Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?

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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.

World-Self, Soul-Self

Part of the inward journey is the discovery that the self we are in the world – in our work, our relationships, our daily activities – is not all there is to us.  Some wisdom traditions speak of the true self, that inward, God-connected self that is different from the false self we present to the world.  The false self, in this way of thinking, is the mask we wear in the world, the roles we play, the façade we put up to prevent our flaws and weaknesses from being known.  This false self is seen as the work of the ego, that part of us that is concerned with our individual safety and well-being.  In this view, part of our job is to overcome the promptings of the ego and live as fully as possible in our true selves.  Our task is to let go of the demands of the ego for security, status, achievement, approval, and pleasure, and live and act out of that true self that is connected to God.

I have some problems with this way of thinking.  It’s too much like dualism, which argues that the material world is bad and only the things of the spirit good.  Dualism requires the rejection of much of life and experience.  If the concrete, physical elements of my self are bad or weak or false and I am to overcome the flesh and the world, and live in the spirit, then I must reject a major part of myself.

I’d rather look at it all from a more inclusive perspective.  My world-self, the self that lives in a world full of challenges, competition, struggles, relationships, loss, deprivation, fulfillment, and enjoyment, is a very real part of me.  That self can be petty, negative, frightened, anxious, and judgmental.  It can lead me to live in ways that are spiritually and physically destructive.  It makes a lot of mistakes.  It’s dominated by the self-protective story-maker we call the ego, and it’s very selfish.

Behind that self, its foundation and support, is my soul-self, the image of what God created me to be.  When I recognize and come to know that soul-self, I can learn to put my world-self in context, and my experiences in the world in perspective.  My goal is not to empty myself or put away all that I am in the world.  My goal is to accept my world-self as a part of me, and to allow my soul-self to fill up all the empty places in my world-self, fill out its flawed and limited outlines, so that I become more nearly complete and able to allow God’s Spirit in me to flow out into the world as I encounter it.

The world-self is not evil.  It’s not even bad.  It’s probably necessary for our survival in the physical world.  But it doesn’t have to be in charge of who I am and what I do.  Its fears and anxieties don’t have to dominate my life.  The more aware I become of my soul-self, the more I live out of that inner self, the less important the demands of the ego become.  I can accept the losses, threats, suffering, pleasure, and excitement of ordinary life as part of what is, and part of me – and let them go.  When I understand and accept all that I am, I can choose to allow love and connection to dominate my actions and responses.  When that happens, I can begin to see God in others.  When that happens, I become part of the great flow of giving and receiving, emptying and filling, that is the truest and most real form of living.

Moving Toward the Sacred

We find the sacred all around us, in nature, in the works of human hands, in our actions in community, in other people, in all the movements of grace.  One of our great challenges as human beings is to learn to see the sacred around us and within us, and to move toward it.  But how do we do that?

It seems to me that moving toward the sacred requires a certain amount of introspection.  For some people, this is difficult.  We’re not an introspective culture.  We tend to be focused on doing, accomplishing, striving to survive and thrive in a world that often feels hostile or at least challenging.  Some people just don’t see any benefit in introspection – they imagine that they know what they need to do, and they want to get on with it.  Others are frightened at the thought of going within, of finding things in themselves that they may not like.  But the inward journey is a joyful one, because it leads to peace, harmony, and acceptance.

 

Look Inward

Come, heart, look inward.
What do you see?  A human soul, with all its flaws,
Imperfect as a sunset sky striped with bright clouds,
A soul so made for love that no tight scars
Of grief, abuse, regret can fully bind it,
But love will gush out in streams of light
Or glow softly in hidden embers, ready to flame up
At the first breath.

Look inward, heart, and find the One
Who makes a home and lights the rooms with joy.
Look inward, find the threads of life
That connect the soul to everything that ever was,
Reaching out through time and space
In intricate, interwoven dance,
All wrapped together in the embrace of God.