The Four Worlds, or Why Every Offering Counts

It’s strange. I write something just about everyday, and yet I sit down to write and feel rusty. There’s this balance between sitting in quiet contemplation, letting a topic or impulse rise up in me, and just diving in, the way Chalupa did with the newly fallen snow — face first.

We took a walk just now. The plows were out, which our canine heroine found terrifying. But she was brave, and we prevailed, making it all the way around the block without incident. Now she is asleep beneath my chair so close to me that I can’t scooch in closer to the table. It reminds me so much of having a baby or toddler, where you just kind of contort yourself around them when they crash so as to get the peace and quiet. Uninterrupted writing time becomes a precious thing.

I’ve had a couple of tabs open on my computer for weeks now. This morning, they call for my attention.

First, this:

Jewish mystical tradition teaches that we live simultaneously in four worlds: the world of action, the world of emotion, the world of thought, and the world of spirit. :: read more

And this, a graphic depiction about Gad Beck, a gay Jewish resistance fighter during WWII, who wrote:

I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life, no matter how dire the straits. :: read more

Action, emotion, intellect, spirit. To live predominantly in only one of these worlds is to miss so much information.

If we rely only on action, we risk becoming callous, narrow-minded, burned-out, or cynical.

If our emotions are given free reign, reason is threatened and we might make decisions in a vacuum.

If intellect is our primary compass, we become distant and disconnected from actual lived experience; empathy suffers.

And if spirit is not met with tethering forces of the other three realms, we float off into the ether, forgetting that while there may be no “other” in divine creation, there most certainly is “other” here in the physical world — and it’s our job to work with that in a way that ultimately recognizes what’s holy without bypassing what’s unjust and oppressive.

The cardinal comes to the feeder, his gorgeous red even brighter than usual against the backdrop of freshly fallen snow. I look up and watch him peck away for a moment. Chalupa moves to her bed, her leash still on like an umbilicus. The household sleeps.

I think of Gad Beck with his lover, risking their lives not only to be together, surviving torture and bombings, but to help others survive. It’s a distant point of reference for these times, and yet no time has passed at all.

In a blink, it’s nearly 2020, a number that sounds straight out a sci-fi novel. We are living in the most dystopian of times. Our current regime, I mean government, moves inexorably towards fascism on the daily. Action, intellect, emotion, and spirit are all needed in concert.

The cardinal has flown away and now the tiny chickadees have come to scour the dregs. I need to refill the feeders. It’s small tasks like these that keep me aloft, where action meets spirit in the quotidian and I remember that every offering counts. It’s too easy otherwise to become overwhelmed by the task at hand, paralyzed, and swirled into an impotent vortex.

Music, dance, movement — what brings you into the body, where emotion is stored?

Books, podcasts, talks, essays — what brings your intellect to life, sharpening your skills of analysis and synthesis?

And action? Action looks so different for each of us. And I think this is where it’s easy to get snagged, to fall for the belief that whatever we do is a drop in the bucket, a pinch of sand in the ocean, you get the idea.

I would argue that there’s a fifth element or dimension to all of this. Maybe there’s no word for it, or maybe “process” is as close as I can get this morning. Being present with things as they unfold, even when we can’t see change, can’t see things shifting. Or when the shifts are seismic and we lose our ground and can’t tell which way is up.

A bowl of oatmeal — apples, raisins, maple syrup — warms my bones. Mani is awake. We ask each other, how did you sleep? We are not in hiding. We are not in direct danger. And yet we are two women who share a bed, a life, and a commitment to one another, with a mezuzah on each doorway in our second-floor home in a yellow house in a small town that seems far away from the drumbeats of dictatorship and hate.

It isn’t.

I hear a whisper in my head: “Stay awake.”

I hear another: “Take a nap.”

Mani takes Chalupa downstairs to pee. Three double-sided pages of a new client’s manuscript awaits my attention. Snow falls gently and not half a mile from here, Guatemalan immigrant Lucio Perez takes sanctuary from ICE in the First Congregational Church of Amherst. Just over the river in Northampton, Russian immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova, is living in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. 

Perez and Kakhtiranova have both lived, worked, raised U.S.-born children, and paid taxes in the United States for 15-20 years. (Ironically, one of the reasons Kakhtiranova left her home in the Ural Mountains is because she was in a relationship with another woman.)

Amazon, meanwhile, paid ZERO dollars in taxes last year, despite $11.2 billion — BILLION — in profit.

I can feel the slide towards listing all of the things — fist-shaking rage, a horror show of greed and suffering and injustice. But I’m putting on the brakes and stopping myself from going down that steep slope. After all, what happens when I reach the bottom?

I trudge my ass back up the hill to recover some greater perspective, reassess my relationship to the Four Worlds of action, intellect, emotion, and spirit, and start again.

We have to keep going, and we have to keep starting over. We have to gain momentum, and we have to be deliberate. We have to watch the birds, and we have to watch ourselves and the ways in which we fall asleep, decide it’s all too much, and retreat.

{I’m overcome with the need to tell you that I play many rounds of Candy Crush everyday. It’s ok to check-out; just know when you’re doing it.}

Gad Beck and his fellow resistors in the underground of Nazi Germany had no way of knowing how things would go. They risked their lives instead of risking their conscience and spirit. We live among so many fellow humans who are doing just that, today.

The whole idea of “if you wonder what you would’ve done then, look at what you’re doing now” comes to mind.

Then I look at my kids, finding their way towards adulthood in a difficult world. Then I look at my wife, whose ways of moving along the ladder of the Four Worlds instructs and inspires me. I look at the relationships and change borne of staying with things over time, without necessarily being able to predict their trajectory and with no assurance of hoped-for outcomes.

And I think, this is faith. Alone, it is not enough. And yet without it, I have nothing to offer.