Franciscan Spirit Blog

Resilience and Struggle

I remember a haunting little memoir entitled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of the French fashion magazine Elle. At the age of 43, Jean-Dominique suffered a rare kind of stroke in his brain stem. He woke after 20 days in a coma. Only his left eye functioned. But his mind was unimpaired. He was frozen in a body that had but one meager way to communicate.

It’s the story about what it is like to be locked up, a prisoner in your own skin. I cannot imagine the terror, the claustrophobia. It is one thing to feel misunderstood; it is quite another to have utterly no recourse. To feel completely at the mercy of your body, medical advice, random opinions from others, the good will of friends and acquaintances, and above all else, silence. In this case, the indictment of silence.

It was in that world that Bauby learned to probe inlets of sanity, or as he called them, the “only window to my cell.” To fall prey to daydreams of walking and talking. To find the “hours drag on but the months flash by.”

And then this:
Far from such din, when blessed silence returns, I can listen to the butterflies that flitter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing.

This story does my heart good. It is a story about finding and embracing the sacrament of the present. A story about resiliency. And ultimately, about love. Love of life, and love of the self I bring to this life. This all sounds good on paper, but it is not an easy sell, especially when we live in a world where we are fueled by the promise of that imaginary day when all will be easier, or at least back to “normal.” Are we there yet? Are we done now?

Resilience is what happens when we give up control and are willing to embrace the ambiguity. And in that ambiguity, to hear—and to take delight in—the wingbeats of butterflies. To be here now.

Let us remember that, regardless of our circumstances, life pulls us inexorably toward love and beauty, even though they may be wrapped in aching pain and or delicious hope. To engage this pull, this fuel that feeds life, is the sacred necessity of resilience. Which means that resilience allows us to live with intention. Now. We do not put off until tomorrow what can be embraced, enjoyed, felt, or experienced today.

This includes our sadness, our disappointment, and our grief. Where does one get resilience? Or butterfly hearing? Is this a gene only given to the lucky?

Here’s the deal: We are not outrunning life. Or outrunning the bad parts of life. Resilience involves inviting all of life in…the longing, hunger, vulnerability, wildness, energy, uncertainty, appetite, hope, humor, beauty, and irony. Only when we embrace do we see. Only when we embrace do we hear with butterfly hearing.

I’m reminded of an article I clipped with a photo of a man giving a testimonial: “It made me feel like a human being again.” Is he referring to a church? To a mandatory therapy group? To a motivational seminar? To a New York Times bestselling book? No.

He is a former inmate in San Francisco County Jail. Now he is working with the San Francisco Garden Project. He is talking about feeling human again because of his work in a garden. The Garden Project is a program started for the jail by Cathrine Sneed. In an eight-acre garden, prisoners grow vegetables, and the organic produce is delivered to projects that supply food to seniors, homeless people, and AIDS patients. Above all, the organic, chemical- free garden is a living metaphor for the healthy lives the jail gardeners are trying to create.

Go figure. We go to great lengths (not to mention pay good money) to find balance, to name solutions for our emotional conundrums. The former inmate profiled in this article found the answer when he put his hands in the soil, planted a seed, and watched it grow.

Life pulls us inexorably toward love and beauty. And we find replenishment and balance in places of sanctuary. In sanctuary we do not close life off, we let life in…every bit of life, wholeheartedly, whether that is grief or sadness or bewilderment or gladness or joy. Yes, we can be here now.

Stand Still by Terry Hershey


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