Bellyflops vs Swan Dives: Splash over Depth

Three things I’ve read this week have really got me thinking: the first is a story, believe it or not, about Madonna; the second is the transcript of a speech about justice; and the third is an article about why we Americans deserve Donald Trump as a candidate in the presidential race. The premise of each is similar; namely, that we tend to substitute the easy thing or the splashy thing for the right thing – and then hail the one as if it were the other.

In a piece published in The New York Times titled “Growing Older with Madonna”, Jancee Dunn reminds us that Madonna is known as the queen of reinvention. Certainly, she has tried many styles and set many trends. In her mid-50s now, she looks great. But her latest video feels somehow not right – she struts around, falling down “drunk” with her skin-tight dress riding up to reveal her underwear, declaring that she’s going to party all night and kiss who she wants and no one is going to stop her. Really? I remember that attitude from when I was 19, but then I grew up. The article asks a probing question about Madonna as an artist: “Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving?”

The next instance of a sort of cultural “mistaken identity” or transposition of concepts comes from Anand Giridharadas’ address to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum. “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” . In it, Giridharadas discusses the difficulties of questioning the status quo when “…This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein…” He goes on to say that as they seek solutions to the great disparities in the world, they never quite manage to address the root causes. He calls it the “Aspen Consensus”, in which “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.” As a result, they are (in his words), trying “to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice.”

The third, a Frank Bruni op-ed from The New York Times, discusses the confusion we’ve created between politics and entertainment, stating “…of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.”

Reinvention instead of evolution; generosity instead of justice; celebrity instead of authority, personality instead of leadership. If these various journalists are correct, we as a culture are routinely replacing values and ethics which require maturity, depth of conviction, and the courage of character with things that have a similar appearance, but which never take us below the surface into the realm of thoughtful and right action.

In some ways, the two photos (below) encapsulate this idea. The first photo is of someone engaging in a belly flop. At the pool, belly flops are an easy way to garner attention. They are loud, splashy; they require that people pay attention – even if only to avoid getting wet. Anyone with the desire to garner attention can pull off a belly flop. When well-executed, onlookers are delighted.

In many respects, the second photo looks much the same as the first. However, the second photo is of a swan dive. The swan dive begins with the same wholehearted, arms-spread-wide posture. However, at the last moment, the swimmer pikes and actually dives into the water. Swan dives result in a clean entry to the water, very little noise, almost no splash. They require practice, skill, an urge toward perfection of form. One can perform a swan dive in a crowded aquatic center with very little notice, especially at first. When well-executed, onlookers need to actually be paying attention to notice. However, when paying attention, onlookers are often wowed.

Another difference between the belly flop and the swan dive is that many of us, witnessing the two, firmly believe that we might be able to pull off the belly flop ourselves. But we don’t think we are capable of the swan dive.

Which brings me back to the ideas discussed in the articles I’ve referenced above. Reinvention is relatively easy. Many of us change things about ourselves, re-order the ephemera of our lives with some regularity. If we stop to think of evolution, of truly and deeply becoming the person we are capable (even meant) to be, we grow immediately wary. Or weary. We don’t really think of ourselves as having the fortitude to work that hard on our own growth and development. Often, we rely on life events to propel us in new directions, rather than being willing to undertake self-improvement or self-empowerment, or our own transformation. Yet we are spiritually called to this, I believe. We feel an inner pull toward evolutionary change, but we are unsure or overwhelmed by the prospect of how to proceed. And we – out of laziness, or fear, or unwillingness to upset the apple cart of our lives – settle for cosmetic change.

Generosity in place of justice is another easy substitution for most of us. And the difficult thing here is that generosity is, in itself, a good thing. I would never argue against it. All too often, though, we stop at generosity when what our communities and our world require is justice. We tell ourselves justice is the province of extraordinary souls – the Ghandis, Mother Theresas, MLKs of this world. We feel this way because justice requires deep change. It requires a willingness to root out the systemic causes of injustice. It calls us to act in ways, and with regard to issues, that are complex and difficult to sort out. We could be wrong. We could be facing much more powerful people and forces than ourselves. Most discomfiting of all, we may need to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and still stand our ground. Generosity feels so good. Justice is often just plain uncomfortable.

Finally, we engage in the fascination of celebrity. It is fun to follow the lives of the rich and famous. But somewhere along the line, we have confused noteworthy with newsworthy when it comes to the well-known. More disturbing is the idea permeating our culture that, somehow, celebrity status serves as shorthand for deserving, smart, accomplished, and admirable. Somehow we allow ourselves to think that those whose personalities loom large in our media are also more knowing and more creative. Have better ideas. Are more thoughtful. Here’s the thing: just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they actually know anything – nor does it mean that they are right-er (smarter, better, or more deserving) than the rest of us. But we’ve been led to believe (and allowed ourselves to accept) otherwise. So Chloe Kardashian’s butt sets our agenda, diverts our attention from the starving butts, the homeless butts, the butts without clean water – the millions of persons suffering from lack, systemic inequalities, racism. We sate our interest in the wider world, the world outside ourselves, with celebrity brand junk food. We fall for the splash and not the depth.

Why am I going on and on about this? Especially when the writers of the articles I’ve cited have made their points more eloquently (and more succinctly) than I? Because each of them touched on a slightly different facet of what I see as endemic in 21st century American culture – the willingness to settle for the big splash because we lack the will, perhaps the self-discipline, to reach for the swan dive. To work toward the fulfillment of our own potential as well as toward the creation of a world in which all people can potentialize. I, personally, need to work at maintaining a focus on right instead of easy, on deep instead of the kind of broad that comes from the “squirrel? squirrel?” distractibility of modern life. I feel that longing for the clean dive that takes me well below the surface, and I believe I am not alone in that.

Yesterday, I heard a quote on the radio as I drove (and because I was driving couldn’t jot down who said it), that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it. It terrifies me to think that we are a generation belly flopping our way to oblivion. More than that, it saddens me to think how we continue to squander the miracle, the absolute gift, of life in this incredible, amazing, generative Universe. So I am going to work hard to evolve, to leaven my generosity with action for justice, and to call forth my own leadership skills instead of letting those with larger personalities hold the field. I’m going to practice diving for depth.

 

 

Incipience: The Mystery of Becoming

Last week, I arrived back at work from a lunchtime errand to discover surfaces everywhere topped with clear plastic take-out containers. In each container was a bunch of milkweed leaves and a caterpillar. Accompanying each was a handout, introducing the creature inside as an incipient butterfly. I’ve never watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, so I was fascinated to have this opportunity placed in front of me.

The first thing I learned is that caterpillars poop a lot. Seriously, they were productive little things. For a day or so, I watched them eat away at the milkweed, filling their containers with caterpillar “mulch”. Then I got used to their presence, busy with other things, and didn’t notice when a change took place. Suddenly, there were no caterpillars, just bright green pods hanging from the tops of each plastic container – they had become chrysalises while I wasn’t looking.

Each chrysalis started out bright green with a small line of metallic-looking gold dots across it (which I will come back to later). By this point, I was determined not to miss the remaining steps of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I checked on them throughout the days, finally noticing that their color was changing. At first, it appeared that the chrysalis was turning black, but over time (and upon closer inspection) I began to see the colors of the butterfly emerge within the clear casing of the chrysalis.

Image

And then, not too much longer and this happened:

Image 1

 

Many people have rhapsodized about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is an image that has been used as metaphor many times, and watching the process is endlessly fascinating. I can’t even begin to speak about it as beautifully as so many others already have. But what I loved about watching this transformation was knowing that the seeds of evolution were inside the wriggly caterpillar all along.

Science tells us that there is no structural commonality between caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillar literally dissolves into a kind of genetic goop inside the chrysalis. Cells which had remained dormant within the caterpillar, poetically called “imaginal” cells, take over:

These little groups of cells that start developing very early in the caterpillar’s life but then they stall, and so they’re just in there waiting, and they don’t start growing until the very end of the 5th instar (the last caterpillar stage). —Journey North: Monarch Butterfly

What emerges is something completely different. But those imaginal cells? They were there from the beginning. From this I take two lessons for myself:

  • Within each of us resides the seeds of what we can become – and we can literally change our form (transform) from within.
  • What we have the potential to be is radically different from who we already are.

Remember that line of metallic dots on the green chrysalis? (If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the dots in both.) They intrigued me, so I did a little research and discovered this: they are a mystery. Science has not yet explained them. I take great pleasure in knowing this. We can transform our lives, our very sense of who we are – that potential, that incipience, exists within us. But there’s mystery in us, too. The beautiful, shining mystery of creation that defies human understanding.

This past week, everyone who stopped to look at, discuss, celebrate, and set free our butterflies noted not only the incredible biology of the process, but also the deep mystery. And we all shared, if briefly, in the joy of transformation. I can’t hold on to those moments, but I want very much to remember them. Especially at those times when I begin to feel, “This is it. I am finished becoming. I’m set now in this form, in this way of being in the world and in my own body, heart, soul.”  Because those moments are the ones when I need my own imagination (my imaginal cells, if you will) to kick in. That is when I need to remember the joy – and the beauty – that is activated with the conscious choice to change and grow.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed…If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”  — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life