Do you think the problems of the world will ever be fully solved? How would you even know if this was the case? Won’t there always be more to do? How do you know when you have perfected the art of being human? Isn’t there always more to experience and learn? Religious traditions have framed these questions in terms of Promised Land. They asked the question, Will we ever reach the Promised Land? How will we know when we have arrived? An ancient Jewish story suggests an answer. Two students were debating when you know you have reached the Promised Land. They came to their Rabbi. One said, “Is it when you see an animal in the distance and know whether it’s a sheep or dog?”
“No,” the Rabbi replied.
“Is it when you can look at a tree and tell whether it’s a fig tree or an oak?”
“No,” the rabbi answered again.
After a few more attempts, the students said, “Then tell us, what is it?”
He said, “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and know that this is your sister or brother. Until then, you are still in exile.”
When another person’s cry for help is so real that you can taste the salt in your mouth, then you have reached the Promised Land. When you feel your neighbor’s pain as a physical pain in your own body, then you have reached the Promised Land. When you recognize that injustice for one is injustice for all, and that your prosperity is intimately related to the prosperity of people on the other side of the globe, then you have reached the Promised Land. Until then, you are in exile.
Are you there yet? No. None of us have arrived at this perfection. We just have glimpses. Have you conquered all fear? No. We all have unfinished business when it comes to erasing fear and prejudice from our lives. Is there still injustice in the world? Yes. As long as there is injustice and suffering in the world, there is more work to be done. Keep striving. Keep working at living with greater compassion. Keep taking action where you can. If you don’t imagine that you will ever see the outcomes of your labors, do what you can anyway. Defy the limits of your few years on earth by creating a legacy of love that will outlast you.
If you expect that your good efforts will be undone by the shortsightedness of others, or an ineffective political system, do good anyway. You have no idea how, when and where the seeds of your best efforts will harvest in amazing ways. Don’t be put off for a second by the fact that you won’t reach the Promised Land in your life. Just do what you can, love the world in your own unique way and feel the satisfaction of knowing that you have left the world a more decent place just by your presence and authentic efforts.
The Path is Unpredictable
The path is different for every one of us. It’s not predictable and there are many setbacks and reasons for discouragement. There is no end point or closure on most issues and efforts. Every assumed ending opens up a new beginning. Every celebrated answer raises a new question. No emotion is final. There is always more. Every justice uncovers yet another layer of injustice. The two major stories in the Bible, the Exodus and the story of Jesus, are both reminders that the path to new life takes some surprising turns. The story of Exodus is a game of cat and mouse between the Israelites and the Pharaoh. After years of near misses, the Israelites finally escape. Expecting to find closure in a land flowing with milk and honey, they instead find themselves in the wilderness. Instead of taking the direct route to freedom, the road known in ancient times as “the highway to the promised land”, they find themselves at the edge of a raging sea.
Standing at the edge of the Red Sea, they wonder if it is all worth it. They might as well have stayed in captivity. What will come of them if they jump in the water? What is on the other side in any case? Standing there, they make a choice- the choice to dive in and literally go with the flow. They were so resolved in their choice that it was as if the sea parted before them. It was like the Subway commercial last year when Michael Phelps swam right through the wall of the pool, through the aquatic center walls, through corn fields, and carving up the highway. When you move with commitment, incredible things happen. As the Shakespeare of Germany Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”
Then there is the story of Jesus with the reminder that so often the path to new life involves heartache and loss. The disciples never understood that point. They seemed to be hoping for their own form of closure, maybe a triumphant social realm or a kingdom. They gathered at the home of a notorious outcast, Simon the Leper. The only person present who really understood the myth of closure was the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus feet. While the others were distracted by what seemed to be waste and getting ahead of themselves in terms of massive social problems, Jesus said, “This woman has done a beautiful thing.” He said, “You will always have the poor with you, but not me.” He wasn’t saying to them to not care or to give up. He is suggesting that they deal with the present moment choice. Don’t expect closure. Just make once choice right now that is authentic and keeps you moving forward.
Poverty and suffering will always be with us. So prepare yourself for the long and sometimes painful path of authenticity. It doesn’t mean you resign yourself to a life of misery and failed efforts. You do what you can, you liberate yourself from expecting perfection and you keep moving towards the light.
The Myth of Closure
This is a new way of thinking about closure. As we say to our kids at the dinner table, “Close your mouth when you’re chewing.” Closure is a dangerous myth because perfection is nowhere. That bad relationship you left? Move on and let it go as much as you can. But there are aspects of it that will stay with you. To borrow the words of Jesus, “You will always have your ex spouse with you.” But now you can make a choice to integrate your pain and do something bold. The you that you have become is stronger and wiser. You don’t need to hide or blame your past. That failed business venture? Move on by all means and let go of your disappointment. But there is no absolute closure. You will always have your past decisions with you. Now make a choice to live with boldness. That guilt laden belief system that you have worked so hard to remove from your mind? No absolute closure. You will always have your tradition with you. That effort to feed the world? Guess what- there will always be more people to feed, more suffering to end, more wrongs to right.
To expect absolute closure is to chase your tail, and lock yourself in an endless desire for certainty. It is to look in the wrong places for signs of progress. You don’t measure progress by the end point but by the choice you make in each moment. Like the woman with the perfume, choose to make each moment beautiful, let go of the outcomes, and you will achieve more than you could even imagine. Let go of the unrealistic expectations of closure and enjoy the mini victories along the way. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. Just choose to love in your own unique way in each moment. The rest is detail.
You have known incredible hurts and disappointments in your life. You have every reason to want closure from your painful past. But your experience is part of what makes you whole and human. Your experience of pain gives you insight into compassion. Your experience of loss gives you strength to survive and overcome challenge. When you stop looking for closure, you liberate yourself to dwell in each moment, fragile and human as you are, and live with boldness.
Closure and the Death Penalty
Now relate this way of thinking about closure to the criminal justice system. Dr William Pettit from Cheshire Connecticut is the only member of his family to survive a tragic and senseless home invasion. His wife and two daughters were tortured and killed so mercilessly that the prosecutor said, “If there was ever a case deserving the death penalty, this was it.” It’s hard to disagree. One of the convicted murderers was indeed sentenced to death recently.
One of the arguments for the death penalty is to give the victim’s loved ones relief and closure. Dr Pettit who has every reason to remain bitter and cynical, said this about closure, “”I was offended when someone asked me if the death sentence had given me ‘closure.’ There is no ‘closure’…[he then evoked the living images of his two daughters, burned to death in their beds, ages 11 and 15]….there will never be ‘closure.’ It’s a hole in your heart, a hole surrounded by jagged edges. Maybe over time the jagged edges will smooth over a little bit, but the hole is still there and will always be there. There is no closure.”
Studies confirm the experience of Dr Pettit. Taking another life to avenge the loss of life is a hollow peace. It doesn’t bring closure even to many of those who vehemently call for the death of the perpetrator. On the contrary they now have another gruesome death seared on their brains. The human brain is built to retain memories and information from life changing situations. If closure means removing memories, then I would be worried that the memories become suppressed and resurface in dangerous ways.
This question about the death penalty transcends party politics. An increasing number of American people are against the death penalty. I’m proud to say that Michigan was the first English speaking state in the world to abolish the death penalty and it was instituted and supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. There is strong evidence that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime. There is mixed evidence about the level of pain involved in the different methods of killing criminals. The addition of DNA evidence has proven the innocence of some who are on death row. We can only imagine that innocent people have been killed. We can only imagine that people who had the potential to change and make meaningful contributions to society have been killed. But even if there was a fool proof way to show a person’s guilt and irredeemable nature, there remain many moral and practical doubts about the death penalty.
It might take a while, but momentum seems to be moving in the direction of ending capital punishment in all states. I don’t need to argue that case. I raise the issue here as it questions what it is we are looking for out of justice. Is it vengeance? Is it personal closure? Do we send convicted criminals to prison AS punishment, or FOR punishment? Are we protecting society, or locking the problem away so that we don’t have to deal with it?
The ultimate question is whether the death penalty serves the greater good, and creates a more peaceful society.
There is a beautiful story told in the movie “The Interpreter.” In Manitoba Africa, the mythical Ku tribe have an interesting practice. They believe that the only way to resolve the loss of life is to save a life. After a year of mourning, they hold a ritual called the drowning man trial. The killer is dropped in the middle of a river with weights attached. He is also bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the victim then have a choice. They can either let him drown or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family let the killer drown they will have justice but they will spend their lives in mourning. If they save him, and accept that life is not always fair, this very acceptance and act of mercy can take away their sorrow. As Nicole Kidman says in the movie, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”
Vengeance can be a lazy for of grief. Closure can be a lazy form of grief. Where does the desire for closure originate? We get locked in a task oriented, linear view of time. We expect life to be predictable and controllable. We look at one thing independent of all other things- one experience, one outcome, one issue- rather than seeing the totality, the Gestalt, that is open ended, dynamic and interrelated.
We fill in any missing pieces of our story based on our current understanding forgetting that the next day, the next month of the next year we will have greater understanding. We continually mix a different cocktail of meaning in our minds to make sense of life. We constantly deconstruct meaning and then rebuild it in new ways. The story keeps changing. What Gestalt Therapy calls closure is really the mini sartoris, or mini awakenings along the way rather than a once and for all time enlightenment. These mini awakenings come to us in lieu of out and out closure. They point us to the field of possibilities that we play in. We are new in every moment- new stories, new meaning, new possibility.
Even your losses, hurts and confusions are fertile voids where surprise and new hope is possible once again. There is ALWAYS more- more to come, more to learn, more to realize, more to experience. Are you open to change and new perspectives in your life?
Closure can be a lazy form of grief, whether it’s personal grief or communal justice. Consider your own expectations of life and justice. Can you persist without seeing the outcome of your efforts? Can you live with boldness even when the past rears its ugly head and haunts you? Can you strive for justice, even when another injustice lurks around the corner?
For those who are looking for relief from an aching heart, here is the good news. Like Dr Pettit, over time the jagged edges of the hole in your heart smooth out a little. The hole is still there and it makes you the incredibly compassionate and strong person you are. You are alive and growing. No emotion is final. There is no closure, just the divine reassurance that there is always more to come.
I end with this verse from The Dance by Oriah Mountain Dreamer which seems to capture everything I want to say on this issue.
I have sent you my invitation,
the note inscribed on the palm of my hand by the fire of living.
Don’t jump up and shout, “Yes, this is what I want! Let’s do it!”
Just stand up quietly and dance with me.
Show me how you follow your deepest desires,
spiralling down into the ache within the ache.
And I will show you how I reach inward and open outward
to feel the kiss of the Mystery, sweet lips on my own, everyday.
Don’t tell me you want to hold the whole world in your heart.
Show me how you turn away from making another wrong without abandoning yourself when you are hurt and afraid of being unloved.
Tell me a story of who you are,
And see who I am in the stories I am living.
And together we will remember that each of us always has a choice.
Don’t tell me how wonderful things will be . . . some day.
Show me you can risk being completely at peace,
truly OK with the way things are right now in this moment,
and again in the next and the next and the next. . .
I have heard enough warrior stories of heroic daring.
Tell me how you crumble when you hit the wall,
the place you cannot go beyond by the strength of your own will.
What carries you to the other side of that wall,
to the fragile beauty of your own humanness?
And after we have shown each other how we have set and kept the clear, healthy boundaries that help us live side by side with each other, let us risk remembering that we never stop silently loving those we once loved out loud.
Take me to the places on the earth that teach you how to dance, the places where you can risk letting the world break your heart.
And I will take you to the places where the earth beneath my feet and the stars overhead make my heart whole again and again.
Show me how you offer to your people and the world the stories and the songs you want our children’s children to remember, and I will show you how I struggle not to change the world, but to love it.
Sit beside me in long moments of shared solitude, knowing both our absolute aloneness and our undeniable belonging. Dance with me in the silence and in the sound of small daily words, holding neither against me at the end of the day.
And when the sound of all the declarations of our sincerest intentions has died away on the wind, dance with me in the infinite pause before the next great inhale of the breath that is breathing us all into being, not filling the emptiness from the outside or from within.
Don’t say, “Yes!” Just take my hand and dance with me.