I had never seen so much blood as the night our second child was born.
It didn’t work out the way we wanted. The doctors could see from the monitor that the baby’s heart rate plummeted every time there was a contraction, signifying he was being strangled by the umbilical cord.
Each drop electrified my nerves.
I spent the hours of labor thinking that the baby was either going to be born with severe brain problems or that he would die before birth.
Eventually the doctors felt it was necessary to do a c-section. My wife was wheeled into the operating room and cut open. Her blood drained into tubes and gathered into bags, compounding my anxiety.
When the baby was born, I couldn’t tell if he had suffered brain damage. His cries were strained and choked. I waited for the nurse to clean him off and then the baby and I were taken to the nursery.
As we settled in, I asked the nurse if everything was okay.
When she said that everything was fine, that the baby was completely healthy and the surgery went well, I had a sense of deep relief. What had been anxiety was now replaced by peace.
I looked at my son, squirming on the nursery cradle beside me, and I felt a powerful sense of connection to him. We were both overwhelmed by what had just happened, powerless in the face of nature.
As I sat there, this feeling of connection expanded to all human beings. I felt that at a fundamental level, despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise, we are all weak and scared and alone. None of us really knows what we’re doing, and so there is only room for empathy and forgiveness and love. In that moment I felt a deep desire to remove all judgment and just be kind.
This feeling of connection and generosity is familiar to people all over the world, and yet we often struggle to put the feeling into words. Here are some approximate terms I’ve heard to describe what it feels like:
The poet William Wordsworth called it “a calm so deep.” And the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said when you feel it you will have “a mind inflamed with the desire of benefiting mankind.”
The French movie Amelie describes the experience as “a strange feeling of absolute harmony. … A surge of love, an urge to help mankind.”
The good news
Spiritual traditions all over the world have taught about this state of joy and generosity using metaphors and the language of their time. Buddha taught about awakening, Muhammad taught about submission, and Moses taught about entering the presence of God.
Whether or not you believe in these spiritual traditions, there is something to learn from each one about how to have spiritual experiences — about how to experience beauty.
For instance, Jesus of Nazareth said that we can all experience beauty within and that the experience is like entering a heavenly kingdom. He called this message the good news.
We are told that “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”
When someone asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” he responded, “The kingdom of God will not come if you watch for it. Nor will anyone be able to say, ‘It is here’ or ‘It is there.’ For the kingdom of God is within you.”
Elsewhere, when a scribe agreed with Jesus that love is the most important of all the commandments, Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus wasn’t saying that the man was about to die and go to heaven. Instead, Jesus was saying that in that moment the man was nearing a state of pure love.
The good news, then, is that we don’t have to wait until the afterlife to obtain the treasure of abundant living. We can experience it right now. A nineteenth century philosopher put it this way: “What is “the good news”? That true life, eternal life, has been found — it is not something promised, it is already here, it is within you: as life lived in love.”
The good news is that beauty is all around — always within reach — and you are capable of experiencing it deeply.
Temporary blissful centerings
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”—Rumi
Wayne Booth, a professor of rhetoric at University of Chicago, called these moments of beauty “temporary blissful centerings,” and in the years before he died he made a list of the times he had experienced such moments.
This is one of the most important documents I’ve ever read because it reminds me of what really matters.
Here it is, edited for length: the moments that brought Wayne Booth bliss.
- Loving my lifelong partner
- Cuddling a newborn child or grandchild
- Playing games — with children, with friends, with anybody who is fully engaged with the game
- Listening to powerful music
- Playing music, the supreme bliss
- Reading any novel or poem slowly, deliciously, totally absorbed
- Writing a draft of something that feels good
- Working many hours with marvelously collegial friends
- Teaching a class when the discussion goes right
- Looking at a flower, or a shimmering lake, or a magnified photo of an insect, or a rainbow flash from a prism, feeling a flood of gratitude
- Lighting a well-laid fire … staring at the flames as they mount
- Attending Catholic mass in a tiny chapel in Flavigny, France, singing the hymns, reveling in the deeply probing sermons by the priest who has welcomed us even though he knows that we are Mormons
- Meditating silently in Quaker Meeting, surrounded by friends who interrupt only infrequently to report what their spirit dictates
- Attending the bat and bar mitzvahs of grandkids Emily and Aaron — total “spiritual elevation” or “religious ecstasy”
- Singing the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints” at my missionary homecoming service
These moments of temporary blissful centerings give life its joy and its meaning. Any of us can experience such moments, so long as we deliberately seek them out and are fully present when they occur. And, as we consistently nurture them, they can lead us to a more constant state of joy and generosity.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait around for the stars to align just right or a traumatic near-death moment. As Lao Tzu once wrote, “at the center of your being you have the answer.” Beauty is always within reach, even in our weakness.
This is an excerpt from the book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available on Amazon.com.