Earlier this fall, a young adult female in Charlottesville, Virginia was abducted. Over the last ten years several young women have gone missing or died at the hands of a local resident in this sleepy college town full of accomplished and talented people. Whether by domestic violence or random abductions, parents can’t help but fear for their daughter’s lives as they experiment with new-found freedom, alcohol, drugs, sexuality, and adventure. During a weekend celebration of hiking and dinners at college with friends for Sarah Austen’s 20th birthday, someone captured this photo. It has become a treasure for me as I witness my baby in the arms of her friends, clinging to each other in celebration, joy and love. There is no greater image for a mother and no better cushion for a daughter than this.
As suffering swirls, there is a calmness inside. I do not worry. I have hope that love makes a difference. I am detached from drama. I find joy in mundane interactions. I do not fear mistakes. I no longer need to be the best. It is a very strange calm. And I wonder if the calm is because life is generally good. Or is life good because of the calm? How would I respond to a family tragedy? What if I became seriously ill, or more difficult, if husband or daughter or sister or brother became ill. I feel like I’m in a zone, able to endure what comes my way.
Stripped down in the middle of the night, maintaining composure in meetings, blasting the AC in the car, the hormones have kicked me into midlife. I’ve been fortunate that it didn’t hit me until age 55. Take note Sarah Austen. You’ll be like your Mama, most likely. Right now you’re smiling big at football games, soaking up time with your friends, buckling down as needed to do well in your classes, and exploring a couple options for your major. You take most of your mama’s advice and love to be with your daddy. We could not be prouder of your optimism, your creative spirit, your work ethic, and just being you. Our lives are filled with stimulating work, friends, the garden, neighbors, family, sunshine, aches and pains, football excitement, exploring what life will be like for us in the next few decades. Shall we build a little house on a rise that hosts our own design, a vista of mountains and a small pond? Shall we leave our precious home and downsize into an urban apartment? Dare we get another dog? How many grandchildren will we have? So many questions and so much excitement for the future. I have never been happier.
The fourth message of the common wonderful: It is true that you are not in control, and it is also true that “For all your worrying, you cannot add a single moment to your span of life” (Luke 12:25). If we cannot control the biggies—life and death—why should we spend so much time trying to control all the lesser outcomes? Call it destiny, providence, guidance, synchronicity, or coincidence if you will, but people who are connected to the Source do not need to steer their own life and agenda. They know that it is being done for them in a much better way than they ever could. Those who hand themselves over are well received, and then the flow happens through them, with them, and in them. When you think you deserve, expect, or need something specific to happen, you are setting yourself up for constant unhappiness and a final inability to enjoy or at least allow what is actually going to happen. After a while, you find yourself resisting almost everything at some level to try to remain in total control. I think this pattern is entirely common and widespread. Only when you give up your preoccupation with control will you be able to move with the divine flow. Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired. Giving up control is a school of union, compassion, and understanding. It is also a school for the final letting go that we call death. Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, to the moment, and to God—none of which can be experienced when you presume you can be in control anyway.
Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
April 24, 2014
J. is approached by detectives on April 17, 2013 at the T- Mart in a traditional Southern city overflowing with wealth, creativity, and abject poverty. A canine drug unit sniffs heroin and cocaine residue. As a crowd gathers, he is handcuffed and put in the police vehicle. He starts “digging”. Experts say he was trying to remove the hidden drugs between his butt cheeks. When they arrive at the police station, Detective O. sees him fling a baggie under a car. The baggie contains 39 hits of heroin and 27 separately bagged rocks of crack cocaine.
Almost a year later, this tall, lean, light-skinned African American man of 32 years sits despondently at the table awaiting the tedious process of jury selection. His short hair is neatly groomed into rows. His pale green buttoned-down shirt reminds me of my husband. Ninety minutes pass and a group is selected: four black women, five white women, and three young white men. It took 20 hours for me to realize that he did not have a “jury of his peers”. Sin #1
The prosecutor is a confident, young woman, a character from a week-night drama. In a tight, knee-length skirt and an even tighter camisole and cropped jacket, she efficiently moves through the expert witnesses. The defense team is a disgrace: two shy, uncomfortable young men who appear to be in training. We are moved to the jury room for an hour (“do not discuss the case”). We discuss the weather, March Madness, and the lost airliner in the Indian Ocean.
We hear from the defense and return to the jury room. We take a quick poll on possession and three of us are skeptical. I argue that all over the country this very scenario is played out daily and if my pretty-boy husband were charged with these violations, he would serve no time. Why didn’t they check for fingerprints on the bag of drugs to provide solid evidence? The jury tells me that suspicion of corruption of the detectives is “unreasonable”. Everyone wants to go home. I grudgingly concede. Sin #2.
The judge reads our “guilty” decision aloud. The defense requests a roll call of each juror’s full name to indicate agreement with the decision. Excellent technique for intimidating a wavering juror. The defendant sobs with his head falling back. As he sits down he puts his head on the table. Family wipes their eyes and you get the feeling that they have seen this before. We receive jury instructions, a stack of priors, and return to the jury room to determine his sentence. The minimum sentence for each count of possession is five years. We ask the judge if he will serve the years concurrently or consecutively. He instructs us to “not get involved in the emotion of it. Just make a recommendation”. What an odd response when a man’s life is on the line. It is 6:30pm and many jurors share that they “need to get home”.
The foreman is a middle-aged blond, volunteer extraordinaire, who knows how to work through an agenda. We take a quick, anonymous vote and the sentences range from 10 to 40 years. I argue that “prison is a breeding ground for ongoing horror and is no place for transformation.” Fellow jurors state “he will not change”. There is no further discussion. It is 8:30pm. We ate lunch at 1pm and neither the judge nor the bailiff offers a break for dinner.
We add up the years and divide by 12 jurors. The average is 20 years, a sentence suggested by four jurors. “I won’t keep you here all night but I will press for less time. Whether he’s 52 or 47, he will be no different. I want 15 years.” Why didn’t I say this? I was lulled by confrontation fatigue, ignorance, and cowardice. Sin #3.
We return to the courtroom. The judge reads the sentence: 20 years for a handful of drugs with intent to distribute. He thanks us. A bailiff escorts us to our cars. 8:40pm. We return to our families. To our lives. And I was deeply disturbed.
Following the case, a fellow-juror tells me that there are only six states in the Union that use jury sentencing. In this southern state, 81% of the judges take the recommendation of the jury, so they don’t appear soft on crime. In June we discovered that he took the jury recommendation: 20 years.
Under my watch, the future of a man’s life was decided in less than two hours so that we could get back to our middle class rat-race. If we are going to bother to serve on a jury, let’s do it well: by gathering our courage to bring out the best in all of us.
Take ten years off your life, simply by standing up straight.
What do I mean by small denials and is it really necessary? A few examples: getting out of the shower when I’m still a little chilly. Pausing for three full breaths before looking at the most recent text message. Choosing a different reaction to the trigger that always produces sarcasm, impatience, or anger. Responding kindly to my husband when my inclination is exasperation. Cleaning the bathroom with full presence and joy.
When I die to habits or deny simple cravings, just a few times a day, I rehearse for the most difficult challenges in life, the ultimate bad news, my own death, and that of others.
As a Catholic, I have heard this concept my entire life. My mother would reference it when we needed to prune a shrub. We see symbols of this truth in nature, the workplace and in families. The frigid winter gives birth to brilliant colors and song birds. A colleague resists exerting justifiable power and instead, lifts you up. The parent chooses to avoid the “eternal dance” with their adult child that perpetuates a destructive relationship. Dying to my cravings for power – – – actually empowers me. In my quest for joy, I must die to old habits, use the Lenten and Buddhist discipline of small denials, of dying, every minute of my life. (Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Catholic teaching).
When we finally let go, our daughter flourished. Whether it was worrying about her academic progress, her career, or her social life. When the pressure lifted, we all thrived. The space was opened for her to take action. How simple, yet incredibly painful, to let go.
If you have reached mid-life and you lie awake at night, you might know the puddle. It forms at the life-saving avenue to breath, just below the source of our speech, the vehicle for sharing truth. The changes that come with mid-life are humbling. In those humble moments, we can discover brilliant creativity and joy. Don’t miss it.