Weeping at the Well

There is an old Zen teaching story that goes like this: The parents of an unruly teenager in desperation at their lack of success in getting him to behave, ask his uncle--a Zen priest in a mountain temple--to come speak to the boy.

He arrives and on the first day the uncle says nothing. The parents understand: he needs to survey the situation. The second day he continues his silence. The parents say to themselves, "well, he is very Zen. He'll speak when necessary." The third, fourth and fifth days go by without the uncle saying a word and now, on the sixth day, it is time for him to leave. The boy, following tradition, brings his old uncle his sandals and places them on the old man's feet. Suddenly a drop of water hits the boy's hands: he looks up and his uncle is looking at him tenderly, crying.

That's the story. Perhaps it is meant to show the way of Zen, its indirect subtly of action, its Taoist "action by no action." One imagines that readers are supposed to think the boy wakes up from his teenage rebellion and sees the truth of the adult world. But for me this story is about the uncle's confrontation with something he cannot change, with something that must change by itself, for itself. It is about the uncle's face-to-face with the Unsolvable. All he can do, without a thought for what might be in the future, is to relate to what is. He begins to weep.

This morning while reading the morning news over a cup of tea, I read that the criminal sentences of the men who brutally killed an Afghan woman, wrongfully accused of defaming the Koran, were greatly reduced. They will probably be out of jail in a few years. These men stabbed her, threw her off a building, ran over her with a car--twice--and, as she pleaded for her life, burned her alive. Turning the page, I saw a picture of several mothers in Brazil holding and kissing their micro encephalitic babies, victims of the Zika virus. I then read more about the vulgarity of the Republican debates and listened to a recording of Donald Trump doing a pitch for his business in the middle of his victory press conference. I read about the lead calamity in Flint.

My wife, an artist, is preparing a show of tiny clay figurines in the throes of the after-effects of rape, inspired by the lives of countless women in the Congo and other places where rape is used as a weapon. I saw pictures of refugees at the borders of Europe, people lost in the interstices of events, people escaping barrel bombs filled with suffocating chlorine. All over the earth, people are being encouraged to express their lowest feelings and thoughts in mutuality with their leaders. There seems to be nothing like "permission" from authorities to ease one's own suffering by projecting its causes onto some other group. We are living in ship of fools, floundering on the rocks.

But I'm not writing here to balance all this horror with words of hope or counterweight these terrible things with the avoirdupois of the progress we have made. Really what I want to do is face the Unsolvable directly, the way that uncle did, with weeping. And I'm wondering if we could become--just for a day--a nation of people weeping.

Please set aside your fear of feeling powerless, your judgments about weeping being weak or anything else that might stand in your way. Those thoughts are all wrong. When my father was among the first to enter Buchenwald and saw truckloads of the naked dead, hundreds sprawled over each other like piles of filleted fish in a marketplace, I imagine he wept. If he didn't at that moment, he probably suffered the rest of his life with this unexpressed grief. When we weep, we are expressing our love of life.

We have a right to weep at the well. The well is our greatness and potential. The well is singing children and geniuses who peer into the universe to find out where we are. And spiritual people who help and workers who are supporting their families and lovers ready to love. And so much of this is wasted, burned by the acid of our lowest nature, which is in all of us, you and me included.

What will weeping accomplish? The fact is, we don't know. That is not the nature of how things get solved when we face the Unsolvable. A forest, in order to be healthy, needs to have its ecology entirely connected. The positive and negative, the drought and flood, the ravaging insects and the helpful ones, all dance together and, over the long run, make the forest flourish. By accepting the totality of life, the forest stays a forest, an ongoing stream of life. It is not angry. It does not deny anything. It does not solve anything. It lives however and creates a home for beauty.

What ground will our weeping water? I'm not sure, but because it is part of the truth of our lives, I know it is an essential ingredient to our human forest, to our world of sentient beings. And if my hunch is right, the addition of this moment of universal weeping for our state of being, these tiny tears, might change the course of the river of destruction we find ourselves in, not by the addition of a new idea but by the inclusion of a little piece of truth that needs to be present: We are regretful. We are hoping for the best but often see it pass us by. We are weeping at the well, filling it with water--an impossible task--because somehow, despite all logic, when everyone takes a moment to weep, a river of kindness sometimes rises to do the impossible.

So I am suggesting that we just react as a people to what is, and let our little grievances with each other go so that we can allow the real grief we have about all of this to surface. Then our weeping might be--just for a moment--thunder, waking us up moment by moment to our sane response, our tears, to the actual pain of the world.