Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A Spiritual Approach to Difficult Times

Realizing that I have not written in this blog for years, I have recently considered closing it completely, but today I suddenly realized it is exactly the space I need now to work out my spiritual response to these difficult times.  And perhaps my ruminations will be helpful to others.

In what sense do I find these times difficult?  I know that I am not alone in my concerns.  I worry about global climate change.  I worry about growing economic inequality and the injustice and unrest it brings.  I worry about all of the wars, terrorism, and violence in our world.  I worry about what is happening politically in the U.S., and how political strife has also created deep social divisions.  Like many, I was shocked both by the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and wonder what all of this will mean for our global future.

I cannot write about all of this at once, but here is a starting point: today I read this Quaker blogger's struggle with finding that of God in Donald Trump.  I read it sympathetically, understanding the struggle.  I too have wondered what it means to search for and try to respond to that of God in him.

The early Quakers realized that not everyone lives true to that of God within them.  They fully faced the dark side of human nature and believed a spiritual transformation was required before people could begin to live true to that of God within them.  But they also audaciously believed that humans could reach a kind of perfection.  Most Quakers I know today are quick to regard such views as old-fashioned.  If they don't already know this history, they are somewhat shocked at these views.  If they do know this history, they are quick to "apologize" for these views and note how most Quakers do not think this way any more.

Here I can admit I kind of like the early Quaker view of human nature.  If you reject those views, then you start with a more optimistic view of human nature than the early Quakers had, probably a post-Enlightenment philosophy view.  And yet you hesitate to believe that humans could possibly reach any kind of perfection -- this just seems way too arrogant and hence dangerous.  So you are left with a lukewarm theory of human nature:  humans are not that bad, but also cannot get much better, really.

For some reason, I like that the early Quakers saw clearly how awful humans can be and took that seriously.  While most people quote the "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone" passage from Fox's letters (as does the author of the blog post linked above), in another letter Fox actually says, "and be a terror and a dread, answering that of God in everyone" (emphasis added; I'll try to find which letter that was).  When people are not themselves living true to that of God within them, answering that of God within them might not look pretty.  It might be a challenging and even terrifying experience for everyone concerned!  Fox was of course not advocating violence -- he was acknowledging that spiritual power can be terrifying in certain manifestations, especially when someone is living against God but someone else confronts them on this.

And I also like that the early Quakers believed that humans could reach a certain perfection, because I think it is a very worthwhile question to consider how a perfect person might respond to various life challenges.  Maybe Jesus Christ was the only perfect human; maybe this kind of perfection was only possible in him and will not be possible in anyone else -- but even if so, the ideal of divinity expressing itself perfectly through human form is instructive and inspiring to us if we take it seriously and strive as best as we can to manifest perfect divine love through our own lives.

All of this now gives rise to this question:  how would Jesus respond to Trump?

I cannot answer that version of the question.

But how might a spiritually perfected person respond to him?  How might it be possible to evoke and bring forth that of God within him?

The third aspect of the early Quaker view of human nature that I appreciate is that despite their acknowledgement of the dark side of human nature, and their living in a time when many (most?) people believed that not all people could or would be saved, the Quakers did believe that there was that of God in everyone.  Their view was regarded as outrageous and they were persecuted for having this view.  But it was this perspective that allowed them to call people to a higher standard.  It was this view that meant they could not rest content with people living badly and abusing their power.  It was this view that empowered the early Quakers to "speak truth to power."

The message for today is that we cannot just write people off as "hopeless."

"But do you know for sure that there is that of God in everyone?" someone once asked me.  "Maybe there really are evil people."  Today the terms we often use instead of "evil" are:  narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, toxic person.  (Just today I happened across a Forbes article on 10 kinds of toxic people you should avoid!)

I replied to the person who asked me that question, "Maybe it is true that we cannot be absolutely sure, and, anyway, Quakerism is supposed to be non-creedal, and so maybe this is not a belief of Quakers so much as a methodological principle.  I take it as a methodological principle that there is that of God in everyone, which means that I am committed to living in a way of trying always to respond to that of God in everyone, whether I can see it or not!  I am committed to looking for it and trying to bring it out in my interactions with everyone."

This means I look for any glimmer of goodness I can find.  I give people the benefit of the doubt.  I assume that of course above all they are trying, to the best of their abilities in the moment, to do the right thing.

I also admit it is not always easy.

Nor am I likely ever to have a chance to meet Donald Trump face to face.

But when I talk to his supporters, I ask them what they like about him.  When they speak only in negative terms and evoke conspiracy theories I do not think are true, I try to summon deep listening skills to hear beyond these negatives to what deeper positive hope lies buried inside.  I try to employ the discipline not to be baited by my objections to the negatives, and instead ask the kinds of questions that will reveal the buried positives for both of us to see.

But there are also times when I will not let the negatives go unchallenged.  There are times when I become a bit of a terror and a dread myself, pointing out to someone the deep unkindness of their dismissing entire groups of people as "bad" in some way just because they have been hypnotized into being afraid of them.  But I have not yet mastered how to do this well -- by which I mean, how to do this effectively, in ways people can really hear and heed.  Usually they lock down and become defensive.

Currently I am seeking further insight through Walter Wink's book, The Powers that Be, a book I have read in the past but now am reading again more slowly and carefully, because this is a time when powers that have gone bad are quite active.  How do we call them back to their original spiritually good purposes?  That is my question.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Simplicity in a Complex World


Our lives are complex, and some of that complexity is not something we can change -- it is built in to the complex way we have collectively organized society.  And we actually value some of the complexity in our lives: having lots of friends and relatives, lots of interests, and even lots of responsibilities can enrich our lives.  

But if we get so overly busy and burdened by all that we have to do, and begin to lose touch with God, then it may be time to reflect anew on simplicity.  

One day in Meeting for Worship, a definition for simplicity emerged for me:  if all that you are doing in life is connected by an underlying unity that is grounded in God's love, then you have found true simplicity, no matter how complex your life may appear.  

This understanding of simplicity has become a touchstone for me.  When something new asks to be let in to my life, I consider whether I can draw a clear straight line between this new opportunity and that underlying unity that defines my vocation.  If the answer is "yes," then I can say "yes" to this opportunity if I feel so led.  But if the only way I can connect the new opportunity to that underlying unity is through a complex bending line that connects first with other responsibilities (especially those responsibilities that tend to weigh down my spirit) before only eventually reaching the underlying unity, then I can, and perhaps even must, let it go.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I'm Back - I Think!

Wow, it has been a long time since I've written here!  I'm sorry!  Sometimes the patterns of life just change.

But I have missed writing here, and lately have been thinking I need to resume.

I had a very good sabbatical last year.  Coming back to full-time teaching has, of course, been busy, but not as traumatic as I had feared.  I do love teaching.  But I continue to wish that I had more time for writing.  I am better now at keeping the writing going even during the academic year.

I continue to be undepressed.  In fact, I'm back to being downright happy.

At the same time, I remain gravely concerned about the state of the world, and I am always wondering what I can do that might make a positive difference.

I continue to play music, cycling among my various flutes, focusing on one more than the others when a particular performance draws near.  In addition, I have been doing shape note singing as well.

I got a stress fracture this winter, and that slowed down my exercising, but, thankfully, it seems to have healed just in time for the return of spring!  Well, maybe spring.  There is snow in today's forecast!

I have ideas for more substantial postings, but I did want to start first with these brief updates.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Work and Power

As my sabbatical draws to a close, and I face the highly complex busyness of a new school year, I think about the relationship between work and power.  Already requests for my time and attention are starting to roll in.  I remind myself that this means I have power.

Remembering from my days of studying physics that these terms have precise scientific meanings within physics, I thought I would look them up again.

In physics, "energy" is the ability to do "work."  And "work" itself is the amount of energy transferred by a "force" acting through a distance.  (And "force," you will recall, is "mass" times "acceleration.")  "Power" is "work" divided by time. 

So, the more work you can do in a given time, the more power you wield?

We are taught to believe that people love and crave power, and that having lots of power is good.

But its goodness really depends on what you do with it.

If you do not have enough power to get your needs met, you are clearly at a severe disadvantage.  I do not begrudge those who crave power because they are not able to get their needs met.  They have good reason to desire power.

Nor do I begrudge those who use their power for good.

Why do I wince at the power, so to speak, that is thrust upon me by all of the demands on my time and attention?  Should I not be pleased to be so valued and entrusted?

To some extent I am, and I take my responsibility here seriously, and try to put my efforts to good use.  I think the problem here is that the things I am asked to do do not always line up with what I most want to do.  Too much power in one respect can mask crucial disempowerment in other aspects of one's life.  That, I think, is my problem.  

My work responsibilities have steadily increased over time, without any of the old responsibilities being relieved.  I think this is true for many (most? all?) working people today.

I cannot help but think of the plight of the Israelites living in slavery in Egypt, when they asked Moses to help them.  When Moses approached the Pharaoh to discuss their concerns and unhappiness, the Pharaoh's first response was to order a doubling of their workload -- in the vain hope that they would now be too busy to think about their plight or organize for change.  The Pharaoh was wrong that this would subdue the people. I don't think that what we are seeing in today's world is as conscious or deliberate, but it is troubling just the same.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Unprogrammed Quakerism and Music: Complementary Spiritual Disciplines

My Quaker Meeting is an unprogrammed one, and so there is no music in Meeting for Worship unless someone is moved to sing (which seldom happens in our Meeting).  Interestingly enough, almost all of the members and attenders of our Meeting are actively involved in music, and we enthusiastically attend each others’ concerts.  The music we share as a group happens exactly once per year:  we gather early one First Day before Christmas, with instruments and voices, to sing and play Advent and Christmas music for about an hour before then adjourning for our regular Meeting for Worship.

Avid readers of this blog will recall that I myself am serious about music.  I play modern flute, baroque flute, Irish flute, piccolo, recorders, and the occasional crumhorn, and have played with an early music group (medieval, renaissance, and baroque music) and currently play with a community orchestra and participate in two local traditional music regular jam sessions.  I sometimes also join a community concert band, and appear regularly as a soloist for events at the university where I teach.  More recently, I have gotten into Shape Note Singing, and our group also occasionally performs (even though Shape Note Singing groups are not really meant to perform.  The tradition started as singing schools and evolved to become a tradition of participatory community music-making).

So, do I wish I were part of a church where music featured regularly in worship?  Surprisingly, no.  Music for me is an important part of my spiritual discipline, and I love that my Quaker friends understand this and can relate to this, loving and performing music themselves.  But I treasure the silence and the occasional brief messages of unprogrammed worship.  I see my musical life and Quaker life as complementary.

I am glad that we do not live in the time that Quakers frowned on music, and yet, at the same time, I do understand their reservations.  One has to take great care about one’s relationship to music.  My own musical life is very challenging, and spiritual dangers lurk on all sides.  I am normally a quiet and shy person who prefers to stay in the background, and so performing is highly stressful to me.  So, why do I do it?  Despite my shyness, I love music so much and feel a strong pull to share it.  And, yet, I feel I never quite do it justice. 

I long to reach a level where I consistently feel centered while performing, effectively sharing the transcendent beauty of music which I am convinced can give people glimpses of God’s glory.  I have caught fleeting glimpses of this, yes, even in my own performing, but only fleeting glimpses.  I have found more sustained views in attending the performances of truly excellent performers.  But, let me tell you, it is a LOT harder than it looks!  The masters make it look easy, and it does become easy when you are centered and are in the flow, but, first of all, what it takes to attain the level of mastery where that becomes a possibility takes a lot of time, patience, and effort, and, secondly, even that is no guarantee that you can attain that state under pressure of performance.

So, my aspirations, as you can see, are quite high -- perhaps even grandiose, and most certainly flirting on the edges of pride (which you may recall is an especially egregious sin!).  And yet, I sincerely ask, what is the point of aspiring to any less?  Music at its best is holy and sacred.  If your primary motivation is something other than honoring that potential, you miss the whole point, and, worse, risk defiling something that is supposed to be sacred.  So, you have to aspire to showing a glimpse of God.  You have to long for that most of all.

But we are mere humans, mere mortals.  Do we have any real hope of ever being able to fully get out of the way enough to let God’s love fully shine through?

I keep trying.  It demands both perfect faith and perfect humility.  It demands all of you, and yet at the same time it demands that you get completely out of the way.  This paradox is a mystery.  And it is a paradox about life more generally:  Who are we in this world? If reality is ultimately all about God, then why are we here, so often getting in the way?  We supposedly each have gifts to bring, yet we must not succumb to pride.  What is our place, our role?  Who are we to each other, and to God?  “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” but what if our flames catch the barn on fire?

One of the Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting is to “live adventurously.”  I was present at the talk that I believe inspired this advice, the inaugural George Gorman Lecture given by Hugh Pyper at a Quaker gathering in England in 1986 ("A Sense of Adventure").  This talk had a profound effect on me then, and the Advice continues to cheer me on today when a tendency towards too much hiding threatens to get the better of me. 

And so when people ask me to perform, I keep saying yes.  It’s part of my spiritual discipline to keep going out to that space that actually quite terrifies me, but fascinates me too, because it holds the potential for one of the most profound kinds of sharing that is possible.  I keep audaciously thinking, “this time I can really do it!  This time I will help them see a glimpse of transcendent reality!” 

And after each performance, I realize I have no idea.  I enter that dazed fog that maybe only performers really know (if they face their experience with full honesty):  I have no idea what that was to anybody else.  On a good day, I may emerge from a performance with memories of moments of feeling centered, memories of shining passages, but I also have painful memories of glitches, of notes that were not quite where they could be, of not quite lining up with the other performers as we had at our best rehearsal, etc.  Even though I know, from attending concerts myself, that others may not notice the glitches, and even the noticeable mistakes do not necessarily harm a performance if the overall musicality is strong enough, it is hard for me not to be haunted mightily by the glitches in my own performance long after the concert.  I try to remind myself that these moments are the “pulled threads” that keep us humble, that help us remember that true perfection is reserved for God alone.  At any rate, I have trained myself to respond graciously to whatever feedback I receive, without betraying any of my own uncertainties: honoring the kind things others say, believing that they mean it. Yet, inside, I know that I know nothing. 

This is just how it is, and maybe how it has to be.  You do your best to be faithful, and then you have to let it go.  We never fully know our effect on the world.  Performance is just one especially concentrated form of this more general truth about our lives.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Why Health Care Should Not be the Responsibility of Employers

Today, the public radio program “On Point” featured a discussion about an emerging trend:  employers starting to penalize employees who do not take better care of their health.  Some employers are requiring employees to fill out detailed questionnaires about their health and lifestyles, and employees who do not do so are charged fines.  Others also require employees to commit to behavior changes to enhance their health, or else they suffer penalties as well. 

First, the disclaimers:  it is not that the employer sees the private information about employees’ health -- that information is protected and private.  And, apparently employers are fully within their rights to require such things and charge penalties if they are not fulfilled.  And, finally, not all employers are doing this sort of thing (yet).

But here was my thought:  we have a system where our employers work us harder and harder, and now are also entitled to dictate how we spend our personal time and how we share our private health information, and if we refuse to comply, or if our health begins to break down under all of the increasing stress we are under, our employers can fine us!

One person interviewed did point out that the free market does not care about fairness -- it only cares about efficiency.

Here is what efficiency really means:  work your employers as hard as you can.  But, alas, they sometimes break down under the strain of increased demands!  Economic response:  pressure them to take care of themselves so that you can work them even harder, and if they break down, recoup your losses by charging extra fines!

Will it come to the point where people will start to say, “I can no longer afford to work.  The fines I have to pay exceed my income.  It is more economically advantageous for me not to have a job”?

This is one good reason why it is not a good idea to have our employers be responsible for providing health care.  The market does not care about us as people: it only cares about getting the most economic benefit from us for as little cost as possible.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Et tu, Facebook?

Another follow-up to recent postings:  I am getting tired of Facebook.  Now, I can already see you yawning, because lots of people say this and threaten to leave Facebook and then don’t, etc., etc., etc.  But the boring thing that most people say when they discuss this is, “I’m tired of seeing the trivia of others’ lives!  I don’t care what you had for breakfast!”

My reason for getting tired of Facebook is just the opposite.  I don't see enough of people posting authentically about their lives!  I love my friends, and enjoyed, once upon a time, gaining real glimpses into their actual experiences.

But now, two things have happened.  One is that too many people have been hypnotized into chanting that refrain, that they don't want to hear the "boring" details of their friends' lives. And the second is that too many people have thereby gotten the message that that's not what you are supposed to be doing, and thus have been intimidated and no longer will say anything real, original, or authentic.  Instead, most people have become programmed to do little more than share memes.  Instead of writing their own thoughts, people more and more just “share” the other things they see on Facebook.

Now, these memes can be clever, even thought-provoking.  Of course some are controversial and get our blood boiling.  Many are sensational.  Many are charmingly cute.  For a while, I watched my news feed with avid interest, dazzled by it all, wondering who creates these and how they get them going.  I tried to post my own original clever postings and hoped they would at least circulate among my friends, but they never garnered even one "share," and only small handfuls of “likes.”  I had slightly better success if I “shared” already existing memes -- at least people seemed to see these -- a few more people, anyway.

Gradually it has dawned on me that Facebook is not really about us and our friends; it’s not really about our sharing what’s happening in our lives.  It’s a meme replication system.  I’m overstating things a bit:  there is some real and good sharing (just enough that it kept me coming back).  But I’m now noticing that my experience lately is watching more and more of my friends fall into well-worn patterns of opinion that someone else seems to have carved into sharp and cutting oppositional shapes.

So much on Facebook is now quite painful.  Because I have a diverse array of friends representing a wide spread of the political spectrum, I cannot read my news feed without finding that some of my friends have posted mean, angry memes dissing people like me.  And sometimes my so-called friends attack me viciously for things I have said, even though I did not think that what I was saying was offensive, as such -- maybe debatable, maybe naively optimistic, maybe even wrong (I am always open to being proved wrong), but not offensive.  Yet, I am attacked instead of debated.  For a while I tried to engage in ways that I hoped would turn it into respectful dialogue across differences of points of view, seeking common ground, resolution, or the emergence of new patterns of thought that synthesize the best insights from diverse perspectives.  But most of the time, people seem rigidly entrenched in their views and do not engage in genuine dialogue, but instead resort to fallacious reasoning.  It gets frustrating and discouraging.

So I have decided I need a break.  I’m not deactivating my account, but I think I will refrain from looking at Facebook for a week, and just see what effect that has on my life.