"To know that I am nothing, that is wisdom; to know that I am everything, that is love and in between these two life moves.”
This proverb from my African proverb calendar has been rolling around in my head for days now. It’s been rolling around as I have been reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, a book I read years ago and just finished reading again in preparation for Christian Peacemaker Team training.
I mentioned the proverb to a friend who asked how I’d interpret it. I think I said something like this:
“Well, to say that we are nothing is recognition that we are a very small … tiny … miniscule piece of this world, a tiny fraction of all that is. To say that we are everything is to recognize God within us, to know that we, like everyone and everything else, were created by God, and, as such, have God, Love, the only thing that truly matters, within us. Love connects us to everyone and everything else and makes us a part of everything. When we recognize our interconnectedness, we see that we are simultaneously nothing and everything.” Knowing we are nothing, we do not view ourselves as more important than anyone else. Knowing we are everything, we nonetheless know that we are important. It is knowledge that requires a delicate balance between humility and ego. If we stray too far from the middle point, our self-confidence ends up in one unhealthy extreme or another.
I think nearly half of the Walter Wink book is now highlighted in blue. I’m sure I’ll quote from it more than once in the coming days. Let me start here:
“We are alienated from God, each other, nature, and our own souls, and cannot find the way back by ourselves.”
Our alienation, when we fail to notice our interconnectedness, causes us to move towards nothingness, but not the nothingness of wisdom where we understand that our smallness is part of a larger whole, but rather a nothingness of disconnection, of isolation. When we feel alienated, we may need to be invited back, led back, pulled back towards everything. This process takes time and happens over and over again. It involves many steps forwards and backwards over the course of our lives. When we are able to move closer to God, to each other, to nature, to our own souls, we move towards our everything nature, to the midpoint.
I know I have a long way to go, but I think about where I was a year ago and where I am now and I’m sure I’m moving in the right direction.
One year ago, I was spending my final days in India with friends who had invited me to a family wedding. Prior to being with them in India, I only knew them from the confines of their restaurant (Taj Palace, for those who live in Louisville) and occasional encounters at international festivals. In India, I was not only invited to the wedding, but was welcomed into their home and treated with as much care and love as any member of their family. This kind of welcome is overwhelming. It is humbling. It is heart-breaking in its beauty. When I say heart-breaking, I mean it not in a sad way, but in a Grinch-heart-swelling-with-love sort of way. I wouldn't call myself a Grinch, but I wasn't always sure how to accept the generosity that was freely offered to me. I didn’t know very many people at the wedding and didn’t speak the primary language I heard, so I sometimes retreated into the "safety" of aloneness, which really only led me to loneliness, to self-alienation, to foolish nothingness. My actions did not stop my hosts from continuing to draw me out, to invite me into their lives. I was invited to several neighbor/relatives’ houses, despite language barriers. During my days with the family, I didn’t know all the customs and rituals and when invited to join in, I’m certain that I sometimes responded American-ly rather than Indian-ly, possibly appearing rude, though rudeness was the opposite of my intent.
Even with my foibles, I was treated as an honored guest. Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. My acquaintances-turned-friends-turned-family did their best to invite me from self-limiting nothingness into their freely offered everything-ness.
And then there was Christmas Eve this year. For as long as I've been alive, my extended family has spent Christmas Eve evening together at my parents’ house. During my life, our family has grown considerably, the amount of chaos has ebbed and flowed, depending on the number of young children running around, and our gift-giving rituals have changed. Of all the Christmas Eves I can remember, this year’s was my favorite. I have spent many a Christmas Eve feeling shy and unconfident among my own family, without the excuses that I had in India of language barriers or knowing no one. Like in India, my feelings had nothing to do with the way anyone treated me. My family has been more than good to me.
Last night I was in a very different place (not just physically) from last year and Christmas Eves past - I did not feel like an insignificant nothing. I was confident of the everything, of the Love, within, not just me, but everyone present. I knew that I was a small part of something much larger, most immediately, my family. My mom invited me to say the blessing before we ate, which was a great honor. Squeezing all 38 of us into the dining room, holding hands for a few quiet moments, we made our bond as family tangible.
Several years ago, we stopped exchanging presents on Christmas Eve, so the evening became simply a time to enjoy each other’s company. Last night I felt engaged and connected to everyone I got to spend time with. To my aunt who announced her recent Scrabble winning streak against me (I need to up my game J). To two of my uncles who told me they appreciated reading my blog to get “the other side of the story.” One also told me about his health struggles and victories (quitting smoking!); the other shared stories of when he was young and loved to check out books from the library about explorers. I enjoyed the company of my cousins who asked about the next steps on my path. I was also happy to hear some of their stories: recent or upcoming moves, business ventures, new jobs, and a story about taking care of the neighbor’s 70-pound turtle. I loved spending a few moments with my nephews, and niece, and my cousins’ children, as we watched videos from the Santa-tracker. It was wonderful to sit next to my grandma, the 94-year-old matriarch of the family, who has a special prayer she says for me every day when I am traveling. She has said it so often that she has it memorized.
And, beautifully, I felt an equal connection to those I didn't get a chance to be with. The heart-swelling continues.
And so life moves.
Between nothing and everything,
alienation and connection,
foolishness and wisdom,
fear and love.