There are times in our lives when our problems seem so overwhelming we don't have any idea what to do next in any significant way - how to change our lives, how to address the biggest problems, how to heal the damage between us and our loved ones, how to motivate ourselves to even get out of bed to tackle each new day. Our prayers may be sincere but we may not be hearing any answers. We don't understand the Big Plan a loving God may have for why our lives are so hard, and we just don't have a clue as to what to do next.
In my experience, when I feel I have no power whatsoever over the largest arena of my life - what you might call the macrocosm - the only shred of power I can exercise is over the microcosm - the smallest realities of what is right in front of me each minute. During very hard times, when friends have asked "how's your life going?," sometimes I have said "Well, I don't understand my life at all, I don't have a clue what to do from here in any large sense. But I do understand how to straighten that picture on the wall, how to sweep the floor, how to sing and play guitar, how to make myself a decent meal, how to do my spiritual practices, how to be reasonably kind to others, so that's what I'm doing. I'm doing the simplest things I still understand how to do."
Do you understand the biggest picture of your life? Probably not. But do you understand how to jiggle the toilet handle to stop that sound of water being wasted? Yep. Do you understand how to heal your damaged relationships? Maybe not. But do you understand how to share that last piece of pie with whomever is at the table who also wants it? Yep. I admit, the things we don't understand seem a lot bigger and more important than the petty little things we do understand, but ironically, if anything is going to help us to get in better shape for those big things, it's paying attention to the little things and doing them well. As my son's acting coach once told him, when you get out on the stage, you have to start from exactly where you are. If where we are is total confusion, then we need to look at the most immediate thing in front of our noses, no matter how trivial it may seem, just find one tiny little thing that is not confusing, and attend to it.
I've had a string of very tough years recently, and I've been at a total loss to understand the purpose of some of the setbacks I have experienced or what I am supposed to do with them now. But I know how to sing. I understand what that's about. I love it. I can pour myself, my soul, all my emotions, into every song I sing. Thank God for music, it has saved my life on many days. It doesn't change any of the conditions of my life, but it keeps me going. I also know how to build things, how to make things out of wood. Something else that I understand. So I do those things too. When I see a hitchhiker on the side of the road, that's a human being who is hoping I'll pull over right now. I understand that. So I can do that too, even if they're a little flaky or smelly or annoying. Everybody's just doing their time the best way they know how. I understand that.
So even when we feel life is a cruel joke that we seem to be the butt of, even when we feel stripped of all power over our lives, there are still things we can understand, and power we can express, in the little immediate choices we make. Sometimes God has us in a headlock and we can barely breathe, and it just seems He is not going to let go anytime soon. Well, do we believe that God is cruel for no reason, or do we believe that even if the headlock feels horrible, God's got something in mind that will be revealed when the time is right? That's another choice we can make, another form of power - the choice of faith. Not a sappy "New-Age" type of denial-based faith that tries to put a pretty face on everything negative, but rather a deep choice of faith that includes all the negative and harsh experiences life may be throwing at us.
The ancient Carthusian sect of Christianity used the expression "the darkness of faith." We can be in a very dark place and still have faith that God is behind the darkness, that God creates the darkness, that there is a purpose - even if it is excruciating - to the darkness. Feeling harshly treated by God is very different from feeling there is no God. Even feeling abandoned by God is not the same as feeling there is no God. When Jesus cried on the cross, Father, why have you abandoned me?, don't forget, he was still calling to his Father whose existence he was not questioning. I knew a mentally ill woman many years ago who was furious with Jesus for allowing her to be mentally ill. She had hundreds of little sticky-notes pasted on her walls with angry diatribes to Jesus. When I tried to counsel her a little about not being so angry toward Jesus, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Don't interfere in a lovers' quarrel!" At that moment I realized the incredible strength of her faith, and I did indeed shut up. Faith is not always pretty. But being angry with God is very different from feeling there is no God.
Life is extremely hard for most of the people on this planet right now, including most of the people reading this newsletter. Life is hard. What do we have power over and what do we not have power over? The word "macrocosm" means, basically, the biggest arena of life, and the word "microcosm" means the smallest arena. For those of you in prison, the macrocosm includes your prison sentence, the courts, the parole authorities, decisions that your family members may make in your absence, losing contact with your children - all the big structures and groupings you cannot control. You may have some influence, but very little real power over the macrocosm of your life. Really, no one does. Anything could happen to any of us at any time.
The microcosm of your life is the part of your life that is right there in front of you all through the day, over which you have a lot of power - especially the power of how you respond to the conditions and people in your daily life. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, said the ultimate power no state, no force, no outside entity, can take away from us is the power of how we respond to anything life hands us. That is the microcosm.
The microcosm is what lies within our grasp, it's what lies in the realm of our range of choices. We can live today in such a way that at least we have not made our big problems in the macrocosm any worse. We can live today in such a way that we have strengthened our good qualities and hopefully weakened our bad habits, addictions, and selfishness. We can live today in such a way that we have said at least one kind word to a stranger or to someone who feels lonely and uncared about. We can live today in such a way that we gave more than we took, that we paid life back for the air, water, food and space we used up today by being a decent human being who did some simple things we knew and understood how to do, and we did those things well.
I have studied the bibles of all the world's great religions and I have read many ancient scriptures, and I even have an honorary doctorate in theology, yet neither I nor anyone I have ever met knows how to guarantee any results on this worldly plane of activity where so often it looks like the bad guys win. Jesus was crucified, people tried many times to kill Mohammed and Buddha and Krishna, innocent monks and nuns and saints and seers have been burned at the stake, boiled in oil, drawn and quartered, thrown into dungeons. We all do our best to change the world into a place of greater peace and harmony and yet it seems like that is a never-ending struggle over which we have very limited power. So we start from wherever we are - even the most awful, dark, miserable places in our minds and hearts - and we try to do one little simple thing right. And then another. And then another. That may be the most ultimate application of the practice of Mindfulness. It may help to keep us intact while God is busy putting us through the through the larger trials and struggles of our spiritual journeys.
Microcosm & Macrocosm
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