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Embracing the Human Frailty

The first time I read “The Guest House,” I felt certain that Rumi wrote it just for me, as if he’d been reading my journal:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I’ve not only been visited by the feelings he names — “a depression, a meanness,” “the dark thought, the shame, the malice” — I’ve said and done things that brought those feelings my way.

Rumi tells us to open the door to these “unexpected visitors.” In my experience, that’s not necessary. If the door’s not open, they’ll blow it off its hinges, or break in through the windows, or come down the chimney like the anti-Santa Claus. Once they’re in, I don’t want to “welcome and entertain them all” as Rumi advises. Instead, I want to give them the boot with a line from the painter Walter Sickert, who once told an annoying guest, “You must come again when you have less time.”

Still, Rumi insists that we should not only welcome these troublesome guests but “be grateful for whoever comes.” Even if they “violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture,” he says, they may be “clearing you out/for some new delight.”

For a long time, I thought Rumi meant, “These hard feelings will pass, and happier ones will take their place.” Then it dawned on me that even when the vandals are trashing my guest house, their very presence is a sign that I’m human: as Rumi says, “This being human is a guest house.”

That’s a fact that unites me with everyone who acknowledges and accepts their human condition. For me, the true delight is in knowing that we have company on this endless and sometimes perilous journey toward becoming more fully human.

Gandhi called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Experimentation is how we learn. A lot of experiments fail, and, as every scientist knows, we learn more from those that fail than those that succeed. If you live your life experimentally, the failures will be personal, and some will be spectacular.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, is one of my personal saints even though he’s unlikely to be sainted by his own church because of his spectacular “failures.” Not only did he find wisdom and consolation outside of Christianity in Taoism and Buddhism, but, toward the end of his life, Merton fell deeply in love with a nurse who cared for him when he was in the hospital.
During a long, tortured year — when his life became a trashed “guest house” — Merton wrestled with whether to leave the monastery and marry the woman he loved. Eventually, he made the painful decision to renew his monastic vows. But a close friend of Merton told me that, once the pain had eased, Merton said something quite remarkable about this intimate experiment with truth:

“I learned that I’m capable of loving someone other than God.”

How amazing that this world-class mystic said, in effect, “Loving God is a piece of cake compared to loving another human being. Being human is harder than being holy.”
Merton had come to understand what the writer John Middleton Murry meant when he said:

“For a good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which his previous rectitude was flowery license.”

This is the demanding path toward wholeness. It’s a path that takes us toward being fully human, one that can be walked only by those willing to fall down and get up time and again. And being human, fully human, is something to be celebrated, as Merton did in his journal entry about the epiphany he had in downtown Louisville, Kentucky:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.'”

Once, when I took one of my failings to a trusted counselor and friend — a man who knew how to “hear me into speech,” to quote theologian Nelle Morton — I was blessed with words I’ll never forget: “Welcome to the human race.”

My friend was not scandalized by the fact that I had fallen. He’d heard it all before. He’d fallen himself. And he was glad to welcome me to what theologian Howard Thurman called “the human frailty.”
Today, when people want to share their brokenness with me, my first goal is to create safe space where they can give voice to whatever they thought was unspeakable and learn, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, to “accept the fact that they are accepted.” My ultimate goal is to be able to say, from the depths of my own human experience, “Welcome to the human race.”

Those words save us from the terrible sense of isolation that comes when we are visited by the “crowd of sorrows” Rumi writes about in “The Guest House.” Those words help us stay faithful to the task of becoming fully human in a world where we can neither survive nor thrive until we embrace the human frailty in ourselves and in others with reverence and respect.

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