On the Enduring Power of the Human Heart

Re-posting this reflection from one year ago.

FRIENDS OF THE LITTLE MAN

Life is full of difficulties, some more bearable than others. As for me, the fact that religious faith, which once came so easily, seems practically impossible now causes no little pain. I’m not alone in this difficulty with faith: in fact, it seems that almost everyone I know in the generation following my own is in a similar situation, if they haven’t already jettisoned religious faith altogether. I won’t delve into the possible reasons behind this, other than to say the pious have no reason to feel smug about their own faith and religious practice. When people of good will and positive intention reject faith, the keepers of the faith do well to examine themselves very carefully. As often as not, religious practitioners are a primary stumbling block to faith in others.

If there’s any consolation for those of us who wander in the darkness of doubt and uncertainty, it…

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When Dogs Attack

A few weeks ago as Dante and I were walking in the Bronx section of Highbridge Park, we were attacked by two pitbulls, one juvenile, the other adult. A woman had released her dogs in an open part of the park and once they saw us, they ran straight for us. From her appearance and manner of speech, she was likely from a rough part of the neighborhood, and parts of the Bronx can be rough indeed. The woman did what lots of people who lack proper training or who have no experience with responsible, dog-positive culture do: she let her dogs off leash in a public space so they could defecate without any need for her to clean up after them.

The dogs tried to provoke Dante, though he wouldn’t move from his place between them and me. Had he tried to bite back or run, the results would have been ugly, perhaps even fatal. As the pitbulls pushed and growled and nipped, I pulled Dante up by his collar and put him on my shoulder. It didn’t occur to me to abandon him in order to save myself. After all, when someone you love is in danger, you don’t turn your back. Even when that someone is just a dog.

The woman didn’t have control of her dogs, but she did manage to distract them long enough for me to calmly and slowly walk away with Dante on my shoulder. Once we got ourselves to a safe spot, I realized my right forearm was bruised and I had been bitten on the right thigh. Luckily I’m okay, though I did consult a nurse right away. Dante somehow managed to come out of the conflict with barely a scratch.

Good instincts and a calm response saved us both from a dangerous situation. I always imagined that Dante would willingly put himself in harm’s way for the sake of my well-being. Now I know that I was right.

After the shock of the situation subsided, I was quite angry with the woman who, whether from ignorance or irresponsibility, put Dante and me in danger. Then I recalled the problems a good friend of mine had with his dog, a sweet but large and powerful animal who spontaneously and seemingly without provocation attacked another dog. Recalling my friend’s difficulties became an opening for compassion toward the lady in the park. I will likely never encounter her again, but each time Dante nuzzles me, each time we play catch I’m thankful that all of us — Dante, me, the woman, her dogs — emerged from that difficult situation safe.

~BT Waldbillig
February 13, 2017

‘You Do Not Have to Be Good’

American poet Mary Oliver offers a reminder that there is room within a spiritual family for all of its members, whoever and whatever they may be. A parent doesn’t stop loving a child because of the child’s wicked deeds or hateful words. A son of today doesn’t reject the life he has received nor does a daughter of today hate the blood that courses through her veins because of some wicked ancestor. Even the mistakes of the past and the errors of the present bear witness to the possibility of beneficial spiritual transformation. Too often our fixed ideas and habitual patterns of thought and perception distract us from the change that is already taking place in this very moment.

~BT Waldbillig
February 10, 2017
– – – – –
Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Click here to hear the author read this poem.

On the Origin of a Spiritual Family

1
Brother follows brother to the end of the world
The beloved leading her first love to the bedchamber

2
Sister leads sister back to the beginning of all things
A dog faithful to the source of a hidden path

3
A spiritual family is known in perfect silence
A single precious jewel adorning the crown

4
A spiritual family’s love is known in the moment of trial
Neither seeking reward nor casting punishment

5
Thus the many children know they are of one family
Dwelling together in the place of the empty heart

6
The place of nothing is the dwelling of all things
It is no cup filled to overflowing

7
A spiritual family’s love issues forth for all
As a mother loves each child as her only

8
Here father and son rejoice together equally
At the return of a lost brother

9
Passing beyond their own love and hate
They become infinite and eternal

10
The love of a spiritual family knows no bounds
It is the matriarch of many children

11
A spiritual family’s love is unfailing
It is the friend who dwells in equanimity

12
The first father and the final daughter are incomplete
Until they pass beyond last and first

13
Thus the spiritual family arises
Now in this very moment

14
The empty heart knows unbounded joy
The empty heart knows pain beyond words

15
Let us dwell together as a family
For the way forward is also the path of return

~BT Waldbillig
February 6, 2017

Understanding Religion

Religion is a near-universal aspect of human experience. One cannot properly understand history, society, law, culture, or politics without familiarity with religion.

I’m not sure how common or uncommon it is, but I was lucky enough to have a comparative religions course at my high school back in Chariton, Iowa. I also took Latin in high school — once a decidedly uncommon option in US public schools, though luckily a new generation of students and teachers is reclaiming this bit of their cultural patrimony. World Religions was a thoroughly worthwhile and surprisingly useful class. Then there was Modern American Religious Movements at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls — another course that gave me insight into how people who are different from me think and live.

You may disagree with Daniel Dennett’s thesis (for video, click here) that religion is a merely natural — as opposed to supernatural, praeternatural, or divine — phenomenon, but in the secular, polycultural context of our society that’s the readiest common ground for believer and nonbeliever alike. Our current political climate shows that many people are content to be bubble-dwellers, people with no interest in understanding the world beyond their own noses. The same is true for much of mainstream American religion. The development of honest and compassionate understanding of others is beneficial for an individual as well as for society generally. Familiarity with the phenomenon of religion and with the world’s various religious and spiritual traditions is essential to that understanding.

~BT Waldbillig
February 1, 2017