Iwish I could say I look forward to the smell of antiseptic first thing in the morning… I walk through the predawn darkness to the office across from the hospital with the single light on outside it, as though mom and dad had left it on expecting our arrival, in full anticipation of what’s in store…and I wish I would have stayed in bed. The mangled limbs and open wounds, missing digits and diseased skin, all under an atmosphere of disinfectant hanging heavy in the air that permeates my clothes for the rest of the day:it’s enough to make me recoil almost as soon as I open the door. Resisting the urge to flee, I enter.
I force myself to go in not so much by masochistic pride as by the intuition that this place has something to teach me. Deep down, I know that this tiny room, with four tiled bandaging stations and wooden footrests, has the power to bring me in contact with an essential part of existence. For so long, I have been blind to the harshness of the world; so easy it has been to relegate suffering into a dark corner where I never dare to look. But I’m at a point in my practice where I can no long deal with it as an abstraction, as something that happens to someone else who I can pray for but never have the courage to meet. I need to see their faces, I need to touch their bodies, I need to hear their laughter and let them know, if only by my simple presence, that I am not afraid of them. In their simple, unchosen way of being, I feel they have more to teach me than any book.
Day by day, things become easier. I begin to notice how my anticipatory aversion to their wounds is actually an outward reflection of my reluctance to come in contact with my own, less visible ones. As I see again and again, my reaction comes to define the situation: if I cease indulging in disgust and am simply open to this human being who needs me to do something for them, then it’s not so bad. They live with it, and so can I. They don’t have the possibility of running away from themselves, and even though I’m tempted, I won’t run away from them either. As I learn to swab and bandage them correctly, I’m learning how much there is to learn about all the ways it’s possible to feel. If I can learn to welcome them and greet their arrival in the way they greet me- with palms pressed together, saluting me as a manifestation of God- then I know I can deal with any internal challenge I might face. No wound is too deep or infected to being healing now.
In this experience, as well as many others, I’ve realized that Anandwan is a place that forces me to come to “the edge”, to the boundary of who I think I am. I have no choice but to confront all the things I’ve never seen before and don’t feel comfortable with. There’s something beautiful in this, however, if I remember that growth is possible only through challenges like this. We become fuller human beings only by pushing our limits of what we thought possible.
This seems to be an essential message of Christmas, and of the Christ experience, as well- something I might not have considered if I were here at another time of year. The story of Christmas always touches me because of its affirmation that God was born as a child in a barn to two ordinary people. Even though I disagree with the dogma that says this was the one and only incarnation, I can appreciate the message that extraordinary things happen in the most unassuming situations.
But we can never be open to the situations that might bring divine tidings if we’ve already made up our minds about what’s possible. In one way or another, most of us live in bubbles of mental limitations, making all sorts of excuses to keep ourselves in our comfort zones- “I’m not the sort of person who could do that”, “That’s just not done”, etc. Jesus’ life is a reflection of questioning this common sense. Beneath all the false attachments and identities his society and his religion offered him, he discovered that he was divine. Of course, when he tried to open others’ eyes to the same reality, it radically challenged their bubbles to the point where they crucified him (recalling the adage, in the West if you claim you’re God, they’ll crucify you, in the East, they’ll congratulate you for finding out). His society (as well as ours, for that matter) simply does not want to hear the message that this world and everything in it is a manifestation of Love, because the implications are so profound: we’d have to treat each other as equals, extend forgiveness to our enemies, and nurture all members of our human family, even the ones we find repulsive. It’s seems almost too much to ask to respect someone who practices another religion, or be generous with the poor, or to tend the wounds of another human being whose limbs seem to be melting off.
I still have a long way to go before I can truly see the divine in everything, but these weeks have shown me very clearly what’s standing in the way: fear. How many times in the gospels do we read Jesus (and all the other great teachers from different traditions) telling us to not be afraid? The message is always the same, but we forget (that’s why annual holidays are useful!). Fear keeps us locked in the bubble of ourselves. Fear leads us to making the simple but erroneous distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ upon which we base our behavior.
I’m blessed to spend my afternoons with dozens of tiny teachers who show me what it’s like to live with trust and without any limiting ideas. Playing with the deaf and blind children in the school here, I’m reminded how our true nature is one of love and trust. They are uninhibited in their expression of joy and exuberance, so full of the lust for life, so thirsty for simple human contact- something we all share. Our presence there is like a tiny bit of irrigation for their souls as well as ours.
Of course, the situation I’m in is not typical (even by my standards). But one needn’t go to India to push the boundaries of self. There are a myriad of other ways to come to the edge: maybe it’s a real challenge to sit through dinner with difficult family members, or to part with $10 in your pocket to give to a worthy cause, or to ask for forgiveness from a partner, or to extend smiles to strangers on the street.Comfort zones are different for everyone- as is the willingness to push and expand them, something that Christmas offers us the opportunity to meditate on.
Next week, I hope to explore the issue of usefulness, but for now I wish you all a very merry holiday filled with joy. May we all be open in the coming year to what life has to offer!