In my early twenties I hitched a U-Haul trailer to my ’74 Chevy Impala and drove off to seminary because I wanted to save the world. Since then I’ve come to realize I can’t even save myself. During my first month at school the Persian Gulf War began. The other seminarians and I sat in the student center watching CNN as smart bombs chewed through Iraqi buildings like a hungry dog tears through a piece of meat. I decided I would become a US Navy chaplain.
I think of the soldiers who went off to World War I full of nationalistic zeal only to have it choked out of them in gas-filled trenches in France. My German grandfather fought for the Kaiser as a foot soldier in that war. My uncle, his son, was a Nazi submariner, who survived World War II physically, but came home at the end of the war with deep emotional scars. Those who go out rejoicing often come home weeping. I learned this lesson firsthand. Iraq was my war.
According to the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, “wisdom comes through suffering.” I’ve not suffered as much as some but I know what it is to feel pain. Combat isn’t the only trauma I’ve experienced or even the worst. The greatest pain is watching someone you care about suffer terribly and knowing there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
“The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms” (Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche).
What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?
You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.
About Salty Bread
Salty Bread is a blog for people like me who don’t feel at home in this world. The title comes from Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Florentines like Dante were used to eating bread made without salt. Living in exile meant, among other things, eating foreign-tasting, salty bread. “You shall leave everything you love most. . . . You are to know the bitter taste of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ascending and descending others’ stairs” (Paradiso, XVII, 55-60).
Pictured above is Rodin’s iconic The Thinker statue in Paris. Originally called The Poet, it was intended to be Dante in front of the gates of hell.