Horror as the Foreground to Wonder


Living, Dying, Grieving

This post isn’t full of the beautiful…at least not the surface beautiful. But stick with me…

This is my edge…

We’re all living, we’re all dying, we’re all grieving, we’re all transforming. It’s life’s nature, death’s nature.

Life as Mirror

Life is always dying and being reborn. To grasp this truth, to live in this truth is to be fully alive. To never take this life for granted. It’s beauty, it’s power, the fact that none of us know. Can we embrace this? Live it? Touch death as we live life? Touch life as we die? Be with each other in whatever stage we are in? Really be with each other…

I don’t know have any answers. None. No flowery words. No insights.

But what I want to do is share what some beautiful women are writing about grief, dying, illness, death and life… and how reading their words is impacting my heart.

Unconscious to the edge…

The fact is we are alive and we are dying. Some of us are closer to death. Some of us are dead while we live, unconscious to the edge we exist on. Who’s to say what it is to be fully alive?

Joseph Campbell wrote,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.”

In one of his segments with Bill Moyers, Campbell shared,

Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.

There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Bodhisattva, the one whose being (sattva) is illumination (bodhi), who realizes his identity with eternity and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder and to come back and participate in it.

…not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder and to come back and participate in it.”

I write this post as a somewhat ‘healthy’ person, so I am seeing and writing through the eyes of someone who unconsciously, and perhaps somewhat consciously, tells herself she still has a fairly ‘long’ time to live. In reality, this is BS. I do not know how long I have to live. Even writing these words and saying them aloud to myself doesn’t even begin to cut through the normal denial that is here about death.

I do experience the absence of time, the eternity of which Campbell writes.

Where I have difficulty is in being with the ‘horrible’ nature of life, what my mind wants to fix, eliminate and avoid.

Campbell’s words “that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder” catch me.

Horror as a foreground of wonder.

My mind goes a little crazy wondering how you square this, square the horrors of this world with the mind’s concept of wonder. I notice that I write ‘wondering’ in the same sentence. To wonder…

In writing this, my mind fears it will sound as if I am romanticizing horror in some way, even wonders whether it is wise to include the word rapture and horror in the same post…

I recoil from the horrors of the world. I want to fix them. I want to save others. In reality, I don’t want to be with the horror itself. I don’t want to open to it.

As Campbell reminds me, the horror is the foreground to the real wonder of life, the awe-inducing wonder…

And yet, in those moments of life when the horrible knocked on my door, I did open the door. I opened to the horror, as much as I could. And in opening to it, I caught a glimpse of this wonder… the beauty in the darkness, the love in the horrible, the peace and silence that is always present all around this foreground of horror.

I do know Holy Is All There Is, yet my life, at least right now, is filled with days full of so much love and light. I can be content to sit in this ease, content to not open my heart to the horror…and it is here that I skim the shallow waters of life. Can I open to the rest of the wonder of life willingly, not just when it knocks, but now, of my own accord…

Krishnamurti said:

There must be no escape from it of any kind, no intellectual or explanatory justification – see the difficulty of this, for the mind is so cunning, so sharp to escape, because it does not know what to do with its violence. It is not capable of dealing with it – or it thinks it is not capable – therefore it escapes. Every form of escape, distraction, of movement away, sustains violence. If one realizes this, then the mind is confronted with the fact of `what is’ and nothing else.

The mind does not know what to do with its own violence…

This is my edge. This is the edge I recoil from…

I share words…

So I share others’ words, words that open me to this edge, words that help to open my eyes and heart…

In Pema‘s series, “Memory to Light“, she shares her experiences with grief, death, violence and life, leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Benita‘s new blog, The Useless Uterus or Chemo Brain Musings (she’s not yet sure what to call it) recounts her life as she moves through her days of chemo and healing.

Rhonda, a woman of 42 years who is dying from MS, is sharing her writing as she dies. Her writing is brilliant. Her words cut to the chase. And in responding, or attempting to respond by way of commenting, I found myself ‘trying’ to write to her, not quite sure how to share how her words have touched me. Perhaps it’s a mixture of things: partly that she is in the active stages of dying as I read her words, and perhaps because I don’t really know her. There’s an element of feeling like a watcher, reading her experience from this place of one who is ‘alive’ and not dying. My dear friend, Jeanne, is hosting these writings, offering a place for us to bear witness to Rhonda experiences and our own opening to how to be with…

And as we near this 10th anniversary of 9/11, Meg Worden shares her experience of 9/11, a day that was book-ended by her getting sober the day before, and conceiving her child two days after.

I do know…

What is true, what makes tears come, what causes my heart to open is the raw desire to serve life, to know the sacredness of life, to honor it…and I must admit, I don’t know how to do this… and I know there is no how.

I am this life, both the horror and the wonder. When I cut myself off from one, I can’t know the other. When I cut myself off from one, I can’t know the totality of what I am…I can’t feel this totality…

And, you?

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12 Replies to “Horror as the Foreground to Wonder”

  1. Julie, your post is beautiful – real.
    I , too, have been following Rhonda. Coming from a place of serious illness myself, of loss, of watching my family from a distance, of breathing death…and then life…and then death…oh so close – I find it difficult to continue reading at times – but I force myself to be in the moment. To feel the moment and all that surrounds it.
    That’s all anyone can do. “Pull the blinders away”.
    Nature has been a great teacher. There is no joy without sorrow. There is no life without death. Our assumption of anything less gives me a terrible sense of control – an attachment to something I do not own. In letting go – like you do when you realize you’re on the roller coaster and there’s no getting off – I experience it all. And find myself contemplating buying another ticket.
    I don’t know if I would have gotten “here” if not for my illness. That makes me sad…and grateful. Tolle says the key to life is to die before you die. That makes me sad – especially for those that I love, that I wish only health and life for. But it’s been true for me.
    I long for the horror and the beauty both to become just what “is”, for it is only my mind that distinguishes one from the other.
    Thank you again. I am so moved by your words.

    1. Theresa, And I am moved by yours…especially, “contemplating buying another ticket”.
      I understand wanting only health and life for family, yet we know that is impossible. I find talking about this with others to be such a beautiful way to connect to this mystery that life is.
      Thank you for sharing this here. I know your words enrich have and will enrich the experience of the readers who visit here.
      With love,

      1. Hi Julie, I’m wondering if there are any updates available on Rhonda. I check everyday without fail – watching, wondering, holding her dear. I did post something on Wholly Jeanne, but she is not responding.
        Thank you for any pieces you are able to give – I hope for the best, not really knowing what that is.

  2. Rhonda’s posts have left me feeling very much the speechless voyeur. And there is much beauty in your depiction of your edge – indeed an edge for me, and I suspect for many. Campbell’s words about eternity and the gestalt of horror and wonder forming the very moments in which we live and move and have our being and your exploration of those themes have moved me tonight. I spend more time than I can afford waiting for the life around the corner where the horror might be diminished instead of seeing the wonder in the picture that is eternally now.

    1. Renae,
      I see it as an invitation to open…it is right here. I know the mind believes it cannot cope with it, but I also know the heart can hold it all.
      Love you,

  3. Thank you Julie for sharing your EDGE. It resonates deeply with mine, especially today. Just like you, I am enclined to notice the beauty around me. I love to share the marvels I find in nature, in blossoming flowers, in sacred trees, in joyful baby faces, in generous hands open to the bounties of everyday life. My last post about Sundays in France captured that. Then I realized I had much more trouble sharing the messyness, the badness, the uglyness, which is also part of my daily life.
    Imagine a post where we shared our weaknesses, failures, fears of loss, angers, frustrations, despairs? If I picture that, I would immediately provide soothing words, maybe even solutions, peaceful and wise words of healing. But maybe, as you said, there’s no such thing. We do not know how to cope with the Horror of life. And it’s ok. It’s our human condition.
    I have been reading Simone Weil’s writing recently and Etty Hillsum also. Both women experienced world war II in extreme conditions and eventually died. They also provided the world with the most beautiful texts of philosophy, empathy, mysticism and courage. Simone Weil focused on the healing power of attention.

    “Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object, in maintaining the various acquired knowledges one is forced to use near by to thought, but at an inferior level and without contact to thought. Our thought must be, with regard to all the already formed specific thoughts, like a man on a mountain who, looking in front of him, sees without looking at them many forests and plains below him. And especially, thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.”
    It very much relates with religious experience, with meditation as well.
    For Etty Hillesum, the attention, or the process of attuning to the flow of presence was a gradual development in each moment of “the now” . She wrote “The story of the girl who gradually learned to kneel ” She learned to do so learned to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. She eventually recognized and accepted duality of life, in its beauty and its horror. Maturity and wholeness come through such recognition, acceptance, and affirmation, as does simplicity.
    She viewed herself as a “thousand-year-old soul” holding together a myriad of conflicting souls.
    That’s also how I see you, Julie.

    1. Dear Marion,
      I am deeply touched by your words. Thank you.
      And, thank you for sharing this wisdom. I’ve re-read your comment a number of times and am touched by the wisdom these women learned through the unimaginable experiences they must have faced. My heart opens a little more in holding these words.
      Love to you,

  4. My son and I were on this same subject this just this afternoon… kinda. We were talking about the questions that he, at 23, is pondering as he prepares to graduate college and enter the ‘real’ world: What is the point of it all? Human beings are so self-centered, only out for their own agenda, their own survival.

    Sometimes, when we have these conversations, I spend the whole time trying to convince him that he’s wrong- that life is rich and full and that he’s cynical. But this time, I stepped back and really listened. I watched my beautiful son blossoming into the beginning of what will become his wisdom journey and my heart was filled with gratitude – for him, for these questions that we human beings are tasked with. For the struggle through this birth canal… for life itself.

    I don’t think I will ever know what ‘the point’ is – I don’t think we are supposed to know. Maybe that’s the point – it’s a mystery and full of chaos: suffering, horror, beauty, wonder.

    1. Amy,
      How wonderful that your son is questioning it all. The mind has such an ability to reflect. It is a mystery, isn’t it…
      So glad you are here, my sister…

  5. I have come here so many times trying to craft a comment to your beautiful post that encapsulates such truth. You’re right: there is no how, there is just sacredness, holding, seeing – really, deeply seeing ourselves and each other. There are words, and there is silence. There is living and dying and living until you die. There is, as Theresa says, what we recognize as joy because we’ve felt sorrow. There is love, there is light, there is beauty, and thank goodness for all of us, there is you.

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