The other day I went out into the garden, as I often do, to check on the progress of the vegetables. On this particular day I noticed that one of my tomato plants – the entire reason I became a gardener in the first place (have you ever tasted a tomato, fresh from the vine, ripened in the sun?! It might be the best thing ever) - one of my tomato plants seemed to have leaves that did not look quite right – they were wilted. Excessively so. As if the plant had not gotten enough water, though it had.
Oh no. The feeling began slowly but quickly washed over me as the realization hit me, even while everything in me tried to resist it.
I walked over to the plant, about four feet tall, and tugged gently on it. Sure enough, it came right out of the ground, as though it had no roots with which to secure it.
No roots, because they had been eaten. By a gopher. I’ve had gopher encounters before – in fact, only days earlier I had performed the same act on an artichoke plant. But this time, it was serious. This time it was my tomatoes. And not only that, but in the protected area of the garden – the area in which I had laid chicken wire and bounded it by boards and rocks. This area was supposed to be safe!
As the emotion washed over me I began immediately to dig out the area – soon exposing two holes, tunnels, leading in opposite directions but intersecting under what had been my tomato plant. Almost without thinking I went into house and got the package labeled ’gopher destroyer’ – cylinders that look like fire crackers. When the fuse is lit, they begin releasing a noxious gas – light them, put them down the hole, cover it up, and, the package claims, your gopher problems are no more.
We’ll see if you eat any more of my tomato plants, I thought as I quickly lit, dropped and burried the gopher destroyer.
Sure, normally I would consider myself to be someone who believes in nonviolence. I am for peace, not war. I even flirt with vegetarianism. But this was different. These were my prized tomatoes…this was justified.
One has only to look at the subsequent holes throughout my garden, or picture the movie Caddyshack, to get a sense of how successful this anti-gopher measure was…
Last month, as many of you know, I was with a delegation from the Presbyterian Church, USA to Lebanon and Egypt. It was a ‘solidarity visit’ – to our partner churches in the region. Our sister church in Lebanon is the Synod of Lebanon and Syria – two countries, but one church. A church that is struggling to care for both its own members who are the victims of violence, bombings, and strife, while also seeking ways to reach out beyond their own boundaries to the multitude of Syrian refugees that have fled the violence, only to find themselves displaced in Lebanon.
In one village we visited the total population, prior to the conflict, was 11,000. They are now also hosting 11,000 Syrian refugees. It is stretching resources and local officials almost to the breaking point.
We visited one of the refugee camps there – 40 tents, housing 45 families. Tents about the size of that which my parents and I used when we would go camping as I was growing up. Children came out to greet us, intrigued by visitors as children often are. Teenagers stopped to talk with us – wondering where we had come from, and what we were doing.
One woman motioned to me from within her tent. I approached, and she opened the tent to let me in. I had no idea what was going on, since my Arabic is limited to about 7 words, but I entered the tent and sat down. All the while she was speaking – rapidly, emotionally, with passion. Thankfully one in my group who is bilingual came in and joined me and so was able to translate.All I want is to return to my country. I do not want aid. I just want to return to my country. I have a masters in English. My sons are engineers. My daughter is a teacher. I have a granddaughter.
My heart broke for her. And my eyes were opened.
This woman was a Palestinian. The country that she longed to return to was not Syria, but Palestine. Her parents had been the first refugees – fleeing Palestine in 1948. She herself had never been there – she was born in Syria. Her children were born in Syria. Her grandchildren had been born in Syria. But they are not Syrian. They are Palestinian. Displaced first in 1948, and now again. Generations of refugees.
Her family’s displacement had come, of course, as a result of the creation of the State of Israel. The creation of a state that was to be good news for Jews who had been nearly exterminated by the hate that drove the machine of Nazi Germany.
Last week I was in Florida and happened to have a bit of extra time. Some friends and I rented bicycles and were riding around the South Beach in Miami when we came upon a startling sculpture, rising up out of a reflecting pond. It was an arm, from the elbow up. It was grasping. Reaching. As though it was coming out of the very earth itself. A the base of the arm, where it met the water, were hundreds of figures – they looked to be scaling their way up, fleeing the depths below. That was when I saw the number. The number etched onto the inside of the wrist. The sculpture, I realized, was at the entrance of the Holocaust Memorial. A museum that stands as a memorial for a hate as palpable as those figures scrambling to escape the pit.
The Buddha says that holding on to anger is like holding a hot coal that you intend to throw at someone else – but you are the one who gets burned.
Jesus says to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. When someone strikes you on the cheek, to turn and give them the other cheek as well.
Tell that to the Palestinian woman living in a tent. Tell that to those whose arms hold the numbers that bear witness to hate.
A friend of mine, a woman and a pastor, who happens to be married to someone who is also a woman, told me this about the hate she has experienced – “It kept me afraid. Sure, it was the direct comments that people would make when they saw me walking down the street with another woman – and we were not even touching – but it was also the more subtle hate. The hate that would come from people when they were talking about ‘the gays’ and didn’t realize that they were also talking about me. It made me afraid. It kept me silent. It kept me from coming out for years, this fear.”
Another friend, a man who happens to have a husband, expressed it in this way – Dealing with the hate has actually changed who I am, who we are. We never touch in public – we don’t even touch in front of people in our own home. It has sunk into my very being and changed the way I act, change the way I am in the world.”
He did not use these words, but I thought, upon hearing his story – this hate has left wounds. Scars. The burden of this hate, the heaviness of it, has, in a manner of speaking, bent him – of course he is not ‘straight.’
One of my favorite authors, a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen, described this as being a ‘wounded healer.’ It is a phrase that Carl Jung used as well – that it is in going through our woundedness, not becoming trapped by the hate, but somehow metabolizing it, that we find within in it the seed that leads us toward new life. It is not an easy process and it is not a quick one.
Dealing with the hate that has been inflicted upon us, the hate we have internalized, the hate we know to be inside us and the hate we see around us in the world can be overwhelming. It can seem impossible – like trying to catch a gopher by digging more and more holes in the yard.
But it can be done. It has been done. It is being done.
After the Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan two years ago the question was left of what to do, how to begin to heal the land that had been so decimated, wounded by the radiation.
The most common method is to dig up all of the impacted topsoil, remove it, and find another location in which to bury it. This is an expensive process and of course just moves the problem somewhere else, burying it. In someone else’s backyard.
Sunflowers?! It can seem as naive as the suggestion to turn the other cheek. What good are sunflowers, in the face of such a severe situation?
Sunflowers, it seems, may have the ability to absorb that which is toxic in the soil, pulling it out of the soil. Not only that, but when people would see the fields of sunflowers, bright yellow thought those who began to organize this sunflower project, it would be a symbol of both beauty and hope.
Pain that is not transformed is transferred. Hate that is not transformed ends up being passed along. Sometimes for generations.
How do we plant sunflowers in the midst of such overwhelming odds?
It is why we practice meditation – centering, mindfulness, grounding ourselves in who God is and who we are. It is why we practice gratitude. It is why we share meals together and why we seek ways to be in service to our friends, our brothers and sisters when they are in times of need. It is why we seek to go deeper in our spiritual journey though that is not always an easy path.
Nelson Mandela, a man who, it seems to me, would have so much justification for being angry, for holding onto his hatred – says this:
‘I had never lost hope that this great transformation would occur, because I always knew that down deep in every human heart there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. If people can learn to hate they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
May it be so. And may we be a people of sunflowers.