Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Babel and Babble

Today's thoughts are inspired by this posting over at Nancy's Apology. Nancy wants to lead some discussions at her Meeting, but is worried about how hard it can be to lead a good discussion when people are so sensitive about language. Her brilliant solution is to have the first discussion be about language use itself!

I've been thinking a lot about the polarizing forces in our culture today, and wondering (a) why people seem to disagree so sharply with each other, and (b) why they get so upset about disagreeing. Are our differences really that extreme? Are they worth getting really upset with each other about? Are differences of belief -- even strong ones -- worth breaking relationships over?

So, I have found myself meditating on the Tower of Babel story in a new way. My meditations began with this posting over at Bible Wonderings. Suppose we try this (admittedly radical) thought experiment, and replace God in the story with some very powerful human being, preferably one whom you think is not using his or her power terribly well. And replace the people in the story -- the tower-builders -- with your people -- the people you most like and identify with, working together happily and productively towards your cause.

Suddenly the story looks very different.

Is this what in fact is happening in our world at this time?

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If you are in power, and you feel your power threatened, a very effective strategy to re-consolidate your power is to get the people who threaten you to start fighting each other. You magnify the slight differences of belief among them; and you encourage people to base their regard for each other on shared belief, so that these differences become reasons to actually dislike each other. Disagreement becomes synonymous with disliking, disloyalty, and disrespect. And now, as the people fight amongst themselves, not only do they cease organizing a challenge to your power, but their attention has been deflected away from you and what you are doing with the power you have re-consolidated.

The Babel story is very much a double-edged sword kind of story. It can be read both ways: as a caution about pride, but also as an explanation of what might be going on when good people who should be able to get along well together find themselves reduced to ineffectiveness because they end up bickering among themselves over differences that may not really be all that important -- or may even just be misunderstandings rather than actual differences!

So, it is an urgent question of our time how to maintain relationship and facilitate effective communication over (apparent) differences.

My suggestion to Nancy applies in general: when you find yourself in the presence of, or part of, a conversation becoming tense, try to guide it back to actual experiences. Ask questions like: "have you had important experiences that have shaped your beliefs in this respect?" The more people come back to actual experience, the more likely it is that they can come to understand each other more sympathetically, and find common ground again.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Discipline in Times of Weariness

I found the following quotation in a book I am reading:

“When the morning’s freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles quiver under the strain, the climb seems endless, and, suddenly, nothing will go quite as you wish – it is then that you must not hesitate.”
-- Dag Hammarskjöld

I found this in a discussion about discipline. In fact it works as a good definition of discipline. Note that Hammarskjöld is not saying that you cannot rest if you are absolutely exhausted. What he says is that you must not hesitate when you are dragging.

I interpret this as meaning that you must not, during a time of weariness, take that as a time to question your path or make major decisions about whether to proceed at all. It is exactly at the times of weariness that we most need the discipline to carry on as best as we can, trusting the path we had previously set for ourself, and trusting in God.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Struggles and Blessings

I found myself writing the following in a comment in reply to a posting called Fear and Friends in Lorcan's blog. I post it here because it struck me as a terribly challenging but supremely important ideal.

A truly blessed life is not a life without struggle, but a life of handling struggles so well that you and all whom you struggle with are made better people in the end.

When I was younger, I wanted an easy life (that is, a life in which I would easily find my way to solving important world problems -- a life in which the sea would part for me, making way for me on my noble mission). Now that I am older, seeing that my life has not at all been easy for me so far, I realize that I could never have begun to learn how to address significant world problems without being subject to some of them myself.

I'm still in the "being too busy being subjected to these problems myself to be able to do much about them" phase, but I nevertheless remain (somewhat) optimistic that because this kind of life is good training ground for one hoping to make a difference, blessings might yet emerge from my struggles someday...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

We Are All Ministers

(Note: this posting is partially adapted from a comment on another's blog.)

Quakers are radically non-hierarchical and regard all Friends as ministers.

What does this mean to you?

Does it mean: "I am so lucky -- I go to a church where everyone is a minister (except me)! This means that they are all my ministers!"

Or does it mean that you go to Meeting thinking, "I am a Minister. How will I be called to minister to my people today?"

I ask this out of my growing concern that so many Friends are disappointed in each other lately. The disappointment comes, I think, from the expectations we have of other Friends ministering to us.

But what if, whenever we felt disappointment in other Friends, this signalled to us that it is our turn to be Minister in our Meeting? It is our turn to recognize that others struggle with difficulties and need our compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and support?

After all, we do not pay one person to minister to all of us. Very few of us have had training in pastoral care. This means first of all that we each take turns ministering and being ministered to. And it means, secondly, that very few of us have been trained in how to minister effectively. Bring these two observations together, and a third implication rolls out: for each of us, it is far more comfortable hoping that others will minister to us than it is to figure out how to effectively minister to others.

It is especially fear that blocks us from effectively ministering to each other. We are afraid of doing it wrong, offending others, making mistakes, being misperceived. We know that really getting involved in each other's spiritual lives is powerful and dangerous business.

Understanding fear itself as an important dynamic in spiritual life is actually a good starting point for figuring out how to become an effective minister.

Everyone lives with fears. And most people's fears come from painful experiences in their past. It is an unfortunate truth of human existence that people hurt each other quite frequently. Fear is the soul's way of seeking self-protection. This does not mean that living fearfully is the best way to live. But fear must be respected, listened to, and questioned. We each have to take responsibility for this in our own spiritual life. But how we relate to the fears of others is a very sensitive and delicate matter.

Here I turn to the story of George Fox telling William Penn to "wear thy sword as long as thou canst." Whether or not Fox actually said this, it is very powerful, and, I believe, very wise.

My interpretation is that Fox knew that, whether it was pride or insecurity, anxiety, or fear that motivated Penn to wear his sword, it wasn't his (Fox's) to make Penn let go of it. He trusted that Penn would let go when he was ready. It was respectful of Fox to realize that it was up to Penn to sort out what it meant and to make his own decisions around it. And it was also pragmatic: as soon as one person tries to pressure another into letting go of his or her sword, the second person has every reason to cling all the more tightly to it, because it is exactly that kind of pressuring that is at the root of the ways that people hurt each other -- well-intentioned or not. The reason is because of the inherent disrespect behind this kind of pressuring: "I know better than you what's good for you." No. We don't know the stories of pain that are behind our friends' fears. We must trust them to find their healing and build their strength, and we must trust God.

I have become increasingly aware of how much we expect each other to be God in our lives. We want everyone to be perfectly wise, strong, and brave: to know our own needs perfectly and address them flawlessly; to care about the problems of the world in exactly the same ways we do, and to respond to those problems in exactly the ways we think would be best. This is a problem in our culture today, but it is perhaps intensified in the Quaker subculture because of the expectation that everyone be a minister. But we fail in our own compassion if this is what we expect of everyone else.

We cannot, must not, expect each other to be God in our lives. It is true that people are wounded and in their fear and brokenness are not always wise enough or strong enough or courageous enough to do what we think is the right thing to do. When this happens, it is our spiritual challenge first to find our own healing from God, and then to learn how to be compassionate and forgiving towards those who let us down.

It is those very moments of being let down by others that call us to turn more directly to God. And it is our belief, as a denomination, that everyone can call on God directly when the people in our lives let us down, that is behind our view that we are all ministers.*

* Yes, echoes of Fox here! "And when all my hopes in [all people] were gone ... then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Loving Yourself and Loving Others

Continuing again from the previous two postings: the hardest thing about loving your enemies, or even your friends, for that matter, is the way that self-love has to be at the core of love for others.

This is easiest to understand in the case of loving enemies.

If you don’t love yourself very much, then you are vulnerable to your enemies because you believe that their low regard for you is justified!

This is crucially important and difficult to fully understand. I recommend meditating on it, repeatedly.

Let me explain a little more. What we don’t like about enemies is not so much that they don’t like us; what really gets us is the fear that they might be right in their not liking us. Our enemies are our enemies in how they trigger our worst fears about ourselves: our ineptitude; our worthlessness; etc.

But what if we were sure that we are really okay?

What if we felt secure in God’s love for us?

If our own sense of self were thoroughly rooted in love, then we would perceive our enemies differently. Instead of fearing that their worst perceptions of us might be right (and then in denial we get angry at them for this), our automatic response would be to think: “they’re mistaken: why?” Instead of doing this little dance of insecurity within ourselves that brings us to a place of defensiveness against them, we would look at them and ask, “what painful experience in their past is surfacing now, distorting their perceptions in this way?” And: “what can I do to reassure them about the presence of an overarching goodness in myself, in them, and in the world? What can I do to realign them, myself, and this situation with that overarching goodness?”

None of this is to claim that we are perfect in ourselves. But it is to detach our own mistakes from the inherent value of our being. Well-grounded in the inherent value of our being, and of their being, the presence of mistakes, pain, and misunderstanding (in ourselves and others) turns into a pragmatic problem to be dealt with instead of striking deep chords of despair throughout the core of our very being.

(Believe me, I’ve been there!)

We are flawed, but not fatally flawed. They may be wrong, but that does not make them beset with sinister motivations. We’re all just limping along doing the best that we can, sometimes inadvertently bumping into each other as we go along. It’s the human condition.

By loving yourself (believing in the inherent value of your being), you become less inclined to interpret “their stuff” as being about you. Being grounded in God’s love for you, you realize that even if they say they hate you, that you are evil, and that they wish to expunge you from the earth, it’s not the real you they mean at all, but something they fear in themselves that they project onto you in their attempt to excise it from their own soul. They are the ones not at peace with themselves. They are the ones who have not learned to love themselves. They are the ones who don’t believe in God’s love for them.

And in realizing this, we feel compassion for them. What painful experiences in their past led them to such a state? What healing do they need?

We might not be able, in the moment, to mend everything for them and help them to a better state of being. But at least being aware of this deeper dynamic helps us respond better than simple defensiveness (which usually just exacerbates the problem). We become free to respond more authentically and creatively to the core of the problem instead of richocheting off the surface of the problem back into our own reflexive and pointless pain. Even if we don't solve their problem, if we can at least strengthen our own capacity for love, the world will be better off.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More on Loving Your Enemies

My previous posting began an inquiry into how to respond to “enemies” or “what gets in your way,” but did not continue into the question of what it could possibly mean to “love your enemies.”

The previous posting indicated starting points that might resolve the issue before you ever have to get to the difficult task of loving your enemies.

Perhaps you might discover that what is “getting in your way” is not malicious at all but is actually trying to guide you back to the right path instead of a problematic one.

Perhaps what “gets in your way” is not a conscious force but a mechanical one set in place by well-intentioned systems in our culture. So, it was meant well; and it never was maliciously directed against you, as such. Then a good response might be to work to change this mechanical structure of our culture into one that still preserves the good that the original one was meant to preserve, but without blocking the way of the good, creative energy like yours that was hindered by it. Making these kinds of changes in society is still not an easy task, but at least the theoretical nature of the task is not that hard to understand.

But perhaps what “gets in your way” is conscious and directed against you, but in a misguided way. If you have tested your own motivations and found them to be good, then you can be sure that this “enemy” is not so much malicious as simply misunderstanding of your own noble purposes. The task then is to communicate more clearly why you believe that what you want to do is right and good.

Here’s now where the necessity of “love” comes in. You are not going to be able to communicate very well with someone who is already set against you unless you can learn how to get inside their way of thinking, and understand why they believe they are right. Note that “understanding” doesn’t mean “total agreement.” But to be truly open to understanding a point of view different from your own, you must also be open to the possibility of changing your own mind.

And this intention to try to understand another better is a form of love. This way of assuming that the other is doing the best he or she can, and thinks he or she is right, is a form of love. This way of being open to the possibility that your own view might be limited, and so you might change your mind after gathering more information, maybe even agreeing with them in the end, is a form of love. And your sincere willingness to communicate the goodness of your own intentions to them is also a form of love, because positively asserting your own goodness into the world is a gift to others and a loving thing to do.

This is at least part of what it means to “love your enemies.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What Gets In Your Way?

The ministry in my Meeting on First Day centered around the question: “What does it mean to love your enemies?”

Out of the excellent ministry that this question prompted, someone defined “enemy” as “one who gets in your way.” This person said that she did not really have enemies; but if she asked herself, “who gets in my way?” her answer was: herself.

As I took this in, a new query crystallized for me. Because I too cannot identify particular people who get in my way (fortunately!), the query that emerged for me was: What gets in my way?

Sometimes it is things about me: my own fears; my own “temptations to despair” (George Fox used this language). But other times it is not me, nor particular people, but characteristics about our world today: especially the highly controlling structures of our world that can so easily frustrate those fragile whisperings of creativity that might be stirrings of the Spirit.

Of course we must be careful in our discernment about such matters for a different sort of reason as well. Sometimes “my way” is not really God’s way, and so what might be getting in “my” way might be the promptings of the Spirit to reconsider what I think “my” way is really supposed to be!

But when we’ve been trying to discern God’s way for us, and feel continued resistance, it can be helpful to try to identify the exact sources of the resistance. Understanding those sources can help us to figure out what to do about them.

Some additional follow-up queries I have found helpful:

  • Are these forces wise and benevolent? Do they know me – my best self? Or are they blind to who I really am and to the good I am trying to bring into being?
  • Do these forces twist the good I try to do into something negative and destructive? Why do they do that? Are they justified in doing that? (Do they know me well enough to legitimately question my own intentions and/or abilities?)
  • Are the forces mechanical and indifferent, or motivated by living energy? If they are motivated by living energy, is the energy positive energy of love and goodness, or negative energy of fear?

Monday, April 10, 2006

They Still Need Our Prayers

In Meeting yesterday, I found myself suddenly thinking of all of the former hostages I had been praying for: Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, Harmeet Sooden, and Jill Carroll, and realized that they still need our continuing prayers. It may be tempting to think that their stories are over -- some happily so, one tragically so -- and there's nothing else for those who don't know them personally to do now.

But in my prayer time yesterday, I realized that not only do Tom Fox's family and friends still need prayers and support, but those who are still alive (and their families and friends) also still need our prayers and support, because their lives have been dramatically changed, and it surely cannot be easy to find one's way forward in life after an experience such as they have been through.

First of all, there is the media attention. While some of the media reports have been positive, supportive, and happy for their release, there are, surprisingly, negatively critical reports as well. Meanwhile, the former hostages are all under pressure to tell their stories. But they all surely need time to process their experiences themselves before going public.

And then there's the question of what to do next. Remembering that these are all adventurous souls who did not let themselves be held back by fear from doing what they thought was right and good and important, it is probably not their natural tendency to want to settle down to a quiet life. But in the wake of the experiences they have just had, they surely need time to reassess their own next steps. I imagine that they may be having a hard time understanding why all of this has happened.

And meanwhile, all four of those still alive are also in mourning. The CPT members: Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Sooden, only realized that Tom Fox had been killed after their release. And Jill Carroll is mourning the death of her interpreter and friend Allan Enwiya.

So I found myself yesterday praying with gratitude towards all who helped make their releases possible. And then I prayed for each of them, and their families and friends, as they mourn and heal and recover and try to understand; and as they try to discern their own next steps. Their stories are not over. Their lives are dramatically changed.

And the rest of us too, who have borne witness to these stories, have not finished processing what it all has meant. We too find ourselves changed and confused. What is this world we find ourselves in?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Difference Place Makes, Part II

Place is landscape. But the landscape includes not only the natural and built environment, but also the relational context.

Who are you connected to, and how?

Are the strands of connection made of manipulation, control, or obedience, or are they made of love, appreciation, and respect?

Do you display your competence, your usefulness, and your reliability? Or do you display your humanness, your uniqueness, your love?

All my life, I have been trying to prove my worthiness for love. But the more useful I have shown myself to be, the more elusive real love has been.

Yes, if you work very hard, you can earn positive regard. But that positive regard is not love. It is more likely to settle into dependency.

I am being crushed under interlocking layers of dependency.

So, when I had the chance to appear somewhere new, where no one needed me, I had the chance to experience a new way of being. My appearance changed the relational landscape there, and so people looked up with interest, and saw me for the unique person I am.

We are interdependent beings. I do not want to shirk my responsibilities.

But what are my real responsibilities?

Friday, April 07, 2006

What a Difference Place Can Make

Again, but this time in an inverted way, I am amazed at what a difference Place can make. I felt like my real, true self at the Quaker Study Center where I lived last month. I felt healthy. Life was in balance. And it felt like my life came into clearer focus.

Now that I’m back, I feel all fuzzed out again. I struggle to regain a happy, centered sense of self. My return has been much more traumatic than I expected it to be.

What accounts for the difference?

More importantly: can I bring my new clarified sense of self into being here at home? How?

The one glimmer of insight I’ve had is that I’ve let myself establish too much of a reputation of competence here. This means that I’ve let others define me according to what they need from me. This is what makes it difficult for me to feel like my full, true self here.

I come back to a sense of busy people hardly noticing my return, except that eventually they glance up, and murmur, “oh there you are. Can you hold this for me?” and thusly do they start to pile their stuff all over me.

I become invisible. I become buried under all these coats and hats and scarves that others drape all over me. The difference I’ve made to the landscape here is the creation of a new bulge crowded with other people’s stuff.

If I propped up an actual coat rack underneath all of this stuff, and slipped away, no one would even notice me gone.

Should I just do that then?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Musical Interlude

I haven’t written about music in a while.

This semester, I am not playing with my usual music group (an early music group) because of being on sabbatical. It has been rather nice to have the freedom to practice as I wish and to consolidate where I am in my playing.

I still have had some good musical opportunities. When I was in England, the people at the study center where I was staying would hear me practicing sometimes, and so they asked me about my instruments and then asked me to play for the short evening service. This gave me performing experience of an especially concentrated kind: to come up with one tune appropriate for a formal worship service setting. The fact that I was asked to do this several times over the course of the month suggests that I didn’t do badly. It also challenged me to come up with a different tune each time. All of this was good for me. I wasn’t always as relaxed as I would like to be, and I didn’t play as flawlessly as I wish I always could, but at least I had the self-discipline not to draw attention to that fact or try to solicit sympathy and reassurance. Instead, I would chant to myself my new mantra: “I am what I am.”

In this light, I have been thinking a lot about “professionalism.” I’m so naturally insecure that it’s been hard for me to learn what professionalism really is. I think I’ve tended to seem reasonably professional, but by accident: I’m too shy to share the intensity of my insecurity beyond my closest circle of friends. My shyness comes across as cool reserve (maybe) and so people mistake me for being confident, modest, and professional (either that, or they just don’t notice me much at all).

It’s only been relatively recently that it has dawned on me that professionalism is not just an appearance but is also an attitude. And so I must admit that, in reality, I have not been very professional at all. My inner attitude when performing music tends basically to be: “I’m not really good enough to be doing this…” That’s not a professional attitude.

“But if it is nevertheless a true assessment,” I say to myself, “it doesn’t matter whether it is professional or not!”

Fair enough.

“It shows that I am not a professional! I should not pretend to be one!” I go on, stridently, to myself.

“Um, ‘am not,’ or ‘will not be’?” I quietly reply to myself.

“Can not be,” I insist. “Not capable!”

“What are you doing then? Why do you keep playing?”

“Well, er, theoretically I’d like to get to a good place sometime. But in the meantime, I’m doing it for love. I’m an amateur! And I do it because it is part of my spiritual discipline. It is good for me to keep trying to get to a certain level of respectable competence.”

“So it’s all about you then, is it?”

“Hey, wait, I’m trying to be humble here! I’m trying to say that I can’t claim that it can be about more than me. I can’t claim to be creating music that’s really good enough for others to enjoy! Oh, I’d like to be able to, but if I can’t, I can’t. Should that stop me from trying? Does that mean I must deny myself the joy and fulfillment I gain by trying? Am I really not allowed to play at all unless and until I’m excellent?” (If I’m starting to sound a bit defensive here, it is because this was the line of argument I’ve been using to try to convince myself that it’s okay for me to perform even before I am perfect because the only way to learn how to perform is to perform. No amount of practice ever prepares you for the experience of performing – it is only by performing that you finally learn to deal with the special characteristics of performance, such as all those people out there looking at you, and the sweating and shaking and dry mouth that suddenly overtake your body like they never do in the privacy of your practice room.)

“Ahem, with all due respect, maybe it’s time for you to start, er, growing up?”

“What do you mean?!? What are you talking about?!?”

“I see what you mean about trying to be humble and all, but, well, as soon as you do enter a performance situation, it’s not just you. There are other people there. Don’t you feel you have some responsibility towards them too?”

“Well, yeah, but … but … “

“But what?”

“They scare the willies out of me!”

“Is that why they are there? Is that why you are there?”

“Ok, ok, I know we’re all supposed to be there for the sake of the music!”

“And that is why the audience is there. They are simply coming to a concert. They like coming to concerts. They like the kind of music you all play. They are playing their part professionally enough. What about you?”

“What do you mean?”

“They are playing their part professionally – what does it mean for you to play your part professionally?”

“But I’m not a professional. I’m not getting paid to do this. I’m not pretending to be a professional musician. We’re an amateur group.”

“Do you think the audience knows that or cares? Sure they know the concert is free, but is that the only reason they come? If you were all dreadful, would they bother coming? No, they come because you are not half bad! They come because they love the kind of music you play. They listen to what you are – they don’t care about distinctions between amateurs or professionals. They – like you – realize that there is not a correspondence between the amateur-professional scale and the bad-good scale. There are amateur groups that are brilliant, and professional groups that are … lacking.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is not about being paid; nor is it about being good. It’s something about your attitude.”

“Ok. Say more.”

“It’s not that you are either an amateur or a professional. A professional is an amateur-plus.”

“Plus what?”

“A different kind of attitude. Amateurs play for love. Professionals don’t stop playing for love. They add to that love something else. Or, wait, maybe they subtract – they subtract an unhealthy self-consciousness. They are there not for themselves, but for the music and for the audience.”

[Mumbling] “Easy enough for you to say. Not so easy to do!”

“Fair enough. I’ve framed it kind of negatively: ‘stop being self-conscious!’ That way of putting it is not very helpful. This kind of shift requires a new kind of mental discipline. You understand about mental discipline! The secret is to gently replace the negative scripts of self-consciousness with realistic, believable, aspirational positive statements that will move you into a more professional attitude.”

“Can you think of any examples?”

“Yes. Instead of thinking, ‘I hope I don’t unravel during that fast passage,’ picture how it felt when you’ve nailed it. Instead of looking out on the audience conceptualizing them as Intimidating Monster Music Critics, remind yourself that they are not here to have a miserable time logging all the errors they can find – they are here to have a good time enjoying the uplifting music.”

“Mm hmm” [unconvinced].

“Ok, try this: it’s about communication. What are you trying to communicate through the music? Why do you think it is music worth sharing with others? What do you hope they will hear in it? What effect do you hope it will have on them?”

“That’s better. I can almost get a grip on that.”

“The unprofessional is focused on how he or she looks and sounds. The professional is focused on how the music sounds.”


“The professional is only there incidentally, to help the music out. They are there to hold open the curtain that lets the music out.”


“And it’s an act of mental discipline to keep oriented in that attitude. That’s what being a professional is all about.”

As I’ve begun to realize this, I work at it backwards. The easiest way for me to start getting a grip on this is to manage how I am after the performance. During the performance, I try to look relaxed and happy, no matter what happens. After the performance, I continue this. I smile and try to be gracious. When people comment, if they comment about me, I gently deflect the conversation to the music instead. I resist all temptations to say things like, “I can’t believe how I flubbed up that high D!” Instead, I have the discipline to say, “I just love the Fantasia – wasn’t that an amazing piece of music? What a brilliant composer! Did you catch the interplay between the two low recorders towards the end?” And this works. It keeps everyone’s attention focused on the music, even after the concert is over.

(Footnote: The alert reader will recognize the irony of this entire posting: the unprofessional sharing of the inner personal struggles of one seeking professionalism and the loss of self-consciousness. But is this really just a personal story -- or is it instead one so personal that it (ironically) becomes general if not universal?)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Frenetic Oblivion

As I adjust to being back in the U.S., I find myself more and more concerned about how stressed out so many people are. So I recall something I wrote about in Bible Wonderings:

There is a lot that is interesting in [Exodus]. First of all, after Moses and Aaron make their initial request to Pharaoh [to let their people go], Pharaoh is so upset that he commands that the Israelites be compelled to work even harder than before, so that they will not have time to pay heed to deceptive words (Ex 5:7-9). This strategy was very clever, because he even got the Israelites mad at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the increase in work that they now suffered (Ex 5:20-21). (From "God Helps the Oppressed Gain Freedom, But...")

When I first wrote this, already I was thinking about our own predicament, but I've continued to meditate on this and thought it would be good to draw out the implications even more directly.

A good way to keep people from organizing themselves in opposition to an abuse of power is to make them work so hard that they don't have time to think, or talk to each other. Even better is to get the people all stirred up against each other, so that as they suffer and strain under the pressure of their heavy workloads, they blame each other instead of those who oppress them.

Now, at first glance, it might seem ridiculous to compare ordinary American workers to oppressed slaves. We live in the land of freedom, and the land of opportunity, don't we? Even many of the poorest among us have TVs = luxury, right?

But just because we all seem to agree with and accept the situation we happen to find ourselves in does not make it right and good, necessarily. After all, the cleverest tactic of all for preventing people from organizing themselves against oppression is to convince people that they have freely chosen the situation they find themselves in, and that they like it.

So, we work very hard and go ahead and agree that "time to think" and "time to talk with each other" count as foolish and unproductive wastes of time. We bicker with each other about all that goes wrong, blaming each other rather than the dominant forces of power in our culture (it's unpatriotic to criticize our government, "sour grapes" to blame big business, and just silly to blame the media, because after all, they give us what we really want, don't they?) And we claim we like working hard (it's good for the economy; it keeps our kids out of trouble; it shows we are ambitious and keen on self-improvement) and, besides, we appreciate the benefits offered by working hard and making lots of money (not mere TVs anymore, but big screen digital TVs now! What an improvement to the quality of our lives!)

But are our lives really getting better? Or do we work harder and harder for less and less? How many have better health coverage than they did 5 years ago? How many are seriously in debt? Are we paying down our debt, or accumulating more? How many young people, graduating from college with enormous student loans, feel that their career choices are limited because of the obligation of paying off their student loans? How much of our purchasing choices are determined by the expectations of our friends and neighbors (what kind of car to buy; what kind of clothes to wear; what kind of food to eat; what kind of house to live in; the social obligation of "renovation" because as soon as you buy a house everyone immediately asks what you've "done to it," etc.)?

Are we really free? (What is freedom? And what is freedom for?) Do we really live in the land of opportunity? (What opportunities do we really have? Are they the opportunities we really want?)

For example, what I really want is more time with my friends, and they want this too, but we don't have time.

What I also really want is time to write. I have this now, while I am on sabbatical, but I am all too aware of how temporary and fleeting this opportunity is. It is also framed in layers of accountability. I had to spend time justifying this in advance; I will have to cut it short to justify it again in retrospect. (Can I claim that this writing counts? No. So while on sabbatical I must put in enough time to do the writing I'm "supposed" to do, plus the writing I want to do. The root of "sabbatical" = "rest" is a meaning that is now ignored.)

So many people increasingly have to spend time now describing how they spent their time (as when lawyers have to log their activities in 6-minute intervals)! When I go back to teaching and chairing my department, I will have to put in hours of department meetings and chairs' meetings working out an "assessment plan" to show what we are trying to do in our teaching, how we do it, and whether we are successful at meeting our goals. (I can already predict the answer: no, we will be found not to be successful because we will have had to stop teaching in order to write about what we are trying to teach, why teaching matters, and how we teach; and then because our students are so busy we will conclude that it's only fair to devote class time to having them write about whether they have in fact been learning all that we would have been trying to teach them if we only had time.) (But actually, this won't be the outcome, of course, because the expectation is that we put in the hours of extra work on top of all that we have already been doing. We find those extra hours by cutting back on sleep and wolfing down power bars and caffeine-drinks at our desks instead of having proper lunches.)

This whole "accountability in education" phenomenon is just one example that shows a very disturbing trend that applies to other (all?) fields of work as well. It is very much like the Pharaoh's doubling of the Israelite's workload. It is a technique that puts people who already work very hard on the defensive; it is a technique that trains people not to trust each other or work well together, but to bicker so much with each other that we don't have the time or emotional energy to look for the real sources of our country's social and economic problems.

Let my people go.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Complexity of My Life

Being back continues to be a bit overwhelming, in large part because I must face the full complexity of my life again. Actually, I don’t really have to face the full complexity, because I am still on sabbatical until the Fall. But it’s still complex enough.

Towards the end of my month in England, I visited a long-time friend, and seeing her perspective on my life was just amazing to me. She told me that my life is too complicated, that I’m not happy, and that I’m headed for burnout if I don’t make some changes. “You drive yourself too hard. You are trying to do too much.” At first I was worried that she was criticizing my single-minded focus on how effectively to address the world’s problems, but with further conversation I realized that she was not criticizing my having such a lofty goal – she was criticizing the extraordinary complexity of my way of working towards that goal. She observed that my life of teaching is too much of an emotional toll on me. She told me that I need most of all to write – that I have a lot to say, and to an audience of more than just my preoccupied, distracted (even if well-meaning and somewhat appreciative) students. “So much of what you have to say is lost on them,” she went on. “They are just not at the right life-stage to be ready to grasp what you are really on about.”

On the train ride back to the Quaker study center where I was staying, I thought a lot about this. Her observations were converging with my own realizations about myself. And so her perceptions helped reinforce my own.

The best clue as to who you are and what you are called to do is to observe about your life: what is it that I can’t not do?

One of the things that amazed me about my time at the Quaker study center was how quickly and easily my life coalesced into what I experienced as a perfect rhythm of daily life. The elements that fell into place so naturally were: (1) framing the day in times of meditation or worship; (2) spending the bulk of my waking hours reading and writing; (3) practicing music every day; (4) going out for walks every day; (5) connecting with people over meals and tea.

This all tells me: I am a Quaker, a contemplative writer, and a musician, who values healthy connection with the natural world and with the people in her life.

Let’s look at how different my life is here, during term-time.

(1) I still can take my own quiet time at the beginning and end of each day, but to spend every morning and evening in Meeting for Worship with others? Impossible. Others don’t have time for this. Or, we could never agree on a time. Or, no one except me would want to do this more than once a week. Besides, we all live too far apart. Besides, many of my friends are not Quakers and think this would be very strange and an “unproductive” use of time!

(2) During term-time I can do a good amount of reading and writing, since class preparation does require reading and then I write my notes for class. But fitting in writing on more sustained projects that do not happen to correspond with my classes is much harder. And, anyway, huge portions of my day are occupied by reading and responding to student writing, meeting with students and advisees, going to committee meetings, and working on administrative responsibilities.

(3) I do nevertheless keep up with music practice. Being in a music ensemble necessitates this, and thus “gives me permission” to keep making time for this.

(4) Getting regular exercise unfortunately has been very hard for me to sustain in term-time. And this is not good. It shows that what I most tend to sacrifice under stress is taking care of myself physically.

(5) Almost everyone I know mostly eats hurriedly over the desk. Arranging for lunch or tea with friends is a mightily complex task, often requiring planning weeks ahead!

I know it looks like I’m just talking about myself in this posting, but I think what I’m saying here applies to others as well: we live complex and demanding lives in which we do have a hard time making space in our daily lives for what we really want our lives to be all about! And in the press of our busy lives, it can be hard to be in touch with who we really are.

Prior to sabbatical, I thought I had a good life and a good job. I thought I was lucky that my job allowed me to do so many of the things that I prize. Teaching is creative and satisfying. Even the administrative responsibilities are meaningful ways to sustain the academic mission of our college, and provide opportunities for meaningful connection with colleagues over our shared purpose here.

When you come up for tenure, you look long and hard at the question of whether this really is the life you want, long-term. My own answer was a clear and strong, “yes” at the time. But at the time I was in the thick of it all, getting something of a thrill out of handling all of the intensity reasonably well.

Now fast-forward again to the me on the train in England back to the Quaker study center where I was to spend my last few precious days before returning to my life here.

I watch the beautiful landscape roll past the windows. There are sheep and tiny little lambs, brand new to the world, curious and eager and vividly alive. The scale of life seems so much more manageable in England. Almost all of the houses are cute and charming, and not enormously big. The gardens are lovingly tended. People seem more real towards each other.

From the vantage point of this time in England, I found my sense of myself and my life to be totally different. I looked back on my tenure-track life as something now in the past. I found myself thinking, to my own surprise, “yes, there was something in all of that that I needed then. I’ve learned a lot. But could it be that, after all, that’s not the life I really want from now on?”

When you go on sabbatical, you promise that you will come back for at least a year after the sabbatical. Suddenly, I understood why they make you make that promise. If I didn’t have that promise hanging over me, I would at this point seriously consider not returning at all.

They hope that, when you do return for that obligatory year, you then do get used to that life again, and get seduced again by the kind of thrill it offers. Or they hope that you are able to re-make your academic identity in a way that is then sustainable for you.

When I made that promise, I was sincere. And I will go back. I will continue to try to do my work well. I will seriously search for a way to make it a sustainable life for me.

But now I’m open to radically re-thinking my life beyond that year. My life as it has been these past years is much too complex. I’ve been trying to embrace the complexity, but I’m starting to think that the complexity I’ve taken on is the wrong kind. I don’t want a life so complex I can barely manage it. I want a life simple and clear enough that I am freed to face more squarely the complexity of the world’s problems, and find a way to address that complexity with transformative power.

I do come back knowing much more clearly what I want my life to be like. The question is how to get there.