Unaccommodated man is nothing but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art!
-- King Lear, III. iv.
When they ask me what I do for living, when I am so foolish as to answer them, there is a silence that seems to last the space of half an hour. Their jaws drop, their heads turn to the side and they get a watery look in their eyes. Oh, what a special person you are! How can you stand it? So much grief!
The easy answer is that some are cut out for it and some not. It's a little harder to say, "I don't experience it like that. I don't lose people, I find them." To enter so many stories, so many homes -- of rich people and poor, gay and straight, Anglophone and other-phone, is more real than a hundred novels. I'm not a better person than you, but these people made me a better person than I was.
A sick man lay in bed with his wife. None of us knew he would die the next morning. She twined around him, played with his hair, ran her fingers down his arm. We spoke softly of his symptoms, of relieving his pain, of reducing his fever. It was a hard thing she was doing, but she would bless herself for doing it.
Not the first time I was admitted to such a scene. A young man talked with me once about a vacation he would take with the woman he loved. He said that she was above all things for him, and that if she was with him it was all he needed. "You hearing this?" I said to her. She came in from the kitchen and lay down with him. They cradled each other, mindless of my presence -- no, mindful of my presence and admitting me. "I'm hearing it," she said.
Walking in Alphabet City a year or two later, I heard the word "Chap!" (that's what she had called me, short for "chaplain"). Strong, lean, tall and black in her long coat, she called across the street to me the whitest of men, who had once been a witness of her courage. "Chap!" she called. Nothing more to be said. She crossed the street and put her arms around me, and we held each other for half a minute. Nothing more to be said.
Yes, the veil has parted for me, and I have walked on the other side. I don't deserve it, but I don't have to deserve it.
A recovering perfectionist, born with addiction and raised in a way to nourish it, I know that if I don't do the thing exactly right it isn't the best, and if it isn't the best it's worthless. There's a voice that says I have to deserve my blessings, and show exactly why I deserve them. Perfectionists can get a lot of things right, but you can't spend time with them: they're always going somewhere else. I keep moving on, and mostly can't bear the sight of anything I made more than three years ago.
But I think I shall retain these scenes of recent years. I have no reason to reject them. They have nothing to do with me. They aren't exploits of mine.
To say I am recovering is to say that I name my addiction, and every day remind myself of its power to set the excellent against the good, inhibit growth, avert blessings, impoverish the banquet and make of the garden a desert. For instance, I have a gift for languages which never produces mastery. I have an actor's ear, and when I speak a foreign phrase people start chattering at me as if I could understand them. I ought to be competent in Spanish, but something holds me back. The insecure child in me, I suppose, can't stand mistakes. He hears the voice pronounce its judgment -- not good enough -- and so I do not learn.
And yet when this lazy soul walks out the door in the morning he has a reasonable chance of seeing something beautiful before he comes home. It's honest work. It's real work. It's not a test. I don't measure up to the standard of my imagination, but that's my problem, and signifies nothing as I go to meet the people. The trick is to lose yourself to find them, and in them find yourself again.
"Mercy imposes no conditions," said Dineson the storyteller. "Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another." The truth is I am no better than I should be, but "Everything we have chosen is granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. . . . for mercy and truth are met together."*
A lot of us suffer without deserving it, but all of us are blessed when we haven't earned it. We are poor forked animals together, glorious sometimes in the eyes of compassion, transfigurable by mercy.
Sometimes I walk on the other side of the veil. I haven't earned it. But I don't have to.
*Isak Dineson, "Babette's Feast," as adapted by Gabriel Axel in his screenplay. The passage is a riff on Psalm 85:10: "Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."