“We tend to run around trying to solve the problems of our world while anxiously avoiding confrontation with that reality wherein our problems find their deepest roots: our own selves. In many ways we are like the busy executive who walks up to a precious flower and says: ‘What for God’s sake are you doing here? Can’t you get busy somehow?”’and then finds the flower’s response incomprehensible: ‘I am sorry, but I am just here to be beautiful.’ How can we also come to this wisdom of the flower that being is more important than doing?” Henri Nouwen).
COVID 19 has changed almost everything about our lives. Schedules are disrupted, plans are canceled, emotions are swirling. For several months, we have had to remake how we handle life and/or deal with constant anxiety.
This came home to me recently when a friend said she was excited about having her whole family home in a few days but concerned because she wasn’t feeling up to “doing” for everyone. So when I read Henri Nouwen’s story of a flower who was criticized for just “being” what she was meant to be – beautiful,- I sent it to her immediately. I suggested a spiritual discipline to help her get through the week without fretting about what other people were doing that she “should” be doing. I suggested that she pick a beautiful flower and put it in her bedroom. Then when she was tired or in pain, she could retreat to her bedroom, gaze at the flower that was doing nothing but being beautiful, and remind herself that it’s okay to just “be” for a while.
I believe that many people whose modus operandi is doing, serving, and taking care of everything can use the COVID pandemic as a teaching tool. Let’s take some of our open blocks of time to sit back and just be. As Nouwen says, often our running around solving the world’s problem happens because we are trying to avoid the inner work of confronting our own motivations and needs. Perhaps now we have time for being and becoming.
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Today I read a blog by Melissa Strek in the Reformed Journal describing an experience her professor chose for their last class on “dialogue across differences. Her professor invited the students to lie on the floor, close their eyes, feel their breath in their bodies, and notice where their flesh made contact with the ground beneath them. Then he said, “Imagine that as you lay here, you discover that your skin has a zipper. You discover that your skin can be removed. Imagine yourself – gently, slowly – unzipping your skin, from head to toe. You remove it, leave it here on the ground, and walk away from it. What would you feel?”
Slowly, a handful of students of color shared their experience – feelings of liberation, and relief, of overwhelming sorrow for all they’d endured, of being honored and humanized, of excitement at the possibility of being seen for who they really are.
The author timidly shared how she felt. “I felt desperate walking away from my skin, wanting to jump right back into it because it protects me. It allows me to be automatically taken seriously and causes everyone to assume the best of me. I wanted to zip back into my skin because it keeps me safe and doesn’t require me to change and shields me from consequences; it amplifies all the good things about me and drowns out the bad things.”
More of us should try this very revealing exercise. Here are some things I thought of:
1. If we didn’t have skin color to define us, how would we relate to others?
2. How much does my white skin protect me in 202o?
3. How much does my husband’s very black skin put him in danger?
4. What are the things that lie beneath our skin that we are happy to hide? Here are some things my skin covers up: a critical spirit, fears and anxiety, thoughts of not being treated fairly – the list goes on. I have worked on eliminating these unChristlike attitudes, but right now I surely wouldn’t want everyone to see the real me all the time.
5. How can we “fix” the things that lie beneath our skin so that we can be as open to others as if we had no separating skin?