I’ve learned a lot working with the refugees and immigrants around New York State this year.
One of the most important lessons for me is that Americans are perpetually shocked when life happens to them in ways they don’t want or expect. The refugees are not.
They grow up in a culture where life, good and bad, happens all of the time, in ways that are unpredictable and often destructive. They accept their helplessness.
Mabito, whose family was killed in the Rwandan genocide, shrugged and smile sadly when I asked him how he coped with the death of his wife, sister, brother, mother, father and three children.
“There are places in this life,” he told me, “where you are completely powerless. You so much want to heal and be safe, for life to be predictable and understandable. But you cannot change the world yourself, you cannot keep life from happening, you cannot do it yourself. You either have to turn it over to God or be your own God.”
You have to acknowledge your own helplessness I heard him saying.
Mabito was a philosophy professor in Rwanda, he works for the city of Albany cleaning busses in their depot at night. He lives alone in a small one bedroom apartment near downtown.
His former life is unknown to the busy Americans around him, who are devastated by the loss of their cats and fish and dogs and spend years in mourning and recovery.
He says he will never marry again out of a need to honor his lost family.
He does not wring his hands or complain, he is not bitter or bewildered. He does not feel sorry for himself. Where he lived, life happens all of the time. It is not a shock to him.
In recent years, this is a lesson I have come to absorb, this idea of accepting life and of my own helplessness to control it.
I have friends who panic all of the time or are stunned when they get sick , or someone they know dies, or when their cars fail, or the roof is suddenly in urgent need of repair, or their cell phone has software problems.
We live in a fragmented, stressful, super-charged culture, when life occurs, we panic, or get impatient, even outraged. We can’t believe it when we have to wait on the phone to talk to someone, we can’t believe it when our dog dies or the power goes out.
For much of my life, I was one of these people.
I was terrified when something unexpected happen, a bill I wasn’t prepared for, a dryer that failed. Or a friend who gets cancer. Can I handle it? Why me? I looked for someone to blame, to be angry at. Look at what they are doing now!
When I wrote about my friend Ed Gulley and his brain cancer, someone send me an anguished message. “How could this happen?,” she asked, “How could we live in a world where this can happen?”
I didn’t respond to her, but I did think about her message, and how often I hear that or something like it.
We are human, we are frail, and our lives short and temporal. All kinds of things happen to us. I had a friend who was run over by a bus on his way to his first job. I had another who had a tree fall on his daughter while she was playing in a park.
How could it not happen? Who taught us that we could live perfect lives, that our cars would always run, that our roofs would never need repair, that our Internet would always work, that we would never sicken or die, that life would never challenge or surprise – or defeat us?
Life doesn’t ask us if we would like to get cancer, or lose our pets. Almost everyone reading this has lost or will lose a mother or father. There is a difference between being sad and shocked or panicked. Sometimes it seems we are losing the difference.
I have learned my powerlessness and accepted it. I surrender to it and shed the burden of disrespecting life and refusing to accept it. Death is as much a part of life as breathing, it will touch all of us. And it no longer surprises me when it occurs.
It has helped me greatly to never speak poorly of my life, or the things that occur in it.
I know that accepting life is terrifying in many ways, much like jumping off a tall building without a net. It requires faith and trust. Life will happen to me, it is not about if, it is about when.
How, then, to heal from life when it does happen?
I like one prophet’s advice: Think about myself as a little seed planted in the richest soil. All I have to do is sit still and accept that the seed contains everything I need to grow.
Then be silent, remember that I am helpless in the face of life, and be grateful for every good thing that i have ever been given.