The Matchbook Diaries


Hell

Hell as a consequence imposed by God is hard to swallow. Men are the architects of hell, not God. Hell is not a designed condition, it is a byproduct of free will, an unavoidable consequence of moral disease. Hell doesn’t contain a single soul that loves God, not one. Hell contains the human beings who built it and choose it. I sometimes see the horror of absolute power, the consequence of staggering wealth. When we lived for several years in the richest country in the world, I saw unleashed rage as I’d never seen, people who, used to total dominion in their private world, were utterly appalled to discover the limits of their power whilst out at the mall or driving on a public thoroughfare. I wince when someone cringes before me because I’m not poor; it happens all the time. It’s as if I’m somehow more moral, somehow entitled to the fantastic luck of my life, and so the poor person in front of me wishes to acknowledge my superiority.

I learnt to respect luck whilst living in China. Before I lived there, I thought luck was the faith of silly people who wanted to either excuse or to justify their lives. But in China I learnt about the profound nature of fortune, about how the competing forces in our souls are in constant flux, the free woman in me engages in a lifelong war with the part of me who is a tyrant, who chooses to oppress herself. Then, into that spiritual wildfire, the universe tosses in luck, the unbalancer.

The Chinese are humble because they do not take credit for their success; they leave the credit to good fortune. There is great liberty in this stance; they are not entitled, they are lucky. Where I saw the greatest anguish and anger was in those people who felt that they’d earned, or been rewarded, with their situation and suddenly felt it either trespassed or in possible jeopardy. Then, during that hard time, the joy of luck would enter in, if you are Chinese. You submit to the circumstance and apply yourself to overturning the unluckiness, or at least learning from it. But if the person who is uncomfortable feels that it was their right to avoid the problem, that life is unfair, then there is no solution for them. In such cases the person seeks more control when the solution is the opposite. At the heart of Chinese philosophy is a Buddhist detachment to outcome. If you are unlucky, you are neither bad nor good, you are simply unlucky. But the flip side is also true. If you are lucky, it isn’t because you have a right to be so.

In Amman, Jordan, we were walking along a busy downtown street dodging unpredictable drivers and we got to the center of a thoroughfare, a Y intersection. We stepped onto that tiny grassy spot with its crowded benches and breathed a sigh of relief. Now we only had to navigate the other side of the road and we’d be across. When we stepped onto the tiny island of sanity, I noticed an old man in a suit, sitting on one of the benches. He looked up and saw my blonde haired, blue eyed baby boy, and his entire face was instantly infused with utter delight and sheer joy. He had a large paper sack on his lap with the top rolled shut. The man got up, and walked right towards us. He kissed my son on the head, right there, in the middle of a thousand cars streaming in opposite directions on both sides of us. Then, after he embraced my son he said, “You are welcome in Jordan!” And I knew he meant it. Then he reached into his paper bag and brought out a large clutch of bananas. And gave the entire set to my boy. Then he walked away.

I thought then, as I’ve thought so often, If only I could be so happy. I see the best of the world as it responds to my son. Recently, here where we live, my son, who is a competitive swimmer, was preparing for a competition, and I was working with him in our competition pool in our compound because he wanted me to time him. We walked in, punched our code into the lock, and entered the pool area. My son trains 6 days a week swimming, and he is unselfconscious in the pool because the experience is common for him. My boy took off his outer shorts and leapt into the pool and as I watched him I turned, feeling someone watching us. There behind us was a man, his hands on the pool gate, a worker, a man who was only inside our compound to do manual labor for a few hours. He was hot, dirty, and dressed in the clothing of a poor man, but what made my heart sing was that he was beaming. He was thunderstruck that here in Dar Es Salaam, one of the poorest cities in the world, here was a little blonde child who swam, who swam in a glorious pool. The man wasn’t jealous; he did not hate us for our luck, he tailgated on it in the most beautiful way. And once again, I thought about how I would be in our situations were reversed. I’d hate me. I’d steal from me, maybe, even. In my heart I wish those two men well, truly, deeply, well, because they reveal themselves to be better than I am, superior to me, and they teach me, quite by accident, that happiness is entirely independent of external circumstances. We choose as we choose, life delivers what it delivers, and we can only hope to manage our lives by the grace and mercy of God.