Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

Scan 3

A Lifetime of Gratitude

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I don’t like the custom of sitting around the holiday table and sharing that for which I am thankful.  I always feel self conscious and believe I need to express something spectacular or worth mentioning.  Having heat in our home when so many go without shelter or the fact that we can afford to pay the utilities top my list of blessings.  The mere fact that I am alive and able to prepare some portion of the meal always seems like an obvious choice for sharing.  Yet when it comes to gratitude, I can think of a thousand things a day that inspire my awe and thankfulness.  Right now I see remnants of fall, tall oak trees retaining their leaves until new ones buds, shrubs that vary in color from a rosy salmon to deep plum.

I remember many years ago when I was nearing age 40, I decided to throw a party for myself.  It had become clear that I needed to learn to celebrate myself instead of bemoaning the fact that no one was surprising me with a celebration.  I diligently made a list of about 90 people, some friends, others colleagues to invite.  I showed it to my friend, Terry, who smiled and gently said, “Lerita, you cannot fit 90 people in your town home.  Why don’t you invite the 40 people who helped you to make it to age 40?”  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Thus, a simple and elegant party with friends from my varied life of work, church, sewing, and book club became one of my most treasured memories.

Now that I am past the season that emphasizes shopping and baking I find myself yearning for more simple moments of gratitude.  Pausing for some reflection on this and the 22nd Anniversary of my heart transplant, I decided to make a list of the top five people or occasions that fill my heart with joyful appreciation.  These are moments of light or enlightened people who brightened me in the darkness and who made me the person I am today.  Here is what is on my all time gratitude list.

1) My parents, but not for the typical reason people give. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without them but I thank my parents most for being so hard-working, devoted to their children, and self sacrificing so my siblings and I could attend Catholic or Christian school.  Catholic school is where I learned to be disciplined and to orient my day around the Great Spirit.  At an early age and in this setting, I became aware of an unseen but very present Spirit available for comfort and guidance.  Thank you Mom and Dad, for all of the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices.  I wish you were still physically present so I could express my thanks with many hugs and kisses.

2) A heart transplant 22 years ago.  I cannot think of anything that is more transformative than to face death.  I realized that I had to shift from being a driven workaholic to thinking about something and someone other than myself and my career.  Despite the terror and outright physical suffering involved, my transplant triggered a spiritual awakening in me that is beyond measure.  The trauma demanded that I cultivate trust, create an awareness of the love and care from others and generate in me a totally different way of viewing life.  I now understand that life is about forgiveness, healing, love, connection, peace and joy.

3) Fall. The simple, elegant, and natural beauty of fall leaves me in awe each year.  It is by far my favorite season (with the exceptional beauty of spring following in second place).  Each October-December, I look outside of my bedroom or office window into a yard of varying colors of greens, yellows, browns, and fiery red leaves.  The Japanese maple trees were particularly spectacular this fall.  So many of them look like they were on fire.  I cannot believe that people rush past them or can drive down a tree-lined street without being moved by the colors.  Quite frankly, I pause, frequently because I find it disheartening to see something so beautiful without acknowledging its existence.  I suspect the same could be said for falling snowflakes and new snow.  But there is some special about yellow, orange, and tan leaves across a backdrop of green leaves and forest green pines.

4) My spiritual teachers.  I still remember when, Jan Willis (author of Dreaming Me: Black,  Baptist and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey) taught my college roommate and me, how to meditate.  We didn’t have any idea what we were doing as we sat cross-legged on the floor, with our beads, chanting a Sanskrit mantra for Dorje Sempa, the deity to end all suffering.  The practice of finding a way to quiet my mind, whether through chanting, focusing on my breathing or being still, opened me to an entirely new world of readings by wisdom figures from all over the world.  Since that time I’ve been moved and blessed by the teachings of Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, Rumi, Hafiz, Richard Rohr, Nan Merrill, Joyce Rupp and a host of others.  Now when I take my daily quiet time, I read a prayer or inspirational reading in English with the same intention; to heal, to be a healer and to end all suffering in the world.

5) An awareness that there is something more in the world than what I see with my physical eyes.  I know there is an energy force of Love that permeates everything and that Stillness holds it all together with a deep peace.  I feel happy that I can dialogue with Something more vast than my mind can imagine.  If I had to choose just one thing to be thankful for, it would be a growing awareness of the Presence and that I can turn inward at any time to access whatever guidance I need.

This deep sense of gratitude is what is motivates me in this new year and on this special day in which I honor my heart donor, Jody Goetz and her family as well as hold my kidney donor, Jennifer Lund in that gift of a heart.  During the holiday season I tended to rail against all of the commercialism, emphasis on gift giving, and seemingly temporary concern with those less fortunate.  Now I don’t have to focus on what I don’t like when I can concentrate on what easily pleases me.

I will always be grateful for my parents, heart and kidney transplants, fall, spiritual teachers, an expanding spiritual awareness, and the people who have helped me to remain alive and thrive.  I find the love sparks great peace and joy in my heart.

So what’s on your top five list of people, places or events that create a deep sense of gratefulness in you?  Can you nurture this spirit in yourself today and maintain during 2017?  Will creating an all time gratefulness list and sharing the spirit of gratitude bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?