A reader of “Love Letter to America” wrote to me and said, “What wonderful words, but who will take them to heart? Those who understand already understand. Those who do not never will.”
Do you sometimes feel this way, too? I do. I often express my despair to those I’m closest to.
Yet I hope that we can resist caving in to despair and resignation, no matter how weary we become of feeling estranged from a society where we might have once felt at home; of caring about “the real stuff” when so few others seem to; of seeing things get worse when we’re trying so hard to make them better; of feeling isolated, small and “different,” as if we don’t matter or belong….
“When despair for the world grows in [you],” to paraphrase Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” “and you wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what [your] life and [your] children’s lives may be,” take a rest. Follow Berry’s example and turn your attention to nature. Tend to the body. Breathe a little deeper. Indulge in simple pleasures. Read what helps. Listen to what soothes. Do the next kind thing. Create. Seek the consolation of someone who loves you… It might take surprisingly little for you “to rest in the grace of the world, and be free.”
If your despair persists, though, I invite you to investigate its origins. You may find (as I usually do) that the taproot of despair stretches into the sticky clay soil of desires and expectations: “If I say this, or if I do that, then what I want to happen will happen.” We tend to invest ourselves in such thinking without realizing. Then, when the outcome proves other than what we’d wished for, we’re disappointed. One disappointment after another becomes an ugly shrub of despair. Once it takes root, it’s hard as the devil to pull up. It crowds out hope. Yet we’re the ones who planted it and watered it to keep it alive.
I remember a February day in 1999 when my friend James Murray and I were living by choice among the street people of Columbus, Ohio. (We wrote about our experiences in The Emptiness of Our Hands.)
Already by our third day on the streets, we were exhausted, footsore, and dazed by our own fragmentation. We hadn’t expected to fall apart so soon. Truth be told, in our ignorance we hadn’t expected to fall apart at all.
On the morning of February 19th, James led me onto the Broad Street bridge in the heart of the downtown. “Follow me,” he said. “I have a surprise.” In the preceding hours, we’d each been scavenging on our own. I thought maybe he’d found a stash of blankets, which we desperately needed. Or maybe he’d stumbled onto someplace secure and warm enough to sleep that night.
Halfway across the bridge, he stopped and leaned against the rail. For a few minutes the two of us watched the river swirling muddy brown down below. Then he yanked off a glove and reached into his coat pocket.
“Hold out your hand,” he said.
He laid a milkweed pod in my palm. Dead-brown, brittle, full of white seeds. I looked at him, puzzled. He had another pod in his hand. “I thought we could release the seeds over the river,” he said. “Kind of a ritual: for each clump of seeds, we can name something we’ve got to let go, in order to keep going out here.”
“Wonderful,” I exclaimed. I tugged off my gloves, better to grasp the tufted seeds.
“You first,” James said.
“I let go of my need for a good night’s sleep,” I said, casting a cottony fluff.
“I let go of my need for three meals a day.”
“My need to be warm.”
“To feel safe.”
“To have money.”
“To be clean.”
“To know what’s coming next.”
More and more white wisps of milkweed down floated over the churning water like tiny parachutes. A few would make it to land. Maybe one of them would survive to become a milkweed plant. And maybe one day a monarch butterfly would lay her eggs on the underside of its leaves.
“I let go of my need to feel loved.”
The necessity of the lowly milkweed: a monarch butterfly will lay her eggs nowhere else.
“I let go of my need to be me.”
One thing that James and I didn’t let go of by name during that morning’s ritual on the bridge was our need to control the outcome of our words and actions. Yet that became one of the central lessons we gained from our season on the streets.
The practice of letting go of the outcomes of our actions is one way to change the mechanism of our despair. If I write a “Love Letter to America,” I dare not expect America to understand it. Or agree with it. Or change because of it. America might not even read it. But I’ll still write that letter in hope. I’ll still say what I need to say and do what I need to do, for the sake of myself and everyone I care about—including you. What happens thereafter isn’t up to me.
You and I are mail carriers from a world of light. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. When we drop our envelopes and packages of light at someone’s door, we won’t stand there and wait to see if they’re retrieved. We won’t watch them being opened. We won’t witness the reactions of the recipients and form judgments on that basis. No, we let go of all expectations. Day after day, house after house, we’ll deliver some light from our mailbag, then continue on our way.