Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2017 - Volume 17, No. 10
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The Thin Cord

Many years ago I learned of the Three Fates - three mythical women who together decide a person’s destiny. The first is Clotho, the spinner. She spins the thread of life. Second is Lachesis, the measurer, who chooses one’s lot in life, and measures off how long it will be. The third is Atropos, the cutter, who ends our life by snipping the thread of life with her scissors. She is the one I always felt most vulnerable against. In my imagination, it’s finally that great pair of scissors against the thin cord of my life.

My world today

For me it began with last year’s presidential campaign and election. We elected a man I deem too unstable for the office. But there is hope - perhaps simply that we can wait out three and a half more years, and in the meantime manage the damage.

Then this August came Hurricane Harvey and Houston. We’ve known for at least the dozen years since Katrina that this kind of destruction will become more common. But we knew to rally. A friend who was recently driving through Texas tells me of large highway convoys of men pulling boats heading for Houston - because Houston needed boats. A Cavalry was on the move.

Then came Irma - covering and potentially “evacuating” the entire State of Florida. Most of us, at least in Michigan, have “people” in Florida, so we telephoned and texted, watched and prayed, then texted again. I saw on the news a large “cavalry” of DTE Energy trucks leaving the Detroit area within a day or so, all heading down to Florida. That’s what power company folks do - like firemen into a fire and well-trained police into danger.

We also knew of Irma’s devastation in the Caribbean, only to have Hurricane Maria show up and finish up the job of almost complete destruction. And in Puerto Rico, those are Americans, “our people.” But all at once we’re getting tired - sometimes called “donor fatigue.” It took a long time before any “cavalry” began to show up. A strange new word showed up in the pleading voice of the mayor of San Juan - “genocide” - the deliberate killing of a large group of people. This time by neglect.

One more paragraph - consider the two massive earthquakes in Mexico. As much as we’re encouraged to vilify them as an alien people, we watched in awe a selfless ‘cavalry’ of bare hands.

Then there are the people with guns and bombs and knives, and more guns, almost randomly killing innocents these days. Their giddy weapon is terror.

Another level of fear

Once again, we’re beginning to feel something else - the fear of nuclear annihilation - due in part to the braggadocio of certain leadership in North Korea and Washington. I was an adolescent in the 1950’s - the time of the Cold War. I remember that every large plane that flew over us was a potential bomber that could kill us all in seconds. It was the time of the ubiquitous bomb shelter and classroom safety drills. I also knew that any protection available could only sustain us for a short period of time till the ‘radiation’ killed us.

Now we are hearing of “EMP” - where one carefully aimed enemy missile (aka North Korea) could by way of an ElectroMagnetic Pulse, wipe out our entire power grid. The resulting absence of electricity, water, food, medicine, travel, civil order and all electronic communication, would mean a majority of us would be facing death at least within at least a week or two.

So in one way, the young Iowa boy of the 1950’s is back imagining mass annihilation. Maybe that’s when I learned of the three sisters.

By what a thin cord we hold onto life and a social order.

What does it mean to live within such vulnerability? It means everything.

There’s a mystery in life. And that mystery emerges from our vulnerability. Sometimes that means from our weakness. But it also means the vulnerability of our caring strength.

I hear of those who’ve had a ‘near death experience.’ One common outcome is a new and complete absence of any fear of death.

It’s said that a Native American warrior (and perhaps anyone trained in a warrior tradition) can say “today is a good day to die.” This isn’t from a cynicism or nihilism, but from a new freedom to be much more open to life, to the warrior’s task of protecting and nurturing others, from a trained ability to self-empty for the sake of others.[1]

This can be the gift of a mature religious life or training. It is the secret of a rich marriage and family life, of good sex, of prayer, and often of better physical and mental health. It’s the secret of knowing how to give and receive love.

This secret of a rich life seems to exist in non-religious persons as well.

In my own spiritual tradition, it’s what’s meant by “having the mind of Christ.”

So in the meantime, we simply practice, practice, practice. It’s a high level of discipline.

Yes, the thin cord is a cord of vulnerability, sometimes extreme vulnerability.

Strangely it’s also a cord of blessing. It can open us up to living life to the fullest.

I no longer fear the three sisters of Fate. Strange now that they are keeping my soul more alive through these times.

Pay attention


[1] From Sitting Bull Hunkpapa, Lakota:
“Warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior for us is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”
(Further reference lost).

Comments (1)

  • It occurred to me that your calling is to listen, yet you have so much to say. Love your insights. I have been saddened by the lack of urgency for the devastation in Puerto Rico and Mexic. How to help there? Maybe it is good that I am not an early-adopter – those who jump in at first chance – maybe I, and those like me, could be the ones to help those more distant, or unlike us. Love the thought. Will look for ways to help those who don’t get the benefit of the early donors.

    — Julie DuPei, 10/2/2017

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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