Sometimes I spot a flock of birds, departing in mass from the branches of a barren winter tree. It always feels like a sad event to me.
Where once the birds seemed to provide warmth and company to the tree, now they are gone. Like departing souls of those we have loved and lost.
The branches, stripped of their leaves, are abandoned and alone now. Not unlike people, still of sound mind and limbs, but devoid of warmth and color.
Trees need only wait until Spring, and their leaves return. So do the birds, to build nests and begin life anew.
The question is whether we can wait until Spring, after the birds have flown from our souls. After the hardships and loss of loved ones, can we endure the winter long enough for the promise of Spring, with its gifts of renewal and hope?
The answer is yes, we can make it to Spring. We may miss the birds who have flown away, but to carry on, we must make peace with their ghosts.
Fighting epic personal battles
A few years back, the Irish philosopher Peter Rollins was a guest on Pete Holmes’s “You Make It Weird” podcast. In their illuminating conversation, Rollins talked about ghosts.
Rollins defined ghosts as “a presence of an absence. The echo of something gone.” He said that we are all haunted houses. And then he shared the following wisdom:
“We are all full of ghosts. People that we’ve hurt and people we have loved and people we have lost. And all of these things are in us. And we’ve got two options. We either push them down and try to forget about them and drink and party or we make peace with our ghosts. For me the option for having a full life is to make peace with our ghosts.”
In an interview in Dumbo Feather magazine, Rollins notes:
“If you randomly picked someone on the street and asked about their life, you would realise they were fighting epic personal battles. Everyone, in different ways, has fought battles and confronted traumas of various kinds. Even people whose lives have been relatively peaceful have struggled and suffered. It’s amazing that we can get anything done when we realise that.”
The trick to dealing with our ghosts is to face them. It’s easier to run, deny, or hide from uncomfortable things in our lives, but they never go away. In fact, when we ignore the ghosts, they tend to make us sick.
“We don’t really realise it, but then we have an outburst of anger for no reason, we burst into tears over some stupid film on television. Or we have migraines, bad backs, fatigue. We go to the doctor’s thinking it’s just a bad back! ‘Can you fix me?’ But they can’t find anything wrong, because sometimes your bad back is telling you something else. It’s telling you that you’re not looking at something, that you’re running from something. That you’re not wrestling with your ghosts and making peace with them.”
The little sparks
In the interview, Rollins mentions his reading of Simone Weil. Weil was a French philosopher, mystic, political activist, and author. Her book Gravity and Grace is a collection of her writings, exploring the topics of affliction, politics, love, and more.
She describes the world of gravity as the world of physical laws and internal laws. She explores violence, war, and suffering. But then she talks about grace, and how we cultivate it.
Gravity reflects the weight of the world, and the pressures bearing down on your shoulders. Your worries, concerns, and regrets.
Grace reflects love and hope. It’s the bright spot in your life. Your ghosts tend to keep you in the darkness, and it’s your job to open the windows. Let the light shine in. Feel the fresh breeze on your face.
Receiving and giving grace in this world warms your heart. It helps you to vanquish the ghosts in your life. It reminds you that the past doesn’t define the future.
Peter Rollins defines grace as:
“The little sparks, the little explosions within the world of gravity that invite us to repay war with peace, fire with water, hatred with love.”
The infinite call of the other
If we slow down and pay attention, there is grace all around us. It’s when you get a letter from a long-lost friend, out of the blue. Or a child hands you a flower. Or someone helps an elderly woman carry her groceries.
Rollins calls these moments of grace “the infinite call of the other.” And it’s up to us to respond to those calls and pay it forward.
It may be the lonely woman sitting across from you on the bus. Or the weary cashier in your local grocery store. If we are truly our brother’s keeper, then why not commit little acts of grace to lift their spirits?
Taking the time to ask how someone is doing, visiting an elderly person, or simply smiling and thanking a service person, all spread grace in this world. Such acts help you make peace with your ghosts. They help fasten you to the present, turn your focus to others, and reduce worry about the past.
We are condemned to freedom
Jean-Paul Sarte once said, “We are condemned to freedom.” As Rollins explains in the Dumbo Feather article:
“You have to take responsibility for what you do or don’t do. And no one will tell you exactly what the best way is to respond to your neighbour. You do it in fear and trembling. Cause none of us — whether we go to our religious tradition or to a fortune teller or tarot cards or a horoscope — can escape the responsibility for what we do.”
We are always in a battle between gravity and grace. Between the hardships and indignities of daily living versus those moments when the light shines down upon us.
If we are to defeat the ghosts in our personal haunted house, then we can’t settle for passivity. Doing nothing changes nothing. We must do the work of confronting our ghosts. Making peace with them.
How do we do that? For some, professional therapy may be the first step. For others, we can start taking better care of ourselves. We can forgive ourselves for past mistakes. We can forgive the ones who hurt us, too. There is grace in forgiveness.
Living in the past won’t move us forward. Worrying about the future doesn’t help much either. These are the places where ghosts lay in wait, ready to dispense stress and illness.
Start living in the present more. Help others. Embrace the grace found in daily living. The company of your partner. The joy of your children. The smiles found upon the faces of strangers.
This is how we win the battle between gravity and grace. This is how we release the ghosts in our haunted house. In this way, we can live again and spread some grace in the world.
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