Archive for October, 2012

I love to play golf.  Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Central Indiana and I took the opportunity to enjoy myself on the links.  I was teamed up with Jack, a fine fellow from Oklahoma.  Jack owns his own company and as we shared stories he told me that although his company is quite successful except for the first 18 months of its existence he has not been ‘happy’ at work.  Later on as I was reflecting on his story I began to wonder what ‘burning questions’ might serve Jack.  Since I am searching, seeking and musing about this today I thought I might as well write a few words about what is emerging for me.

Many of us are familiar with the ‘search for the Holy Grail’ story.  What we are not as familiar with is the knight who was called to this search – Parsifal.  One of the challenges he faced along his search was the challenge of asking ‘the right question.’  Not any question, but the ‘right question,’ the ‘burning question,’ if you will.  He did not have to find the answer, he just had to ask the question; he had to ‘hold the question’ or as the poet Rilke offered us, ‘he had to live the question itself.’  Oh, the question: Whom does the Grail serve?

My current belief is that life stories, like all good stories, have at their core a central question and if we can discern the question and begin to understand its meaning in our lives – like Parsifal we don’t have to find the answer – our lives, our life-stories, will be enhanced.  The English poet Abraham Cowley reminds us that ‘curiosity, no less than devotion, makes pilgrims.’  Part of being fully human is to be a bearer of questions – questions from a deep place of not knowing; questions that are essential to our life.  Emerging, or is it discerning, and then framing these questions is integral to our journey and story.

What question is at the heart and soul of our pilgrimage, our life?  What question were we put here to understand and then to live?  This is a burning question that arises from a crying need (sometimes a literal crying need) – an existential thirst.  We may, for example, have questions about a call we seek: What is my purpose?  To whom do I belong?  What can I deeply believe in?  Who are my teachers?  What is the name of the ‘ghost’ that haunts me into awareness?  How can I use my talents?  How can I serve the world? 

We might have questions about ‘calls’ we’ve received: How do I learn to forgive?  How do I learn to love?  How do I co-create community with you?  How can healing and laughter be combined?  How can conservatives and progressives work together for the common good?  How can I raise my children so they are more compassionate? 

How would our lives be different if we were motivated, if not propelled, by the question: How can I serve others so as a result they grow as persons? 

I cherish Annie Dillard’s writings and she once wrote that the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.  Part of this ‘depending’ rests with the questions we ask.  Each morning, during my period of meditation, I ask: How can I love today?  Depending upon which word I emphasize on a given day the question takes on different meanings for me: HOW, CAN, I, LOVE, TODAY.  Today the emphasis was on can – as in ‘Can I love, today?’  How about you, gentle reader, what one burning question might you hold for today?

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NOTE: See my posting from 18 October, 2012 for my initial positing.

During these past months as we move closer to our national election in November I have been reflecting upon the increased incivility that permeates our election process (which does not stop after the election).  At its worst, incivility morphs to dehumanizing the ‘other’ and then to ‘demonizing’ the other; it reveals the evil that resides within the American ethos.  A historical sketch of the development of a sense of national community in the United States can provide us with a helpful background for understanding.

Our nation began with the covenant communities of the early settlers, of which the Plymouth Colony and its Mayflower Compact have become an archetype but of which the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony was a more powerful example.  From the beginning key segments of our society were rooted in the voluntary compact of equals and were governed democratically; not a bad beginning.  Ah, hold on a minute.  It is crucial to note and remember what kind of democratic voluntary society this was.  In early Massachusetts church membership was a prerequisite for voting.  This was a ‘community of saints,’ a gathering of the elect.  And there was a sharp dichotomy not only between the ‘elect’ who had come to the New World and those sunk in sin and left behind, but also between the elect and the reprobates in the New World.  The reprobates, those not morally upright or religiously orthodox (doesn’t this all seem too familiar today in 2012?), were excluded from full membership in the community and were forcibly controlled and repressed by the ‘elect’ (a position, it seems, that some in our democracy want us to return to).  There was indeed a close relation between the inner repression of the Puritan Protestant character, which guaranteed the responsible behavior of the elect (elect = the full members of the community), and the outer repression of the nonconformists who did not behave as the community wished or expected.  From the beginning this relation between a democratic social order and personal and social repression resulted in a peculiarly sharp distinction between the saved and the ‘damned,’ both religiously and socially.  The result was not freedom, but license to guilt-free marginalize, punish and ‘kill’ the ‘damned.’

It is worth, it seems to me anyway, contrasting this social order with that of hierarchical societies which remained Roman Catholic.  From one view such societies remained authoritarian, nondemocratic, and non-voluntary.  Each person had his/her place in an infinite series of levels both in the church and in civil society.  No one was free, though all had some degrees of freedom, but no one was excluded either.  Indeed the Roman Catholics kept a sense of total community which the Protestants had shattered.  It remained a living ideal which Protestants sought to replicate and yet was unattainable because the Protestant notions of individual saintliness and the rule of the elect provided them no basis for a genuinely inclusive community (Political and Religious conservatives today still struggle with the idea of an ALL inclusive community for inclusiveness means that disparate voices will demand to be heard and honored and included as ‘equals’).  [To be continued]

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen to my friend and mentor, Parker Palmer.  During his presentation I decided to enter two postings from one of his handouts.  The following is adapted from Parker J. Palmer, ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit’ (2011).  Parker offers us ‘Five Habits of the Heart that Help Make Democracy Possible.’  Today I post the final three ‘habits’ Parker described in his handout.

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.  Our lives are filled with contradictions – from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions.  If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action.  But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.  We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world.  The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.  Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart. . .

 4. A sense of personal voice and agency.  Insight and energy give rise to a new life as we speak out and act out of our own version of truth, while checking and correcting it against the truths of others.  But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference.  We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.  And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn now to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change – if we have the support of a community.  Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart. . .

 5. A capacity to create community.  Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks.  Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the ‘power of one’ in a way that allows the power to multiply: it took a village to translate Park’s act of personal integrity into social change.  In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made.  But creating community in the places where we live and work does not mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers.  The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can help us find the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.  There are many ways to plant and cultivate the seeds of community in our personal and local lives.  We must all become gardeners of community if we want democracy to flourish. 

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Today I had the opportunity to listen to my friend and mentor, Parker Palmer.  During his presentation I decided to enter two postings from one of his handouts.  The following is adapted from Parker J. Palmer, ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit’ (2011).  Parker begins with a quotation from Terry Tempest Williams book, ‘The Open Space of Democracy’ and he then offers us ‘Five Habits of the Heart that Help Make Democracy Possible.’ 

Terry Tempest Williams writes: The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable?  Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

Parker then continues: ‘Habits of the heart’ (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville) are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose.  I believe that these five interlocked habits are critical to sustaining a democracy.

Parker then offers us his ‘Five Habits of the Heart.’

1.  An understanding that we are all in this together.  Biologists, ecologists, economists, ethicists and leaders of the great wisdom traditions have all given voice to this theme.  Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority, we humans are a profoundly interconnected species – entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail.  We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the ‘alien other.’  At the same time, we must save the notion of interdependence from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream.  Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of global, national, or even local interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection that is achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint, one that can only result in self-delusion or defeat.  Which leads to a second key habit of the heart. . .

2.  An appreciation of the value of ‘otherness.’  It is true that we are all in this together.  It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in ‘tribes’ or lifestyle enclaves – and that thinking of the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is one of the many limitations of the human mind.  The good news is that ‘us’ and ‘them’ does not have to mean ‘us versus them.’  Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us.  It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us.  Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences.  Which leads us to a third key habit of the heart. . . [to be continued tomorrow]

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As I have noted in other entries, my son, Nathan, is an artist, a ceramicist to be exact.  There are, as we know, many different ‘arts.’  There is the art of leadership, there is the zen art of archery, there is the art of asking questions, there is the art of story-telling; musicians are artists, there are artists who use ink, stone, paint, and pencil.  As I ponder the arts it seems to me that the practice of any art has certain general requirements quite regardless of whether we are dealing with the art of clay, or the art of carpentry or the art of medicine.  Let’s see.  The practice of an art requires discipline.  For me, this means not approaching my art only when I am in the mood; becoming a master requires discipline.  This discipline involves more than say practicing my art a certain number of hours a day; it requires a life-long discipline.  Discipline is not easy and I am too often side-tracked by distraction(s).  Discipline helps me stay committed and at the same time reminds me that commitment requires discipline.

Concentration is also required if I am going to master my art.  Concentration seems to becoming more and more rare in our culture; I am talking about extended concentration, the type of concentration that is so focused that time seems to fly by.  I have yet to meet an artist that when they are engaged in their art they are multi-tasking; actually they seem to be ‘lost’ in their art.

Patience is also required.  Anyone who has ever attempted to master an art understands the need for patience.  The person who is after quick results will never master an art.  Again, however, our culture does not practice nor preach patience.  When I was talking with a friend about starting a blog last February I was told not to write too much for people don’t have the patience to read a lot.  We seem to think that we will miss out on something or that we will lose something if things don’t go quickly.

One’s art must also be of supreme importance; a border-line obsession I think.  I met an author a number of years ago that disciplined himself to write every day and he would not stop until he had written one really good page; most days this would take him 8-10 hours of concentrated effort, patience and commitment – the writing of one good page was supremely important to him.  People who read his works commented on how clear, concise, and simple his stories were.

One learns an art gradually.  The pianist first learns the scales, the carpenter first learns how to plane wood; the potter learns how to work clay before learning to work the wheel.  One builds one’s capacity by first learning the skills, then by practice one enhances one’s skills and builds more capacity.  The artist knows that practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent and so the artist is very careful about what is practiced.  Pablo Casals practiced four hours a day when he was 90 years old; he did so, he said, because he wanted to improve.

All of these must work in harmony so that the person experiences wonder, contentment, enjoyment and satisfaction.  Becoming an artist is, indeed, hard work, but it is not work that depletes the heart and soul; it is work that nurtures the heart and soul. What is the work that nurtures my heart and soul?  Gentle reader, what is the work that nurtures your heart and soul?  Is the work you do an ‘art’ or is it just ‘labor’?

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