I Wish I Knew How | October 24, 2021 by Dr. Kathryn Benton
I cannot listen to our opening music without thinking of Fellowship Church and especially of our musician, Johnny Land. The first time I heard that song, I thought I would burst…burst in the great joy of being alive. It is, it seems, a universal experience of life…all life.
I was observing my grandson, Fred Jr., the other day and saw this universality of experience in action. Freddy spends the most joyful part of his day outside in the backyard. He is companioned by our dogs, as well as the squirrels, birds, insects and plants, but most of all by the ground…the dirt. Of course, we know what this means when we get him back inside but to Freddy it is apparent that this is where he feels most at home and most joyful and creative. He has, I think, a very real sense of the “ground of his being” …the ground of all being. He relates to all instances of life in a similar way. He is extremely curious. He wants to know how these other beings experience life. When he hears a bird, he points his finger up to the trees…to the sky and tries to whistle. He looks at me as if to say, “I Wish I Knew How…”. He shows a similar curiosity when it comes to the dogs. He follows them around, sometimes on all fours sniffing the ground and even drinking out of their water dish! He stands, frozen, hunched over when he sees an insect crawling along. He looks at me, as if to say, “I Wish I Knew How”. Freddy doesn’t really differentiate between the different types of living things. He is equally curious about the plants…the trees, the flowers, the grass. And he is profoundly connected to the rocks and the sticks, the leaves and the nuts. He carries each of these objects around…carefully inspecting it and sometimes showing them to the dogs or to me. This urge to know how it feels to be another human being, a dog, a bird, a tree is universal, and I think it is natural that we are born, equipped for this experience…this drive. At a certain level, we know that we belong to each other…regardless of our species…regardless of our form. Howard Thurman spent some time in his book, The Search for Common Ground, on this topic. He quotes Jane Steger from her book, Leaves from a Secret Journal. She wrote:
I would like to get inside of my maple and see what it feels like to be a tree. Perhaps I was a tree once long ago, at one stage of my journey from an atom to an angel…I can scarcely remember the time when I did not have this inexplicable yearning to get inside of growing things and taste, as it were, their consciousness.
Freddy would have liked Jane (and Howard Thurman as well, I suspect). They understood the profound connection we have to all life. They understood the universality of experience that we are born with, which, it seems is trained out of us…because of our experiences of separation… of alienation within ourselves, in our relationships with each other and in our participation in a culture that has dominated the natural world of our birth to the point of “fouling our own nest”. It is clear that at the heart of Freddy’s experience is this universality…this sense of belonging that can foster care for ourselves, each other and all life. Howard Thurman put it this way:
There is a boundless realm of which all particular life is but a manifestation.
Freddy’s particular life, as well as the life of the bird or a tree is a manifestation of this “boundless realm”. It seems that it is this “boundless realm” that Howard Thurman is always “on the scent of”. His consideration of this “search” …the search for common ground…a common root, so to speak. Ahead of his time, Thurman envisioned the universe “held together by a ‘boundless’ boundlessness.” He spoke of the “structural dependency” of life as expressive of an “exquisite harmony” that he saw as being at the heart of the concept of community. He states that we are held together by the relative stability of relationship…we are dependent on each other. Freddy certainly knows this and let’s hope that he never forgets it. We belong to each other and need each other to live. Thurman states that even our idea that we are separate entities is a fallacy. He went so far as to say:
There is a constant and flowing interaction between the organism and the larger environment, and each change in the environment is reflected in that organism. In fact, it seems very difficult to make a clear distinction between the external and internal environment of the organism.
He is right, of course. We often think of ourselves as separate and distinct. That kind of thinking is what has gotten us into this mess we are in. But if the truth be known, there are no distinct boundaries between us…physical and psychological. We are, in a sense all part of one another. And this is what makes Thurman’s search so important. We need to take this search seriously, for this search is not over. We have so much more to learn so that we can change course. A teacher of mine, Joanna Macy spoke of The Great Turning. She described this as a necessary step as we realize our plight. She is not alone in this search for solutions to our current situation. Could the world be about to turn?
Only with this realization…that our lives are all connected and that what affects one affects all, can we find solutions to our grave challenges. We must come to terms with the fact that all life is a search…much like Freddy’s search each day. Life is a search to understand our common ground…the boundless boundlessness that undergirds our existence. The search is also an attempt to understand our own fragility and strength and through this understanding, finding our own place as part of the whole.
And our search is not over, just as Freddy’s is just beginning. I learn each day from the people that I encounter about the boundlessness that undergirds life. I learn how we can come to the end of our rope…the experience of deep depression…of anxiety…of horrendous circumstances that lead to poverty…a material poverty and a poverty of spirit and yet even then, even when we are “stripped to the literal substance of ourselves” perhaps especially when this is true…this is when we can reach into that “boundless realm” and connect with that curiosity that says, “I Wish I Knew How”. It is a realm in which we can find the joy of our birth…the joy of being alive. When we have nothing else…we have life. Again, Nina Simone said it best…
This day, we do have life…we have our bodies and our minds…we have our companions…the trees, the food, the water, the air. Maybe we even have human or animal companions or a sense of the all-pervading spirit. This is what we need in order to sense our relatedness to the boundless realm of which we are all a part.
Thurman came to the end of his consideration of the search with a declaration of hope…a summary of the journey he took looking into the beginnings, the living structures, the prophet’s dream, the common consciousness and a sense of identity. This is the hope of the tree and the hope of the Turning. It is the hope that we will have learned life’s lesson that Freddy apparently already knows. May we listen to the song of the bird, the rustling of the leaves, the barks and howls of the dog, and the voice of all our relations, telling us of our common heritage and our collective future. May we be part of the Great Turning…the turning toward each other and toward the Great Spirit of life.
Then the wisest among them will say: What we have sought we have found, our own sense of identity. We have an established center out of which at last we can function and relate to [others]. We have committed to heart and nervous system a feeling of belonging and out spirits are no longer isolated and afraid. We have lost our fear of [others] and are no longer ashamed of ourselves, of who and what we are – Let us now go forth to save the land of our birth from the plague that first drove the will to quarantine” and to separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls. For this is why we were born: People, all people belong to each other, and the one who shuts herself away diminishes herself, and the one who shuts another away diminishes himself. And all the people said Amen.