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A Question to Walk With: Describe a time when you have been caretaker and when you have been a gatekeeper and what led you to each position. How do you understand the difference in what led you to each position?
All life depends on water. As such, access to water has become a universal right in the world, regardless of faith, country, privilege, or poverty. Throughout the world, in a legal and common law way, people, corporations, and countries have access to water, but no one owns the water. What this means is that if a river passes through your land, you can use it, but not divert it, dam it, stop its flow, or damage its purity as it passes through your land to another.
This says a great deal about our responsibility as guardians of what passes through our care. It says that the deepest resources are not ownable, but shared and passed on. As such, we can easily equate water with Spirit, wisdom, and the communal ways of being. We can also call that deeper stream which no one owns, the common good. For all life depends on the common good, which passes like a river through the land of our care. Just like water, we can use each other and honor each other, but not divert one another, dam one another up, stop each other’s flow, or pollute the common good as it passes through our hands to another.
In Hindu lore, Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and art, was born out of the Saraswati River, the invisible river that carries the waters that sustain all life. Her name means “the one who flows.” From the earliest times, the invisible river sustained our natural resources as well as our human and spiritual resources, carrying actual water andthe water we have come to know as truth and love.
Saraswati’s ageless counterpart is the serpent-demon, Vritrasura, who is driven to hoard all the water on Earth. And so the endless struggle was set: whether to be one who flows or one who hoards. In the Rigveda, the sacred collection of Sanskrit hymns (c. 1500 B.C.), we are given a profound instruction. With help from her brother Ganesh, the provider and remover of obstacles, and Indra, the god who connects all things, Saraswati killed the demon who would hoard the Earth’s water. It is eternally true that working our way through obstacles until we can connect all things helps move us from being one who hoards to being one who flows.
Those who would carry the water and those who would hoard the water keep appearing, again and again, within us and between us, so that we have chance after chance to learn this lesson well. This is why we wake one more time. Unspoken or not, aware of it or not, we take incarnation to earn our way back into the lineage of those who would carry the water, one more time.
In the Haitian tradition, a story called “The Chief of the Well” speaks of a time of drought when the streams are dry and the wells are parched. There’s no place to get water. The animals meet to discuss the situation and decide to ask God for help. God creates a well that will have unlimited water, as long as one of the animals serves as caretaker and welcomes all who would come in need. The lizard Mabouya volunteers. But, intoxicated with his newfound power, Mabouya becomes a gatekeeper, not a caretaker, and sends everyone in need away. Eventually, God replaces the lizard with the frog, who croaks to all, “Come! This is God’s well! The hole in the ground is yours, but the water belongs to God.”
In each generation, we are challenged to be the caretaker of resources that outlive us. In each generation, we are called to discover what is ours and what is God’s and to learn anew what turns the caretaker in us into a gatekeeper.
This excerpt is from my new book, More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World, which was published last month by Atria Books.