Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cars, Bodies, and God

My 1994 stick shift is not as reliable as I'd like.  About three years ago, it just quit in the middle of the street.  No warning, no noise.  Just quit.  Turned out it needed a new engine.  My mechanic put one in.  Last year it often wouldn't start, even with a new battery.  This year it started stalling at the most inopportune times.  You might say, Get rid of that beast already!  If I could, I might.  But right now I can't, and since I prefer walking to driving, and I don't drive much, I've developed a driving practice:  I am grateful every time I arrive somewhere I need to be safely and without incident, and every time I arrive back home safely and without incident.  I actually lean forward, pat the dashboard and say, "Thank you!" or "Alhamdulillah" or something similar.   Every time.  My car--with its litany of problems--has taught me how to not take things for granted.

I try to apply this practice to everything in my life, especially my body.  I had whooping cough as a child, was anorexic in high school, and had chronic bronchitis and colitis in college and graduate school--all of which have left.  They taught me to remember to be grateful every morning I awake and every evening when I go to sleep that this complex vehicle gets me safely where I need to go and then home again, that this loyal friend has carried me through the day. One of my favorite morning prayers in the siddur (Jewish prayer book) helps me give voice to this gratitude:

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design.  Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist.  Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh, who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.

Would I be so thankful for arriving safely if I had a brand new car?  Would I be so grateful for my body if I had not experienced illness and pain?  Would I remember God now and be so grateful for that presence, if I had not  felt God's absence and abandonment in my life before?   I'd like to say yes to all these questions.  I wish I weren't the kind of human being who has to learn to recognize the good by experiencing the absence of good.   But I am.

I was reminded of this the other when I went to buy groceries.  I said "Isn't it a beautiful day?" to my friend David, who sells Real Change outside my neighborhood Trader Joe's.  I was thinking, How great that it's sunny and not raining, What a day to rejoice in and be thankful for.  It's true--any day in Seattle that the sun shines is cause for dancing in the streets.  But David's reply reminded me of a larger truth.  "Any day I wake up alive is a good day!"  he said with a smile.  Rain or cloud or storm or shine, gratitude is the response.

For Jews, as well as for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists one of the central spiritual virtues is gratitude.  The ancient rabbis define gratitude as hikarat ha tov, recognizing the good. If we can't see the good beneath us, standing in front of us, all around us, how can we be grateful for it?

I want to learn to recognize the presence of good, more and more--with fewer and fewer, and smaller and smaller reminders of it through its absence.

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