Friday, June 30, 2006

Concentration of Wealth

I’ve been catching up on the news, and one item particularly caught my attention.

Apparently, the second richest man in the world has decided to give away a large chunk of his wealth.

To whom?

Why, to the first richest man in the world!

Does this strike anyone else as odd?

Ok, ok, I must add all of the appropriate disclaimers, and contextualize this more: It’s great that the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffett, has decided to give away much of his wealth. And he’s really not giving it to Bill Gates personally, but to a foundation the Gates have started—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, devoted to health and education. I also genuinely appreciate Buffett’s honesty and humility at admitting that he is not sure how wisely to distribute his money, hence his giving it to a foundation he trusts will put the money to good use.

But I still find this news item troubling. Here’s why:

First of all, it seems to mark a public moment in the development of global economics that finally reveals convincingly that there are some people who have more money than they know what to do with. While we know that this is not really the first time this has happened, Buffett’s public confession of this fact reveals this truth in startling, honest clarity like never before. If we had any doubts before, they are finally erased with this confession: the combination of intelligence, hard work, and good luck that generate great wealth do not, in and of themselves, also confer wisdom. The qualities that draw great wealth towards a person are not the same qualities that teach one how to channel that wealth back into the world in a way that will effectively address the world’s problems. Buffett himself said: “In business you look for the easy things to do. In philanthropy, you take on important problems and it is a tougher game” (quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, “The Monitor’s Views: Giving the Buffett Way,” June 29, 2006).

And so this moment shows that there is something terribly wrong with our economic system: (a) that it is possible for some to amass more wealth than they know what to do with, and (b) that we have not given the wealthy and fortunate the right kind of education: we have not educated them in wisdom.

The second reason I find this news item troubling is that Buffett’s giving so much of his money to the first richest person’s foundation concentrates all of this wealth into the hands of very few. Even though I’ve just argued that we cannot trust the wealthy to know how to spend their money well, Buffett’s gesture paradoxically assumes that we can. This must mean that in his own mind he was making personal distinctions: he didn’t trust himself to know how to distribute the money wisely, but he does trust his friend Bill Gates. He is not interpreting his decision structurally, but simply personally. But what if it really is a structural problem?

Even if we grant that the Gates Foundation is doing a good job at distributing money effectively to important causes, is it right that so much money should be controlled by just a small handful of people? Anyone who answers “yes” is back to assuming that money itself confers virtue and wisdom. But the richest person in the world is the person least likely to really understand the full nature of the problems in the world. Those who are rich are protected from most of the kinds of suffering faced by the poor. Those who are rich have the luxury of choosing which problems to try to address—unlike the poor, who have problems they would rather not choose thrust upon them anyway.

And so while the Gates Foundation might be doing great good in what it does, there are other problems too that need attention. Currently, our economic system concentrates wealth, and then lets the rich channel that wealth back to whatever causes they want to support. The more wealth is controlled by just a small number of people, the more likely it is that the money is being targeted to a narrow range of concerns and is not being used as effectively as it could be used. If the wealth could be spread more widely, directed by a larger number of people who have experiential connections to a wide range of arenas of need, then the wealth might more effectively engage the world’s problems and bring about lasting structural change.

So, I really don’t fault Buffett at all. It is that this moment reveals something deeply problematic in our economic system. He was honest and made the wisest choice he could within our deeply flawed system, and his money will end up doing good in the world. My concern is with the wide range of other worthy causes that remain unaddressed. My concern is that, in the meantime, people will keep starving to death; big industries will continue to find clever ways to ignore environmental protections in favor of their “bottom lines” while our government supports them and their CEOs make more money than they know what to do with; and we will continue to engage in and support wars in which 90% of the casualties are innocent civilians—and we justify these wars by irrationally insisting that this is how to “defeat terrorism.” My concern is that our economic system channels more money into wealth, war and environmental damage than into addressing the root causes of poverty, alleviating war, or building a sustainable world that would protect the natural environment.

My concern is that the people who control the most wealth are the least motivated to change the economic system to make it one that would distribute money more equitably, channeling it to where it is needed. The wealthy instead like the system the way it is: it’s almost a gravitational system, where concentrations of money attract more money to itself. They would prefer to have and control the money themselves, instead of having the economic system distribute it for them. They trust themselves more than anyone or anything else to distribute the money wisely—er, that is, until they finally admit that really they have no idea what to do with it all…

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Saving Gas

On my trip to the conference, I took care to try to go the speed limit, hearing that you can improve gas mileage by not driving faster than about 60. (I did drive 65 in 65 mph zones.) I encountered many construction zones as well (mostly 45 mph). The total trip, including breaks, took me 8 ½ hours.

On the way back, I “kept with the traffic” (meaning, I sped, but not as much as a lot of people!) In part this was because I departed from Major City and everyone drives crazy fast, and I adopted a “compromise speed” that was still faster than the speed limit but slower than the rest of the traffic but not so slow as to be a hazard. This launched me off on the trip in speedy mode, which I then mostly kept up, being eager to get home. While I disapproved of my doing so, to some extent, I did this in the spirit of an experiment. Would it save time? Would the gas mileage really decrease? Anyway, I didn’t speed that much, because my little car begins to shudder when I get into the 70-75 mph range.

So, what time did I gain? A half-hour. Not that impressive, really.

But here’s what is impressive: I averaged 43 miles per gallon on the way down, and averaged 40 miles per gallon coming back!

And I don’t even have a Yaris (which is supposed to get 41 mpg on the highway)—I have a manual transmission Corolla!

The lesson: I’ll stick to going the speed limit. It’s safer; it does save gas; and even on long trips, you don’t actually lose much time.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Conference

The conference I attended was the Friends Association for Higher Education conference, held jointly this year with the Friends Council on Education at George School, in Newtown, Pennsylvania. (Avid readers of this blog may recall that I also attended the FAHE conference last year, and posted about it here and here.)

In addition to the usual presenting and attending of workshops, catching up with old friends, and meeting new friends, the event for me was meaningful in other ways as well. Most especially, my work on the Executive Committee has resulted in the further development of my new leading, which involves how to help concerned scholars to work together more effectively to address the world’s problems. To my surprise, the other members of the Executive Committee liked my ideas so much that they decided not merely to accept my concern as a project of FAHE, but to adopt this theme for next year’s conference: Scholars for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability. (Next year’s conference will be June 14-17 at Earlham College.) This moves my concern forward more fully than I expected at this stage. I find this very exciting.

It is new for me to launch an idea that others take up so quickly and enthusiastically. Most of my work thus far has been solo work; to the extent that I have participated in group efforts, it is usually others who have guided those initiatives. Part of the reason my new leading has been initially scary for me is that its success absolutely depends upon others getting involved: others whose lives are already busy and complex. And I am basically a shy introvert with very little experience trying to inspire and motivate groups of people to new kinds of action. And yet, I feel really drawn to learn how to do this.

Part of what was amazing about the conference was that two different people on two different occasions talked about how one mark of a genuine leading is that it almost always demands something new from the person who has the leading. The first person who told that to me was a trusted friend. I found a quiet moment to share with him the fears and anxieties that were emerging for me: “As this unfolds, I don’t know what this will ask of me, and whether I will be ready!”

He told me that it is almost always the case that genuine leadings do require more from us than we may initially feel prepared for. And he also reminded me of John Woolman’s Barbados leading. “You only have to take it a step at a time, and discern each step along the way, being prepared even to stop and let others take over if that is how you should feel called. Sometimes a leading just is to put forth the initial vision that gets something going. Other times the leading does require you to stay involved. You can’t know all of this up front. All you have to do is try your best to be faithful at each given moment.”

Then he asked me what were my immediate next steps, and as I talked, strength, calm, and clarity returned. The shaking in my voice faded away, and a quiet authority began to settle in as I reviewed the path of the leading thus far and outlined the shape and future direction of the leading as I saw it at the moment. It was really amazing to feel a confidence come forth from some place in my soul much deeper than the anxiety.

(I must pause to say here that I am so fortunate to have found the Quakers. To be able to find friends like this! To be able to have this kind of conversation with someone! To be in the presence of others who let the spirit in to every conversation, and every decision! So many people on this planet have no idea that such community is possible.)

Ok, back to the story: The next affirmation was the following day in Meeting for Worship. Just when I was regressing to my anxieties (sparked by worrying now about the long car journey home, and letting that specific worry mushroom into a full-blown existential crisis), a young woman who teaches at a Friends School rose in Meeting for Worship to minister about how leadings don’t meet us where we are comfortable and confident in our most highly developed skills. Instead, they challenge us at our points of weakness, calling forth from us the development of new skills. At this point, I began to dissolve into tears, feeling melted down by God’s love.

Then one more person ministered. She was one of two Native American women visiting our conference to share reflections on parallels between Native American philosophy of education and Quaker philosophy of education. She spoke movingly about what this conference had meant to her. She had not known much about the Quakers before, and was astounded at what she had learned and experienced among us. Describing what she would tell her grandmother about the conference, if her grandmother were still alive, she concluded with, “And the Quakers saw us for who we are, and did not try to make us be other than who we are.”

I was not the only one in tears by the end. My tears were a vision of all the Concerned Peoples of the world finding each other and coming together to mend and heal this broken world. I saw tender care to a wounded planet, and I saw the loving stitching together of the torn fabric of human relationships.

Finally, I’d like to share a dream I had the first night of the conference. In the dream, I was sitting at front during a drumming concert, and I (along with a few others) was facing the audience as I sat and listened. The drumming was loud. Initially kind of exciting, it quickly wore on me. I was feeling beaten down by it, and I started to bend over, sinking lower and lower in my seat. Even though I knew I was “supposed to” put up a good front and not betray my distress, the drumming was feeling increasingly like an assault. Finally, I even had to cover my ears. Just when I thought I really couldn’t stand it anymore, it stopped. Instead of applause, there was a stunned silence, because the entire audience had been witness to my distress. Finally, the audience began to stir and filter out. A good friend of mine came over to me and said, “We have to talk.” Then I overheard people nearby. One explained to the others, “Yes, one time at one of these concerts, a student died. Another time, a teacher died.” And suddenly I realized that my response marked me as someone special, with a special kind of sensitivity like that student, and that teacher. But I had not died. Even the drummers themselves seemed relieved. They had to drum their beat which tells the story of all that is harsh and violent in the world, and they were as distressed as anyone else when it would turn out that there was someone in the audience sensitive enough to take all of this on and be destroyed by it. The fact that I had survived despite taking on the full horror of the experience was a ray of hope. This was why my wise friend wanted to talk with me. “Do you realize what this means? You are a sensitive, but you did not die. Do you realize what this means?!

When I woke up, I sensed that the dream was not really just about me, but about all of us who are sensitive, who face the world’s brokenness fully, and who care enough to want to make a difference despite the challenges and suffering this kind of work will require. The power of redemption is real, and it is manifest in such people. To move forward in spite of fear, to refuse to shy away from the possibility of pain, is the highest affirmation of life and love, and carries with it transformative power. This is the power that mends and heals the world. There is hope.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Made It!

Hi. I'm back. My travels went well. And the conference was amazing.

Let me post about the travels first, to follow up from my previous posting, in which I confessed to ambivalence and anxiety about car culture and long car journeys.

In that posting, I wrote:

My journey ... [will be] a journey through my own fears and my ambivalence about car culture. I will try to notice the landscape and be aware of my body in motion across the land. But most of my attention will be occupied with negotiating with other vehicles along the highways, doing my share, as best as I can, to keep the roads and highways safe.

It is bizarre and surreal that we engage in this form of transportation where small errors of judgment can yield disastrous consequences in an instant. Why do we accept this? Or maybe I should ask a different question: how do we accept this? Answer: through denial. And so because we can, we do, and we never really get to the “why?” question.

I did try to be aware of the landscape (much of it quite beautiful), and aware of myself in motion across the face of the earth, but my prediction was right: a lot of my attention was occupied with the other traffic. I felt the denial turn on. I felt my attention narrow, and knew that it had to, in order to help me (and others!) survive this. What is the spiritual cost? I can accept that this is sometimes necessary in times of high stress: an effective psychological coping mechanism. But for 8 1/2 hour stretches (which is how long I spent driving each way)?

To console myself, I tried to interpret this as a kind of spiritual meditation. Some of my students have told me that they love long drives and find them meditative. Might there be value in the mental discipline of this, I wondered?

I don't have answers yet.

Much of the trip was fine. At times I was enjoying it.

The only two scary things that happened were:

1. When Rubber Hits the Road. I was behind a big tractor-trailer, leaving space, appreciating the pace this driver was setting. Suddenly, a huge piece of tread went flying off (about 6 feet by 3 feet, and pretty thick!) It flew up at first (good thing I wasn't closer or it would have hit my windshield) and then went dancing on the road in front of me. Quick glances at mirrors revealed that I was hemmed in and had no room to take evasive action. So I aimed to run over this huge flopping thing in a way that I hoped would do the least damage and create the least likelihood that I would lose control of my car. It took a lot of discipline and focus to aim straight for an unexpected obstacle I feared, and to determine to keep as straight a path as I could to protect the other drivers around me, but it worked. I did not lose control, and as far as I could tell, it caused no damage to my car.

All of this happened in a split second. It is afterwards that suddenly you find yourself shaking. I had now two thoughts in my mind: (1) stop following this truck, and (2) pull over at the next rest stop to check for damage. From then on, I gave myself permission to pass any dubious vehicles that looked like things could fall off them.

2. The Impossibly Crowded Highway. As I approached Major City at the end of my journey there, I found myself merging onto an impossibly crowded highway. The cars were going insanely fast and leaving almost no space between vehicles. Meanwhile, cars in two entering lanes were packed tightly around me. While I was leaving space for the car in front of me, the car behind me was right on my tail. I still don't know how I made it onto the highway (not only without hitting anyone, but without anyone honking at me)!

What's more, this was a part of my journey where I hadn't checked about my next transition. With traffic like this, I didn't even dare to glance at the large instructions written out on a pad of paper beside me. I just made my way to the center lane (afraid of the rapidly entering traffic to my right, and the speed demons to my left), hung in there with the traffic ahead of me even though everyone was going much faster than I felt comfortable going, and studied the signs praying that the correct exit would ring a bell! This strategy did work, fortunately.

The trip back was less eventful. It was a Sunday, and the traffic was lighter. There was a lot of heavy rain at first, but it lessened as I drove out of the storm that I later learned caused significant flooding in the region I was now leaving.

Mid-Journey Blues

On both the trip down and the trip up, I reached a State of Despair in the middle of the journey. I could tell I was getting tired, and still had a very long way to go. I remembered that this would happen on my bicycle trips -- I'd be so tired, but afraid to stop out of fear that if I did stop, I would never be able to get going again. But what I learned in those days was that stopping was amazingly restorative. To stop for a half an hour to an hour made all the difference in the world. I would resume with increased physical energy, and revived spirits.

"But surely it's not the same when driving?" I thought to myself. "I'm not physically tired!" But I tried it anyway. I realized that it was my attention that was tired -- tired of staying so focused. I went to a restaurant and let myself just sit and be spacey, not trying to direct my attention at all. I savored the salad I ordered. I savored the stillness and stability of the world around me. After the meal, I walked around a bit and stretched my stiffened muscles. And sure enough, when I got going again, I felt much better. The rest of the trip passed more quickly.

Talking to Myself

The other trick I learned was to start talking to myself when I'd start to feel a little fatigued. Example: I'm feeling fatigued. A sign flashes past: next rest stop 18 miles. How do I stay awake for another 18 miles? Start talking to the world that flashes past! I read signs out loud. I comment to the traffic around me: a car passes me, so I say, "Hi Toyota!" I pass a car, so I say, "Hi good people! You are setting a good pace -- sorry to pass you -- I'm not intending to be critical -- I'm just trying to keep things interesting to keep my own mind awake." A stunning vista opens up before me as I crest a hill, so I say, "Wow, look at that view! Just spectacular!" Then I'd get myself back on track, "What am I looking for?" Etc.

Conclusions

So, I made it there and back again, and learned that I can do it. But it still doesn't seem to be a good idea. I have a feeling that in the long run, this is not how we will do transportation. We will shift to increasing the options for long-distance travel, and people will accept these other options with enormous gratitude.

But for now, this is what some of us sometimes have to do, if we wish to fit certain kinds of meaningful experiences into our crowded lives. The conference I attended was very important for me -- the next important step in the new leading I have started talking about. And somehow it felt important for me to cover the distance, to measure the distance, using my own effort this time instead of flying. Even though I have a lot of ambivalence about car culture, this mode of travel seemed to be a part of the overall leading. It was like hitting that tire tread in the road: sometimes we have to aim right for what we are most afraid of in order to get to the next level in our lives. My leading has a lot to do with confronting more directly the problems of the world. And to do that effectively requires that I move into more direct engagement with the characteristics of the world that I criticize, so that I can be sure to speak from reflected-on experience instead of from evasive fear.

Next time, I'll write about the conference itself.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

On Not Taking Travel for Granted

As I prepare for my upcoming long drive to a conference, I am humbled by two thoughts. (1) A huge number of Americans take car trips like this, and longer, all the time, and would regard it as no big deal. (2) I’ve been following Marshall Massey’s walking journey with great interest and enthusiasm. His original plan was to walk from Omaha, Nebraska to Harrisonburg, Virginia (a distance of 1150 miles), meeting with Friends along the way, and ending up at Baltimore Yearly Meeting on July 31 to give the keynote lecture about living in harmony with God’s creation. He set off on his journey on May 13, but along the way, he has developed bursitis in his ankles, which has limited the amount of walking that he can do, but he is still trying to do some walking each day as he continues his journey after medical attention.

I still do think that long journeys are a big deal, whatever the mode of transport. I am very attracted to making such journeys on one’s own power, and in the past, I did some bicycle journeys of my own. I have always dreamed of doing a long walking journey some day. So I am very moved to read Marshall Massey’s account of his adventures.

Even though Marshall is finding himself daunted by his own physical limitations, somehow this aspect itself seems to be an important part of his story, and an important lesson to all of us. We have come to take for granted the luxury of today’s modes of travel. How many of us today could physically endure even 1% of the travel we routinely engage in without incurring serious injury?

Marshall’s story reminds us of our own fragility as biological beings. Our technology has protected us, but also has weakened us and alienated us from the earth which nurtures our life. The “protection” might be an illusion, as long as we continue to build our technological systems at odds with the biological health of our planet. As Marshall continues determinedly to limp as best as he can across our beautiful but scarred land, his story is all of our story. We may think ourselves healthy as we zoom through the same landscape in the air-conditioned comfort of our cars, but we carry the spiritual wounds of alienation as the beauty of the landscape blurs past mostly unnoticed through the fog of our rapidly spinning anxious thoughts.

My journey won’t be as long or as physically taxing, but it will still be a journey: a journey through my own fears and my ambivalence about car culture. I will try to notice the landscape and be aware of my body in motion across the land. But most of my attention will be occupied with negotiating with other vehicles along the highways, doing my share, as best as I can, to keep the roads and highways safe.

It is bizarre and surreal that we engage in this form of transportation where small errors of judgment can yield disastrous consequences in an instant. Why do we accept this? Or maybe I should ask a different question: how do we accept this? Answer: through denial. And so because we can, we do, and we never really get to the “why?” question.

The truth is, we as individuals don’t think we have much choice. This just is how things are. If we want to be fully-functioning, productive members of society, this is the kind of thing we must learn to do, without questioning it. Maybe we even convince ourselves that it is fun, or that it is really wonderful that we can do this. And it is true that it makes much possible that would have been impossible before. But the fun has worn off. Technology that used to be fun and exciting when it was new has now become a necessity. It controls us; we don’t control it.

What will it take to get us back to living in better harmony with our natural environment? I think the answer is, at least in part: when we begin to do a better job refusing to let our technologies and systems control us.

This may be what I find most inspiring about Marshall’s journey. He reminds us how hard it really is to get from one place to another place very far away. The wounds he takes on reminds us of the real costs of such journeys: costs we have transferred to our cars which then in turn inflict the wounds upon the earth and the atmosphere; these wounds then ricocheting back upon us in more subtle ways, through environmentally caused illnesses, stress-induced illnesses, and spiritual alienation.

But Marshall is trying his individual human best to regain control over one kind of technological dependency. His limited success and his physical pain in the process soberingly demonstrate how powerless we are as individuals. The systems we have created are huge and complex; individual choices within these systems are limited and individual efforts to challenge the systems are mostly ineffectual. Marshall vividly bears witness to this, and those of us who watch his journey bear witness too. His story presses upon us the urgency of the need for change, if we wish to restore our harmonious relationship with the biosphere that supports our life.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Healing Power of Being

I’ve just read Paul Lacey’s Nourishing the Spiritual Life (Quaker Home Service, 1995, 1999), knowing that I need to be better about taking care of myself. As I try to be more aware of what really helps me, what nourishes my soul, I have discovered that one of the most soul-restoring things I can do these days is to sit out on the porch. Especially when the weather is nice, I find this just heavenly. Often I bring a book; right now, I’m on the porch with my laptop. But I find myself taking long pauses to just Be.

I look out on the activity around me with enormous interest. A neighbor encourages her toddler along the sidewalk. The child’s father returns home from work, and the child squeals with delight. The starlings are all worked up about something. A sheriff fails to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. I hear the thumping bass of a car off in the distance. The wind chimes ring occasionally in the gentle breeze.

But most magical to me are the trees. They are so grand and beautiful this time of year. And for some reason, I have always found the sound of wind in the trees amazing, even other-worldly. Trees are Beings, tall and grand. They don’t rush about in frenetic activity. If they have a kind of awareness (I like to think they do) it is an awareness that is highly tuned to subtle changes. They don’t need the high stimulation that mobility offers us animals (animal = animated, self-moving). They gain their wisdom instead from deep awareness of what happens to be immediately around them.

And I can relate. To feel the wind and the warm air; to hear the many different sounds; to watch the animated-beings stir about, but not to stir myself—this is a wonderful state of being. Sometimes I feel I could do this all day. To just be aware, without pressuring myself to Do—without needing to decide anything—is amazingly soul-restoring. It feels important.

Maybe it is that pure awareness (as opposed to selective, directed attention for a specific purpose) fills us in an important way. We spend so much of our lives pushing ourselves to be efficient and productive. So we narrow our attention just to what we need focus on to complete each task at hand or make the decisions we need to make. In this, we can miss a lot. We become vulnerable to a kind of spiritual malnourishment—like if we obsessively followed some strict diet that turns out to deprive us of some essential nutrient. Just as in eating we need to reconsider our diet if we are beset with cravings and our health begins to falter, so too in our spiritual lives we need to reconsider how we direct our attention if we find our spirits flagging.

Just by allowing myself some porch time, I have found my joie de vivre returning.

Various and Sundry Updates

1. Even though I was bummed about the demise of my early music group, now it looks like people are trying to find a way to keep some new version of it going. It almost certainly won’t happen this coming academic year, but it may well be revived in the future.

2. Meanwhile, my own playing is going very well. On break from the group myself because of having been on sabbatical, I’ve focused my attention on my 19th century (a.k.a. Irish) flute, which is by far my most demanding instrument. The focused attention is finally starting to result in noticeable improvement – subjectively, anyway. What I mean is that I don’t know that I actually sound any better, but it feels like it is flowing better. I used to have dreams of playing an Irish flute beautifully and effortlessly – even well before I actually had one. I’m finally catching glimpses of that sense in my real-life playing, in fleeting moments! It’s amazing that we can do things in dreams that we cannot do in real life, at least without a lot of time and practice!

3. I have had some health worries, so I went to the doctor last week, and went in for some tests this morning. All of this was scary for me. Health concerns, and the medical establishment itself, strike deep chords of fear within my soul. I worried about a lot of things, including (a) that people would chastise me for not taking better care of myself; (b) the process would be dehumanizing—I would turn into an object under investigation instead of being treated respectfully as a human being; (c) that they would indeed find something seriously wrong.

Fortunately, I was wrong on all counts. Everyone has been very kind. The process was fascinating: I found myself very interested in the science and technology of it all, and, much to my own astonishment, realized that I do trust all this fancy equipment, and so I found its judgments reassuring. Most telling: I was simply glad to have people paying compassionate attention to me.

4. Related to the above, I am sure: I have been channeling a lot of energy into being supportive of others, to the neglect of what I know I need to do to take care of myself. I think my health worries are how I am trying to get my own attention. This is my fundamental problem/question in life at the moment: how to be supportive of others without losing myself.

5. My birthday is coming up. I will be 42. This seems significant. Maybe this year I will find the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything.

(Yes, I’ve read all the books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The stories are filled with tidbits that are excellent for illustrating various philosophical issues, but, alas, most of my students have never heard of these books anymore. The recent release of the movie has brought it back into public consciousness, but only somewhat.)

6. I’m going to a conference next week. I’m driving instead of flying. I wish I could take a train, but there are none from here to there. We live in a strange world, that the only two options I have are to fly or drive. While I am grateful to be able to get from here to there, it really does seem that we should be able to organize our transportation better than we do: in ways that are friendlier to the environment and less stressful to travelers.

7. Taking a long car trip by myself has prompted me to consider getting an even more fuel-efficient car than the fuel-efficient one I currently have. Specifically, I’m entranced by the Toyota Yaris: maybe because I saw them all over the place when I was in England, and then was delighted to find them appearing in the U.S. as well when I got back. It is against all of my principles to be entranced with a car – I would rather do without cars altogether; I would rather not be materialistic; I would rather be content with what I have. But there we have it: the great claws of consumerism sometimes establish their grip even on me. So far, I am resisting.

After years and years of not having a car, I finally got one when it was the only way I could accept a very attractive job offer. By this time in my life, my principled resistance to getting sucked into car-culture had evolved to simple fear due to inexperience. The process of overcoming this fear and gaining confidence has been very important: a process of engaging the complex world we live in more fully.

Most surprising has been my growing attachment to my car. Now I understand why people love their cars. Cars are more than just hunks of machinery designed to get people from one place to another at ridiculous dizzying speeds. They are fun. They give us a feeling of independence and freedom. They extend our range.

But even knowing this now, there is still a part of me that disapproves and that very much wishes that we could develop a better public transportation system and drive much less than we currently do. Cars, like other technologies, have created new expectations about what we should be able to do (how far we can go; how much we can accomplish), and these expectations have made our lives very complicated and demanding.

Ok, this is enough for today.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Boomerang

Yesterday I made a good effort to work on something that has been hanging over my head for a long time. I wanted to finish it in order to clear space to attend to projects I was more enthusiastic about.

While I worked well, I was aware of a persistent drag on my soul. And so finally, about mid-afternoon, I paused to ask myself: "is this really what I should be doing?" I took stock of reasons to keep doing it, and reasons to let it go. It suddenly became very clear to me that I needed to just let it go.

It's scary for me to let go of things I had promised to do. In this case, a well-meaning colleague had encouraged me to review a book, written by one friend of his, and submit it to a journal whose book review editor was another friend of his. When I agreed, it was because the book looked interesting, and I didn't want to let down my well-intentioned colleague.

The book is very interesting and important, but is written in a style that makes it hard to get through. But I'm not one to let mere difficulty daunt me. The book is also out of my subfield of expertise, but I told myself that this was a good way to expand my horizons. Meanwhile, my complex life made it difficult for me to apply the sustained attention that this project required.

So yesterday I saw that other excellent reviews of this book are in fact available in other journals, and that helped empower me to finally write to the book review editor and say that I wouldn't be able to do this after all.

It was hard, but I felt so relieved. And I was proud of myself for taking this small (but to me, big) step in letting go of what others want me to do in favor of trusting my own judgment of what projects I really feel called to do.

This morning, I check my e-mail and find a kind note from the editor, just quietly and simply saying that he still does hope that I will do it.

That's all. No acknowledgement that the point of my note had been to let go of this.

So, where is the voice of God in this? His quiet and clear persistence, or my reluctance?

I am reassured that he is not upset with me for my long delay -- a big part of my growing resistance was my anxiety about this. It confirms what I always tell my students (but have trouble with myself): just keep in touch with people, especially if you are having difficulty with something! People are usually understanding. Released from that anxiety now, will I find myself suddenly able to finish this? I have put a lot of time and effort into it so far, and maybe it will be better for me to finish and prove to myself that I can do something like this.

But I felt so clear and happy yesterday about letting it go.

So, once again in my life, nothing is simple and straightforward.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Self and Universal Humanness

To what extent are personal experiences universally shared (or potentially universally shared) among all humans?

Is it valuable to write about self, because personal experiences might be relevant to others? Or is it "self-indulgent"? Can we write meaningfully about anything else? Might it in fact be more humble to write only about one's own experience, and arrogant to claim to know anything more?

Is it better to write in more general terms about one's own experiences, because the more you move to particular details, the less likely what you write will have relevance to others? Or does including the particular details make it more interesting?

Lately, I've been writing in very general (and, yes, vague) terms about processing a new emerging leading. I have wondered whether writing in that very general way is useful, or is just maddeningly cryptic. I am starting to think that it might be more maddenly cryptic than helpful. And so I apologize. (I will probably be sharing more of the details as the leading unfolds.)

I myself really like to learn about people's inner struggles with life: how they process leadings; how they deal with anxieties and fears; how they pray; what their spiritual experiences are like; how they decide what to do, or how they decide what is right and what is wrong. I like the honesty of facing experiences directly and fully. I like to see where people struggle to understand something on its own terms, instead of being quick to throw over it a ready-made interpretation borrowed from our commonly inherited patterns of thinking. I find it most exciting when I see people taking those commonly inherited patterns of thinking, and holding them up to actual lived experience, and asking: "does this really fit?" Very often the answer turns out to be, "not exactly," and it is the exploration of the parts that don't match up that often yield the new insights that have the ring of authenticity.

My sister and I once said to each other as we were catching up on each other's lives: "Life is not at all how I expected it to be." We both found this a bittersweet realization. At the time, it was more bitter than sweet. But over time, I have found that I bear the bitter parts better, for the most part, and this is a relief. It doesn't shock me any more, like it did in those earlier days of first venturing out into the world beyond that of my upbringing.

But I have been surprised, lately, to find myself going through new hard times, just as it seems things should be opening up for me, and even lightening for me. I feel clearer than ever before about a lot: who I am; what I am called to do. I've had very important insights about my relationship to my work, and my relationships with people. And yet I feel more powerless than ever to change in ways that I think would be helpful and healthier.

I think what I am learning is something important about the relationship between individuality and culture. I think I am feeling the press of my culture's power upon me. I think what I am really learning is how very hard it is for individuals to stand against strong cultural pressures.

So much is expected of me -- and of us all. Our world is demanding and complex. Most of us, I think, feel embedded in networks of competing demands.

What are some effective spiritual survival techniques? How do you stay centered and compassionate in this complex and demanding world?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Overenthusiasm and Despair

As I continue to discern my new leading, I find myself cycling between overenthusiasm and despair. When I face my new ideas directly, I get soul-shakingly excited. Something in me comes very alive -- almost too alive to bear. It is interesting that the original definition of "enthusiasm" (from Greek) means "possessed by a god." And this way of putting it shows an ambivalence: is enthusiasm something to be admired or feared?

Similarly, earlier understandings of "discernment" carried connotations of "discernment of the spirits," or, more specifically, trying to distinguish between whether the spirits inspiring a person (note that "spirit" is at the root of "inspiration") are good ones or bad ones.

We are rightfully wary of any sense of "possession" standing in the background of enthusiasm or inspiration.

And yet, more recently, "enthusiasm" has become mostly a positive word, connoting a special kind of happiness. It is fun to be enthusiastic. It is fun too to be inspired.

But am I the only one who ever suffers "overenthusiasm," or enthusiasm so intense I sometimes want to run away from it?

So, then I run away for a time. My ideas are in an early-enough stage that I can still choose to ignore them. While I have started to share my thinking with trusted friends, I'm nowhere near a stage where a momentum gets going and I no longer have the power to stop it. At the moment, I do still have that power. It is only an idea; it is only my idea. There are things that I can do with this idea to make it take an existence that is beyond just me, and beyond my control, but I have not yet done this. And so this is an interesting state of being, phenomenologically.

It is mine ... and yet, is it?

My unilateral possession of it keeps it inert and powerless. So why would I want to hold on to it?

And, most interestingly, when I succeed in burying it for a while, I become beset by despair and listlessness. I feel like I've forgotten something. I feel unhooked from what truly powers my life and my soul.

Is all of this a sign that my new leading is from God?

I have spoken recently of my theology: God as love and goodness. But now I might add: energy. A kind of living energy, a joyful energy, even "soul-force" -- satyagraha.

To feel a touch of light that ignites your soul and makes you feel most truly and fully yourself; to be amazed at how alive you can feel -- these are powerful and humbling moments.

So, little by little I take the steps I need to take to test this leading.