Stand or Take a Knee…

When I was in high school, I belonged to an inter-church youth group. Many Sundays saw my siblings and I attending services at the Methodist, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches in town with our youth group – and also attending mass at our own Catholic parish. Sometimes, our youth group friends would come to mass with us – not often, certainly not as often as we attended their services (I mean, we were teens – who would actually choose multiple church services on a single Sunday morning unless coerced?!). When they did come to our church, they refused to participate in the prayer ritual on the grounds that somehow doing so made them idolators or papists. They never asked me about the rituals of the mass, or why we sometimes knelt – they had learned elsewhere that it was antithetical to their religious doctrine. So they came to our church as a sign of solidarity with us (because my parents insisted on mass), but they used their presence as an opportunity to stage a silent protest against Catholicism.

I haven’t forgotten how it felt as a teenager, to watch my friends make significant eye contact with one another as they slowly, deliberately and with a clearly intentional flourish, took their seats – in the very front pew of the church where they insisted we sit – as the rest of the church dropped to their knees.

I felt shamed.

And then I felt angry. What made them think their church was better than mine? Their way of expressing prayerful reverence somehow more “right”?

Now, all that I’ve written about this experience is from my perspective – and not even my current perspective, that of my teenaged self. Today, I wouldn’t see or feel it in the same way at all! In fairness to my friends, their perceptions and perspectives of these events likely vary widely from mine. And it is so far in the past, we’re lucky to remember it at all, much less with any nuance or detail!

However, these memories of how I felt then have helped me to understand a bit about why the recent protests during the national anthem at sporting events have so enraged some folks. When someone chooses to act in a way that is deliberately different, we can’t help but pay attention. And when their action calls out something that we do or believe as a matter of course, we tend to take their actions personally. You kneeling when I stand, or remaining seated when I kneel, is not a political statement, it is a personal affront.

This initial reaction is visceral, not thoughtful.

And here’s where we get into trouble so often, I think: instead of engaging in reflection and dialogue about what is behind both the other person’s action and our emotional re-action, we stick with the visceral. Our responses are then always arguments designed to support our gut reaction, our feelings, rather than intended to bring about understanding of multiple perspectives. It keeps us in adversarial opposition to one another, rather than allowing us to truly listen, or to come to respectful disagreement – not to mention the even more desirable discovery of some middle ground.

Unfortunately, social media feeds this immature atunement to the visceral. In many ways, it has become a scourge to mature inquiry and and reflection. I say this sadly, as one who has benefited from all of the great things social media has the potential to offer. However, as both the algorithms used weed out more and more of what might be different from our own perspectives, more and more we also unfriend those whose perspectives differ. By the time both are done with “the weeding”, we’re left with a very sparse garden of ideas, indeed. One uninformed by the unique perspectives of others whose worldviews and life experiences differ from our own.

We find ourselves in a turbulent time. There are deep issues to be addressed. I do not have any answers, nor am I suggesting that I have a comprehensive theory on how to go about resolving these issues. I am, though, attempting to hold space – by listening, by checking my own gut-reactions, by seeking a broader set of opinions than my own – for what of Goodness and Truth and Peace and Justice might emerge from the turbulence of our times. Whether I stand, or kneel, or lay prostrate on the ground – I am trying to hold space for others to choose their own posture without casting them in the role of enemy or other. It is, honestly, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I am convinced that making the effort will be worth it, if only because it keeps me from a self-imposed solitary confinement of the mind and heart.

“It’s a fact—everyone is ignorant in some way or another.Ignorance is our deepest secret.

And it is one of the scariest things out there, because those of us who are most ignorant are also the ones who often don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.

Here is a quick test:

If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental tenet of your belief, if you have never questioned the basics, and if you have no wish to do so, then you are likely ignorant.

Before it is too late, go out there and find someone who, in your opinion, believes, assumes, or considers certain things very strongly and very differently from you, and just have a basic honest conversation.

It will do both of you good.”

— Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes from the Middle Ground

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

…Changing the Dream (part 2 of 2)

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

–MLK Jr.

 

When I was in graduate school, we used a visualization activity called “The Perfect Future Day Fantasy”, in which we were to imagine ourselves waking up on a “perfect” weekday 10 years into our future. I specifically remember processing this activity with a group of fellow students, when one friend said that, in his perfect day, he was presiding over negotiations to reunify Germany. We all laughed at him, saying “As if…that will never happen.” That was 1987. By the end of 1990, German reunification was a reality.

In the “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream” symposium, the module which discusses “What is possible for the future”, asks us to shift our perspective from what is probable to what is possible. We live in a cynical world (did I really just quote Jerry McGuire?!). A world in which many of us look at the enormous issues confronting us and decide they are so over-arching, so all-encompassing, that we can do nothing…and we therefore continue in our comfortable dream world.

And yet. Apartheid ended. Change is sweeping through the Middle East. Millions of people the world over are participating in organizations and movements to make justice, sustainability, spiritual fulfillment real in the world in new and creative ways. Just a few who have inspired me: Emmanuel Jal, Curt Ellis and Food Corps, Annie Leonard, and so many others. Each of these individuals has taken their unique talents and skills and employed them in service to justice and creating a different dream for the world. And I am heartened to know there are millions of others, whose names and faces I may never know, but whose voices are represented by an activist in the symposium video module who says, “We didn’t believe we could change anything, but we did it anyway.”

Inspiration is important. It needs to translate into action in order for me to be part of co-creating a new dream for our world (a universal Perfect Future Day Fantasy!). But what can I do? I’ve thought about this long and hard in the week since attending the symposium. First, I can talk – that’s something I’m good at! – and write about what is in my heart. Second, I can start with the environments I am already a part of. For example, on Thursday, the symposium attendees from my university met for lunch to discuss an action plan to bring the symposium, and active outgrowths from it, to our campus community. I can evaluate the corporations with which I do business, and make a conscious effort to support those who use a “triple bottom line – people, planet, profit”. Because food and hunger are issues which are already important to me, I can recommit myself to work on these with my time, talents, and treasure.

It would be overwhelming if we looked at all that needs to be done and thought that we, personally, needed to do it all. Heck, even thinking that we need to do something big, make one grand gesture, is an overwhelming idea. What I am discovering, though, is that each of us has within us the ability to make a difference. If we stop thinking it needs to be a difference that the whole world will see and recognize, and instead think of it as a difference that changes our hearts and touches at least one other, it becomes much less daunting. Do I really think that will change where the earth is headed? You bet I do. And I am far from alone in that:

“It is a moral universe despite all appearances to the contrary.”

–Desmond Tutu

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit.”

–Wilma Rudolph