Living The Full Catastrophe
“Zorba, have you ever been married?”
Zorba answers, “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, Kids, everything … the full catastrophe!”
This really was not a lament on Zorba’s part. He didn’t mean that being married or having kids was a disastrous state to be
in. Zorba’s position before life was always one of amazement and his response to life was an outpouring of appreciation for its
fullness and richness: life with its sorrows, tragedies, trials and inconsistencies. Zorba lived, really lived life, to its fullest — he
was alive to the full catastrophe.
His response to life as it is was to dance through it, to celebrate it, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of failure and defeat.
When his huge, marvelous, gerrymandered structure for moving rubble down from the mine collapsed, he laughed like a child at the
magnificence of its fall. As he laughed with and lived with the world as it is, he was never weighed down for long, “never ultimately
defeated either by the world or by his own considerable folly.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn took Zorba’s words for the title of his book, Full
Catastrophe Living, an account of the stress reduction clinic he
founded and directs at Massachusetts General Hospital. From the first
time he heard the phrase “the full catastrophe,” Kabat-Zinn says, he
felt that it “captured something positive about the human spirit’s
ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to
find within even the most difficult trials room to grow in strength
Kabat-Zinn, as for Zorba, full catastrophe living does not mean
disaster — it means living in acceptance of the whole of life, saying
yes to the enormity, the full range, of our life experience. There are
major crises in everyone’s life. And, yes, there is disaster. But
there is also the plethora of comparatively little things that add
There are fires and floods, deaths and divorces. But there are
also cars that won’t run. Children who won’t listen. Faucets
that leak. Jobs that are menial or meaningless. There are bills we
can’t pay. Houses we can’t repair. Bodies–ours or others–we
can’t repair. There are boyfriends. Girlfriends. Broken hearts.
Broken eyeglasses. Traffic. Toothache. My mother has a saying–no
doubt heard in your family, too– “There’s always
full catastrophe. What to make of it? How are we to live with
There was a time — not so long ago in terms of the evolution of
human understanding — when it was assumed that everything, from the
mildly unpleasant incident to the horrific disaster, was divine
punishment for sin or some misdeed. Our earliest forebears, often
starving, dying in childbirth, short-lived through violence or
disease, assumed there must have been a time when life wasn’t like
that. “They” — humankind that is — must have done something to
deserve life as it is.
out of the depths of the human psyche came one or another myth of
paradise lost, of first man and first woman, the introduction of evil,
seduction, betrayal — and fall. Adam and Eve, blessed with paradise,
not so much as a hangnail to begin a pile of woe. Nothing at hand for
the makings of catastrophe: and they blew it. “Thou shalt not eat of
the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” One thing
they were not to do and they did it. Of course. Give a kid a bunch of
red jelly beans and one green one, tell him not to touch the green one
and what’s he going to do? Well, you know the story: “In
Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Paradise lost.
they went. An angel with a fiery sword was posted at the gates of
paradise so there would be no sneaking back in. God said that, from
that point on, humankind would earn their bread by the sweat of their
brows and woman would bring forth children in pain. Wife, kids,
everything. The full catastrophe. From that earliest story on, the
faithful have assumed that what ills befall them is divine and just
punishment for evil done, sins committed.
people of Jesus? time also assumed catastrophe was divine punishment.
Jesus himself assumed it. He said to a paralyzed man, “Your sins are
forgiven you. Rise. Take up your bed and walk.”
Wailing and gnashing of teeth. What did we do to deserve this —
whatever it is? For our faithful ancestors, there was no such thing as
just having a run of bad luck. The crops wither and die. The cows
sicken. The village burns. And priest and preacher prays to heaven
that the sins of the people might be forgiven that this catastrophe
might come to an end. The ill wind blows and listeth where it will.
Seeking out the sinners.
— and there’s another possible answer for what ails us — or our
suffering means something. If not punishment, perhaps some deeper
purpose. God wanted the little baby for an angel. The virginal choir
singer is stricken with cancer/polio/large truck so as to demonstrate
to others the steadfastness of her faith. AIDS is punishment for the
sin of sexual perversion.
Hebrew scriptures tell another ancient story — a story much older
than the Hebrews who adopted it: in the story, Job stands as the
supreme model of enduring faith in the face of divine caprice. In a
bet with Satan over the faithfulness of the people, God rattles
Job’s once settled life and rolls him in dung and ashes.
loses everything — crops, cattle. In the end, he didn’t even have
his health, as they say, but sat on a dunghill, scraping his sores.
His own wife told him to curse God and die.
the earliest version, before it was given a happier ending, the story
simply ends with a devastated Job, but faithful to the bitter end. Why
should you expect more? Or less? The story speaks to the bewildered
faithful, suffering in spite of their righteousness. “Look at Job.
There wasn’t a more faithful man in all the land. And look what
happened to him.” If we are going to be good,
we must be good for goodness sake, not for any hope of reward.
lesson for the faithful in the ancient story was that there was reason
and purpose for Job’s suffering, cosmic purpose and meaning that
transcended his pain. Job couldn’t know what the meaning and
purpose was. None of his business. But he bore his suffering in the
faith that God must have some good reason for it.
Job’s suffering demonstrated how immovable one’s faith can
be. The martyrs who went to lions and fires were inspired by the faith
of those who went before them. The faithful whose children lay still,
whose husbands mangled bodies lay in smoking foreign fields, whose own
bodies are wracked by pain, are given stories of immovable faith by
which to measure their own suffering.
full catastrophe — the pain of birth, pain of death, a little time
upon the stage only to shuffle off sans everything — all this can be
endured if, perhaps, we deserve it or if, perhaps, it means something,
serves some great purpose beyond our comprehension.
what if it doesn’t? What if all the disasters and accumulated
batterings of daily life don’t mean anything? Not even that we
Many people — perhaps most people — cannot bear that
possibility. I have seen people who were Unitarian Universalists all
their lives, contented skeptics, comfortable in unbelief, who, when
terminally ill, reverted to their former faith.
of my closest friends in a congregation I served, a young wife and
mother, developed incurable cancer. In the hospital, after a long
spiritual struggle, she turned to a young Methodist minister for
comfort in her dying.
couldn’t blame her. She wanted her death to mean something. She
wanted an explanation for it. I no longer had Job’s faith in a God
who had his own reasons for human tragedy. I had no meanings or
explanations for death. Jane’s parents had both died. Her brother
had been an pilot. He was killed in his plane. She was dying of
cancer. She wanted me to tell her what it was all for. What did it all
mean? What could she have done to deserve it all?
didn’t want to hear that it was all part of the full catastrophe.
She didn’t want to hear that “suffering doesn’t mean, it
seek acceptance of what is in life sounds like, “Make the best of it.”
Had I said such a thing, she would have been incredulous. The tubes,
wires, needles, beeps and blinking lights. “Make the best of
But, “Consider the sufferings of the blessed martyrs, my child” is
not in my kit bag. Bottom line, as they say, dusted off and
prettified, is still, “Make the best of it.” Because that’s what
we do. When we don’t have the ancient comforts of the faithful,
when we have tried but can no longer entertain the prospect of
paradise regained, eternal reward for earthly suffering — then what
we do is make the best of it: Make the best of the full
When we have severed the experience of suffering from its
primitive attachment to punishment and when we no longer expect
suffering to teach us something profound about the meaning of life,
then we have the opportunity to make the best of suffering, rather
than the worst of it — that is, to put it in its natural place in the
fullness of life.
has been the way of western culture to lead us to deny the full
catastrophe and to create a dichotomy between the good — what we
like, appreciate, enjoy — and what we call evil — that which carries
with it pain and suffering. We have so set ourselves over against
suffering that, even if we no longer believe it the work of the devil,
we still make it alien, give it power and intent. “Why me?” “What have
I done to deserve this?”
With sadness, I have seen so many people nearing death waste the
preciousness of their waning energy in the futile struggle to discover
why death was happening to them.
deny pain and grief its place in life. We do not let it in because,
having given it such power, we do not believe we could bear its
presence. Fear, anger, pain, grief — these experiences of our
humanness have been made alien by our religions and so we are not
intimate enough with them to know that we can endure them.
cautious path through the thickets has its own pain and has cost us
dearly. Some of us were trained by our parents — and have practiced
diligently through our lives — to avoid the depths of our own being,
to experience only the surface of life, to avoid what might cause us
pain, including love. Yet only when life is embraced in its totality,
only when we live in the depths and in all the corners can we learn
that we can immerse ourselves in life’s joy and also endure the
suffering that is always near at hand.
Martin Luther King, Jr. taught this gospel — this good news — of
suffering and joy. When his church had been bombed and many people
killed, he said this to the tormentors:
“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our
capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with
Soul force. We will soon wear you down with our capacity to
suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart
and conscience that we will win yours in the process.”
own foremost spiritual struggle these days is with aging and death. I
discovered in my meditation practice that I had allowed my heart
disease to alienate me from my body. The scar down the center of my
chest I came to view each morning as the icon of my mortality. My
spiritual work has become to honor my life as it is, my body as it is,
my days as I have them. I am moved by the words of Unitarian poet, May
Sarton, – I asked myself the question, “What do you want of your
life?” And I realized with a start of recognition and terror, “exactly
what I have — but to handle it all better.?”
achieve equanimity — acceptance of what is — in the face of illness,
loss and the inevitable closing of the full catastrophe is the
greatest challenge and, ultimately, the greatest gift of the spiritual
journey. And we must engage in that spiritual journey in a culture
which, again, divides life into good and bad.
our culture, life is Good and Death is so bad that it hardly bears
discussing. Youth is idolized. A golden calf and golden goose. Age is
feared, disguised, put away or otherwise denied. Little wonder that so
many waste their latter years in despair and go to their deaths raging
at the dying of the light.
am also inspired and encouraged in my journey by my colleague, retired
Unitarian Universalist minister, Harry Scholefield. Harry, in his
eighties, meditates in his garden each day at sunrise. He meditates
with poetry he has learned by heart. He waits, he says, for the poets
to come, if they will, with their message for the day. He sits, in
near winter, by an ancient tree is his garden and there comes to him
the words of Shakespeare in Sonnet 73,
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Harry, it is a peaceful companionship of fellow beings, of his own
state shared with that aging tree. There is no regret of his own ?time
of year? and no dread of his own passing.
Harry actually begins his daily meditation when he first opens his
eyes in the morning. His before-rising meditation is called
“Welcoming.” It is to offer a welcome to what the day may bring. To
welcome all that the day may bring is to practice living the full
catastrophe, for it is not always easy to welcome all that the days
may bring. The day may be a re-awakening to a deep loss. The day may
bring us to the dentist or the surgeon. There may be an unpleasant
confrontation to be faced.
When we have learned to accept the full catastrophe as being what
life is, and when we have learned that we have the capacity to fill
ourselves with all that delights us and that we have the strength to
endure what pain us, then we can welcome each day and, in confidence,
welcome all that each day brings.
am glad to have renewed my acquaintance with Zorba in the past few
weeks, for Katzanzakis gave us the most alive of beings to follow.
Zorba was pagan in his scorn of either sin or salvation. He plunged as
fully into anger, fear and folly as he did into joy and passion. He
allowed the full catastrophe into his life and, even when it wracked
his soul with pain and even when his spirit was tormented by the
cruelty of which the spirit-dead are capable, he did not judge what
came to him, but welcomed it all. It is the only way to live life
fully — to live the full catastrophe.