of relativity nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”
Well, chances are, most of us are not going to come up with something like Paradise Lost. But we do all have treasures inside.
I have come to believe that cultivating a rich center of quiet—a quiet that is a warm, friendly place where we feel at home—is vital for creating that precious work of art called a life. It can stay in us and keep us grounded as we face the noise and haste.
We may even discover, in the quiet, a kind of paradise found.