Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Other

Everyday we stand before an unsolvable problem: life. The people we encounter, the events that occur and the places we are led, often leave us frustrated and confused. If we are honest, most of the time we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. This can lead some people to conclude that we are alone, that life is only a series of random events with no rhyme or reason.
Faith, on the other hand, views things differently. Without denying the puzzling nature of life, faith attests that beyond the darkness, beyond the veil of this world, there is an “Other,” who not only guides the universe but also guides each one of us. This Other not only guides our lives, but also loves us in a way we cannot comprehend.
I was reminded of this truth during an unexpected conversation in an unusual setting. I had just finished giving a retreat in Dallas, TX and was on my way to Los Angeles, CA for another retreat. As I boarded the plane and sat down, I began to consider how I should spend these next four hours. Typically, flying provides an ideal opportunity to write, because of the minimal amount of interruptions available.
I opened up my computer and began reading my latest reflection. The flight attendants announced that the gates would be closing soon and we should prepare for takeoff. I looked around and noticed that the plane was entirely full, except for the seat next to me. Suddenly, a woman who appeared to be in her late forties with black dyed hair, ripped blue jeans and sunglasses boarded the plane.
“I didn’t think I would make it,” she said to the flight attendant, as she tried to catch her breath.
“Just in time,” she said. “Have a seat. We will be taking off shortly.”
As she sat down next to me, she placed her bag under her seat, pulled out her phone and began fixing her hair. While she buckled her seatbelt, we smiled at each other and I said hello.
“O Wow,” she said. “Are you like a monk?”
Laughing, I said, “Well, sort of. Technically I am friar, a Franciscan and a priest.”
“I’m a Jewish agnostic, she said. “My ex-husband is Muslim and my brother just became a Buddhist.”
“Wow,” I said, “I’m a Christian. Do you know any Hindus? Then we would have all five major world religions represented!”
We both laughed for a few seconds as the plane began to make its way down the runway. During takeoff, she looked at me very seriously and asked, “Would you mind talking?”
“Of course not,” I said, with a smile on my face. I put my computer away and placed it under the seat in front of me. “What would you like to talk about?”
“Well, my name is Joan…” and so it began.
For the next three hours, Joan did the majority of the talking. She was raised in a Jewish home, where faith was more cultural than personal. Her father was always working, leaving her home alone with a mother who was always telling Joan everything that was wrong with her. Desperate for the affection of a father, she began a series of relationships with older men, each one worse than the previous one. Desiring love and acceptance more than an education or a career, she dropped out of college at 20 years old.
Wanting to escape her past, she left Brooklyn and moved to San Francisco in order to begin a new life. After drifting from one job to the next, she finally met a man, whom she described as a “dream come true”, while working as a bartender in the Bay area. Alan, a few years older than Joan, was a successful businessman, who appeared to have his life together. He was young, rich and attractive, and, most importantly, interested in Joan. The two began dating and got married six months later.
Three years into their marriage a secret from Alan’s past came back to haunt him. A drug addiction, that Alan believed he had conquered, came back into his life and Alan began using again. With two small children at home and a husband who was using drugs, Joan turned to alcohol for consolation. Needless to say, their marriage was on the verge of collapsing. Nine months later they got divorced.
When I met Joan on the plane she had just finished a month long rehab program for her drinking. She was anxious to see her two boys again, who stayed with her sister for the last month. As she showed me several pictures of them on her phone, tears came pouring out of her eyes. “I just don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “I don’t know how to live. I don’t know how to be a mom. I don’t understand life.”
She was interrupted by the flight attendant’s voice over the intercom. We had just begun our descent into LA and we would be landing in a few minutes. Joan took out a tissue from her purse and began wiping her eyes. Looking at me with a smile she said, “Thank you for listening to me.” 

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Thank you for sharing all of that. It takes courage to be that vulnerable.”
“Well,” she said, “If I can’t trust a monk whom can I trust?”
We both laughed.
“Do you mind if I say something Joan?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” she said. “You think I’m crazy, right?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re not any crazier than I am!” I said. “You mentioned that you don’t know what you are doing, that you don’t know how to live and that you don’t know how to be a mom.”
Nodding, she said, “It’s true.”
“Perhaps you don’t have to know,” I said. “Look, here we are at 30,000 feet. How did you get here, after all that you have been through? It wasn’t your family who got you here. It wasn’t your husband, or even you. It seems to me that there is somebody else, an Other, who has been carrying you and has gotten you here to this point.”

“You mean “God?” she said.
“Every time I hear the word God I think of my mother telling me how pretty all the other young girls were at synagogue and how she wishes I would spend more time on my appearance so I could look like them.”
I closed my eyes out of sadness. “I’m so sorry that was your experience,” I said.

We were both silent for a few moments. “Perhaps the best place to start,” I said, “is with the realization that there must be an Other who cares for you, loves you and is guiding you in your life. If not, then how you are here? How am I here?”

There was a long pause. She looked out the window and I could see in the reflection the tint of a smile on her face.
“This Other” I continued, “is not an idea or some sort of energy out in the universe. He is personal, forgiving and is not obsessed with your past. He is love, and without Him we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Life is impossible without an awareness of the love that sustains us. If we want to understand our life then the most sane thing we can do is open ourselves to this Other as best we can, and He will take care of the rest.”
By this point our plane had landed and we were taxing to our gate. We remained in silence for those few moments until the flight attendants announced we could unbuckle our seatbelts and begin exiting the plane. As Joan and I grabbed our bags we walked together out of the plane and into the airport. Before we went our separate ways, she looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“I do believe there is an Other who is sustaining me,” she said. “There has to be, otherwise I don’t know how I would be standing today.”
I smiled, “So do I Joan.”
We hugged goodbye and began to walk in separate directions. A few seconds later I heard her yell, “Hey, Father.”
I turned around.
“Will you pray for me?”
I smiled at her. “Of course I will. Please pray for me to.”
“I will,” she said, as she put her sunglasses on and disappeared into the crowd.

+ Father Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, C.F.R.
Monticello, NY

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