The Wisdom to Know

29 09 2017

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
–Reinhold Niebuhr

Here’s a disclaimer, right up front: serenity is not a quality I have generally understood, nor have I actively sought serenity in my daily life. I offer this truth, not as a self-criticism or as some kind of humble brag. I just wish to make it clear at the outset that I don’t know much about serenity.

That said, I’ve been thinking about the serenity prayer quite a bit lately. Not so much the serenity part, but the acceptance, courage, and wisdom parts. Each of us may decide for ourselves whether we are blessed or cursed to be living in these “interesting times”; for my part, it feels important to wonder if I am responding as my best self. Acceptance, courage and wisdom play a huge role in that assessment.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

I am an Idealist. Even as a child, adults were often hurling this word at me as if it were an epithet: “You’re such an idealist!” It became a phrase I hated. Once I understood what the term meant, I was confused about why people seemed to think it was a bad thing. It came as no surprise when, in graduate school, I studied the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and found myself to be an INFP – the Idealist. All of this is background so you will understand when I say I have trouble with this line of the serenity prayer. My brain looks at the world and struggles to find things that I cannot change. So far the list is minimal: weather, in the short-run (over the long run, climate change suggests that I can have, for good or ill, an impact on weather); someone else’s choices (though I can impact the circumstances, opinions, feelings that may guide those choices)…Ok, let’s face it – I just don’t think there are things I cannot change!

This goes deeper than a personality preference. If I believe (and I do) that we are all connected, then it behooves me to take a long view of  change. The ripples I send out into the world (my actions, my thoughts, my being) effect change – whether I see or comprehend their impact is almost irrelevant. Of course, I take the most pride and pleasure in having a visible, measurable impact for the good. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m aware that sometimes I have a negative impact as well. This does not make me proud.)

Acceptance of the things I cannot change, then, becomes more about accepting that I will never single-handedly change society or culture in a manner that is immediately operational. Institutional racism, for example, will only change if many people like me act in concert and with good will to create change then continue to act in ways that support and institutionalize equality. Learning to accept that change is both possible and occurring, even when it is imperceptible to me, is as close to finding serenity within the context of this line as I am likely to get.

…the courage to change the things I can…

I admire courage. Whether it is evidenced by someone acting on their convictions, taking a chance on the untried/unknown, or putting themselves between another person and harm I try to recognize and support courage when I see it in action. But I, myself, am a bit on the cowardly side. For most of us, courage is not a response we can plan in advance; it is too easy to reason ourselves off the hook. When we do act with courage, more often than not we are moved to act by immediate circumstances unfolding around us.

But the serenity prayer isn’t speaking to that kind of “in the heat of the moment” courage. It is talking about the courage to face our own weaknesses; the courage to stand in our truth day after day, even if/when no one stands with us; the courage of our convictions that “there is a right thing I must do” regardless of the cost. I am sometimes called to speak truth to power, but often find it difficult to do the speaking – much like being unable to scream in the midst of a nightmare, fear of the possible repercussions interferes with my courageous expression. This line of the serenity prayer calls me to find my voice and make it be heard anyway.

Speaking of finding my voice, there is also the courage required to be a broken record in service to justice. To consistently call on the “better angels” (as Lincoln put it) of our nature to heal and to forgive and to forge new understanding requires tenacity and commitment. At a time when it is fashionable to use the phrase “social just warrior (SJW)” as a pejorative, the courage to walk this path daily is often unrecognized or unwelcome – yet absolutely necessary for change.

And so I pray for courage.

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom,” says Confucius. “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Whatever of actual wisdom we gain via these methods is precious. Like the proverbial pearl of great price, not only have we paid dearly for it, but it can be lost to us if we do not treasure it and if we do not use it.

Proverbs (4:6-7) tells us: “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Wow. That bears repeating:

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

So wisdom is more than self-knowledge, deeper than experience. It is nothing less than gaining understanding – which requires these things, but also empathy and compassion. There is no wisdom that is merely self-referenced. No wonder wisdom feels both so important and so difficult to attain.

Given all of these musings, is it any wonder I’ve been unable to get this darn prayer off my mind? So much for serenity!

Look, I’m not the kind of idealist who expects perfection; but I am an idealist who believes that whatever better future we imagine is possible. I’m not sure I need to find serenity at the cost of choosing which change is possible, because what is possible is always changing. I am willing to concede that there are limitations to my ability to change the world, to change systems, to change minds or hearts. But these limitations are not limitations of possibility but of imagination and they are made less possible when I cower rather than act with courage. I believe that courage is a muscle that can be made stronger through repetitive use – whether I stand, speak or take a knee to express what I hold as truth, what I value.

All of it, always, returns to wisdom. Knowing how and when to act, whether speech or silence is most needed, how to exercise your courage so that it is strong when you – and the world – need it most…wisdom is the generator of true discernment. And if in gaining wisdom any of us find a modicum of serenity as well, may we be blessed by it.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”                                         –Abraham Lincoln

 

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Demarcations

5 11 2015

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Demarcation: the action of fixing the boundary or limits of something.

When I worked on a college campus, I was responsible for addressing problematic student behaviors. Often, a student’s behavior violated generally accepted community standards while not directly violating a rule (for example, we didn’t technically have a rule against turning your residence hall floor into an indoor slip-n-slide, but we did consider it to be non-compliant with community standards). When this happened, there were always people quick to suggest writing a new policy or adding the specific behavior to an existing policy. I learned quickly that giving in to the pressure to spell everything out in this way would have meant having the longest and most convoluted code of student conduct ever. Not only that, though. It would have meant attempting to box students in with rules, to prevent them from freely experiencing choices and their consequences. Every interaction we had, then, would have been about rules, about proof of guilt or innocence – rather than about what it means to be a community, about the common good, and how members of a community are expected to regulate their own behaviors toward that good. As an educator, I tried to make the judicial process about the life of the community.

I tried to do that in the microcosm of the residence halls on one small college campus because I believe that is how we are called to live as citizens of our civil communities and as members of the wider human community.

I look around me these days and see so much that is troubling…

…In this election season, candidates are freely applying the most heinous comparisons, to Nazi Germany for example, to actions or decisions with which they disagree. They liberally pepper their speeches with made-up “facts”. Donald Trump, whose rhetoric consists mostly of calling other people names (stupid, boring, ugly, loser) and making self-aggrandizing statements (“I have one of the highest IQs”, “I’m rich”) is hailed as a straight-talking response to political correctness.

…In today’s climate, if I speak out against police brutality and racial profiling, I am told I am contributing to lawlessness and anarchy, to police deaths. If I speak out against the negative rhetoric and tactics of protesters or those who use the protests as a cover for illegal activity, I am called a racist.

…Refugees from conflict and war seek peace and safety while many of our countries cower in fear of terrorists or erect razor-wire to stave-off perceived scarcity, using dehumanizing tactics to make these choices appear reasonable.

…Don’t even get me started on what happens if one speaks compassionately about either side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or abortion. Or any one of a host of other divisive issues.

We are so busy making up ways to demarcate who is with us and who is against us that there is no room left for the voices of those who believe that both #blacklivesmatter and #policelivesmatter – for those who believe that all lives matter but who respect the truth that at this point in our history hash tagging that is disrespectful to those whose life experiences have been discrimination and marginalization.

I personally don’t use the term “political correctness” because it is most often used as a bludgeon to attack people on the left who stand for sensitivity to others. But while there is no one-size-fits-all term for the left to use, they still manage to find a variety of harsh and hurtful words to bludgeon those on the right whose views differ from theirs. And because of all this bludgeoning in our rhetoric, no real dialogue takes place. One political candidate went so far as to suggest last week that his party’s candidates should not be expected to participate in debates moderated by persons who had never been members of that political party. So, rather than seeking dialogue, we are going to lay down another line of demarcation – in politics, we only speak to those who already agree with us?

Where in all of this, I wonder, is the common good? Once we’ve marked our territories, outlined our many divisions and subdivisions, where is there ground identified as neutral territory? Where is the ground on which people of good will but differing perspectives can meet?

Again, I find myself thinking about the situations I worked with in university student life. One of the biggest challenges was mediating roommate disputes. Here’s how it typically went down: one student would come to see me, sharing the atrocious, cruel, thoughtless things their roommate had done to them. The student would often cry, hands shaking, telling me of how deeply hurt they were. My heart would go out to that student, my sense of justice would be engaged, I would want to take on the role of advocate for him or her. Then I would bring in the roommate and hear a different story, varying in particulars, yet resulting in another deeply hurt individual. When I brought these two hurting souls together, each firmly entrenched in the belief that their roommate was an evil, horrible, thoughtless person, my first effort was to get them to share their feelings. Often, once they opened up about feeling hurt or disregarded or disrespected, tears, hugs and apologies followed. The two would then want to leave my office, feeling better and assuming that we were done. But what followed next was the more difficult part – actually going back to the root causes of their differences and looking for new ways to address them in the future. Looking for ways to get both of them thinking about the common good in terms of their room, their interpersonal relationship, and within the larger context of their residential community. Without that second piece, the two would soon be back, crying over the same issues as before – often after having turned their residential floor into a Civil War re-enactment, sides enlisted, battle flags planted.

I was thinking of all of this the other day, as I walked the land at Prairiewoods. When I saw the tree, photographed above, I noted how it stands in a place of demarcation between the prairie and the woods. The tree appears to have its own leanings, its branches clearly reaching towards the woods, with only one or two stunted arms stretching toward the prairie. Yet, while I couldn’t get it all in one photograph on my cell phone, the trees roots were visible as well – and they were strong and vital, reaching in all directions. Woodlands and prairies are quite visually different from one another, yet each is a vital ecosystem with equally good characteristics to recommend it. I couldn’t imagine declaring, “The woods must suffer so the prairie can thrive” or “I stand with the woods against the prairie.” I couldn’t imagine choosing one and turning my back forever on the other – no matter whether one “agreed” more directly with my heart.

The wisdom of creation is the wisdom of communion. It is the wisdom of interconnection, interplay, collaboration and cooperation. It is the wisdom of the common good. In my life, I need to strive to be more like that tree: I have my leanings, of course – my values, beliefs, ethics, my politics. But I also have roots that push outward, that explore the territory beyond all demarcations. I have the gift of a voice that can be raised in dialogue and questioning, of ears that can do greater things than hear – they can actually listen. 

I have a heart whose natural state is open.

What’s more, I believe we are each endowed with these gifts. I believe that we are entrusted by the Universe to make the most of these gifts in service to the common good. They say desperate times call for desperate measures – so I’m calling us all to these measures:

  • talk to people you don’t have to;
  • attend another party’s political forum and meet the human beings there;
  • read a book with a title you disagree with or a magazine that you feel has idealogical leanings away from yours;
  • step into new territories and discomfort zones.

Let’s act as if we haven’t been infected by our current cultural need to demarcate every line and label one side “us” and the other side “them”. Let’s use our voices to ask questions and express compassion; use our ears to hear AND to listen. Let’s allow our hearts to stay open. And, as may be likely, if our hearts are closed, let’s allow them to break open again – for our common good.

 

 

 

 

 





Talking to Myself

13 09 2012

At age 16:

May 22, 1977 
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write. I guess it all started when I became old enough to read. Books seem to bring something in the imagination alive that didn’t really exist before. Reading used to be my only haven, for a while you can forget everything else and beome a new person. Books have brought so much to my life and mind that if I could write and make my characters live in the minds of the readers, I’d be happy.
 
Today has been a very thoughtful day for me. I’ve been remembering books that I’ve read, like “The Camerons” and just thinking about them again brings a tear to my eye. Then I think that I’d love to be a writer.
 
I saw the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. “Jane Eyre” was on too. I loved it. But as I was watching it, I thought that all I wanted from life would be to be loved. Later was a special on Grace Kelly – Princess Grace of Monaco. She was elegant, graceful, and tasteful – not to mention rich enough to support these habits. I thought I’d love to have elegance, beauty and poise – not to mention enough money to support these habits!
 
I suppose, then that this is an outline of what I want my future to be:
  • Slender and graceful – always showing exquisite taste in the clothes that I wear and in everything connected with life.
  • I want to be a rich, well-known novelist and journalist.
  • And I want to love and be loved like in the movies and in books. 
Not necessarily in that order.
Do you think it is too much to ask?
***********************************************************************************************

At age 25

December 27, 1986
The sun is shining down on the woods and streaming through the glass doors. I am sitting at an old wood table, dappled with the sun. I am smoking and drinking whatever they call that concoction of instant tea and Tang and listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash. I have just had a long, hot shower – my hair is wet and I smell like the wonderful carnation-scented lotion Jeff and Marsha brought me from London. It is 1:15 on a Satuday afternoon and at 3:00 my friend Cathann is coming over. I have just finished reading the Prydain Chronicles (the Black Cauldron books) and I really loved them. What more could I ask from any day?
 
And yet, I am not as happy as I feel one should be on a fine day in a fine setting. I am worried about the future and money — all the things that can dampen spirits. Why can’t I put them aside for even a short while? It was easy to forget them back when I could have saved myself from this trouble. Will I ever have control of myself?
 
Also, the books I’ve just finished make me long to be a truly wise and good person. I know I am not – but how does one get there? Or are any as good as characters in novels? Probably not. But why not?
 
So here I am, in my annual year-end anxiety-ridden existential dilemma. Some year I’ll have only hope and eagerness for the future instead of mainly regret for what the past year was not. And on that day, will I have attained wisdom?
 *************************************************************************************************

At age 38

December 30, 1999
I remember in grade school being asked to calculate how old I would be in the year 2000. Wow – 38! I didn’t think of it as elderly, I just thought of it as being so old that in Sister Irma Mary’s third grade classroom it was impossible to extend my imagination that far.
 
And yet, here it is. No longer something to imagine – now something to be lived. On the one hand, I know intellectually that the calendar is a human construct with arbitrary origins and therefore has no intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, I’m swayed. We humans have given it meaning through the force of custom, history, even invention. The whole Y2K issue has forced this particular turning of the years to have meaning in a way that even the all-seeing Sister Irma Mary could never have expected…
 
…Despite my self-admonishments, I have felt a prickle of fearful anticipation upon hearing these reports. I can’t forget my recurrent nightmare of panic and holocaust and my attempts to reach my parents…this seems like the time if ever such a horrible vision were to come to pass.
 
And yet, there’s so much more going on – there’s the positive excitement, also. On the winter solstice last week, the moon was the brightest it has been in 133 years, an auspicious sign. And it was so beautiful in the sky that night. I was out for dinner with Joe R. and we drove around a little afterwards. But Joe didn’t seem very interested in the concept, so I cherished the experience quietly in my heart, just as I did with the comet a couple of years ago. The people I know who might also feel the romance and sense of personal significance that I do on such occasions are always far away from me.
 
And in my personal life I have felt myself approaching a new crossroads and know I will be taking a turn from my current path – like the moon I’m at a rare point in my circumambulation of the universe.
 *************************************************************************************************

I have kept a journal, off and on, for most of my life. I was inspired to share these excerpts with you upon reading a poem by Pamela Alexander, “Talking to Myself at 34” from her book Navigable Waterways. Reading the poem, I was truly struck by the idea of my journals as a form of talking to myself, of telling myself what it is I know. I grabbed three of the many notebooks that have served as my journals and selected these excerpts randomly. (Well, the December 30, 1999 entry was the first in that notebook and seemed like too good a date to pass up!)

Alexander’s poem speaks of two women, the real one and the imagined one. As I sat in a cozy chair in this house I love, reading bits and pieces of my journals, it came to me that there has been purpose (as well as meaning) in this never-ending conversation I’ve had with myself. The purpose has been to bring these two versions of myself, real and aspirational, closer together inside my skin. I’m not the woman I dream of being – not yet, anyway. But I grow incrementally closer.

The end of Alexander’s poem reads:

Hey, you,

in an old house

with tools that want to be used.

A few cracked windows. Outside them,

cars and radios and shouting people

make a city.

Inside, I discover the door’s duplicity

by looking at wood carefully for the first time

in years. Real wood

made into imagined wood.

.

So the you I’m calling to,

the you that is me,

the one who wants to tell me

everything I know

is both real and invented,

the woman whose name is on the front door

and the imagined person, the one

made with small strokes

on this paper

that used to be trees.

 




I Will Never Homestead in Alaska

7 06 2012

You may not know this about me, but at one point in my life I had a plan. It was a simple plan: with my friends, Pam and Steve, I would move to Alaska after college. We would claim a tract of free land and establish our homestead. We’d live in a tent while we built our cabin by hand. Steve was strong; we were certain he could wield an axe and fell the giant trees needed for our roofbeams. Our friend Todd, a.k.a. “Mole”, horned in on our plan by offering to design our dream log cabin (he did, in fact, go on to become an architect).

Once the cabin was built, Todd would put his drafting table in a sunny spot in the great room and Steve would hunt and wrestle bears while Pam and I would garden, can, cook and bake bread. We would live a simple life, self-sufficient, in constant communion with nature. Never mind the fact that Pam and I both envisioned ourselves in long-term monogamous relationships with Steve (poor Mole). The vision was an idyllic one. We spent months daydreaming about it on the huge hammock in Pam’s yard.

Life intervened, and like many other ideas and plans, this one fell to the wayside. A year or so later, I was convinced I would become a speech pathologist. Even later, I applied to graduate school in English and wasn’t accepted, my fledgling hope of becoming a professor of literature denied before it fully took root in my psyche.

I have thought about this quite a bit since I read the blog post written by my friend Cindy Petersen (here), in which she shared her story of believing that restaurant ownership would be her best path to an autonomous career. She did a lot of work toward that dream, and it still didn’t come true. She could have stopped there, but the resonant part of Cindy’s story is that the work was all preparation for a better dream to unfold in her life.

In my homesteading dream, I lived in a snug little home and ate locally grown organic food. To some extent, that is a picture of my current life, minus the Alaskan wilderness. In my early career thoughts, I wanted to help people who needed my skills, perhaps college students. And that has turned out to be my vocation for twenty years – I’m an educator without being either a speech pathologist or a professor. And I believe my students do need what I have to offer.

It is part of our nature as human beings to dream big dreams. When we’re young, it never occurs to us to dream of being ordinary. And these days, we are all constantly harangued to dream big, live with passion, don’t settle for anything less than the whole enchilada. However, most of us live what, on the surface, appear to be very ordinary lives. As I have gotten older, I have begun to realize that the best lesson to take from this is: Trust. Trust that my inner self will guide me in the directions I need to go. For example, I have always wanted to be a writer. In my dreams, I have imagined “writer” to be synonymous with “author of great literature”. I have written about this dream ad nauseum in a lifetime of journals. It is only now that I see an inner wisdom has guided me – I am a writer: of reflections, personal essays and memoir. And I am finding deep satisfaction and fulfilment in that.

In the midst of these thoughts, I was reminded of the lyrics from a Don McLean song, “Crossroads” (apparently my Alaska homesteading plans aren’t the only high school reminiscences coming to mind this week!):

You know I’ve heard about people like me,
But I never made the connection.
They walk one road to set them free
And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.
But there’s no need for turning back
‘Cause all roads lead to where I stand.
And I believe I’ll walk them all
No matter what I may have planned.
 

By all means, dream big dreams. I will continue to myself. But while I am dreaming, I plan to remind myself: “Don’t stop and simply gawk at the shiny dream. Instead, keep walking down your road, trusting that you’ll end up in the right place. No need for turning back.”