In the Belly of the Whale

 

 

Bad news has left many of us feeling lost and vulnerable, conscious of our limits. Here's why this is a good thing.

 

 

 

People across the country today are unusually anxious and even somewhat depressed. The current mood began on September 11, 2001 and has intensified in recent months with the bad news from Iraq. The sight of New Orleans underwater and the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita scrambling for their lives has brought us even lower. More recently the threat of fires and earthquakes in the west, and, beyond our borders, news of the devastating earthquake in Asia have added to our feeling of vulnerability. Our leaders’ assurances that we’ll eventually succeed in Iraq and rebuild New Orleans don’t shift the mood much.

 

In the wake of Katrina people seem astonished that we don’t handle disaster well. One reason may be our exaggerated sense of control. We tend to think we can handle anything, but when it comes to facing nature’s force, we come head-to-head with our limitations.

 

This is a good thing: realizing our limits. Although the feeling of being vulnerable is uncomfortable, understood as a basic spiritual condition, it can deepen what strengths we have. For vulnerability and strength are not opposites. They go together like yin and yang, like two sides of a coin.

 

The Tao Te Ching, that remarkable holy text from Chinese Taoism, says:

 

Yield and be strong,

Bend and be straight,

Empty and be full.

 

 

Yield and be strong. This is not a sentiment familiar to our “can-do” culture. America has the strong will to overcome any adversity. We are a heroic society built by adventurers and pioneers who embraced challenge. We want to conquer every obstacle: illness, political adversaries, and, it seems, nature itself. For this country, especially, it takes spiritual depth of imagination to understand a non-heroic way of getting along. It takes spiritual wisdom to appreciate vulnerability.

 

The word vulnerable means “able to be wounded.” Conscious vulnerability is a kind of strength. Being vulnerable allows you to be open to another, to allow another person or group to enjoy their own desire and strength--and it is the foundation for love. At its best, to be vulnerable means to be open and not overly defended, which only a strong person has the courage to be. Because vulnerability and strength are so entwined, it’s best to cultivate both at the same time.

 

The Bhagavad-Gita, the ancient and revered teaching on being a spiritual warrior, says:

 

Consider pleasure and pain as the same thing,

And success and loss, victory and defeat as well,

Then give yourself to the struggle

And you won’t bring disaster on yourself.

 

 

Jesus taught a similar philosophy, constantly inverting expectations. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount that the last shall be first and the poor are blessed.

 

These are extraordinarily important words for Americans today, who tend to make a commandment out of making money, wanting prestige, and needing to be first. You have a better chance of keeping in touch with basic human values if money isn’t your ultimate concern and if you can relax about not being the best. These profound texts from all over the world hold the secrets to our survival and should be required reading of all leaders.

 

Religions teach that the chief mistake human beings make is hubris--in other words, not knowing our limitations. We get into trouble, personally and nationally, whenever we become arrogant and think we can do anything. But religions warn against this kind of thinking.

 

A good response to the worry we may feel after 9/11, during the course of the Iraq war, and in the aftermath of hurricanes would be to learn the lesson of limits and the fragility of life. We are vulnerable, and therefore we need each other. Our vulnerability can crack open our hearts and lead us to a more intense connection with our neighbors. But we have to own up to these painful emotions openly and allow them to transform us

 

It will do little good to try to escape our discomfort. We can go on living unconsciously, as though these disasters were only inconsequential blips on a screen. We can get lost in work and entertainment and addictions. Or, we can take these emotions to heart and live differently because of the wisdom we have achieved through pain and trouble.

 

For instance, we could begin to build our buildings and cities more in accord with nature than against it. We could seek more creative and peaceful solutions to international conflict. We could “yield and be strong” by listening to what others are saying and taking them seriously. We could opt out of the hubris that we see all around us, challenge it, and live differently, discovering the joys and demands of living in a real community.

 

At the personal level we can use our own waves of depression as opportunities for reflection and renewal. If you don’t renew yourself after tragedy, you hang onto it and sink. You’re like Jonah in the whale. He was told to help renew a dying culture, and he turned in the opposite direction, refusing the opportunity. But he found himself returning in the belly of a whale. Some of us feel as though we are in that dark belly now. Our way out is to keep moving in the direction our vulnerability is taking us: toward pause, reflection, and wisdom.

 

A hurricane survivor today is in the position of the people of the biblical flood. At the end of Noah’s story, a rainbow appears as a sign of new life and safety. With deep feelings of loss, grief, shock, and nostalgia, the survivor can slowly see the tragedy as a passage to new life. Life will never be the same; the person will never be the same. There is an element of hope in this painful realization: the possibility of a richer, more satisfying existence for having gone through such a terrifying initiation.

 

The vulnerability we all feel today is a door open to a different way of life. We can try to shut out our vulnerability by acting tough, or we can shape it into a softer, more confident way of life.

 

From tragedy we can take lessons in both vulnerability and strength. We can appreciate how much we depend on each other. We can discover the joy of compassion. We can learn the difference between trying to control everything and sensing an inner strength that allows us to take life on, no matter how great the challenges. We can put our abilities and confidence to work in the service of our fellow citizens instead of only for our own rewards.

 

Feelings of vulnerability can take you deeper into yourself than you have gone before. There you will sense a new strength: the power to yield confidently and comfortably, your vulnerability transformed into graceful openness.