Grace, karma and the pizza man

When the world overwhelms, surrender somehow helps—or maybe it’s the pesto and pine nuts

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of grace. It’s a strange and humbling and ultimately paradoxical thing, that idea of screwing up royally and yet being picked up, dusted off and being carried along through the salt marshes of your own messy humanity by something bigger than you. The problem is, for me anyway, that I keep thinking there’ll be a limit to this “grace” stuff, because quite frankly I mess up a hell of a lot—I’m usually up to my ankles in that squishy, swampy mud of forgetfulness, unkindness, discombobulation and general bitterness toward the world and electronic gadgets in particular.

On U2’s most recent album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono sings a line that goes, “Grace … she travels outside of karma.” I love this line and believe in it wholeheartedly, but I also fully believe in karma—"what goes around comes around” seems to be the natural order of things. Yet while my belief system is one that spells out the principles of karma in Chapter 2, Chapter 1 deals with faith, with trusting in a Higher Being—a God of love and mercy.

This is a scary thing for me to even bring up, because I can imagine that some of you readers will now be scanning the rest of the rant for references to Salvation and Sin and Hell, subjects that are all very dicey, make even me uneasy, and that I will not even try to touch.

I’m not sure how fully I buy into traditionally Christian concepts of sin, but I do know that life can suck and I don’t make it any easier on myself sometimes. For instance, I could pay bills on time every month (what a concept!), tell people my thoughts and my needs the first time around instead of skirting issues and then having to worm myself out of unwanted obligations, and, for God’s sake, I could stop building a big line of defense against people I fear will hurt me and thereby ending up looking like a really nice person 90 percent of the time and a frigid bitch the other 10 percent.

I was telling my friend Mike about all of this over the phone recently and, though he and I have never really talked spiritual talk before, he seemed immediately to grasp my frustrations.

“I’m trying to embrace grace,” I told him late one afternoon while sitting at my desk at work after a particularly embittering day. “But then I keep fucking up, digging myself a ditch and thinking I can get out all by my capable little self.”

That day, I had been trying to get my Peace Corps follow-up application to the folks at FedEx and writing two major stories for the RN&R, all of which I should have had done already. I had also drunk a little too much beer the night before. I was frustrated with myself—and with the world, which is a much more comforting thing to be pissed off at than oneself, when it comes down to it.

But people, both friends and acquaintances, kept doing those random acts of kindness that you hear about, then throwing in some senseless acts of beauty, and just generally helping me dig myself out of ditches. It was a very humbling and wonderful thing, but I still kept thinking I ought to be able to steady my life, which seemed to be teetering like a vase about to tip over. No such luck.

Anne Lamott, my favorite author, calls it “taking your sticky little fingers off the control panels” of the plane—the plane that not you but God is flying.

And Mike was brilliant about the whole thing.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s like calling for a pizza when you’re really hungry, then locking all the doors and shutting the blinds and sitting there in the dark.”

Being hungry and feeling sorry for yourself. While God, or your Higher Being or Benevolent Force or whatever you want to call It, is sounding the doorbell with a big serving of grace. With pesto and spinach and pine nuts, for us vegetarian types.

Which has made me realize something. You can’t have grace without surrender—not the kind of surrender that means giving up what you really care about, but the kind of surrender that means saying, “I can’t handle this right now, so I’m going to turn it over to God and trust that everything will be OK.” And it usually would have been easier all along if I had just gone into the ladies’ room more often and prayed or meditated or simply sat with the lights dimmed on the cool tile in the quiet of the bathroom.

And then opened the door and let the pizza guy come in.

Carli Cutchin is the RN&R’s staff writer.

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