I aced geometry in high school, and I had a particular fondness for proofs. Taking a formula and dismantling it step by step in order to determine whether or not it was accurate was a process I enjoyed. It was orderly and rational, with only a single, unambiguous answer. Simply put, it was clean.
If this, then that. Problem solved.
But beyond numbers and formulas, life is far more messy. Trying to squeeze an experience into a single box or deconstruct its smaller elements in an effort to “prove” it is specifically one thing or another rarely inspires any real understanding of a situation. More often, it diminishes my ability to allow the entire range of experiences available to me in any given moment or circumstance. When I insist on precise labels and classifications, the left side of my cerebrum - the part of my brain responsible for things like judgment, reasoning and problem solving - might feel satisfied, but my soul and spirit will rebel. That deep, mysterious space within and around me, which is my very humanity, capable of things like emotion, empathy and compassion, can’t fully express itself with all those walls and boxes. My soul wants to tear the walls down and let everything in.
If this, then that. And that. And that and that. And at the same time, this other thing is also happening, which seems like it should contradict the original this, but it doesn’t. Instead, it actually brings it into sharper focus; each of the opposing ideas ends up helping me understand both of them that much more.
I woke up last week, like you, to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas. I didn’t read much about it online, but instead got a tiny understanding of the horror of it from a friend who knew people who were at the concert, two of whom were killed. Seeing the waves of shock, sadness and anger wash over her was enough for me during those first 24 hours after the shooting. I didn’t need to visit CNN to learn more, a rabbit hole that would have likely had me thinking a move to a remote area in Greenland might have been a better idea than Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was another one of those moments - the ones that are happening with alarming frequency these days - when I feel overwhelming sorrow for the state of our world. If it’s possible for a man to stockpile enough weapons and ammunition in a hotel room to kill more than fifty people in nine minutes, then this world must be truly awful.
A couple of days later, my husband and I took Tilda for a walk in a dog park near our new house. It is a large area with wooded trails and a big space for dogs to play. We were there in the morning and it was chilly enough to see our breath, but the sky was clear and blue and the leaves on the trees seemed to sparkle. Everyone we encountered was friendly, and all the dogs got along - labs, retrievers, terriers, and shepherds. As it always goes when I’m around a pack of dogs playing together, I was laughing most of the time. Walking back to our car, I took in the woodsy smells all around me by closing my eyes and taking big inhales, and was reminded that the world isn’t lost just yet. There is still, I believe, more goodness than we give it credit for.
It is both/and. The world is full of dark, evil forces as well as kind, courageous souls. There is still much I want to experience and explore, and following those longings might very well place me in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. This could be in India or at a movie theater. It is entirely possible I, or someone I love dearly, could meet with a violent end. And who’s to say - maybe what’s on the other side is not at all bad. Maybe passing on to the next realm, whatever it is, is going to be the greatest of all possible adventures.
There is no reconciling these truths or trying to make sense of the ones that are horrifying - the ones we’re lambasted with from every angle on social media. There is no running away or trying to hide from any of it. Instead, what I try to remember is that all things are possible. Sometimes that can feel scary (there is never a time when I’m in a big crowd these days when I don’t think about whether or not there is an armed madman in our midst) and other times exhilarating. The question is which side of this fundamental fact of life I’m going to let rule my comings, goings, and choices.
Not long ago - within the last decade - I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan. It had been a dream for many years, a bucket list kind of dream, to see Petra. After careful consideration (it is the Middle East, after all) I decided to go, which led to a series of conversations that had me answering the question “Why?” Why would I want to be in a part of the world that’s generally considered to be unstable, violent, and unsafe, particularly for Americans? My answer was not unlike the one I wrote about last week in relation to our move to Wisconsin. I believe life is an adventure, and sometimes living in full expression of that belief is going to require me to take a risk.
And here we are, years later, when the unpredictable state of things in the Middle East has been amplified to a degree that would have me not saying yes to an invitation to go there. I am so happy I went when I did, because I’m not sure the opportunity will ever come my way again - which relates to the response I gave to anyone who wondered why I made plans to go there. The circumstances of my life and the world are in constant flux, so opportunities for the kind of adventures I’m longing for are not to be squandered. I could have played it safe and stayed home, but at that particular time making that choice would have been, for me, letting fear win.
I hear snippets of conversations around the idea of making it a personal policy to avoid certain areas and events - concerts, parades, even the Santa Monica Pier. And I get it. The media is teaching us that these are unsafe places where we have the potential to become nothing more than fish in a barrel. But if life is both/and - with darkness and light - how much of my own personal freedom am I willing to surrender in order to feel safe from the potential of violent harm? What are the boundaries I need to set in order to shield myself from the possibilities that feel the most arbitrary and cruel? Knowing I simply can’t cheat death, if I consider I could die of cancer, old age, a terrorist attack in a foreign country or because I happen to go to the grocery store the same day as some lunatic with rifle, I must learn how to discern between a no that is astute and sensible and one that is simply afraid.
At some point I will have to say no to whatever kind of engagement with the world I’m considering, but if I have a sense that this no is a little too jittery, I’m always going to ask myself whether or not that choice is, in effect, letting evil win. If I start relinquishing my ability to experience what life has to offer and to stand up for what I value and believe in - to LIVE - too much, then I’m letting the forces of darkness and terror have victory.
Life is both/and. Everyday, possibilities abound. Choices have to made - turn right, turn left, say yes, say no. What will guide the ones I’m called to make? Which side will I let win? The answer is rarely straightforward. It is rarely, if ever, clean.