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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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.

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 Symbolism of Pentecost

What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church in a mighty wind of love and grace? What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church, lifting the roofs, blowing open the doors and windows, filling us all up and blowing us out into the world?   What if the Holy Spirit were to spin us around, re-shape our spires and our aspirations, and fill us up with the light of God so that we reached out to embrace all the world?

What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church in a mighty wind of love and grace?
What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church, lifting the roofs, blowing open the doors and windows, filling us all up and blowing us out into the world?
What if the Holy Spirit were to spin us around, re-shape our spires and our aspirations, and fill us up with the light of God so that we reached out to embrace all the world?

Pentecost, meaning “the fiftieth day,” is the ancient Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which celebrates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.  Devout Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate the holy festival; by the time of Christ, centuries after the Babylonian Exile and the Diaspora, they came from all over the known world and brought with them many different languages.  On one long-ago Pentecost shortly after the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared to the followers of Jesus in tongues of fire, the disciples were inspired to preach the gospel of God’s love, and the people who heard them were astonished to hear the message in their own languages.

Theologians speculate about whether this was a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing.  Did the disciples suddenly have the ability to preach in a myriad of languages?  Or were the hearers suddenly able to understand a language they didn’t know, the ancient Aramaic of Galilee?  No one knows.

There’s another interesting question that arises from this event described in the second chapter of Acts.  How did we get from a miracle of understanding, in which people suddenly could hear and comprehend what had been unintelligible a moment before, to our modern notion of “speaking in tongues,” in which the words spoken are incomprehensible to anyone?  Paul’s later injunctions to the faithful that speaking in tongues was of little significance unless there was a translator present seems to me to suggest that he was thinking about actual foreign languages.  The equivalent would be an English-speaking person suddenly speaking in Chinese, or a speaker of Chinese suddenly able to understand English.

It seems to me that it’s most helpful to look at the miracle of Pentecost as metaphor, a symbolic teaching that tells us something about how God works in us.  What happened in the account in Acts?  The Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of flame above the disciples, the disciples were moved to proclaim the Gospel, and the people around them heard and understood (except, of course, for those who had obviously missed the miracle and thought the disciples were drunk and babbling).

Symbolically, the events of the story represent what happens to the person who becomes aware of the presence of God.  When we are given the awareness of God’s presence in that manifestation of God whom we call the Holy Spirit, we can suddenly begin to comprehend things that we had never understood before.  Our understanding blossoms in new directions, and mysteries begin to be opened to us.  We can see others in a new light; we know more of who they are and we comprehend what they are saying, even things that were incomprehensible to us before.  We are opened to the beauty of God in everything.  Above all, we begin to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists, the great network of being that comes out from God to everything that is and that gathers everything that is into God.  That is the miracle of Pentecost, a miracle we still experience today.

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.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2013

What becomes of them, the wise, the visionary, the passionate,
After they have been made legend, source of tales for schoolchildren,
Cause of national holidays?
What becomes of their passions, their faith, their beliefs?
Where do their dreams go to fade into public speeches?
Where do those who shared their dreams find strength to move?

Are we not still bound, still subject –
Not to kings but to political and corporate power,
Decisions that can ruin lives made far above us
In the mists of wealth and brute strength?
Are we not still terrorized by angry forces
Mangled in the pits that power creates?
Are we not still bigots, afraid of what we cannot understand?
Are we not still slaves to forces that we dimly see and cannot resist?
Are we not still devoted to self-defense, rejection, aggression, hatred?

Where are the dreams we had – freedom, equality, justice, love?

I still remember that black day of a dark April in a dreadful year of destruction,
Remember endless waves of shock and horror and despair.
Most of all fear.  Who were we, that such death could happen?

We are who we are, corrupt, self-serving, frightened.

On this particular day and others like it, we speak of heroes and martyrs,
People who lifted us to our higher selves for a moment.
We make them legends, forgetting who they were.
We speak of them as from a distance, safe from the fire of their dreams,
Safe from their righteous anger, their all-consuming love.
We are diminished from vision to revision to television.

We are who we are, divided, self-centered, judgmental, afraid.

On this particular day, we watched a half-African man –
Fit symbol of our contentious melting-pot of a nation –
Celebrate his second inauguration,
Knowing that his dreams, too, are thwarted and defeated
By powers beyond his control, or ours.

Those powers are us, writ large.
We are who we are, suspicious, angry, uncertain, terrified.

And yet we remember hope, and love, and dreams, if distantly.
We remember passions spurred by generosity and grace,
Indignation and anger fuelled by thoughts of justice,
Purpose without defense.

We are who we are.
Perhaps the buried dreams will rise again.

Theology and Mystery, Part II

Mystery is indefinable.  If we could explain it rationally, it wouldn’t be mystery.  If our words could encompass it, it wouldn’t be mysterious.  It’s harder to explain what mystery is than to identify what it is not.  Mystery is not religion, and it is not theology.  It is not God, nor is it an attribute of God.  It is a state of being in which we recognize our own limits and the vastness of what lies beyond those limits.  It can be perceived, but not by the senses.  It can be known, but not by the intellect.

When I returned to God, I was fascinated by theology, and I still am.  But the deeper I go into the mystery of God, the more apparent the limits of theology become.  Theology is full of deep insights and profound speculations, but it is largely a product of the mind.

Theologians try to understand God.  They use their minds to probe the nature of God, and when they find mystery, they often dismiss it.  The greatest theologians, I think, are those who acknowledge the existence of mystery and the limitations of their own understanding.  God is much larger than theology, or anything else humans do.

Theology can do a great deal of harm when it presumes to understand God’s intention in the world.  Consider the damage done by our Puritan ancestors’ concept of the Wrath of God.  Most Christians, even today, live out of a theology of sin and atonement that places our sins at the center of God’s attention.  But who are we to make presumptions about God’s concerns?

Even to say that God is love and that God’s primary attitude toward creation is an attitude of love is a presumption.  It’s one I make, but I make it remembering that it is a presumption.  It’s based on the non-rational, non-sensible, non-logical knowing that is somewhere in what I call my soul, my essential being – but it is personal to me, and not a picture of God.

To recognize mystery is to live in the awareness of God’s presence, whether we call that presence God or not.  Throughout human history, religious traditions have included those who seek that awareness and long to be transformed by it.  Persons of any religious tradition or no religious tradition at all may seek that transformation that changes our lives and brings us into harmony with all that is.

Because theology operates on the level of the mind, it can (and often does) miss the connectedness and harmony that exist on a level not open to the mind.  When we focus on understanding, we’re relying on reason and shutting out other ways of knowing.  I can’t prove that I am part of a vast network of all that ever was or will be, that with all its flaws and failures is still fundamentally good.  But I know it.