The first time I heard the phrase I wasn’t listening. Driving down some major California highway having just been inundated with the majesty of the passing summer landscape somewhere between the Bay and Los Angeles, I was waiting for a deep secret of the universe to come through the speakers. That’s what I imagine, anyway: I don’t remember exactly where I was.
But the first time I heard the words I remember with great poignancy. I can still taste the wine and dark chocolate from that late afternoon in Cambridge. Cassie was lounged on the white sheepskin next to mine, intent on words bundled in the rich voice and unnamable accent of their speaker. “Come over,” I had said to her, “we’ll drink red wine and you can listen to ‘Grief and Praise,’ I feel like you’ll really get it.” Cassie worked on the ethics board of a major children’s hospital – heartbreaking suffering and unimaginable grief were part of the job description. We could share together in appreciation.
By then I’d heard Martín Prechtel talk in person, so this single recording – the only recorded talk he has permitted for distribution – was unfolding in a new way as I continued to reflect upon the teachings. Now, months after my first listen, I noticed I was no longer seeking out secrets of the universe – I was more interested in fumbling toward a life that could feed something larger than myself and figuring how to be in relationship to all things – people, nature, self, and the Holy other – in a good way. Seeking out great secrets didn’t seem so important compared to cultivating how I was living now.
A few minutes in he spoke the phrase: “we come together to be together.” It came quick, a passing tangent dropped as a single, tiny daisy flower amidst extravagant roses and dahlias and lilies. “We come together to be together.” I hadn’t caught it before. He said it with such nonchalance, like it was somehow peripheral. It wasn’t. Like all great teachings it was a seed, one which has echoed through every day of my life since.
We live in a world where relationships are valued for their utility and are framed primarily as transactional. “What do I get out of knowing you, loving you, being kind to you, being with you? How is this furthering my dreams, my career, my sense of self worth?” We put in as much as we believe ourselves to be getting out. As a transplant to Massachusetts from California, now a member of the busting world of academia, people are too busy to just “hang out”: we gather with purpose, we gather with an agenda, and we gather for the period of time allotted by our busy and important schedules.
It gets lonely sometimes.
My favorite teaching in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is his emphasis on the quest of becoming more fully human. I don’t quite know what this means, I suppose because I’ve still got miles to go: there is no final stopping point on this long road back to my cradle in the soil that birthed me, only a long walking.
What I do know is this: being perpetually approached by people interested not in how my heart is hurting or blossoming, not in how my family is doing, not interested in sharing a moment as human beings together but, instead, interested in using me as a resource, feels dehumanizing. What on earth are we all here for if not to revel in simply being together – alive, struggling for liberation in crazy times, eager to give something to this world that gives so much to us. The vague awareness that there could be another way is one among many things I’ve learned from Señor Martín.
Were it not so heartbreaking it might be funny: we seek to take from one another, often feeling entitled to receive something – attention, connection, material gain. But real magic happens in giving, it happens in gracious asking and grateful reception, knowing that we were not necessarily going to be offered that for which we were asking – for we were not entitled to it. There is no greater gift than a gift freely given.
Magic happens when we create an atmosphere of generosity and when that generosity gives birth to shared experience, shared memories, poignant human moments. These are the threads with which I weave the tapestry of my life – any thread therein which was taken without consent, any thread that was not offered freely, sticks out with the vibrancy of blood on skin – it belongs where it came from, where it was still giving life to the one in whose veins it traveled. It is not mine. Too see it – to acknowledge my mistake – is a precious thing, compelling me to ask forgiveness for my transgression. And I have transgressed. Like all of us, I am still learning.
I’ve often wondered what would happen if instead of walking around chanting “I am abundant,” we shifted to “I am generous.” And if, instead of relishing in the sensations of gratitude, we took our thanks and wove offerings of them that we might feed the thing or the person or the circumstances to which we are grateful. Martín says it again and again – spirituality isn’t about making you feel good, it’s about feeding that which gives us life, attempting and failing (beautifully) to pay a holy debt which could never be repaid.
But we haven’t been taught any other way than this: to take what is not ours as though it is, as though it will alleviate the profound suffering we feel in this world where our souls are for sale and we view each other as cogs in network rather than living, breathing humans. We have been taught to walk through the world with a massive agenda of the things we wish to accomplish so that we may, on day, become worthy of love. It’s a painful posturing toward the world, an orientation which leaves little space for the nourishment of deep human connections – the kind of nourishment that emerges when we simply come together to be together. Period.
And so I put forth – as another arrow shot into the belly of empire in the hopes that when it falls it will somehow feed the ground where it is sure to land – that “coming together to be together” is among the most radical actions we might undertake. There is no end to the struggle for liberation, there is no moment of arrival, no amount of tasks accomplished will ever give birth to the world we struggle to create together in these times. But that world arrives in pieces, in tiny moments shared between friends, moments of laughter and weeping when our hearts, aching, blossom into a fullness that could only be fully appreciated in good company. We have a long road ahead of us toward becoming more fully human, and what we need in our travels is not to-do lists, it’s not a treasure map of all the things we hope to gain. What we need, I believe, are companions for the journey: the ones who can be brave when our courage falters, the ones whose humor brings levity to our breaking hearts, the ones who can sit with us in our grief, the ones whose knowing smile is all the nourishment we ever needed to keep walking.
What we need to is stop pretending we can walk this road alone.
First published on NOMADculture