I pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine. It wasn’t that much earlier than I usually arrive at church on Sunday mornings, but I was struck by how it was still night.
Dark. Quiet. Still. No one had been on the roads. Houses were still unlit. But as I sat there, gathering myself together to begin my day, in the light of the car’s headlamps there was movement.
First one, then another, leaves fell from a tree that grew along the sidewalk. The leaves didn’t flutter. They just gently dropped. Others followed. One here. Two there. Unseen by anyone, they disengaged from the tree. Silently, they fell. Why it was strange, I don’t know, but it was. Perhaps because I’d never considered that leaves might fall at night. Perhaps because their motion stood out in contrast to the stillness of everything else. Perhaps because there was no sound, no real color, nothing but the unexpected appearance of their downward motion.
I then wondered about other things in this world that I never notice as they “let go” – critters and plants and people releasing from everything and everyone that supports them in life. I thought about their quiet journey into what I trust is that good night. I pondered the inevitability of it; how most of what is born, matures and then as everything else, eventually dies. It either lets go of life with the grace and gentleness of those leaves in the dark, or not.
We are all vulnerable to the flow that is life and death. It is built into the fabric of creation. The Buddhists say that all life is suffering. I suppose it depends on how you define suffering. Those leaves did not seem to be suffering to me. They seemed to be doing what leaves do.
With our big brains and our self-awareness, though, we humans grasp for life We create and latch onto an illusion that we are invulnerable, that we have a measure of say about our lives that we simply don’t have. But no matter how repeatedly we tell ourselves the lie of our autonomous independence, creation will have its way with us. If by no other means than our aging, we will have wrenched from our grip the fantasy that we are in control. Illness, accident, loss of those we love – all these, in most lives, pave the way for our own letting go.
There is only the question of how we will embrace our vulnerability. Will we do it gently and with dignity, or will we struggle and deny this truth at the heart of our humanity? The poet David Whyte in his work “Consolations” suggests that,
“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability,
How we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate
Through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit
Vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely,
As misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful ...”
As a culture, we do little to prepare ourselves for this “intimacy with disappearance.” We not only deny our own vulnerability, we also actively resist its reality in our lives. But what if there were a school for learning vulnerability, a practice stage on which to rehearse it? What might that look like?
For those of us who are Christian that is not such a foreign notion. We follow the Christ, born a defenseless babe. We take as our model Jesus, who had the courage to stand firmly in the place of nonviolence, vulnerable to those with power who would use violence against him.
Letting go can take many forms. It can be practiced. It can be learned. It is, after all, part of our nature. If we want internal peace, struggling against our truest selves will never be the way.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org