In the Ice

When freezing rain moved through in mid-January, it covered the trees and bushes with ice. The crabapple tree in my front yard still has a few fruits, not yet eaten by the birds, and they glistened through the ice like red jewels.

The ice-coated crabapples are like the soul that is frozen in grief or despair. Ice covers the fruit, stems, twigs, and branches, isolating them from the winter air, just as suffering isolates the spirit from joy and comfort. But the beauty of the soul is still visible. The fruit survives and will become food that sustains life. Within the fruit are the seeds that will grow into new life. The crabapple waits. Spring will come.

We are all connected to everything that is, even when we can’t feel it or even perceive it. We all have times of ice, times when we feel disconnected and paralyzed. But the Spirit of light and life is with us, even when we don’t believe it exists. The ice will melt.

Advertisements

Donald Trump: Your Paranoia Is Not My Reality

Donald Trump:

Your paranoia is not my reality. Here are my personal realities:

Brilliant, kind, and extremely gifted physicians and professors of Muslim heritage. Inspiring and rewarding students wearing hijabs in my classes. Warm and loving African-American friends working with me for our churches. Kind and insightful Vietnamese and Latino people who share their professional expertise.  Chinese-American and Japanese-American friends.

Here is the reality for all of us who are true citizens of the United States of America:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. “                                       from the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
from “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, 1883

Our connections are greater than your terrified tantrums, and will outlast them.

Finding Peace

The past year has been a hard one. Strident. Violent. Frightening. We’ve seen the worst human impulses acted out in public, sometimes by what seem to be fanatics and sometimes by people very like ourselves and our friends. The future seems uncertain, with threats of further violence and injustice looming. Where do we look, then, for peace? How can we find inner peace in a turbulent world?

True peace is never external. For one thing, there has never in human history been a time when any society has been free of conflict. Tension and disagreement are natural characteristics of human existence. There has never been a “golden age” of peace and tranquility. We can’t recapture a time that never was.

Yet most of us have experienced times of peace and joy. Moments so filled with love and beauty that they linger with us, enriching our lives. We can choose to live in the elements of those moments, even though the moments themselves are past. We don’t have to live in the conflicts and threats of violence that surround us.

If enough of us choose to live in peace and connection, we can draw others away from the desire to act out their worst fears in violence and injustice. Inner peace leads to connection, and connection leads to peace in the world.

So how do we find peace within? That’s the first question.

Peace is individual; we each have to make our own way to it. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do believe that what I’ve experienced is not very different from the experiences of others. So when I speak for myself, I’m hoping that you will find resonances there that connect with you.

For me, peace begins with the spiritual practice of looking for God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. I find the sacred in everything that is beautiful, and in everything that is ugly but has the potential for beauty within it. That covers just about everything I encounter.

It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful.
The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,
Instructed me to embrace God in all things.
– – – – – – – – 
St. Francis of Assisi

When the potential for beauty is not realized, it can be heart-wrenching and even tragic. But the potential is still there – God is still there – and I can choose to love the presence of God in even the worst circumstances. People don’t have to be good or lovely or admirable or “right” in order to be loveable. God is present in suffering and in what appears to us to be evil. And it’s that presence of God that makes it possible for us to connect, to be aware that we are all part of the interconnected and interdependent universe.

A vitally important component of that awareness is self-understanding. I have to know and understand my own emotions and the behaviors that grow out of them before I can be truly aware of others and live out my connection to them. That means that I have to look closely at what I most dislike in myself, not just at what I like. I have to examine my own fears, anger, grief, hatreds, shame, and guilt, as well as my own joys, passions, and loves. And I must apply what I learn about my feelings to my own behaviors. In every circumstance, I must ask myself, “What in my own self and in my experience has led me to feel what I feel?” “Why did I act the way I did?”  When I understand myself and my emotions, I gain a new perspective that makes it possible for me to find peace within myself.

We are all often afraid – or sometimes just wary – of what we don’t understand and foolishly think we should somehow be able to control. Understanding diminishes fear. When we see our fears clearly, we can learn to lament them, express them fully to ourselves, and let them shrink in importance.  All of this is hard work, and it takes time.  But it is truly worth the effort.

The second question is this: how can we find peace in connection with others, and build greater peace in our world?

When I understand myself, it becomes much easier to understand others and be aware of our connection as part of a shared universe. Human emotions are universal. There are dark places in all of us; claiming my own dark places makes it possible for me to understand and forgive the dark places of others.

We all have light places in us, too. The connection that grows out of self-awareness makes it possible for us to share light with others, both our light and theirs. And in that shared light, we can see the real proportions of our conflicts and disagreements. They generally turn out to be much smaller than we had thought, and our shared connections much larger. After all, we don’t have to think alike to be human together.

In that shared light, we can find peace. Even though conflicts continue, we can choose not to be defined by them, choose not to live in them, be consumed by them. We can choose to live in our shared humanness. And the flow of peace in the universe increases.

Time to Pass the Torch

The political analysts, along with the rest of us, have been hard at work for over a week now, trying to figure out why things turned out this way. There are, of course, many reasons offered, some of them conflicting, and almost all of them at least partly right. But analyzing this election is rather like the analysis of the elephant done by a group of blind men. We all get hold of a little bit of the truth, but we can’t see the whole animal. And of course we’re only feeling around on the surface.

I’m as confused and conflicted as anyone else. But it appears to me that something profound is going on. So let’s go deeper.

There are some huge discontinuities in our world that this election has made unavoidably obvious. Discontinuities, as in the mathematical point of change at which a curve shows an abrupt shift. As in the boundary between rock types deep in the earth’s crust, where seismic waves shift. There are discontinuities in cultures, too, when perceptions of truth and purpose change abruptly (see the work of Michel Foucault). In such social earthquakes, shifts can move in several directions at once.

Such shifts occur when the weight of power becomes unbearable, or when things are no longer perceived and known and accepted in the same way. The rise of democracy in the eighteenth century was the product of one such shift. The end of colonialization is another example. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is yet another. These shifts may be common enough, but they’re also profoundly difficult.

My generation – Boomers and pre-Boomers – lived out such a discontinuity when we were young. Our parents were themselves young in a time of great discontinuity. Our parents’ lives were shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War. They grew up in a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and deprivation. By 1945, with the end of the war, what they wanted most was peace and stability. My generation, in contrast, grew up in a time of relative comfort compared to our parents. And some of us, at least, saw the stability they valued as complaisance and even selfishness.

We thought the world needed to change, and we thought we could do it. We made a lot of noise, we marched, we protested, and we did in fact help bring about some pretty significant changes. The Civil Rights movement was largely fueled by some members of our generation, as was the feminism of the 1970s.

Now we’ve had a black president for eight years, though we’re still a long way from losing racial bias. When I started teaching, women made up less than ten percent of the faculties of public universities; that number has tripled by now – but it’s still below 50%. Notions that were revolutionary in 1970 now seem normal to many younger people: racial bias is wrong, equality matters, women who work are normal, people are just people no matter what their gender, skin color, religion, or sexual preference may be. Our commitment to social justice did make some progress.

What we’re seeing now seems to be another cultural shift, one that has been going on for a long time and is now shaking us like an earthquake. The volcano of hatred that erupted in the Holocaust has sent out seismic waves that still rattle the earth. While some parts of our culture have been steadily shifting away from old assumptions and biases, others have been shifting into a mode of self-protection characterized by anger and fear at what they regard as a threat to their own beliefs and their own safety. This is manifested as ethnic and racial hatred, and contempt for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual while male.

At the same time that many young people function comfortably in a multicultural world, we’re in the midst of a tsunami of bias, bigotry, misogyny, and racism. And it isn’t only the old who fuel the tsunami. There is a reactionary wave among younger people as well as older ones. The current discontinuity is throwing off shifts in many directions.

Part of what enables all this is technology; our culture has been working through another very large discontinuity, with the shift in communications brought about by computers and the Internet. I was in my early forties when I bought my first PC. The Internet was just getting started, email was new, and there was a pretty frequent need for Norton Disc Doctor. Young people in 2016, in contrast, easily master sophisticated electronic options. By now, I’m pretty computer-savvy for a seventy-something, but what I know about computers, tablets, and smart phones is way below the understanding of the average teenager.

Before the rise of the personal computer and the Internet, hard as it may be for young people to imagine, serious information was found through card catalogues, indexes, and periodical publications. Communication took place in person, through letters (remember those?), and through telephones that stayed in one place and did nothing but provide a connection for direct speech. But if it’s hard for a twenty-something to imagine what it was like to gather information and communicate before computers, it’s equally hard for me to imagine and appreciate the connectedness those twenty-somethings experience as normal.

The deeper, more profound shift we’re experiencing is a change in the way human relationships are perceived. There are profound generational differences in how issues of privacy and transparency are viewed. Connectedness is valued in ways many of us who are older can’t understand. Perhaps we are seeing a movement from the old American ideal of the rugged individual to a different vision of global community. In any case, old patterns of relationship are shifting.

If I’m right, and we’re living in a time of particularly strong discontinuity, it’s no wonder this election has caused – and reflected – so much polarization. Things are different now. My generation can no longer offer leadership that represents the best in our culture and at the same time generates enthusiasm and support. It’s time for new leadership. Time for ideas that will inspire a powerful movement in this country and in the world in the way that President John F. Kennedy’s statement in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” inspired us.

It’s time to pass the torch. Time for new leaders. Time for new voices. So to all of you people not yet into middle age, please move on. Take over the political parties, or start new ones. Find new ways of using your experience (and ours), new ways of understanding the world. Don’t let my big and noisy generation tell you how to be. We can still be useful as advisors, but always remember that our perspective is not yours. And the world is yours, for better or for worse. Here’s your torch. Run with it.

In a Time of Pain, Where Can Healing Begin?

How I Feel Now

I’m not sure where to go with this. My heart is full of pain, disbelief, and betrayal. How can a nation founded on principles of equality and religious tolerance have moved so far from those principles? How can so many people, including people I love and respect, have chosen to elect as president a person who freely uses bigotry, hatred, and anger to get his own way? Who stirs up fear and xenophobia in his followers? A narcissist who doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, can’t accept criticism, thinks he’s smarter than anybody else, and trusts and respects nothing except his own gut instincts? Has the country’s lowest common denominator become the dominant definer of who we are?

Last Wednesday morning, trying to get my mind around what had happened, I realized that I felt very much as I had on the day – May 4, 1970 – when thirteen students were shot (four of them killed, one paralyzed) by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus. My then-husband and I had come to Kent to teach the fall before; he was teaching that Monday morning and I was at home in our apartment across the street from the campus when I heard the shots. I felt the same disbelief, the same sense of betrayal this past Wednesday. The same sense that the country I knew and loved wasn’t what I thought.

Pain All Around

There’s pain on both sides of last Tuesday’s election. I’ll leave the analysis of voting patterns to others with a better knowledge of politics than I have. What concerns me most at this point is what this campaign and this election say about the country and the world we live in. If we view the whole thing only on the surface, we might say that government has become a spectacle, a media-driven power battle with no rules and no standards. In this milieu, we can’t even talk to each other. But underneath, I think there is something more significant going on. And I keep thinking that this must be like what was happening in Germany in 1933-34.

There is an underlying pain in our country and elsewhere in the world that must be healed if we are to move beyond the hatred and strife that seem to be in charge of everything. Some of that pain comes from a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the establishment that seems to be in charge of the country isn’t doing a very good job. Much of the pain comes from fear – fear of change, fear of the loss of whatever is important.

For most of us, it’s hard to accept anyone or anything that seems to threaten what we see, consciously or not, as stability and comfort. Such fear has nothing to do with reason or principles – it has to do solely with our instincts of self-defense and survival. But we are more than the most destructive members of the animal kingdom. We’re able to think beyond our immediate time and place, and beyond our own worst impulses and most primitive instincts – if we care to do so.

The Shadow Within

It’s important that we see and acknowledge the ways in which this long campaign and election have given voice to the worst that is in us all. We all are beings of light and shadow, and Trump’s campaign rantings gave voice to that shadow side that distrusts, fears, and lashes out at anything that seems to be a threat. That lashes out without thought or logical analysis, and without love or kindness. Those rantings gave permission for the open expression of hatred and bigotry.

If we are going to encourage and support the healing our society needs, we have to begin by getting to know our own individual shadow sides, as well as the shadow side of our country. Denying either will not help us move toward reconciliation. And we badly need shared understanding and reconciliation.

So we begin by a close examination of ourselves. What do I fear? What lies behind those fears? Why do I hate what I hate? What makes me angry, and why? Who do I fear, and who do I blame? What causes these feelings, and what have I done to overcome my negative responses to others?

Examining one’s own worst feelings and fears is not pleasant, but it’s necessary. If we can’t look at that destructive part of the self that fears difference and see threats everywhere, then we can’t assimilate it into our best self and let it be kept in balance, healed, and transformed into an understanding of all the hurting and unhealed. If I can’t acknowledge and come to know my own fear, how can I understand yours and support you as you deal with it?

Some Steps Toward Healing

  1. Taking responsibility. If the division in our country that currently has erupted in hateful slogans in high schools, violent public action, and loud expressions of bigotry, misogyny, and racism is ever going to be healed, we must all take a part in the healing. That includes those of us who wear safety pins to show we stand with the threatened, people who feel – and are – threatened, those who hate and attack, and those who see a changing world that seems to deny their basic beliefs. All of us. All of US.
  2. Listening. Refusing to associate with those whose views we find repugnant isn’t the answer. Nor is trying to “fix” one another’s views. We have to be willing to hear ideas we can’t accept and recognize their importance and their truth to those who do accept them. We need to listen to one another – listen without the intention of refuting or denying perceived truth, listen in order to understand and find the common humanity that underlies all our differences.
  3. Giving respect. Respecting others, even when they don’t respect us, is not easy. But the pain that lies beneath so much vicious expression today is real pain, and ignoring it or dismissing it as invalid doesn’t lead to understanding and reconciliation. Respecting others and the pain they feel is vitally important. A willingness to be with those with whom we disagree and to listen to their views can help close the gap that divides us. It is more healing to simply be together in a spirit of acceptance than it is to try to reach agreement.
  4. Teaching. The eruptions of hate in some of our schools show how much education is needed if future generations are to work together for the common good and not perpetuate current divisions. It’s unreasonable to expect the schools to do it all for us. Every one of us has the responsibility to teach by example as well as by precept. If we believe in love and equality and justice, we need to live out those values and express them wherever we can in the way we listen, respect, and treat others.

The divisions in our country and our world will not be healed overnight – will probably never be entirely healed. But if we do not work toward healing, they will surely get worse. Let us all work together for the sake of a future without concentration camps, genocide, racism, oppression, and meaningless wars.

The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for the ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

Winter Solstice

On the shortest day of the year,
The sun is far down in the sky.
Light slants across the bare trees
And the brown grass.

As dusk falls, without clouds,
The light fades, leaving only
A glowing band of red-gold
Behind the trees and rooftops.

The sky is a luminous gray,
Misty in the unseasonable warmth.
The last of the light reflects in the
Still waters of the backyard pond 

As the Christmas lights,
Multicolored and gay,
Begin to assert themselves
Against the encroaching dark.