stunning blossoms along the dry desert trail near my retreat house
Once again we have been bombarded with images of death and destruction as the tragic story of the Oklahoma tornado has unfolded over the past few days.
It seems as if there have been many horror stories of late - bombings, shootings, and now an entire town virtually leveled, an elementary school reduced to rubble, and children die once more.
When I see the images and hear the reports coming out of Oklahoma, my first response is deep sorrow, but the sense of sorrow is also accompanied by "bittersweet" feelings tinged with hope and promise, because I know that suffering can also be an occasion for profound healing and deep peace.
The Buddha taught that we human beings suffer most when we turn inward. We suffer when we are self-consumed, indulgent and isolated from others.
When disasters happen (like the Oklahoma tornado), some people respond by turning inward. They shake their fists at a God who they think caused or at the very least allowed the event to occur. People who suffer pain and loss may also isolate themselves from one another, retreating into a shell of depression and gloom. In this case, their anger and isolation is the true cause of even deeper suffering.
But, in my experience, more often than not, suffering offers us opportunities to reach outward, to be in relationship with God and to value and foster relationship with others.
In my life I have stood beside countless people who suffered loss who, instead of blaming God, felt the comfort of the abiding Holy Presence with them in the mist of all the mess. In my experience I have also seen example after example where suffering provided an occasion for people to reach out to one another with the arms of compassion.
When suffering and loss leads to deeper trust and richer relationships, suffering becomes a doorway to life and peace.
In a news report yesterday, a firefighter stood in the rubble of what was once an elementary school and pronounced, "As tragic as it was, this has brought out the best in us." I think he was right.
As the Oklahoma rubble is cleared, we hear of teachers who gave life and limb to protect their students, sprawling their own bodies over their young charges to save them from certain death when the tornado hit.
As the rubble is cleared, we see stories of how the entire community (the entire country) has come together in solidarity to help the victims of the disaster.
And then there are those touching images of families who have lost all they had, standing outside the debris and holding on to one another with greater tenderness and deeper intimacy because they still have one another--knowing that what really counts in life is that we have one another above all else.
Brilliant and exotic flowers bloom along the desert trails outside my retreat house. The brightest and the most beautiful flowers only bloom when the temperatures rise into the triple digits and the ground is as dry as it can get.
Today I pray for the people of Oklahoma, and for people who suffer everywhere, "May your lives blossom and bloom even in the driest of places, when the heat is unbearable."
It's all so bittersweet.