Thursday, December 22, 2005
When I read through my students' final projects, I found myself feeling heartened. Despite all that is troublesome in the world, there is always new life, new creativity, new hope coming forth. It is a real privilege to be let in to glimpse the growth, development, and creativity of my students. I watch their clarity and confidence grow. And I feel hopeful for the future. My students care. They are searching, earnestly, for positive and helpful ways to engage the world and its problems. They are full of energy, ideas, and love.
There is hope.
So, my semester ends; I now face the holiday season glad to travel and reunite with family. But I also enter the holiday season in an attitude of continuing prayer, for all who feel taken hostage, for all who feel trapped, for all who struggle, for whatever reasons, to live freely the full loving truth of who they most truly are. I pray for the melting of whatever forces hold them captive. I pray for the release of their best selves into the true freedom of love.
I pray, as always, for peace on earth.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
I pray both for the hostages and for their captors.
What does prayer mean? Does it really do anything? What exactly does it mean, to pray?
I find this almost too personal to write about, but I do feel that it might be helpful if I shared some of my own thoughts on prayer. I do have a very strong sense that prayer is very important, and can make a significant difference.
I also think that prayer cannot be too specific. When I find myself begging God for something really specific, I have to admit to myself that that doesn't really feel like true prayer. Prayer is not about our getting our way. Prayer is not about "convincing" God that we should get what we want. These kinds of moments don't actually feel very powerful -- they don't feel like true prayer.
The most powerful moments of prayer I've had have been very different. They feel more like I become a lens that gathers and focuses light and directs it to where I think it is most needed. I surround those I care about with this light. In that light, I myself seek, gently, and humbly. I seek to understand; I seek to feel what others feel; I look for what they most need, and then try to send light to what they need. I don't presume that I get it right -- but I still try. I look for their pain, their fear, their blocks. I send the light to melt away the fear and release healing, empowering, creative energy to where they most need it.
So, for example, I try to send the hostages strength, courage, a sense of their dignity and value, and creativity to help them keep trying to find effective ways to respond to their predicament from moment to moment. I don't really know what things are like for them, and so there are limits to how vividly I can focus my prayers. But still, I can envelop them in the light of love.
I pray for their captors too. Again, there are limits to how much I can understand them. Prayer is always humble. While I am tempted, here, to resort to a begging kind of prayer: "Let them go!" instead I discipline myself to try to think into the psychology of the captors: their concerns, their motivations, their anger. My prayer for them is that they move beyond their anger into a kind of openness that will allow them to see that of God in those they hold hostage, and come to realize how wrong it would be to kill them. In this, I envelop the captors too in light and love. In the love is a hope that they can be prevented from doing something awful that they might later regret; in the love is a hope that if they responded differently to this situation, they and everyone watching this situation could learn new and more effective ways to address the very real injustices in the world. They have staged a dramatic event. They have captured the attention of many concerned people around the world. They are in a position of power. In such power, there is enormous potential, both for great harm, and for great good. They must realize this. This may be why they pause.
In the suspense, there is great hope. This is the time to pray, and to keep praying. I do very much sense that prayer really can make a difference.
And so most of all my prayer is for everyone concerned to keep trying to discern the best way to proceed: trying to discern with openness and humility; listening carefully at every moment; looking for that of God; looking for the creative response that can release the powers of transformative goodness.
That, most of all, is my prayer.
Saturday, December 03, 2005
Johan Maurer on Can You Believe? in his entry "Define 'reckless'" notes:
A New York Times story (November 29) included the following assessment: "A human rights advocate in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Christian Peacemaker Teams have acted with reckless disregard for their own safety by moving unprotected through communities generally hostile to the foreign presence."
And Johan's response, in part, was:
Everything we have heard from participants in the Christian Peacemaker Teams demonstrates that their "disregard for their own safety" was anything but reckless. (If I understand correctly, "reck-less" means "without reckoning.") ... My interpretation of their reckoning: There is no true community and no true security outside the realm of love.
I very much appreciate Johan's response.
The whole notion of peacemakers having "reckless disregard for their own safety" reveals such a deep misunderstanding of what peacemaking is all about. What if a reporter was writing instead about more U.S. military deaths in Iraq, and added, "the U.S. soldiers acted with reckless disregard for their own safety"? It may be a true statement. It may be that war, by definition, is the most extreme form of acting "with reckless disregard for one's own safety." Yet if that sentence were published, imagine the outrage! "We can't blame the soldiers! We can't blame the U.S. military! Soldiers are brave! They are willing to risk their lives for service to their country! They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice!" would likely be the predominant response from the U.S. public.
Soldiers, we know, are trained to courage. They know they face the risk of injury or death. And so we do not regard their facing danger as "reckless."
The question that has most haunted me about peacemaking is: "How is it possible to have the courage to be willing to walk straight into conflict unarmed?" Because of course peacemakers too know that they are taking a risk. Peacemakers have to have every bit as much courage as soldiers, if not more -- because, after all, peacemakers remain unarmed.
This relates now to the next posting I would like to respond to: Zach Alexander on A quaker anarchist wrote in Testimony to Peace about the courage required to engage in peacemaking work, and personally struggles with the challenge of this. He sees how necessary it is that some be willing to do this kind of work, take on this kind of risk. He sees the potential power of requiring young people to engage in such work. And yet, he wonders at the potential cost -- what he might sacrifice in terms of dreams about his own life, and what the world might lose if he got killed instead of going on to make a difference in some larger, more significant way.
These hugely important questions require careful discernment. I believe that each of us is called differently in life. Some are called to work actively (and at great personal risk) for peace. Others are called to contribute to the world in different ways. And callings may change throughout one's life.
But the question of courage is an especially important one, requiring special attention. Courage cannot simply be willed. Nor is it something that one either is born with or not. Courage requires cultivation. And the cultivation of the kind of courage required for effective peacemaking can take time.
The military knows this, and trains people in courage. I'm assuming that many peacemaking organizations do so as well (though differently from how the military does it!) Those that don't really need to do so.
And we as individuals can learn ways to cultivate our own courage, and can support each other in doing so. An important part of cultivating courage is to develop the habit of facing our fears fully, and thinking in advance about how we might respond if fearsome things happen to us. Fearsome events catch us by surprise and focus our attention very narrowly on self-protection. An important part of nonviolent courage is learning how to widen perception back out to some form of "caring" for "the enemy" as well, and looking for the creative response that would not only protect oneself, but protect the "enemy" from doing something terrible that they might later regret.
So, I pray for Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Singh Sooden to find courage. I pray that they seek ways of responding to their predicament that would be disarmingly transformative. I pray that their captors come to realize what amazing people these are, and how tragic it would be if they killed them. I pray for some surprise outcome that ends up dramatically and positively furthering the cause of peace in the world.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides. Some strenuously argue against moral development. Values, they say, are up to individuals to choose. It is inappropriate for some people to impose their values on others.
There are interesting assumptions behind this line of reasoning. One assumption is that to talk about values at all is already somehow dangerous or invasive. Another assumption is that we cannot talk about values without trying to impose particular values on others. Another assumption is that "imposing" values is somehow easy! It is so easy that we have to be really really careful, lest we "impose" values unwittingly! Another assumption is that we as individuals and our culture are not already trying strenuously all the time to impose values -- and often succeeding. And the final and most fun assumption to point out is the (erroneous) assumption that the plea not to impose values is not itself a value! If those who argue against teaching about values win, then they have succeeded in "imposing" their value (of non-imposition) upon everyone else -- and, worse: to have succeeded in imposing a value of non-imposition is self-contradictory!
So, let us look at the other side: can a case be made in favor of encouraging moral development? How can we do this without falling into some very real dangers?
I myself do believe that talking about values and morality is not bad or dangerous. It is important. I also think that we institutionally impose values all the time, in many institutional contexts -- and many of the values we impose are questionable. I think this makes it even more urgent to talk about this, and to raise awareness.
For example, it is common for professors to mark down work that is submitted late. This is a structural imposition of the value of timeliness. But is timeliness always the most important virtue? Sometimes it is quite important -- responding quickly to genuine emergencies is important and often can make the difference between life and death. But we create so many artificial deadlines and artificial urgencies, and some of these can be more harmful than helpful. For example, they can destroy creativity. They can undermine good, thoughtful, careful discernment. Not always is timeliness the most important virtue. But we structure it in to so much of what we do, cultivating an unthinking obedience to this imperative. It is an imperative that serves another value: "productivity." We don't stop to question whether productivity is itself always good. We unthinkingly accept that quantity matters more than quality. We produce so much that we may well be destroying our planet in the process.
I think it could be very powerful to have discussions about all of this in our teaching. Without these discussions, our students just buy right into all of our cultural assumptions, believing that they have freely chosen, when really they remain steadfastly unaware of how many values have been "imposed" upon them already. It is only if we all talk about this out loud that there is any hope that people develop the awareness that is necessary for genuine choice of values.
In contrast, I have become aware of how hard it is to impose values directly, through conversational attempts to persuade. This is why I am not at all afraid that, if we talk about values, we will "unwittingly" impose values. As soon as they are out in the open air of free conversation, they can be critically examined. I have learned this through teaching ethics courses. To my absolute and total dismay, even though I present compelling arguments against ethical relativism and try to "impose" the value of at least taking ethics seriously (but still feeling free to identify which specific values and virtues are most meaningful to you), I find that most students leave ethics courses more convinced of ethical relativism than ever before. This is true in general, of ethics classes everywhere. I knew this before I even started and so I tried explicitly to guard against this, but to no avail. So, seeing my own powerlessness to even persuade students to take seriously the general idea of ethics, I have absolutely no fear that I -- or anyone else -- could ever impose any specific beliefs whatsoever. It really is up to individuals to choose their beliefs.
So my tentative conclusion is that where beliefs and values are imposed, it is not through teaching or conversation or reading books. Imposition happens through subtle attempts to control behavior. And these attempts abound in our society. The most effective antidote is to teach about ethics and values explicitly, giving everyone a chance to take stock and re-evaluate what their beliefs and values really are.
Having said all of that, now I would like to note: I think the closest principle that comes to an ethical absolute in our culture today is the principle of non-imposition. It often gets phrased as a statement of ethical relativism: "there are no absolutes; it is up to each individual to choose their own ethical beliefs." Put that way, it is self-contradictory, because it poses as an ethical absolute itself! The other self-contradictory form it can take is what I described above: the desire to impose a value of non-imposition!
But I cannot simply argue against ethical relativism without being open about my own take on what the ethical absolute is. After thinking about this for a long time, I came up with a single ethical absolute that I believe in completely -- and it turns out to be identical to one of Immanual Kant's expressions of his "categorical imperative" (the third formulation, for those who want to know. See Kant's Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals). My way of putting it is to say: everyone deserves respect. Or, it could be rephrased: we owe everyone respect.
I've talked about this before, but I don't think in those earlier postings I mentioned it as an ethical absolute. But I do think it is.
Of course the content of that principle hinges on what is meant by "respect." I've talked about this before as well, but I'd like to simplify and summarize it here as: looking for, responding to, and trying to draw out the goodness of others. It is a principle rooted in the belief that there is goodness in everyone. But it is also a principle that respects that people might not always be acting from their best (good) selves. And so it is fully consistent for "respectful" behavior to include calling others into accountability for their disrespectful behavior.
And this is an important point to understand. I do not think that the value of non-imposition is an integral part of respect. In general, it is respectful to let people be who they are and not to try to control others' behavior. But this is not itself an absolute rule. There are specific exceptions to this rule: when others engage in disrespectful behavior, it is respectful to call them into accountability. It is respectful both on behalf of the disrespected, but it is also respectful on behalf of the person being disrespectful, because it calls them away from their problematic behavior and attitudes and calls them back to their best selves.
Put another way: you are doing someone a favor if you stop them from doing something really bad that they will later regret.
I have offered this principle (the principle of respect) as a proposed ethical absolute in one of my classes, and my students have been doing a great job of arguing against it, trying to turn it into something inconsistent -- but to no avail. I have, so far, been able to respond effectively to each of their attempts. Will I succeed in "imposing" this value by the end of the semester? If so, will I have hopelessly damaged these unfortunate souls?
Or is this instead a supremely important principle that we need desperately to keep trying to teach each other all the time?
Thursday, November 24, 2005
There is much I am thankful for:
- Family and friends.
- Good health (my bout with strep throat helped me to appreciate how healthy I generally am, and that is a blessing).
- Living in a truly wonderful community.
- Working at a truly wonderful college.
- Finding a job that enables me to express my sense of calling. (So many people are unhappy with their jobs--I am fortunate to have found my way not just to a job but a vocation.)
- Even though there have been many things I have found difficult about life (it's a long story), I am enormously grateful for how much I have learned from the challenges I've faced, and I am grateful for the strength these challenges have built in me.
- I am also grateful for an upbringing that prepared me very well to face the challenges I have had to face:
- I am glad, for example, that my parents taught me to care about the problems of the world, even though that caring is often painful. I would rather face the pain of reality than live in the false contentment of denial.
- I am glad that my parents encouraged open seeking.
- I am glad that my parents insisted that we always have dinner together, and encouraged discussion at the dinner table. So often we tried to solve the world's problems. I am glad that they were always fully honest about their disagreements in these discussions--it prepared me well for the academic world. People initially think I'm a quiet, polite, and gentle soul, and then are amazed to see how well I can hold my own in fiery debates. My parents taught me the Socratic dialectic at its best.
- I am glad that my household was an environment of creative, artistic, and intellectual pursuit.
- I am grateful for trees, and the sky, and rivers, and the ocean. I am grateful for clouds, and the sun. I am grateful for the mountains, and also the valleys. And I like sharing this planet with other animals.
- I am grateful for human ingenuity.
- I am grateful to all who have persisted in expressing their creativity and vision despite setbacks, not letting temporary discouragement stop them. I am grateful to those who work through challenges in ways that make them strong, wise, and compassionate instead of bitter. I am grateful to those who are able to find humor in life's ironies.
- I am grateful for the miracle of life, and for the strength and reality of love.
There is so much more I could say as well, but this is a nice start!
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
My classes have continued to go very well. My students in both classes have been just wonderful. They are tuned in and interested, and they are working with the material at a very high level. There is consistently a wonderful spirit in the classroom. This has been such a gift for me, and I am very grateful. I've always loved teaching, but this semester has been extraordinary.
But still, there have been other stresses. A colleague in my department has come up for tenure this year. I had to guide her case through. This kind of thing is hard on me, because I do not approve of this way that we intensely evaluate each other. Still, I could accept my role in this by conceptualizing it as being supportive of my colleague, and thankfully, things have gone well so far. The process is not finished, but the scariest stage is behind us, and so the prognosis is very good.
Almost a week after this important stage was behind us, I then suddenly got a bad case of strep throat. This took me very much by surprise. I don't get sick very often -- and if I do come down with something, I usually get over it in a day or two. This hung on until I finally went to the doctor and the doctor put me on antibiotics.
When I at last emerged from my fevered fog and could think again, I wondered, "now, why did I come down with that?" and the answer was clear: the strep throat coincided with the one-year anniversary of my own tenure case. To go through my own case, and then, one year later, to have to play such a responsible role on behalf of someone else's case -- all of this has been very hard on me. My colleague's case forced me to re-live my own experience. And so it is no wonder that after it is all over, I should just collapse for a bit. My body was forcing me into a profound rest that I would not otherwise have taken. The fever even turned my mind off of all the existential questions that re-living the process had raised for me.
I now feel a bit like a phoenix, emerging bedraggled but new from the ashes.
There is much I could say about both last year for me, and about what this year, my first year as a tenured professor, has been like so far. But for now I will just say that the phoenix image is a good one. And I am still bedraggled.
Yes, my story had a happy ending, and it looks like my colleague's case is turning out well too. But sometimes friends of mine have not made it through. And so I've experienced survivor's guilt. And the process is so invasively intense that even making it through "successfully" turns out to be rather traumatic. It's hard to describe. Those who are not in the academic world have been very happy for me, and admiring of the job security I now have. And I reply with graciousness, because they are right that that is a real privilege; and they are right that it takes a lot to make it through this harrowing experience. Yet, in the end, it is not, somehow, what it seems to be. What do I mean? I'm not even sure myself. I have a feeling that I will be processing this experience for a long time.
I've been thinking a lot about how much we judge each other in our culture. I cannot shake the thought that we judge each other way too much. It seems suspiciously tied to attempting to control each other too much. My concern with these questions is why I've recently been writing about justice and respect and what we owe each other. Rather than spending so much time trying to control each other's behavior, shouldn't we be putting our energies into living our own lives as well as we can? Shouldn't we be learning how to appreciate each other better, and learning how to work effectively together on addressing the significant problems that the world faces? Human energy is so precious--instead of expending that energy on evaluating each others' worthiness, why can't we take everyone's worthiness as a given and focus our attention instead on channeling that human energy to good purposes?
After Thanksgiving break, we have two more weeks of classes and then final exams. And then I will be on sabbatical! I am very happy about this. I have been really eager to move more deeply into my research. It will be nice to have the time at last to do that.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
For example, one of the PBS video segments from "A Force More Powerful" shows students in Nashville organizing and participating in the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. What were they upset about? Not being able to sit at lunch counters. What was their nonviolent action? To sit at lunch counters. Of course, it is not as simple as it sounds. The strategy required careful planning and preparation to be effective. But the concept was simple: they lived the better world into being.
This is a very powerful concept. When you face injustice and want something to change, think carefully about how you would like it to be. And then ask: is there a way I (and/or my group) can live true to this vision of justice I have?
Too often when people are upset with something, they try to find people to blame and then set about trying to punish those "bad" people. And very often that strategy simply does not work -- because people don't like to be cast as bad or to be punished, and so they tend to retaliate.
So what if instead you simply pretend that the problem is already fixed, and the situation is already just, and live accordingly? This means living true to your own rights with graciousness and dignity, and expecting everyone else to respond with respect and dignity in return.
This is what the students did. Well dressed and carrying their school books, they quietly walked in, sat at lunch counters, and when they were refused service, they pulled out their books and worked on their homework. For a while, nothing more happened. Then, one day, the police pounced and arrested them. The police did not behave with dignity -- they moved in with unnecessary aggressiveness, betraying their own fear and anxiety. It was clear from the film footage that the students had no intention of fighting back. They walked calmly out to the police cars, if they could. If they couldn't (because they were being beat up) they simply took the blows without fighting back until the police were too embarrassed to continue. So the police looked ridiculous, and the students maintained the moral upper hand, and that was one of the main reasons for their success. When it came down to it, the mayor had to admit that there was no good reason to maintain the segregation.
The students had quietly and with dignity demonstrated the irrationality of segregation. By living with dignity themselves, they eventually drew out the reciprocal dignity of their former oppressors. Everyone benefitted, in the end, because in oppressive, unjust systems, it is not just the oppressed who are disadvantaged, but the oppressors too are diminished in such a system.
So, the students lived a better world into being.
We all need to keep asking ourselves: to what extent do we, in our daily lives, bow to injustice and let it continue on, either by accepting the indignity of being oppressed, or by accepting the indignity of playing oppressor roles?
What can we do instead to live a more just world into being?
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
I think we do not teach enough about skilled listening. We too often think that saying something is sufficient for it to be heard exactly as we meant it.
Maybe it is teachers especially who become aware of how much people miss. We teachers are used to saying many things and then receiving direct feedback about how much does not get through! The temptation is to accuse students of "not paying attention." While it is true that people sometimes zone out, there is a lot more going on as well in listening than just whether the attention is turned on or off. We teachers see, for example, those students who are in fact trying really hard -- their attention is focused, they may be taking notes, they raise their hands and ask questions.
Looking at students' notes can be an amazing experience. (It is usually very humbling, actually.) It can be like looking through a distorting lens at your own thoughts and words.
Eventually, I have let go of all of the anxiety, self-doubt, and even indignation that I initially experienced, and I feel that I understand all of this better.
People do perceive everything through lenses. The lenses are shaped by their own cognitive development so far. And everyone's cognitive development is different, since everyone has had different experiences and different education so far in life.
So, when people listen, they are not actually taking in your words exactly as you say them. They are translating your words first into their own native language: that is, their own set of concepts -- their own cognitive structure.
When you talk, some of what you say becomes incorporated into your listeners' ever-evolving cognitive structures, but other pieces of what you say bounce right off because their cognitive structure does not have a place for it.
Reciprocally, some of what others say to you may "fit in" to your cognitive structure, but other pieces may bounce off because of ways your own cognitive structure is too different from theirs.
Cognitive structures are flexible and ever-changing, however. Since we are constantly learning new things and having new experiences, our cognitive structures shift and change to adapt to the new information.
The main principle of skilled listening is understanding the translation process. When you listen with awareness that others may not be using words and concepts exactly as you do, you are more careful to pay close attention to how they connect the words and concepts they do use (rather then immediately reading your own definitions onto their words and concepts).
When something that the other person says "doesn't make sense," instead of accusing them of becoming irrational, you try to identify your confusion more precisely, and ask good follow up questions. For example, it is usually especially helpful to identify their key phrases and ask them to say more about what they take these phrases to mean. Very often, you then become very surprised. You realize that you had been reading a lot into their words that is different from what they were actually trying to express.
When we listen in this way (instead of stubbornly insisting that we are always right, and our definitions are the correct ones!), our own cognitive structures become more powerful and flexible. We become able to move from conversation with conversation more able to tune into where the other is coming from, and therefore communication improves.
The most highly skilled listeners adapt their language to others' as much as possible, and are careful to explain their own use of key words and concepts carefully when it is necessary to do so.
So, not only is it helpful and affirming to others to be listened to well, but it is enriching to the listener too. Listening well is a way of opening yourself to richer experiences -- moving beyond the limits of just your own experiences and your own current ways of thinking. It is a way of polishing your own "lens" so that you are able to "see" more and more.
Friday, October 14, 2005
What we owe strangers and acquaintances: at least respect.
What we owe our friends: at least respect plus solicited attention.
What we owe the people we claim to love: at least respect, plus solicited attention, plus unsolicited attention (that is, checking in just to check in -- not waiting to be specifically asked for attention or help).
For details on what I mean by respect, and what I mean by love, I refer you to the earlier post on this topic.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
What I found especially difficult was one person's participation. I watched with a kind of horror as he gave his analysis of the situation we were examining in a very calm and even dignified manner, but throughout his speech ended up insulting one person or group after another, until finally, by the end of his remarks, he had implicated just about everyone except himself.
He is someone who definitely needs some lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! It took all of my powers of sympathetic listening to listen expertly between the jagged edges of his own pain to the good points he did in fact make.
Yes, he made good points. Yes, the harsh edges to his words came from his own pain.
These point to the first two principles of Expert Listening: listen for good points; if something hurts, realize that the person is probably carrying some pain (that may have nothing to do with you) that is where the hurtful words come from.
It is hard to listen really well like this. When people shoot pointed words in our direction, it is hard not to feel like we are the target -- it is hard not to take it personally or become defensive.
It is especially hard not to take something personally when it is in fact meant personally! This is a Truly Advanced Principle of Expert Listening. (The secret to mastering this principle is understanding deeply and well that anyone who ever wants to hurt another person is wrong and is fundamentally mistaken about that person in some way. So, if someone wants to hurt you, they are fundamentally mistaken about you, in some important way. This is the part that can be really really hard to learn or believe. It is at least what has been the very hardest for me to learn -- and I'm not all the way there yet!)
Fortunately, I didn't have this particular challenge myself today, but I have had to deal with it in the past, and I expect that it will come up for me again, due to the nature of the kind of activism to which I feel called.
The reflex response to pointed words is to want to get the other person to stop launching pointed words, and maybe even to apologize. I indulged a bit in this reflex above when I suggested that the person needs lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! In that, I was wanting to change him, because I didn't like how he was insulting so many people I care about. My concern is also for him, because I don't think he realizes how much he undermines himself. If he did take lessons in rhetorical sensitivity, and expressed himself in ways that invite others to make connection with him and come on board with what he cares about, he would cause less pain and probably be more effective in garnering sympathy and support for his concerns. So, the reflex response is not totally off base.
But it is hard to change other people. People are resistant to change. People settle into habits of being and habits of communicating that are very hard to break.
So, if we hinge our own happiness on hope that others will change (become kinder, gentler, more inspiring, helpful, inviting, eloquent, etc.) we are doomed to miserable unhappiness.
It is urgent for all of us to learn how to accept each other where we are, and not keep trying to change each other.
"But we can't just let each other keep hurting each other, can we?!?"
There actually is another response: there are ways we can protect ourselves from getting hurt by others -- even when those others are trying to hurt us.
Expert listening is one such strategy. I really like that image of listening between the jagged edges of the other person's pain. In this, you are able to slip through the barbs and not get snagged and injured. You are able to see more deeply into who they really are and what they really care about, and have access to the best of who they are, even when they happen to be hiding their best selves quite well!
This is an important topic, and so I'll probably have more to say on this in future postings.
Saturday, October 08, 2005
There were many good comments in reply. This posting struck me because, being a philosophy professor myself, who happens also to take religious faith seriously, I am very sensitive to the issue of how the philosophical teaching of proofs for and against the existence of God can provoke faith crises among college students. I have seen ways of teaching these proofs that I regard as seriously problematic.
So, I would like to post my reply to Claire's posting, and then elaborate a little:
Yes, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).
When I teach about the proofs for and against the existence of God, I interpret them a bit unconventionally and point out that their real value is that they are analyses of different concepts that get associated with the concept of God.
I then tell the class that what is important is not so much whether they believe in God or not, but what they mean by "God" when they say that they either believe or don't believe.
I then have them write essays on whether they do believe in God or not, and urge them especially to examine closely what they mean by "God."For example: if you define God as a "white bearded guy in the sky," and say you don't believe in God, what you are really saying is that you don't believe in that concept of God. "Neither do very many believers in God," I add.
"Do you believe in love? What about in the Bible where it says, 'God is love'? What if we really took that seriously? Would that mean that really, we all believe in God?"
That usually blows my students' minds enough, and so at this point I back off, and read their essays with gentleness and respect.
I love philosophy, but still, I would be the first to agree with Claire that our beliefs must be tested carefully both by thinking and by experience.
I woke up this morning thinking further about this. The mystical traditions (and many, including myself, regard Quakerism as a mystical religion) claim that God is a kind of being that cannot really be conceptualized. Therefore, any ways that we do conceptualize God cannot adequately get at what God is really like. It is not that it is totally useless to conceptualize God, but we must be careful about how we interpret our conceptualizations. We should only take them as metaphorical and as approximations.
But this is not to say that we can know nothing about God. It is to say that the primary way of knowing about God is not through reason alone, but from religious experience.
It's when we reflect on religious experience, and especially if we try to describe those experiences to others, that we then conceptualize -- but again, our conceptualizations are never fully adequate.
Sometimes when people begin to realize this, they become disillusioned with reason and even may want to say things like, "reason is fundamentally flawed." I myself do not think that reason is fundamentally flawed, but I do think that it is limited. What it does, it does well, and with real power. But it doesn't do everything. Reason alone cannot account for all of our knowledge.
There are some mystics who regard it as fundamentally wrong to try to conceptualize God at all. They claim that God must be encountered in prayer and meditation: to then conceptualize God, reason about God, or engage in theology is all suspect. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, but not completely. Calvin Keene, in "God in Thought and Experience," (Quaker Religious Thought 52, Summer 1981, Vol. 19, No. 2) argues that experiences that remain unconceptualized become forgotten -- even very powerful experiences. "Religious experiences need to be interpreted in meaningful ways before they can be assimilated into one's person and become important for life"; otherwise, they can "lose significance" (p. 15).
Conceptualizing about God is what theology is all about. Then when we reason (construct various arguments about God) we are engaging in a process of coordinating our conceptualizations about God with the rest of the meaning system from which we live and think and act. Our meaning systems then need to be brought back to our actual experience again and again for further testing and refinement.
It is also important to note that we cannot share our experiences with each other or talk about our religious beliefs with each other without conceptualzing. Conceptualizing is an important way that our knowledge works, an important way that we stay in touch with a sense of the meaning of our lives, and conceptualizing underlies our ability to communicate with each other. As long as we humbly stay aware of the limits of conceptualizing, and keep testing our conceptualizations against further experience, there is no need to regard our tendency to conceptualize as problematic.
So, reason and experience do not have to be regarded as being at odds with each other. On the contrary, it is good for us to keep trying to reconcile them.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
The Good Raised Up: There and back again
Here is my response:
Of course I continued to think about this after posting my comment. And so I would like to add two additional thoughts.
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.
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?
- 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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
I've been very busy, and I don't have a TV, and so the reality of this hurricane has not been "in my face," like for others, until now, in this deceptively gentle way. I am very fortunate.
I pause to listen on the radio and look at articles and pictures on line, and I do so in prayer. What devastation! So many people's lives turned completely upside-down! And so many lives lost, as well: people who undoubtedly heard it was coming, but for whatever reasons, could not do what others did to protect themselves.
There is almost a chastising tone in some of the reports about those in the path of the storm who did not leave, but I cannot help but think: maybe they couldn't. Only those of us who are really fortunate in this world have the means and the wherewithal to up and leave when danger is coming. You need money; you need a place to go; you need a reliable means of transportation. Those with these privileges and advantages may sometimes take them for granted. But what if you are poor, and largely walk to where you need to go, or are disabled and dependent on others for transportation, and what if you and your family have lived there all your life? How do you even begin to decide where to go, much less how to get there? The decision to stay home in the face of danger is not really as irrational as it gets made out to be. It can be heroic, especially when those able to leave choose to remain close to those they care about who are unable to leave, as in the case of a woman I read about who chose to stay put with her elderly parents who could not leave.
Those of us who are lucky continue our lives as usual. But so many now have lost so much, and it will take a long time for them to piece their lives back together. My heart goes out to them.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
(The contrast is those smaller planes that feel like they bolt straight up, leaving your stomach far below. Often they toss about a bit on their way up, and it seems to take forever to get to a smooth crusing altitude. About then, the pilot comes on and announces that you are about to begin your descent, while the flight attendants are hurridly trying to finish giving everyone their little pretzel packets.)
I'm at the "inch off the ground" stage. The semester is taking off, but my plane is big and full and heavy. I'm trying hard to have faith that soon we'll be fully airborne. There's a lot to attend to during this early stage, but if I attend well, we will be well-set-up to have a beautiful flight!
I'm a little astonished to find myself using an airplane metaphor, since I do get anxious about flying. But, well, that's why the metaphor is so apt.
At the same time that I get a bit anxious about flying, I also am just amazed that it is possible, and I am struck with a kind of spiritual beauty about flying. The views can be stunning. And flying offers a perspective on the world that is humbling.
I find that much of my anxiety is rooted in a question that always haunts me: "Are we supposed to be doing this? Are we allowed?" It's a strange question. Of course we are allowed. The laws of physics do permit it. Why not marvel at human creativity and human ingenuity? Am I afraid just because it's dangerous? But there is much that we do that is dangerous. Life is dangerous. We all must die. I know all this, and so it's not that... It's something else that tugs at me, and the way I've phrased the question begins to get at it.
When I ask that question, I don't just mean, "are we supposed to fly all around like this?" but I look at our impact on the planet far below, and the patterns of fields and roads and cities are so visible, and I cannot decide if I regard it all as beautiful, like creative artwork, or ugly, like scars. We have an impact -- a very visible one. We have changed the face of the planet. Is this okay? Is it good, or is it harmful?
I am immersed in deep ambivalence about being human.
So, no wonder this is the metaphor that comes to me as I face the start of a new semester. I feel a similar ambivalence about the whole academic world. Is it basically great, or terrible? I have this vision for what I hope it can be, but it seems so far from being that. So it is like when I am in the airplane. I see what our planet looks like from a great distance, and I have a vision for how I'd like it to be, and they don't fully match up. But who am I anyway to decide what it should be like?
Some spiritual traditions address the basic angst of human existence by encouraging the cultivation of a radical acceptance of what is.
But I cannot help but think that there is spiritual significance to our restless uneasiness and the continual arising of new longings. I'm not saying that every anxiety and desire is in itself good, necessarily. But we live forever caught between acceptance of what is, and longing for what we think should be -- this is the fundamental problem of human existence. How do we negotiate this constant tension? Out of that tension comes creative energy. Much of that creative energy can be transformative in good ways.
This is the essence of human freedom, and many (all?) spiritual traditions regard human freedom as a gift from the divine. A difficult gift, maybe, but a gift nonetheless.
So, I do know the answer: yes, we are allowed to fly. Yes, we are allowed to start universities, and continue to keep universities running, even if they are not perfect. Yes, I am allowed to get tenure and stay here, even if I continue to feel a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of this kind of work. Yes, all of this is okay, even if we muddle up, sometimes catastrophically.
There is something else going on, just behind a curtain. In airplanes, and during major transitions, like the start of a new semester and a new mode of being, I almost feel I can catch a glimpse, and it is that that is what is so soul-shaking. There is more to reality than meets the eye.
Thursday, August 25, 2005
At first there is that innocent delighted thrill: "6 comments already?! Wow!" Then you see that 5 "anonymous" commenters each say things like "nice blog!" followed by a link to their site -- but the names of the links are rather dubious...
Then you go through the "delete" process for each one, and it gets tedious. For sensitive souls like me, there is the added psychological anxiety of wondering whether you might accidentally delete a friendly comment.
So, this is a complexity I'd rather not embrace. But I like Blogger. So I optimistically said, "this is such a sudden and intense problem, surely they know about it, and maybe they have suggestions." To my delight, there was a link on my "dashboard," directing me to how to address unwanted comments by using "word verification." I am very impressed that they have addressed the problem so quickly!
So, this is why I now have "word verification" set for commenting. I apologize for the extra step friendly folk must take to leave their comments now. I myself am willing to do that when I leave comments on others' blogs, to help them manage the comment spamming problem.
We live in such a strange world. (Sigh.)
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
What a fascinating project! I haven't read the book yet, but some of the articles I read about it described some of her findings in some detail.
It feels like it hasn't really been that long since I was a college student, and then a graduate student, but the humbling truth is that the year I started college was, well, before my current students were even born! (And I'm not really that old -- honest!) And times have changed.
Even though I've been trying all along to try to understand my students (because good teaching demands that), I feel that I start this new academic year with a new and deeper interest. When I first started teaching, I quickly found that students were not at all like I had thought. So I tried to understand them better in order to reach them more effectively through my teaching, and I had some success. Over time, I found my way to a style of teaching that worked for me and for most of them, and even resulted in scattered spectacular successes. If I wished, I could now rest content with my current style of teaching.
But something stirs me to move to a deeper level. Not only am I concerned about that small percentage I think I fail to reach very well, but I have become dissatisfied with ... what? I detect a slight hint of jadedness creeping into my soul. Formerly infinitely patient, now I find that certain things set me off, though I handle these situations well outwardly, and some people even think I handle them better. From one perspective, it may seem that I used to be too trusting, and several painful experiences of students taking advantage of me about this have given me a healthy skepticism -- that's what some people think. But I am troubled by this shift in my soul.
We have a big ceremony welcoming the new students to campus. At the end of the ceremony, there is a moment when all of the new students and their parents part from each other. This year, I was in a position where I had a clear view of this moment, and I was stunned to see how many parents, especially mothers, were crying. My heart went out to them. College is an exciting time, but it can also be traumatic. The path ahead can be rocky and uncertain.
So I don't want to be jaded. Nor do I want to be naive and gullible. I seek compassionate insight.
But I worry. Do our colleges perhaps do too good a job at preparing students to accept and adapt to our problem-ridden world?
Do we, in our colleges, so overwhelm students with bewildering demands and relentless pressures that they become adept at cutting corners and "playing the game"? Does the harsh critical edge of the academic world make them so skilled at protecting themselves from feeling and changing that they even become unable to embrace true passion, and unable to grow in healthy ways? Do they then carry forth these well-honed habits into their lives after college?
If our college are having this effect, this is not the effect we intend. We hope that we help our students to become well-educated, in the best sense of the term. We hope that they will become responsible, compassionate, engaged citizens, in the best senses of those terms. We hope that they will do more than just "make a living" -- we hope that they become able to create for themselves meaningful and good lives.
How can we reach out effectively to our students, and draw forth their best?
Monday, August 22, 2005
So, life feels different again. The day starts off deceptively like any other. Unlike the students, I don't move to campus to start a new school year, marking the transition with a dramatic change of location. I wake up in the same house, making the same small commute to campus for work that I make most days of the summer as well. The first real sign of a change for me is that I get dressed up.
I also no longer do a big back-to-school shopping trip. The students have to do this, at least to get their books for their courses. There's something fun about that pile of New Books. Probably before they left for college, their parents took them shopping for new clothes and some basic school supplies, and maybe even some nice things for their dorm rooms. I don't need to shop for supplies, because my department office provides them for me. But I usually symbolically get something new just to help mark the start of a new year. This year I got a new padfolio, because my old one (with the name of my graduate school on it) was starting to fray at the edges. This one is nicer quality, and so I hope it will last longer. I upgraded and let go of my graduate school one because I have tenure now. I need to be forward-looking.
Meanwhile, last night or today the new students make the trip and arrive all tired and confused and dazed. They'll figure out where their rooms are. They'll unload. (At least it's not very hot today.) They'll meet their roommates. It will all seem strange and unreal. Some pieces of campus will be recognizable from previous visits (if they visited) or from pictures, but it will mostly be unfamiliar and strange, and the feel of things will be not at all what they had imagined. There will be some happy surprises (lots of outlets!), and some disappointments ("I have to take my morning showers here?!"). There will be some anxious checking-each-other-out glances. ("Does what I'm wearing fit in? Should I change once I get unpacked?")
Meanwhile, for us professors, it is the calm before the storm. We look over our course syllabi, and polish them a bit. We don't quite want to print them out yet, because there might be last-minute changes we decide to make. But then if we delay too long, the copy room will be clogged, and the copy machines will probably give out at some crucial moment.
There's lots of paperwork to be done, but I hesitate before going in to campus, because it's when I go in that it will really hit me that the summer is over. The air will be abuzz. All of the other professors will have come out from hiding. The office and halls will be lively. Professors back from breaks are a sight to behold. Even though they may grumble and complain about how quickly the summer fled, you can tell that they are happy and excited, in spite of themselves. They are actually giddy and bouncing off the walls with their excitement, in ways they ineffectively try to hide.
The truth is, designing and teaching courses is an art form. There is a visceral pleasure in leafing through a crisp new syllabus. You cannot help being hopeful all over again, that this time the course will really work well! Or this new course will be tremendously exciting and inspiring! You mentally rehearse your First Day of Class speeches. You try to get your paperwork all organized and ready to go. You print out class rosters, and try at least to become familiar with the names. You (gasp!) actually find yourself impatient to get going with the teaching!
Ok, I'm psyched now. Time to head in to campus! It begins...
Sunday, August 14, 2005
In the first posting, I discussed hearing a talk by someone who was concerned that so many people who are interested in peacemaking and social change do not pay enough attention to how to actually be effective. They care more about being faithful than actually succeeding. The implication was that many people want to make themselves feel better by "doing something," but (for whatever reason) don't follow this up with actual analysis of whether what they did actually accomplished what they hoped to accomplish.
The reasons for this may be obvious. It is hard work to follow up with careful analysis of effectiveness. Not only does it take time and attention, it requires humility. What if you weren't very effective? We don't like facing our lack of effectiveness. It is easier to say, "I tried my best!" and blame others for why it didn't work.
But what if we really really care about succeeding? Then we cannot rest with this! All of the really successful peacemakers knew how to assess effectiveness, and learned from it, and improved their strategies. I agree with Joey Rodger -- it is imperative to learn how to do this!
And learning this requires not only education in nonviolent strategies, but also psychological strengthening -- to face one's lack of success, be willing to change, and try again, and again, and again.
A first step in gaining effectiveness is learning rhetorical sensitivity. Since most of us do most of our peacemaking through words, such as through persuading, negotiating, and inspiring to action, an excellent place to start improving our effectiveness is through improving our communication.
"Rhetorical sensitivity" means clarifying our purposes for communication and being aware of our intended audience and carefully crafting our language in order to reach our intended audience effectively.
Different communications have different purposes and different audiences. Sometimes we are really speaking to ourselves, seeking insight about something, or perhaps seeking the cathartic value of venting. Other times, we have other audiences in mind, and different purposes. We wish perhaps to convey information to others who may seek that information. Or we may want to persuade others to help us with something we care about. Or we may wish to persuade those in power to use their power differently.
When we engage others in communication, it is very important to think about who they are and consider the likely ways they will interpret our attempts to communicate. Are they likely to become defensive? If so, are there ways we can disarm them and build up trust before giving full voice to our request? Or, are they already likely to be sympathetic to our cause? How can we effectively inspire them to help? For example, do we offer specific suggestions, and respectfully offer them choices? Or do we yell at them and order them around? If we are yelled at and ordered around, are we more or less likely to want to cooperate?
It's always good to read back our words (or rehearse important spoken communications), trying to perceive them from the point of view of our intended audience to test whether our communication is likely to be received well.
Blogs are an especially interesting mode of communication, because they can feel a lot like private diaries (especially if you have few readers!), yet they dwell in very public spaces. The audience can be very unclear. Blogging "voices" thus often shift back and forth between diary-like personal/private musings/ventings, and public pleas.
Sometimes I think the intended audience is actually God.
We raise our fists of outrage at all that goes wrong in our lives, in the world, and ask, beg, for Divine Intervention. "Someone! Do something! Fix this!"
So, now I must be reflexive and ask: who is my audience? Why am I writing this, now?
It's not just me (though I am part of my audience -- I do keep saying certain things over and over to myself, to help keep me reminded). I keep hoping I will attract an audience of Concerned Souls who want to do their parts to make the world a better place, and I hope to share helpful thoughts along the way, about how to manage the stresses and strains of this kind of work well, becoming ever more effective.
There are of course many ways to make the world a better place. I appreciate artistic approaches as much as I appreciate direct peacemaking and social action.
Artists are usually already well trained in "rhetorical sensitivity" appropriate to their artistic endeavors. They learn to be critically self-reflective. They constantly hone their artistic skills, trying to express ever more effectively the inspiration they receive.
But using words well is a form of artistry too; and words have great power in changing the world.
I'll probably be developing my thoughts on this more in the coming days, but I'll pause for now.
Thursday, August 11, 2005
As I take stock on whether I've accomplished anything of major importance this summer, I cannot help but first be aware of the specific goals that are as yet unfulfilled. But, in truth, I think I needed most of all this summer to strengthen the infrastructure of my soul.
That statement implies an interesting metaphysical theory of human nature. But I have to say more before I can fully draw out those interesting metaphysical implications.
In between trips, I've spent more time than I would like to confess immersed in learning technical details of web world. I justified this in part because I manage several web pages and needed to brush up on my skills in web design. My exploration of blog world has been related, because much of what I read indicates that static web pages are being replaced (or supplemented) by dynamic, interactive pages. I also justify this because of my philosophical interest in the power of words, and my wondering whether the web has the power to change the world in positive ways. Sometime soon I hope to sum up my current thoughts on this.
But what does all of this have to do with the "infrastructure of my soul"? I get absorbed in this kind of work, and kind of lose myself in it, and there's something both very refreshing about this, and disconcerting. I think it has helped soothe my sense of emotional burnout. It's given me a kind of emotional peace, maybe even healing. And so maybe as long as I don't make this my permanent way of being, it's okay that I've immersed myself in a far less emotionally-charged life than I usually live. But I find it disconcerting too, because the wholeness I seek requires the positive integration of my emotional self into all of the rest of what I do. I can tell that my approach this summer will not work long-term because I have definitely been avoiding certain emotionally-charged issues as much as possible, including (as I wrote about last time) the more anxiety-producing dimensions of my work, that I simply must face soon, as other people very much depend on me for that.
But there have been other ways that I have definitely been strengthening the infrastructure of my soul. For example, my music practice has been going very well, and I feel like I am at last lifting out of a very long plateau and getting somewhere better in my playing -- I'm starting to feel a lot more solid and consistent on my most difficult instrument (the 19th century flute). It's a real joy to play. As I've discussed before, music is deeply tied into spirituality.
Also, I'm finally succeeding in getting exercise integrated into my life. There was a time in my life when I bicycled regularly. There was another time when I was running regularly, and even doing some 5K races. But in the complex busyness of my work, it all gradually fell away. I felt that adding music back in, when I started this job, made the exercise fall out. I could only sustain one form of demanding physical discipline. And now that I was in a group, the music had a kind of urgency -- I had to make time for it, but then reached a certain limit concerning how much more I could force myself to do, since I was already working just about every waking moment of my life. I became convinced that it is imperative for us to have some truly unstructured time, in which we are not forcing ourselves to do something particular. Such time was hard for me to find at all. Establishing an exercise program seemed destined to erase any hope for this at all.
But of course I still rationally knew that regular exercise can so energize you that you are more efficient in other respects, and so, in a certain kind of way, it maybe doesn't really need to take time, because it can give back energy and therefore time in other ways.
This is why the metaphysics of human nature is so interesting! We are not machines. And so the usual laws of space, time, and energy, do not apply in the ways we may initially think they should.
This is why then I held out hope that I could re-integrate exercise into my busy, complex life.
My plan was to try this during the summer, when my daily schedule is not so intense. After one false start, I had the absolutely brilliant idea of trying first a very simple program, that I called the "30 minutes, 30 days" program, for the month of July. (Ok, July has 31 days.) All I had to do was go for a walk for 30 minutes, every day. It didn't matter what time. If it could be integrated with running errands, that was fine. If it was raining, I'd take an umbrella. The main goal was just to begin integrating it into my life in as low-stress a way as possible. The brilliance of this plan was that I didn't have to feel daunted by my summer travels. A person can walk for 30 minutes no matter where one is!
I succeeded in this, for the full 31 days -- 33 in fact. Then, a little daunted by the prospect of upping the intensity, I did nothing for a few days. Then I said, "No! Don't give up! Now all I have to do is at least the same, but run a little during the 30 minutes -- just as much as I feel like -- no more!" Still, this was something new, because I had to plan a little more -- I had to wear running clothes. I couldn't just drop work for a bit to take a walk in the middle of the day. I decided to just do this as soon as I got up in the morning, no matter what time. This would simply become the new way I'd start my day.
I'm on day 4 of that. The rule is still "every day," to guard against erosion, but again, if I walk, that's good enough. I don't have to push myself too hard. But what I am re-learning about my athletic self is that I do push hard. No wonder it's been hard to be serious about bringing this back into my life. Not only am I dismayed about how far I am from where I was before, but I see that I cannot help but push myself very hard.
So, I ask myself, "why not just accept this about myself? Observe it, accept it." How did I get where I am in life without this quality? Maybe it's not an entirely fun way to live, but it is richly rewarding. It's risky (you can push yourself to injury), but I know that, and I know that what you need to do to guard against this danger is to pay attention. So, why don't I go ahead and just accept that this is how I approach things, and trust myself?
I cannot help but think that when a person is serious about making some changes in life, and sets upon a path that goes somewhere new, the person encounters "resistance" from the universe (breaking new trails is all about encountering resistance). This may explain the recent bad luck I've experienced.
Now it should be even more clear that I'm operating with a pretty strange metaphysical theory here. Bypassing the most strange aspect (why my tire would go flat just because I've started running again!) and focusing simply on the metaphysics of human nature -- how can I call "exercise" part of the "infrastructure" of my soul? Would it not be a kind of external support instead of internal? In Western thought, we tend to associate the body with the "exterior" and the mind and soul as "interior."
But when I regard my life phenomenologically (that means, when I pay attention with honesty to my actual lived experience, instead of being quick to interpret it through the theories handed down to me from Western thought patterns), what is front and center of who I am is not my body, but my consciousness, and what is front and center in my knowledge of other people is not their bodies, but the quality of their being as conveyed to me through our relationships. (In fact, I am one of those people who usually cannot remember what others were wearing unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention to things like that). So instead of thinking of people as bodies with souls dwelling somewhat mysteriously inside, I think of people as souls supported by bodies. Bodies thus are part of the infrastructures of our souls. The "happening" part of human nature is the energy our souls project into the world, and the ways in which that energy then affects and changes the world.
There is of course much more that I can say, but I'll pause for now. This is only a rough sketch. The most important technical philosophical point I would need to develop from here would be why this view of human nature is non-dualistic, but I'll save that for another time.