“Sometimes the best map will not guide you; You can’t see what’s round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places; Sometimes the darkness is your friend.”
~ Bruce Cockburn
You could say I am fond of animals; I have loved many as pets and close companions. But never have I loved an animal with the ferocious, guarding affection I have for Sybil Luddington—a cat of seven years, soft and gray as a plume of smoke.
When my daughter Madison brought Sybil home from the rescue shelter in 2014, I thought she had picked a real lemon. “Why did you choose this cat?!” I asked, hardened as I was to the empathy Sybil elicited. Empathy is one thing, I reasoned; assuming care of a drastically high-maintenance creature is another—and not one to take lightly. Sybil was grossly obese and skittish as a devil-eyed transient who had bellied her way through murky, varmit-infested tunnels to reach us. After four tortured days, she hadn’t eaten or moved her bowels. Thanks to my daughter’s big heart, we were now—Dammit—caretakers to a special-needs cat who would not even properly relieve herself.
As soon as the veterinarian opened on the Monday morning following Sybil’s re-homing, Madison hauled her in. “Are you attached to this cat?” the vet asked, eyebrows raised—to which Madison replied a defiant yes. Thus she hauled Sybil home with an full IV pack, syringes for force-feeding, and several cans of rescue food. For three days, the whole family partook in administering the IV—one holding the cat, one elevating the bag, one inserting the needle into the skin of Sybil’s back. After examining her, the doctor had diagnosed Sybil with stress-induced liver illness, warning it would take days of IV-fluids and nearly two weeks of force-feeding to get her eating again.
Two. Months. Later. Two months of holding down needle-sharp claws to force syringes of smelly food into Sybil’s resistant mouth as the bulk of the mess dripped off of her tongue and onto Madison’s clothes, with occasional failures resulting in bloody scratches on forearms and teary breakdowns (in which case, I was the back-up feeder). After two months of this—the once-traumatized Sybil finally started to eat. And in the course of those trying care-taking months, Sybil and I, and Sybil and Madison, fell in love. Enshrouded in defiant, nurturing, healing, compassionate love for almost sixty days, Sybil made a full recovery. She is now our gorgeous, peaceful, scampering, sweetheart of a cat who I can’t imagine living without. Since Madison resided with me only temporarily when Sybil joined the fold, and since she moved from my place to a no-pets rental, Sybil became, by default, my cat.
The other day as I burrowed my face into Sybil’s dense neck fur, scratching under her chin as I do, I realized the bad experience of Sybil’s illness was integral to the good part of our deep mutual affection. I don’t mean that the good part out-did or redeemed the bad part—making it all worth it. I mean that the bad part was actually essential to the good, part of the good. The struggle of those weeks of hard caretaking, the bonding wrought in the shared struggle, and the love formed in the midst of real fears that we would lose Sybil as she shed pound after pound despite our efforts to sustain her—all of these things helped birth the appreciation and bond Madison and I now share with Sybil, and she with us. Had she been a healthy, stand-offish 4-year-old cat, I’m not sure this would have happened. We would have gone about our lives without such concentrated devotion and subsequent appreciation. I never would have delved into the animal-healing arts as I did in desperation for this cat, resorting to reiki, the prayerful laying on of hands. I have no doubt these extreme healing measures were apprehended by Sybil—a sensitive, perceptive, and big-hearted creature. I have no doubt she knew we were fighting for her with the full peace-arsenal of our souls.
These days it feels like many of us in the United States are fighting for our common life, our democracy. We have a president doing things we never imagined possible for a US president, such as congratulating Philippine President Duterte on his extrajudicial slaughter of drug-criminals (between May 2017 and the start of Duterte’s presidency, 6000 already have been killed); sharing intelligence secrets with Russian officials and Russian media in meetings US media were barred from attending; joining Syria in pulling out of agreements to abate climate change that didn’t even ask much of us; on his first foreign trip, back-slapping with tyrants while wagging his finger at our most respectable allies. This is not to mention his authoritarian, anti-humanitarian budget, or the scandals and kleptocrat tendencies that keep him from getting things done for the good of most Americans.
Yet just this week, it is clear the president’s head-burying over climate change is stoking a mighty reaction in the US and around the world. Citizens and state legislators may voluntarily make more dramatic cuts to carbon pollution as a result of the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord than they would have had he stayed in. In other ways, the presidency of Trump has dramatically deepened the appreciation of many Americans for the constitution, the balance of powers, and the dynamism of the grassroots. I am not saying the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is a good thing. It is a terrible mistake. But could the president’s short-sightedness actually evoke even greater attention to carbon-mitigation efforts among Americans? Could his flouting of our civic and diplomatic institutions perhaps serve to strengthen our appreciation of and commitment to them?
I am proposing non-dual thinking here—where the balance is not found in the antithesis or in the squaring off of opposing categories like good/bad, but in the introduction of a third stance: a synthesis of the otherwise opposing forces. If the bad is essential to the good, it is more complicated than simply replacing the bad with the good. Indeed, it raises questions whether good/bad-language is even helpful. As Bruce Cockburn sings in one of my favorite songs: “Sometimes the road leads to dark places; sometimes the darkness is our friend.” Sometimes the balance comes in seeing what the darkness has to teach us, or what the terrible mistakes of ourselves or others manage to illuminate.
In innumerable ways, Christian theology reflects on how the bad is essential to the good. They are summed up in the pivotal symbol of the cross as the pathway of descent that leads to freedom and life, showing us the pattern, the blueprint. Our struggles often lead to needed insights and new relationships, into deeper consciousness of Spirit, of ourselves, and of the meaning of our lives. Physical birth, which we aptly call “labor,” is another obvious metaphor for this experience. Like the metaphor of the cross, the metaphor of labor and birth is one we’d like to ignore most of the time. We want to believe we can ascend to greater and greater heights without the pain of humiliating mistakes, heart-breaking losses, or the bleary-eyed staring contests we have with ourselves as we wrestle again with our shadows.
These days we are wrestling with our collective shadow: the shadow side of America. I’m reminded that in the teachings of Jung, who elucidated the “shadow” (ie that which we cannot yet see in ourselves or our communities), the path that leads to resurrection is to delve into shadow work with open eyes, open hearts, and a sincere desire to deepen awareness; to walk boldly into the valley of the shadow in order to face what we have been too afraid to see. Whether or not we want to, it seems this is what we are doing as a country. Whether or not we like the consequences for the vulnerable—and the consequences are often abhorrent, we have together wandered into the valley of the shadow of death. What will we do about it now? What is the third way, the third stance and synthesis, that might help us ascend from this time having learned and evolved in important ways?