This evening, I was heading to a meeting at 13th and Oak Streets from my home in the east end. On I-71, I found myself idling in traffic lingering from a long rush hour. I felt my anxiety grow as the minutes ticked on and the cars merely inched forward. I was facilitating our gathering's opening prayer and reflection, so my late arrival would crunch an already-full agenda. I was regretting not leaving sooner, not somehow anticipating this delay.
Then, like a fresh breeze through the fumes, grace cleared my heart. As I looked into the Louisville skyline, the setting sun cast a gold light over the tall buildings, the metal cars, the crimson trees so that all as far as I could see was touched and illuminated in its mundane splendor. I felt my mind soften; anxiety would serve no one. I felt gratitude well up inside for such a lovely moment and the space to pay attention to it.
I glanced to my left at precisely the right moment to see the next, breath-taking spectacle: a blue heron sailing so near and slowly over the stalled expressway that I could see her elegant legs tucked into her body as she flew directly over my car. Her long beak and gentle wingbeats, her steady and unhurried path through the air, was a wordless message from beyond myself. I looked right and watched her descend into the trees. Only then did the traffic begin to move again.
Twice today, two different friends shared this simple parable with me - the repetition gave me pause to listen with care:
A man was running from a pack of tigers when he suddenly came to a cliff. Quickly, he scurried over the cliff, clinging to some hanging vines to escape. But looking down, he saw more tigers below, looking up at him in anticipation. Then, he noticed a little mouse above him, nibbling the vine to which he clung. Tigers above, tigers below, an insecure perch. Glancing furiously around for an escape, his eyes landed on a vine of wild strawberries hanging within his reach. He then recognized just how beautiful the sunset looked from such a height. He reached over, plucked a strawberry, and savored it with all his will as he gazed into the setting sun.
I know these lessons have come to me because I need them. My straits are not so dire as the fellow clinging to the edge of a cliff - in fact, I am eager to dismiss my struggles because they seem like trivial preoccupations when compared to suffering near and far. There are not tigers immediately above or below me. There are vines and vines of strawberries at my fingertips. Many ache with longing for the faculties and resources to just hold on, like I can by no effort of my own.
But comparison does not change reality, it only undermines my experience of it. Neglecting my own pain is closing the door to awareness of our deeper, common pain. Tending to any pain can consecrate it, can transmute it in service of healing. So can tending to beauty. A wise mentor once said that, by fully savoring and using for good the privileges of my life, I could serve humanity by lending my experience to their utility. If I were to feel too guilty, unworthy, or afraid to use them, I would be squandering them on behalf of all Life.
There are always tigers above and below us. Oppressive systems that operate quietly in plain sight, corrupt leadership that perpetuates games of power, international conflict and gun violence that leave countless dead each day, old ways that keep us from manifesting what is meant to become, new threats that distract us from what it means to be human: these and many others are our common perils. If we are lucky, we cling to each other, waiting, working, hoping.
There are always strawberries and sunsets to savor. The fruit of true relationships, meaningful work, powerful community, deep engagement with the world; the light of gentleness, speaking truth, grounded introspection, compassionate action - these are what we must notice if we are to keep holding in the tension, with intention. Thank goodness we do not just look at the side of a cliff - we can look into each other's eyes and see the mirror of all that is most beautiful, most essential, in our perilous and precious human condition.
Eventually, I alighted off the expressway onto Market Street, due west. The evening air channeled through my open windows as the last strains of an operatic song floated from my car speakers. I looked over to see a festive cook-out happening in an urban park - neighbors laughed and ate while children played in front of graffiti across the lawn. Tables and tables of people and food, lovingly prepared and gathered in celebration on a Tuesday night. Tears sprang to my eyes at the common joy. Smoke rising from the grill caught the golden sun, and smiles all around emitted light. I watched them as long as I could, until they were out of sight.