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Archive for December, 2020

HOW I USE LANGUAGE. . .

Today is 30 December, 2020.  At the turn of the Century the United Nations declared that the first 10 years of the new Century would be a ‘Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.’  Many nations signed the document, while declaring their desire to have a future without war.  If we could poll humanity I think we would find that all but a few would choose peace over war; we would also choose a world where all voices are invited, heard and honored; we would choose a world of interdependence (we are, truly, in this together); we would choose a world rooted in ‘healthy’ relationships sensing that they would be fundamental when it comes to honoring some differences while resolving other differences.  I am sitting here this morning wondering how all of this translates into my daily life, here and now.

I am noticing how I use language to describe events, other people and myself.  I pause, I reflect.  How often words like ‘kill,’ or ‘shoot,’ or ‘hate’ tumble from my lips.  One of my favorite phrases for myself and for others is ‘shooting from the lip.’  How about these phrases: ‘Don’t you just hate it when. . .’ or ‘He just walked into a mine field and got blown up’ or ‘Football is not a game, it is a war.’  I suggest that we use war and violence words, phrases and metaphors without much thought — this is how deeply rooted and integrated war and violence have become in our culture.  We fight to win market share.  We defend ourselves from our competitors.  We engage wars on poverty, crime, drugs and terrorists. 

I am sitting here.  I pause, I reflect.  I am aware of how violent my thoughts can be — and how quickly I can move to thoughts of violence.  Like a computer, I have stored many thoughts of past slights, offenses, and insults and like a computer I can recapture my violent thoughts that continue to emerge in response to them.  I am also recalling how often I apply violent language to myself and how often I actually choose to do violence to one of the four dimensions that help make up who I am.  I do violence to my physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions. 

I am amazed how often I shoot from the lip or engage in acts of self-violence.  I also am aware that when I take the time to slow down (especially my breathing) and think before I speak or act then I am less likely to choose to be violent to others or to myself.  Nurturing nonviolence in the world begins, I know, by nurturing nonviolence within me.  In order to be more nurturing than violent I must be awake and aware, I must be intentional and purpose-full so that I can, with clarity of thought, choose — and choose that which nurtures rather than choose that which is violent and depleting. 

Now, if my neighbor would stop making so much noise and shut up I could find an ending to this piece….oops!     

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GUARDIANS OF THE THRESHOLD. . .

In his stimulating and challenging book, ‘The Power of Myth,’ Joseph Campbell introduced us to the ‘guardians of the threshold.’  The ‘guardians’ are fierce-looking figures placed at the entrances of ancient buildings.  They are the protectors of the dark inner spaces of transformation.  Campbell writes:

That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls.  These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within. . . . They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis.

Gentle Reader, if I-you-we commit ourselves to what transformation requires [transformation = a fundamental change in character or structure], there will probably be some gargoyles guarding the entrance to the deeper, darker regions of our hearts and souls.  The price we are asked to pay in order to gain entrance is a commitment to our transformation — especially a commitment to our ‘spiritual’ transformation.  For you-me-us the specifics of our personal journeys differ; the common element of transformation for each of us is that we can no longer remain just as we are.  Our commitment requires us to fundamentally change and we engage our commitment when we choose to cross the threshold.  For many, certainly for myself, both the commitment and the action of stepping over the threshold is scary — the gargoyles help ensure that we are a bit, if not greatly, frightened as we step off into the dark new territory of transformation. 

There are ‘true’ and ‘real’ dangers as we stand before this threshold: hazy uncertainty, risking the unknown challenges, uncovering our ‘true’ self and then facing the reality of who we are and facing the question of ‘do I have the will to move forward, to move into the depths and the darkness?’  In the darkness one can move, as I have, into depression.  For some, the confused haziness results in one being distraught, if not lethargic; for others confusion and doubt abound.  The deep silence that comes with this journey can also feed one’s insecurity; it can also unbalance one with illusions and delusions. 

Of course, all is not dark within the darkness of transformation.  In addition to the gargoyles there are also guides who are present to aid our crossing and to offer us support as we go deeper still.  We need them for we cannot make this journey alone.  Our guides are composed of legends, myths, stories, and people.  For me, they often appear in my dreams as crones or wizards.  When I am most anxious or frightened they appear and provide me counsel, direction, hope and little pieces of light.  When I am in their presence I experience deep peace and an abiding calmness.  In stories they are the ‘Spider Woman,’ the wise crone, the crafty fox, the ‘fairy godmother,’ the wolf who speaks.  In my faith tradition, it is the Holy Spirit who guides me and there are also some ‘saints’ that I turn to for support and sustenance. 

For me, my inner journey of transformation is also supported by folks who have gone before me — I gain strength and inspiration from them.  Some I have met through their writings and some I have met in person.  Like all students seeking transformation, when I am ready the teacher and the guide will appear.  The key, of course, is being able to discern them when they appear and then to invite them in and then to welcome them.  They support me as I continue my journey and they are wise enough to know that it is my journey and hence I must also take it alone. 

When have you, gentle reader, chosen to cross the threshold protected by the gargoyles?  Who have been your guides?  In what ways have they supported and/or guided you?  What has your journey been like?  Where is your current journey taking you and why are you choosing to go there?  

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CHRISTMAS EVE – A REPRISE. . .

Four days ago I was searching for a piece I thought I had posted in December, 2014; I did not find it there. What I found instead was the following post I entered on 24 December, 2014.  As a follower of Christ I reflect upon the events that occurred so many years ago; events that did, and continue to, deeply affect many, including myself.  I am reposting what I posted on that 24 December – mainly as a reminder to myself.  Perhaps, Gentle Reader the repost will also provide you something to ponder during this Christmas Season.  On 24 December, 2014 I posted:

I have not read everything AND I have read a great deal.  I continue to be intrigued by indigenous cultures (e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy experienced more than 300 years of peace among those in this broad and diverse confederacy).  There are a number of commonalities among the indigenous cultures that existed thousands of years ago.  Here are two that continue to give me pause and I find myself reflecting upon ‘modern’ cultures and upon my own attitudes and behavior.  

First, indigenous cultures often welcomed the stranger.  Some ‘vetted’ strangers before they allowed them into the village – a few well framed questions usually sufficed.  Some simply opened their doors to the stranger – no questions asked [how would it have changed things if Mary and Joseph had had such an experience].     

Second, the food that was available was shared.  Even if there was meager fare it was divided so that each person received some (reminds me of the loaves and fishes).  When it came to the ‘Stranger,’ ‘Welcoming and Sharing’ were the norm, not the exception.   

A number of years ago I walked out of a store and was greeted by a man I judged to be homeless (a bit of profiling on my part).  He looked down as he approached.  He stopped about 10 feet from me (I interpreted this as a sign to me that he was not a threat).  He did not look up.  He then spoke: ‘My friend and I have not had a thing to eat in more than a day; there is a ____________ next door.  If you give me some money we can get something to eat.’  He did not look at me.  He waited.   

Many reasons passed through me as to why I should not give this guy money; I was – still am – surprised at how quickly they entered into my consciousness.  I paused.  ‘O.K.’ – I said to myself – ‘This guy is obviously running a scam – just look at him. . .all humble and everything; he has his routine down pat.’  So I decided to reward him for his ‘act’ and I held out a twenty dollar bill.  He stepped forward, took the twenty and then he looked up at me.  His eyes were full of tears.  I found myself tearing up.  No words.  He then turned and yelled out – ‘We have money for food!’  An older man appeared from around the corner and together they bounded into the fast food place.   

Even as I sit here this morning, once again remembering this incident my eyes are tearing up and I am thankful that I did offer the man some money for food.  I also feel sad because I was not able to welcome the stranger – I was not able to trust him or myself or the ‘universe.’  There have been times since then that I responded with more care, empathy and compassion as I encountered a stranger and there have been times when my harsh judgments motivated me to turn away (or ignore the person or ‘look’ through the person). 

I claim to be a follower of Christ.  ‘And when was it that [I] saw you a stranger and welcomed you? . . . ‘Truly I tell you [says Christ], just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  

Who are the people in my life that I welcome easily and who are those that give me such pause that I have to stop, step-back and reorient my heart in order to welcome them as I would Christ?  Would I even recognize Jesus if he showed up and asked me for twenty-bucks?  How many times a day is my heart challenged in this manner?  What are my deep assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes, attitudes and values that lead me to be hesitant and fill me with reluctance when it comes to welcome those I dislike, ‘fear’ or want to avoid?

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The Hebrew Bible (for Christians, the Old Testament), in its account of the beginnings of human history, provides us with an illustration of authoritarian ethics.  The sin of Adam and Eve is not explained in terms of the act itself; eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was not fundamentally evil/bad.  In fact, the ‘People of the Book’ religions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) agree that the ability to differentiate between good and evil is necessary for us humans.  Their sin was disobedience, the challenge to God’s authority (as an aside, why Adam and Eve never ate of the fruit of the tree of life is beyond me — they were not forbidden to eat of the fruit of this tree.  What does this say about us humans?). 

Humanistic ethics, in contrast to Authoritarian ethics may likewise be distinguished by ‘formal’ and ‘material’ criteria.  Formally, it is rooted in the principle that we humans can determine the criterion for virtue and sin, and not an authority transcending us.  Materially, it is rooted in the principle that ‘good’ is what is good for us as humans and ‘evil’ is what is harmful to us as humans — the main criterion, for some the sole criterion, of ethical value being our welfare as humans.

Humanists believe that man is ‘the measure of all things.’  The humanistic position is that there is nothing higher and nothing more dignified than human existence.  Against this position it has been argued that it is in the very nature of ethical behavior to be related to something ‘transcending’ man, and therefore a system which recognizes man and his interest alone cannot be truly moral, that its object would be merely the isolated, egotistical individual. 

Humanists say that this argument is based on a fallacy, for the principle that good is what is good for man does not imply that man’s nature is such that egotism or isolation are good for him.  It does not mean, they say, that our purpose as humans can be fulfilled in a state of un-relatedness to the world outside of ‘humanness.’  It is, they contend, one of the characteristics of human nature that man finds fulfillment and happiness in relationship to other human beings.  To ‘love one’s neighbor’ is, therefore, inherent in our nature.  Love is not a higher power nor is it our duty.  Love is our nature. 

So, which ethic will I choose?  Why this choice?  And is it, as some suggest, truly and ‘either-or’ choice?  How would it be if I decided that it is a ‘both-and’ choice?  And what would such a choice look like?  What are the consequences — intended and unintended — of such a ‘both-and’ choice?  Ah, more to reflect upon as I continue my searching and seeking.

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Both the formal and the material aspects of authoritarian ethics are apparent in the development of the ethical judgment in the child.  The roots of our ability to differentiate between good and evil are put down in childhood; first with regard to physical functions and then with regard to more complex matters of behavior. 

On its journey, the child acquires a sense of distinguishing between good and bad before the child learns the difference by reasoning.  The child’s value judgments are, as we know, formed as a result of the friendly and unfriendly reactions of the significant people in his/her life.  Because the child is dependent on the care and love of one or more adults, it is not surprising that an approving or disapproving expression on a parent’s face is sufficient to ‘teach’ the child the difference between good and bad [I remember well the ‘look’ that my mother and father would give, for example; no words were necessary]. 

In school, as we all well know, similar factors operate.  ‘Good’ is that for which one is praised; ‘bad,’ that for which one is disciplined/punished by teachers.  Indeed, for the child, the fear of disapproval and the need for approval appear to be two of the most powerful motivations for ethical judgment.  At this time in the child’s life there is intense emotional pressure to ‘being good’ and to avoid ‘being bad.’  This pressure prevents the child from asking critically whether ‘good’ in a judgment means ‘good’ for the child or for the authority [a child can get ‘stuck’ here and so even as an adult the individual will not question the authority in this way]. 

For most of us a ‘thing’ is called ‘good’ if it is good for the person who uses it.  With regards to humans, the same criterion of value can be used.  For example, the employer considers an employee to be good if he is of advantage to him/her.  Or, the teacher may well call a student ‘good’ if the student is obedient [does not cause trouble] and is a good reflection upon the teacher.  I remember being called ‘good’ as a child because I was docile and obedient.  At times, I was, as the ‘good’ child, quite fearful and insecure and countered these powerful feelings by seeking many ways to please my parents and teachers.  I remember a childhood friend who was considered to be ‘bad’ because he had a will of his own — which he exercised and which upset his parents and teachers to no end.

The formal and material aspects of authoritarian ethics are joined at the hip.  Because his/her own interests are at stake the authority ordains obedience to be the main virtue and disobedience to be the main vice; obedience is good and disobedience is evil;  for some faith-based authority figures, ‘sin’ is disobedience — the unforgivable sin is ‘rebellion’.  Rebellion entails the questioning of the authority’s right to establish norms and of its belief that the norms established by the authority are in the best interest of its ‘subjects’ [thus, parents experience in the healthy adolescent a rebellion that challenges their authority].  The authority can be ‘forgiving’ if the ‘sinner’ repents and accepts his/her punishment and commits to once again ‘being good’ — in essence the ‘sinner’ thus expresses his/her acceptance of the authority’s superiority. 

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