A Woman in an Iron Lung Keeps the World Alive

I like the idea that our world is kept alive, in part, by a woman in an iron lung being grateful for an open window. It reminds me that, somewhere in me, somewhere in all of us, is the ability to love that much
Steve Roberts black ink drawing: woman with heart head, elaborate hair, dress with stars and ribbons flowing from her hands.
It is said that the Hebrew Talmud and the Kabbalah speak of 36 righteous people for whose sake God keeps the world alive, even in the most barbarous of times.  Evidently, none of the 36 knows that they are one of the righteous, nor does anyone else because the three dozen names can be found only on God’s private speed-dial.  The most important question about this story to me is why it exists in the first place, and why the universe has planted it in such sacred tomes, thereby making it an unavoidable presence in human consciousness for a long, long time.  What’s the point?  How is the story supposed to serve us? 

I’m sure all sorts of scholars can provide luminous answers to these questions, and once I finish this essay I may very well Google my way to their wisdom.  But to me what others have to say is not enough.  I feel that among the reasons every life situation occurs is so that each of us can learn from our own experience of it––that we may discover the meaning of the moment that resides in our heart, meaning unfettered by the perspective of even the most compelling Dumbledore.

I invite you to find your own.  Here’s mine until more is revealed.

First, “righteousness.”  My simple definition is the conscious attempt to live in attunement with love.  As opposed to “self-righteousness,” which means being driven by our fear, including all our ego-fueled convictions about how things are or ought to be.  Every one of us is familiar with both these paths, since it is just possible that life is little more than the continual choice of one or the other, breath-by-breath.  

There may be those who say that being a righteous person means having one’s consciousness anchored permanently in love, not veering a smidgeon into fear.  There are such people, I’m sure––saints and sages of all religions or even no religion.  But to me, depending on them (or 36 of them) to keep the world afloat is too easy an answer because it takes the rest of us out of the equation.

Each of us ought to be able to contribute, I’d say.

And why not?  We’re all righteous in some moments, just as we’re all jerks in some moments.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why the universe invented us in such vast numbers.  We all are nuts to one extent or another, but we’re not all nuts in the same way at the same time.  So when I lose my equilibrium there’s always someone just right to provide a loving hand, even if I have to search a bit to find them.  And, my own lapses notwithstanding, I do my best to say yes whenever another reaches out for support I can offer.

Yes, I know civilization at present is a bit like an abused child at the helm of a jumbo jetliner.  Yet, if all that keeps us from crashing and burning is a volume of love equivalent to that generated by 36 righteous people, spotting sources of that love is reasonably easy.  It doesn’t come from 36 specific individuals who walk on water, I feel, but rather from the collective force of resilience generated in every moment by all of us who are choosing love in that moment.  So far, as an earthly family, we’ve been cranking out enough love to keep us going on this plane of existence. 

Here’s one example, from Larry Rosenberg, founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In his book, Living in the Light of Death,  Rosenberg speaks of a story told him by his colleague, Christopher Titmuss:

He [Titmuss] had a doctor friend at a hospital who wanted him to meet a particular patient, a women who had had polio as a child and had been put in an iron lung.  She had been confined this way for more than forty years.  But when Christopher met her, she was smiling, just beaming.  All the doctors and nurses loved to be around her; she was often happy and serene.  Finally, he asked, “How can you be so happy?” and she said, “Every now and then someone opens the window, and a breeze comes in.”

I like the idea that our world is kept alive, in part, by a woman in an iron lung being grateful for an open window.  It reminds me that somewhere in me, somewhere in all of us, is the ability to love that much.

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth