If I keep a green bough in my heart, will the singing bird always come?

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “If you keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come.” It’s a lovely expression of hope and open-heartedness. But it’s one of those inspirational thoughts that sometimes evoke in me a slight “niggling” feeling. Something doesn’t sit quite right. Or, at least, it may not sit right for everyone, in all circumstances.

There is a test that I apply to claims of spiritual or gospel truth: “How would this be experienced by someone who is suffering greatly?” If it cannot be heard as a word of grace in all circumstances, is it really a word of grace?

In this instance — the green bough and the singing bird — I find myself thinking of times when I could not even imagine a green bough, much less keep it in my heart.

I know that not everyone responds to loss and pain as I do. (Today I am awestruck by the generous hearts of the families and friends of the nine people who were gunned down at worship in Charleston SC this week by a young, white, male terrorist.)

But some people do find it difficult if not impossible to have such positive and peaceful hearts during times of immense pain. I’m afraid I’m one of them. When my heart feels shriveled and blackened, it doesn’t seem healing for someone to tell me that it should be otherwise — that my heart should still be green and lovely. In fact, it feels shaming. Not only am I suffering, but apparently I’m “doing it wrong.”

The more problematic aspect of this proverb, however, is the implicit claim that if you maintain an open heart, the singing bird will always come. And that, dear friends, is crap. And potentially damaging crap at that.

If you act in a certain way (stay positive, exercise, pray hard enough) then you will be rewarded. In this simple worldview, bad things do not happen to good people. Or at least when bad things happen to good people, they always come with spiritual blessings attached, and a sufficient measure of strength to endure them.

So I ask, “Is this true? Always? For everyone? In all circumstances?”

I might want it to be true in that universal way, but what then of the terminally ill person who sinks into an ever deeper despondency? What of the veteran so haunted by PTSD and desperate for relief that she ends her own life?

Where is their singing bird?

I worry that aphorisms like this one can seem to trivialize their struggles and add to their sense of failure; that spiritual positivism can be a costume for plain denial, a form of putting your fingers in your ears in order to silence your own (or someone else’s) pain, pushing it away as a shamed thing rather than providing hospitality and receiving it as the (unwanted) guest that it is in the house of your heart.

Of course you don’t want it to take over the whole house, wrecking the furniture and snuffing out its cigars in Grandma’s good china. But there might be a balance, I think. In spiritual direction work there is a concept of “befriending” your suffering — accepting and reverencing it as a part of your life. Not slamming the door on it.

So perhaps for me a more accurate (if less poetic) statement of the proverb would be, “I would like to keep a green bough in my heart, because a singing bird may come. And, if it does, there will be a place for it to perch.”

Not very catchy as a proverb. But a little truer for me.

Kris Haig — artisan, teacher, spiritual director

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