Sunday, September 25, 2005

Thoughts on Simplicity and Complexity

Liz at "The Good Raised Up" posted this entry on simplicity and complexity, which caught my attention:

The Good Raised Up: There and back again

Here is my response:

Thank you, Liz, for posting about this. I think a lot about simplicity and complexity, and, like your friend, I find myself especially attracted to understanding simplicity in terms of centering one's life around leadings from the Divine.

But I do not think that what is complex then is somehow not from the Divine. Sometimes it may be, sometimes not.

If you center yourself in what you feel led or called to do (and that is the essential simplicity of your life -- you focus only on that), then sometimes you may feel led or called to embrace complexity.

This is certainly how I feel. The world's problems are complex, and so there is need for there to be some people who are willing and able to face this complexity.

So, I'm not sure that the opposite of simplicity is necessarily complexity -- instead, those two make a powerful creative tension, I think. The undesirable contrast may be something more like "extravagance" and/or letting oneself be divided between seeking acceptance, or wealth, or status in the world vs. centering one's life solely on discerning God's will.

Of course I continued to think about this after posting my comment. And so I would like to add two additional thoughts.

The first is a very important disclaimer about humility. In the Quaker world, the humility that always undergirds the quest for God's will, God's leadings, God's calling, is well-understood and taken for granted and (usually) does not need to be mentioned out loud. This is because historically the Quakers were careful to develop ways to test leadings, and so individuals are cautious about attributing their actions to leadings without careful testing (e.g., testing for consistency with other well-established moral princples; testing for persistence over time; and especially testing in community, perhaps through clearness committees; etc.). And even then, Friends tend to say, "I felt led," rather than "I was led." We are always humbly well-aware that we can get it wrong, and that we must take full responsiblity for our actions.

Within the Quaker world, this is pretty well understood. But I know that my readership extends beyond the Quaker world, and so I wanted to make this point clear.

Secondly, the notion of a creative tension between simplicity and complexity is a very powerful concept. At one point in my life, I finally resigned myself to "being called to complexity." Hence the name of this blog! It is a very challenging call! But, with all proper humility, I do realize that the complexities that have layered my life might not in fact all be part of my true calling. To be honest, my life persistently feels just on the edge of being out of control. This is not good. I've taken on a little too much. But which are the pieces I took on with the wrong motivations and need now to let go of? I am very much trying to discern this, with the help of trusted friends. My guiding principle is very simple:

  • For each task I find myself facing, each project I am involved in: am I really being led? Is this really part of my call?
So, at the core, there is simplicity. The simplicity is having just that one guiding principle. While as a human being, my motivations can be mixed if I am not attentive enough, at least I know this and remain alert for how to bring it all back to this simple principle. I don't have a whole checklist of principles such as:

  • Will it make me happy?
  • Will it advance my career?
  • Will it help me become famous?
  • Will it help me get rich?
  • Will it impress people?
  • Will it make people like me?
  • Will it calm my existential angst?
  • Etc.

I am very grateful that none of these is all that important to me, except at times, secondarily. What I mean is that if I become so unhappy that I am so distracted by my unhappiness that I begin to lose focus about how to discern my Leadings, then I recognize this as a problem and realize that addressing my unhappiness may be an important step to getting back on the right track. But what is more important even than happiness vs. unhappiness is: being on the right track.

So, what does it mean then to center one's life around discerning one's Leadings? I think the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it best: it is all about trying to do what is good for the sake of Goodness itself.

Simple to say, very hard to understand well. It requires meditation and discernment!

I may follow up on this in future postings, but for now, I'll end with a reading list:

  • Paul Lacey, Leading and Being Led.
  • Suzanne Farnham, Joseph Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan Ward, Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, (Morehouse Publishing, 1991).
  • Immanuel Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals.
  • Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, (Friends United Press, 1964).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

What We Owe Each Other

I finally figured it out. I've been meditating on this question (what do we owe each other?) for a long time, and here are some insights at last:

1. We owe each other respect. What is respect? Respect includes the following: (a) knowing that others have their projects, goals, dreams, and values, and letting them determine those for themselves and letting them strive for them; (b) not assuming that we can accurately read people's feelings and motivations from their behavior, but asking them, if relevant, and honoring their answers; (c) refraining from negative critical judgment and negative moralizing, unless it is very clear that their behavior really did result in harm being done. See 3 below.

2. Respect is the core of love. We owe some people love. Love adds to respect: (a) appreciation and affection, (b) a willingness to be supportive and helpful, and (c) care not to let the willingness to help become a subtle way of trying to manipulate and control the person we claim to love.

3. We must refrain from trying to manipulate and control others. But there are times when we see others' behavior as problematic (such as when they are not being respectful, but instead engage in manipulative, controlling, or even violent behavior towards us or others), and then we owe it to them to call them into account. Sometimes raising their awareness is enough to inspire them to change. ("Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize!" they may say.) Other times, that is not enough: persuasion is called for. In extreme situations, "containment" (from William Ury's book The Third Side), or "protective use of force" (from Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication) or nonviolent action (e.g., Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action) may be called for. These are nonviolent but still somewhat coercive strategies for stopping people from continuing in harmful actions.

Note that this harmonizes nicely with my discussion of "justice" from yesterday.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Justice and Relationality

Plato's Republic is one of my most important spiritual guides in life. Those who have only a passing acquaintance of this book may be surprised. The book is such an important classic that, I'm afraid, it gets more often summarized than actually read. And I would be the first to admit that it is difficult to read, and at places seems outrageous and bizarre. But the more I re-read it and meditate on it, the more impressed I am at not only the skill of writing and organization, but also the profundity of thought.

Sometimes I wish that my life were such that I only had to teach one course at a time, and that I could teach a single book in this course -- I would teach Plato's Republic. We would work through it slowly and reflect on it every step of the way. It would be an amazing experience for us all.

It addresses so much that is so important: human nature; virtue; wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice; harm vs. benefit; the nature of regret; the role of music, art, and literature; the role of women in society; what constitutes a good education; youth and age; what an ideal society should look like; the different kinds of corrupt society; whether there is life after death; how to live life well; the nature of goodness.

While I wouldn't say I agree with it all (and it is hard to say anyway what that means, because it is hard to interpret what points Plato was really trying to make in his dialogues, since they were written as dialogues), I do agree with many of what I regard as Plato's main points, and I certainly believe that he raises really powerful and important questions -- still highly relevant for us today.

My latest realization about the discussion of "justice" in the Republic is that Plato is really articulating a theory of the best way for us to be in relation to each other. So justice, for Plato, is the fundamental virtue of relationship.

Socrates in the dialogue argues against defining justice in terms of "giving each his or her due." And I think that maybe the deepest reason he argues against this kind of definition is that it is presumptuous of anyone to claim to know what others "deserve." The definition that comes through as the one Socrates supports is one that initially seems odd: "to do your work and not someone else's."

(My students often shake their heads with disbelief when we reach this point. "Look!" I say enthusiastically, "they do come up with a definition at last! People keep thinking that Plato never puts forth definitions he seems to agree with, but here it is -- they all rest content with this and move on to other topics! There is a definition!" The students are astonished because they were starting to conclude that this is just one of those concepts that is "undefinable" or "up to each person's own opinion."

But they stop me and say, "But that's not the right definition!"

"I think it's a great definition!" I reply.

They don't believe me. They think I'm playing another Philosophy-Teacher trick!

A lively debate ensues...)

While this definition initially seems odd, disappointing, too simple, maybe just plain wrong, as soon as you ask yourself the question, "what is 'my work'?" you begin to approach the depth of this concept.

What is "my work"? What is "work"? What is our work in this world?

What does it mean to "do someone else's work"?

What does it mean not to do someone else's work?

These questions are not easy questions.

Sometimes close relationships in life can become difficult precisely because they involve ways that the boundaries between one's own work and someone else's work get blurred. Sometimes people lay claim to each other in very inappropriate ways, but they can do this in very subtle ways and so it can be hard to realize what is going on.

What's worse is that our culture encourages us to be controlled and to control each other in ways that are very disrespectful and problematic. But it is all so subtle that we do not realize what is going on, and we regard it as "normal." We live in a critical culture. We think we are fit to pass judgment over others -- we think we know what others "deserve." We think we demonstrate our worth by the keenness of our criticisms of others. Making fun of others is regarded an acceptable form of "entertainment."

I think Plato's definition of justice (yes, I do think Plato really liked that one) is very profound and worth meditating on. I also think it expresses the essence of respectful relationships, even love.

What is love? It involves a kind of attention to others that is perceptive and accepting: the ability to see into the goodness of others' souls, and to address that goodness and call it forth more fully into being.

In good, healthy, loving relationships, people appreciatively call forth that goodness from each other. A person who loves someone else can help the other find their true work in the world, and can call them to that work and support them in doing this work. This is loving because we are grateful for feeling valued and appreciated for who we most truly are. And we feel a sense of fulfillment from offering our best to the world. So we feel loved when others help us to do this.

Love is, of course, more than this as well -- but I am more and more convinced that this is a very important part of love: nurturing each other's growth.

Our work in the world is more than just our jobs (in some cases, our jobs may not be our true work in the world). "Our work" is: all that we have to give.

It really is "unjust" if one is blocked or prevented from doing what they feel called to do in life. It is a violation of respect to meddle and "do someone else's work" instead of letting them find their way. Also, you let yourself down if you try to be who you are not (that is another way of "doing someone else's work" instead of your own).

And, finally, it may be most unjust of all to try to force someone else to do work that is not truly their own. People usually try to force others in this way when there is work to be done that they don't want to do themselves. In some cases, it is their own work, and they should do it, and would benefit from doing it; other times, it is true that it is not their work, but it is still wrong of them to assume that they know whose work it is, and then to try to force that other person into doing it.

Of course we are interdependent beings and we need each other's help all the time. So, it is reasonable to have expectations of each 0ther, and it is fine and good to ask for help and to make requests of each other. What's problematic is insisiting that we know best what others must do, and trying to coerce them into obedience.

In reading about peacemaking and nonviolent action, the distinctions between persuasion and coercion, requests and demands are very important distinctions. Making requests and trying to persuade are okay -- they leave the other with choices. It is a mark of respect to let others have choices when we try to call them to action: that way, if we are wrong about what "their work" is, they have the chance to tell us so. It is making demands and being coercive that are problematically disrespectful -- and unjust.

So, it is worth meditating on this concept: justice is doing your own work and not someone else's.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Updates

Some more updates: Yes, the lock on my front door is fixed now. Everything is smoothly functioning now -- this is nice. Well, I'm trying to convince myself that it is okay for me to relax and enjoy it all, because it is hard for me not to uneasily wonder "what next?" But even so, I do fully enjoy it, because of the recent memories of what it's like not to have things fully functioning, and because of the humbling realization that so many people have lost so much or are still living in limbo wondering whether they will ever be able to go back to homes they once knew and loved.

It is good to live in the present and appreciate what you have.

My students have been amazing so far this semester. They all seem more consistently alert and engaged than I've ever experienced. I cannot help but wonder if the drama of world events has affected everyone's consciousness. I do get the sense that my students, too, are appreciating what they have, and are feeling motivated to make good use of their time here.

Classes have been thoughtful, meaningful, focused, and often powerful.

Other updates: my musical friends might be wondering how my musical life is going. My Early Music group has started up again. Because it is a college group (consisting of students, community members, and faculty and staff), the people in our ensemble change from semester to semester. So, it is different this year. It is a bigger group. There's a lot of promise. But it is different.

And the early part of the semester always feels to me somewhat chaotic. We play through a lot of music. The specific arrangements can change quite a lot until we settle on specific plans for our concert. So, for example, I can play one line on one instrument one week, and find myself playing a different line on a different instrument the next. This, of course, is very good for me musically. But it is sometimes stressful. I tend to develop preferences for "favorite" lines, and I certainly have favorite instruments, and so I sometimes feel a little blue when that's not what I get to play. But we try to work out what is best for the whole group. And so it is a good experience to sacrifice personal preference for the good of the whole.

Realizing that the group needs me to be confident and steady no matter which line and instrument I play has been really good for me. I settle in and do my best with whatever is given to me, and the concentration and focus this requires is deeply spiritually cleansing. If things start to get tense, the other role I play is to interject disarming bursts of humor to defuse the tension, and then later, quietly, behind the scenes, be encouraging to anyone who had seemed to be getting stressed.

It's an intense, communal, spiritual journey.

In my own private practice time, I focus more on my Irish flute than anything else, because it is the most "high-maintenance" instrument to play. When I have that going well, the rest is easier, by comparison. The Irish flute is more physically demanding than any other flute I have ever played. You need to be "there" with it -- having consistently strong breath support, lots of air (compared to almost any other wind instrument), and a well-focused embouchure. Your fingers have to move very quickly and accurately, but they must be relaxed too. I'm feeling really happy with my progress on this instrument, but I'm still not where I really want to be with it. It's time, though, for me to find others to play this kind of music with. I'd like to pull together a small but really good group to play Irish (and other Celtic) traditional music. But I'm not quite sure how to do this.

And one final update: I do feel that I'm moving to a deeper place spiritually. It feels like something new is stirring, and I'm just being patient and giving it time. It will be interesting to watch what unfolds.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Paradigms for "Success"

A scene from the very start of the academic year:

A student comes into my office to talk about the courses she needs to take.

I have already given this student my usual speech about the intrinsic educational value of each of our distribution requirements. For this particular appointment, we don't have much time, because it is advising week and I have a lot of students to see. She's a little flustered because a course she had hoped to take conflicts in scheduling with another course she has to take. She wants advice on how to choose another course.

So, building from previous conversations (or so I hope), I take a shortcut: "What about this course that still has openings and would fulfill the Arts requirement?"

"Oh no," she replies. "I'm no good at art."

"Some other art, then?" I suggest. "You will have to fulfill this requirement some day! Fulfilling it will give you a chance to learn more about your creative self!" I add encouragingly. "What other art field then? Music? Theater? Dance?"

"No, I'm just not the creative type," she insists. "I know I have to do the requirement eventually, but, well, right now I'd rather do another math course or something."

In the press of time, I let it go. We do find a course that works for her. The next student comes in. And so it goes.

But now, weeks later, the conversation haunts me. Everyone is creative and likes to be playful! It is part of human nature to enjoy exploring, sharing, and being expressive in creative ways! So what painful experiences did this beautiful and stylish young woman have that made her think she was not good at art, not creative?

This was not an isolated story. Almost all of my advisees have their own "blocks" about something. Each has some list of subjects they are "not good at." They wait until a semester when the rest of their course schedule seems relatively unstressful before finally daring to tackle their "dreaded" distribution requirement.

I'm finally realizing that our culture has a very strange vision of "success." Our culture prizes specialization and professionalization so highly that most young people think that their task is to find the One Thing they are good at. To have to dabble in any others is usually a waste of time. Oh, they can explore a little while they are young -- but the real point of the exploration is to test whether they really are good enough to make this One Thing their career. You can have a couple of other interests, because it's good to have a "back up plan" in case it turns out that you don't "have what it takes" to succeed in your first choice.

And the standards for "having what it takes" are pretty high. You have to be really outstanding in your field. It's a competitive world out there, and the only ones who really get any respect are the record-breakers.

Of course, reality catches up to everyone eventually, and they are forced to modify their life plans. But, amazingly enough, they continue anyway to cling to this view of success -- it's just that now they regard themselves as less than successful, but console themselves by now transferring this vision of success to their children.

What if we could cultivate a different paradigm of success?

What if we first of all acknowledged that human beings are not mere cogs in the great machine of Economic Productivity, but are multi-dimensional, living, thinking, feeling, creative beings? We all observe, analyze, and construct theories, ever modifying them in light of new experiences (science). We read, write, think, try to figure out our place in the grand scheme of things, create new concepts and symbols, and reinterpret old ones (the humanities: literature, history, philosophy, religious studies). We notice visual and aural beauty; we delight in creative new ideas; we ever strive to express ourselves both effectively and eloquently, and even long to not only convince others, but to stir others, to move them (the arts). As whole human beings, we are all of this, and more!

What if our paradigm for the successful person were: a person who not only loves their job and does well at it (and the job addresses real needs in the world), but who also develops all aspects of the wholeness of their being?

What if we moved away from "Look at the Hero" version of "entertainment" we currently adopt, and into more participatory and relational ways of using our non-work time? What I mean is this: once you've given up on yourself as being creative, or smart, or athletic, what you now do for entertainment is Watch the Heroes do all of these things. You turn on the TV or stereo and watch others play sports, make witty jokes, discuss politics, perform ballet, etc. But what if, instead, we made our own sports? Performed our own music with and for each other? Earnestly tried to solve the world's problems in discussions with our friends and then wrote letters to the editor?

Of course there are people, many of them, who do live such well-balanced lives. Even so, that's not really the prevailing vision of what constitutes success. Too many people do sell themselves short: they stop exercising, stop playing music or drawing or acting in plays, etc., because they decide they are not really good enough. Only the "best" are truly "qualified" to do these things.

I like to think that the main purpose of liberal arts education is truly liberation from our culture's highly destructive paradigm of success. Our mission statements really do reflect amazing ideals. But our students don't really understand those statements, and, in their lack of comprehension, they regard it cynically as "fluff," or maybe, more generously, as "marketing." (Many of my students do have a grudging respect for "good marketing.") (Heavy, weary sigh!)

So, how can we communicate more effectively what we are trying to do, and convince the students that we really are serious about this?

Daily I am amazed at the ways the students willingly wear the chains that drag them down, and even fiercely defend their "right" to do so! They don't realize what they are saying. They don't realize what they are doing. They've worn these chains all their lives -- they would feel naked and unrooted without them. (Claiming freedom is very very scary because of the responsibility it entails.) So, it's understandable, really. It's not irrational.

It's just sad.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More on Feeling "Set Upon"

Becoming aware of how I have been feeling "set upon" has been an important breakthrough for me. Yesterday I realized how it is not just the stream of minor bad luck that has made me feel this way, nor just the unending river of demands from my busy and complex work, but something else as well. It is that I dwell in a culture that is not really the most nurturing home for my kind of spirit.

I accept this -- in fact, I deliberately chose this -- because I do not believe that life is simply about finding comfort and nurturing. Somehow, I internalized a strong ethic of "making a positive difference in the world," and I learned long ago that if you choose to bring about change, you will meet resistance and so this kind of life will be challenging and mostly uncomfortable.

So, I am in a life where, for the most part, the resistance I face is exactly the resistance I want to face, because it is about issues I believe in and care about.

But a soul gets weary over time. And I am finally starting to face up to the fact that I am really quite weary. I realize that I've been trying to tell myself, "you haven't earned the right to be weary, yet, because you've lost most of your battles! You haven't even begun to bring about the changes you were hoping to effect!" This kind of self-chastisement is really not very helpful. But I have not been quite as miserably negative as this may sound, because I also say consoling things to myself, like: "But it hasn't all been a waste, because look at how much you have been learning about how power really works! You are almost at a point where you might understand enough and have found enough strength to really start making a difference!" But even that kind of consolation is still a way of pressuring myself.

It is true, though, that I have, overall, felt a sense of starting to come into my power.

But more recently, that has been faltering. It is because I really am weary.

The diminishing of my ability to live proactively instead of reactively is also because I am weary.

I need to just accept my weariness, without either judgment or pressure. And when one is weary, one needs to "home" for a while, and seek nurturance again.

Fortunately, I do have a sabbatical in the spring. So I need to ask myself where "home" is. For me, "home" is the Quaker subculture. I will look into whether I can spend some time at a Quaker institution or Quaker community for at least part of my sabbatical.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Some Updates

First of all, I just learned that our University will be opening its doors to students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. I'm really glad we are doing this.

I learned that a former student of mine, who graduated a couple of years ago, was living in New Orleans. Now she is staying with friends elsewhere, not sure of what happened to her house, and not even sure if she still has a job or will get paid or still has health insurance. She doesn't even know how to begin planning for her own next steps.

It is almost surreal to be carrying on my life as usual here, aware of how seriously disrupted so many other people's lives have been.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bad Luck, Decoded

Yes, more bad luck -- my front door won't unlock. The latch turns, but the deadbolt refuses to move. I thought to myself, "ok, I'm now well-practiced in asking for help -- maybe I'm supposed to try to figure it out myself now!" So I pulled out a screwdriver and took as much of it apart as I could, but still could not figure out what was wrong or how to fix it. So I put it all back together and lapsed briefly into a depressive slump.

The next day (yesterday), it hit me. My life has gradually been drifting into Reactive Mode. I'm taking these little glitches too seriously. I'm lapsing into an overarching sense of feeling set upon, or feeling beset by problems. I've been letting these external events define me, negatively: "I am one to whom these kinds of things happen."

What I need to do is work to regain a positive sense of who I am and what I am called to do in the world.

What's really ironic is that in all of my advising of students (I have 42 advisees), I've become quite eloquent in encouraging them to take active control of their lives and education, and to use their education and experiences to clarify their understandings of who they are in the world -- and yet I'm at the same time losing that very sense for myself!

This is the peril of busyness.

The more that things come at me, demanding responses, the harder it is for me to give myself permission to pause and remember who I am.

I had the right idea in the summer to be sure to take time on a regular basis to choose to do that which helps remind me of who I am and gives my life an overarching sense of meaning and coherence. (This is what "integrity" is all about.) I had the right idea, but, unfortunately, I have not been so good at putting it into consistent practice.

But now I realize the urgency of doing this. So, I am devoting this morning to doing this, and also to implementing a plan for how to keep doing this on a regular basis.