Powerlessness as the Path to Spiritual Awakening

I was dragging the kids through Target on a Sunday afternoon to buy end-of-the-year teacher gifts and follow that errand with a grocery run, and my phone rang. It was my mom, and she was on the way to the hospital to meet my grandparents there.
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I was dragging the kids through Target on a Sunday afternoon to buy end-of-the-year teacher gifts and follow that errand with a grocery run, and my phone rang. It was my mom, and she was on the way to the hospital to meet my grandparents there. They'd gone to church that morning and had to leave the service shortly after it began because of a sudden and severe headache for my grandmother. This is a woman who never complains, so I knew. We all knew. She had a hemorrhagic stroke, the less common type. She has defied the odds so far, and I have learned enough about life to know that you cannot make assumptions. We are all in that in-between space alongside her. That space of not knowing what the future holds, the excruciating absence of clarity and certainty. We know nothing other than what is in front of us. Her influence on my life is evident to anyone's eyes. I can't think of many childhood stories that do not involve my grandparents in some way. I grew up on family property that placed our house alongside theirs, and I ran the path between the two everyday. There are specifics etched in my mind that belong to only her.... The particular taste of every dish she makes. The sound of summer crickets louder than our own voices as we sat on her back porch with droves of cousins and jars of fireflies we'd chased in her yard. The way she's taught me to identify and nurture the plants that overflow on my own patio now. The Baptist hymns that still ring in my ears as I listened to them seated next to her in church for years. Every Christmas Eve of my 35 years spent at her tree. The way she'd crawl in to bed with me and pat my leg as I fell asleep when I spent the night with her as a child. Snapping beans in deep bowls and buckets as their huge summer garden delivered to us every July. The list is endless, and it will always be. Forever and forever. And as she faces this chapter of her own life, she continues to teach me powerful lessons just as she always has. Lessons on love and loss and tenacity and surrender. The illusion of control is a powerful one, isn't it? We walk around all day in an attempt to convince ourselves that it must be true, that we are in charge and that life is predictable. We make plans and follow through and pretend that everything will always be that way. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr explains spiritual awakening: "The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men's work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We're all talking about the same necessary step." Wisdom only comes from hardship, doesn't it? Real transformation and understanding only come from a place of absolute nothingness and uncertainty. I wish there was an easier way to get there, but there isn't. These past few years of my life have felt like one emptying after another. But maybe that is just because I'm awake and paying attention and allowing the surrender. I'm recognizing the uncertainty and loosening my grip that once held so tightly. I've grown in immeasurable ways from loss and suffering over the past few years. It's like dragonflies or cicadas who molt as they transition from one form to another. I see so clearly what I've shed and left behind, and this chapter in my family's history - wherever it may lead in the immediate future - is the same for me again. My grandmother is in and out of understanding right now, depending on how tired she is in that given moment. But her eyes are the same. And family has been there all week to see her. Each of us holding her hand as she heals, helping in any small way we can, and speaking gently to her worn-out body like a little baby. Every time I leave the hospital, I feel both sadness and joy, worry and peace, confusion and understanding, defeat and victory. And I want to scream so loudly that none of it even matters, none of it. The things that fill the minds of people all day long in their cars and at their jobs and in their homes at night. How much money is in your bank account. How shiny your car is. How large your home is. The list of professional accolades that follow your name. Whose name is stamped on a handbag or what you look like. None of it matters at all, and though I thought I saw that in these months that have passed in my own life, I am seeing it even more now. I'm losing tolerance for people who just don't get it. So many of us walk around our whole lives avoiding the real truth and leaning on these tangible signs of worthiness and never truly seeing into the life of things. Society tells us suffering is punishment, but it is a gift if you find meaning in it. Any time I feel fear or doubt, I can find so much comfort by looking at my life in the rearview. Every step and every turn and everything that appeared to be a coincidence at that time wasn't a coincidence at all. Now I see how it molded and changed me and chiseled away the pieces to reveal something I never knew could take shape. Why would I doubt that life is still revealing piece-by-piece what lies ahead? Paulo Coelho calls it "the mysterious chain that links one thing to another." Some things in life cannot be understood logically or explained, but they are somehow more real than all the other mess that guides our days. I've watched family and friends pass along kindness for my grandmother in these days that have passed, and I've heard their own anguish and worry about her condition in a way that goes beyond usual sentiments when someone is sick. I'm not the only one who has felt her influence on my life's path. She has touched everyone she's met in her decades here. And it is simple really - when I see what she has spent her life doing, the way she's become so cherished to other people. She encountered unspeakable pain and suffering in her life, but she found meaning there and allowed it to deepen her understanding of the world around her. She loved. The real way. Without attention to outside signs of worthiness. She knows that someone's worth is inherent, that it cannot be bought or earned somehow. And though it is so painful to watch the hand of time and see it this closely and personally, it fills me up in the best way to see others returning the love she delivered to the rest of us for decades. That mysterious chain that links one thing to another just stretches on and on, doesn't it? Forever and forever.

**** A variation of this post originally appeared on Katie's blog Mama the Reader. You can follow along there or on Facebook as she explores life as a writer, a reader, and a single mother.

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