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Archive for January, 2021

WANTING TO STAY…NEEDING TO GO

Recently I have had a number of phone conversations with my friend Jim.  Among other topics is a common one: ‘Getting young children off to pre-school or elementary school.’

Yesterday I was reflecting on this experience and I remembered the following: It was early morning.  I was sitting in a coffee shop and a young mother and her young daughter entered.  The young girl was distraught.  As I observed her and listened I learned that the young girl was to go off to kindergarten for the first time — and she didn’t want to go.  She was afraid. 

Her mother was patient, reassuring and yet firm — her daughter was going to go to kindergarten. 

How many parents over how many years have had a similar conversation with a son or daughter?  It might have been about the first day of kindergarten, or perhaps the first grade, or maybe even ‘going off to college.’  Loving parents listen and respond to their concerns.  They reassure and support.  And they hold firm — it will not benefit the child nor the parent(s) if the child does not cross this particular threshold.

When I-You-We choose only that which eases our anxiety or our fear we lose out.  In choosing relief we turn our backs to the ‘Way Open’ and we cement our feet to the threshold while looking at the past.  We cannot go back — this is an illusion that quickly manifests itself when we try to do so.  In going ‘back’ we soon become lost and confused for this is not where we belong; the land that was once ‘home’ is now alien to us.  We learn that our anxiety and fear is not diminished — it might well be ‘put on hold’ for a time but it will only return with more intensity. 

One of the challenges of stepping off of the threshold into the ‘Way Open’ comes when we know we must make a choice as to how we are going to proceed with our life.  Too often these life-choices are made while it is still unclear as to how the choice will enable us to develop more fully, how it will enable us to use our gifts and talents and abilities to meet the needs of the world we will be stepping into.  We feel a tug to go back.  We want to cling to the unknown [you might remember, gentle reader, that in Afghani, the verb ‘to cling’ is the same as the verb ‘to die’].  If we have discerned a ‘guide’ that has helped us navigate our way we might now question whether we really trust him or her.  Our challenge involves holding our anxiety and fear with gentleness, taking a deep breadth of faith, and then stepping across the threshold into the ‘Way Open.’ 

Although the choices we face might be important ones, even life changing ones, like: which job to take, where to live, whom to marry, how much money to save or when to retire; the choices I am now thinking of are deeper and more far-reaching.  These choices include the development of our capacity for compassion, for love, for being trust-worthy, for being trust-builders, for living a life of non-compromising integrity.  Stepping into the unknown ‘Way Open’ requires trust, faith and hope — in ourselves and in something greater than ourselves [God, the Transcendent, Humanity, etc].  How will the ‘Way Open’ help me become a more loving person, a more compassionate person, a more empathetic person, a more forgiving person?  How will the ‘Way Open’ enable me to feel more deeply and respond more fully to the world’s pain?  How will the ‘Way Open’ enable me to discern the needs that I might help address using my gifts, talents and abilities? 

Like the young girl faced with the threshold of stepping into kindergarten, we each have had and will have times of such life-changing choice.  Like the little girl, we all need the love and support of another (or a number of others) as we face the anxieties and fears that come with these types of choices.  And like the little girl, in the end we have to take the step across the threshold alone for it is our life that we are called to live.   

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I LOVE STORIES & QUESTIONS. . .

I love stories & questions.  For example, there are the questions implicit in ‘the search’ — ‘Who am I?’  ‘Where am I?’  ‘Why am I?’  And then there are the questions that the seeker is asked, sometimes by life, sometimes by the person’s life-guide or teacher, sometimes by God [by the by, God doesn’t ask us questions because God does not know].  Here is a ‘question story’ that comes out of the Middle East.

Once upon a time during the height of Babylon’s splendor there lived a famous holy man.  He was celebrated by all levels of society, from the richest to the poorest.  He was, they all believed, truly blessed by God. 

One day the ruler announced that the city would celebrate this holy man and a great festival was created.  On the day of the celebration there was a great parade that wound its way throughout the city.  Last to enter the city’s gates was the holy man.  As he was about to step onto the platform that would carry him throughout the city the holy man heard a Voice emerging from deep within his soul and heart.  And the Voice moved to words and asked: “And have you forgotten Me so soon?”

The holy man was terrified and fell to the ground.  He leapt up and ran into the wilderness.  He wept bitter tears.  His heart burned with remorse.  He wandered in the wilderness for years; the terrible Voice and its question living deep within his heart and soul.  During his wandering he prayed, he meditated, he fasted.  After ten years of wandering he found himself standing by the very city gates from which he had fled. 

He was thin, he wore rags for clothes — he was unkempt [an understatement for sure].  Slowly he entered the city and as he passed by children they would laugh at him and throw pebbles at him; older people would pass him by as if he did not exist.  Others hailed him with jeers and gibes.  The holy man’s heart was full of sadness and he was despondent; as he walked he hung his head lower and lower.  Finally he came upon the palace gates and the guards looked at him and drew their swords in order to drive him away. 

As the holy man turned away the Voice spoke once again and asked: “And have you forgotten Me so soon?”

Gentle Reader: ‘What is the Voice that has spoken to you, again and again – the Voice that you, too, have forgotten so soon?’

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TRANSITIONS-PATIENCE-WAITING. . .

Transitions are the norm.  Some occur quickly as I open the door, cross the threshold, and enter into the coffee shop.  We have so many of these types of transitions every day that we, generally, don’t pay any attention to them. 

Then there are the other transitions that require one to be patient, that require one to wait — perhaps for ‘Way’ to open; sometimes we have to wait on the threshold — we cannot go back nor for any number of reasons can we move across the threshold.  Yet, we can’t remain standing on the threshold, at some point we must step over the threshold and enter. 

Yet, there are transitions that call us to be patient and wait and this waiting immerses us in the waters of uncertainty, doubt and perhaps confusion.  For some, they have to muster the courage and faith in order to step over the threshold; for others, they have to prepare themselves in other ways so that they can take the step. 

It is not healthy for us to hurry these transitions, to step [or is it a leap] before we look; to rush in where fools dare not tread.  We are becoming less and less a ‘waiting-patient’ culture and yet these life-changing transitions require us to pause, to slow down, to step-back, to prepare more intensely.  I am thinking of a man I know well whose wife died suddenly — I happened to be with him when she died.  For months he demonstrated that he was ‘stuck’ on the threshold; he could not go back, his wife was dead and he was not ready to move on.  He is a man of action and so he became active by searching for a new place to live, not just a new home but a new state. 

Circumstances prohibited his being able to sell his home so he waited.  As the months passed be demonstrated more patience in his waiting.  He also began to see across the threshold the glimpses of a life without his wife [‘She was my best friend’ was his grief-mantra].  After about 18 months he was ready to step across his threshold into a life without his wife.  He continues to be a man of few words but his actions indicate to me that he is more and more ‘at home’ now.  He did not move geographically as he also found that his support system — many people — was truly supportive. 

I have been standing on a threshold for almost two years now.  I am in a ‘holding pattern’ and as I look out over my threshold I see through a glass darkly.  I cannot turn around and go back; the way has closed.  I am not ready to cross the threshold.  Part of me treasures this place and part of me is fear-full and anxious-full.  As I search and seek and strive to remain patient so that I might discern ‘Way Opening’ I remain on the threshold. 

I am remembering a man who participated in a four day retreat that I guided many years ago.  He told me that he had wanted to come to the retreat a year prior but circumstances prohibited his doing so.  He said that during that year he found himself ‘preparing’ for the retreat by becoming aware of the major life-transitions that he would be facing.  He realized that this year of being patient and waiting enabled him to come to the retreat ready to engage his life-transitions.  During the four days he became aware what he needed to do in order to step over the threshold.  He contacted me a year after that and told me that he had ‘successfully’ made the transitions. 

As many of you Gentle Readers know, I am a ‘Person of the Book’ [People of the Book = Jews, Christians, Muslims] and as I reflect this morning I am thinking of certain gospel stories: Jesus taking his time getting to the gravesite of his close friend Lazarus or his dilly-dalling around at the wedding feast prior to following his mother’s suggestion or his kneeling down and writing in the dirt prior to answering the question about ‘compassion or the law.’ 

This gives me hope as they remind me that waiting for the Divine to guide us is not such a bad thing (ask most Quakers about this).  I am told that the voice of God comes as a whisper and so I must be quiet, and I must wait patiently in order to hear.  James Finley offers us these words: “Be patient.  Trust that God’s generosity is at work, bringing you to a realized oneness with God infinitely beyond anything you might have imagined possible.”   

Gentle Reader: When have you found yourself on a life-transition threshold?  What challenged you to be patient, to wait?  What was it like for you to be patient and wait? 

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There is an old saying, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  We forget this.  Just to help us remember, I am going to quote, at length, from the writings of the Portuguese monk Fco de Santa Maria (1697).  I invite you, Gentle Reader, to read, reflect upon and heed his words.  The Monk writes:

As soon as this violent and tempestuous spark is lit in a republic, magistrates are bewildered, people are terrified, the government thrown into disarray.  Laws are no longer obeyed, business comes to a halt, families lose coherence, and the streets their lively atmosphere. Everything is reduced to extreme confusion.  For everything is touched and overwhelmed by the weight and magnitude of such a horrible calamity.  People regardless of position or wealth are drowning in mortal sadness. . . .  No pity is shown to friends since every sign of pity is dangerous.

All the laws of love and nature are drowned or forgotten in the midst of the horrors of such great confusion; people not knowing any longer what advice to follow, act like desperate blindmen, who encounter fear and contradictions in every step.

History reminds us that when a society begins to break down that hostile and negative exchanges tend to increase and become more violent and more uncontrollable.  The reciprocity of negative rather than positive exchanges becomes foreshortened as it becomes more visible, as witnessed in the reciprocity of insults, blows delivered and neurotic symptoms demonstrated.

Blame runs amok.  Yet, rather than look inward and blame themselves, people look outward and blame society or blame the other(s) who appear to be ‘harm-full’.  People retreat to their prejudices, stereotypes, deep assumptions, and illusions.  They seek unity among ‘like-minded folk.’  They gather to protest and the mob forms.  ‘Mob-Think’ takes over.  The mob morphs into persecuting insurgents and attacks the very foundation of cultural order (in our case, the ‘symbol of democracy’ our Nation’s Capital). 

The mob, now persecuting insurgents, convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, is a threat to ‘our way of life’ – as this mob did with the Speaker of the House and the Vice-President. They justify to themselves (not as individuals but as a collective – the mob) that they are being the champions of the very thing they are attempting to destroy (talk about irony of the first order). 

The mob’s goal is to purge the community of the impure elements and are not able to see how they become impure in the process.  In order to attempt to undermine those they view as ‘traitors’ (think again, Vice-President Pence) they become the traitors.  By embracing the ‘Big Lie’ as ‘their truth’ the mob is able to guilt-free ‘burn it all down.’ 

The mob shows up as ‘victim’ and transforms into ‘persecutor.’  The mob gathers as citizens and transforms into insurgents.  The mob uses ‘freedom of assembly’ in order to become the ‘tear it all down mob of insurrectionists.’  Mobs need scapegoats and the scapegoats are ‘named’ by the mob’s leaders (in this case, by specific elected officials who declare themselves to be victims). 

Do we want to save our Republic?  Do we want to ‘burn it all down’?  Are we on the brink of another ‘Civil War’?  At minimum we are certainly mired in an ‘Uncivil Conflict.’  Will the better angels of our nature take over?  Are we willing to commit ourselves to generational healing?  There are many more questions to frame and hold.  Which ones will ‘WE the People’ choose to frame, hold, embrace and engage? 

Stay tuned… 

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VICTIMS-PERSECUTORS-SCAPEGOATS, PART I

How often do we humans prefer to refer to the opinion of the other(s) rather than to think for ourselves?  If we think for ourselves we become unconditionally response-able, responsible and accountable.  If we are led by the opinion of the other(s) we live in the illusion (or is it delusion) that we are not response-able, responsible and we are certainly not to be held accountable. 

For thousands of years we have seen this played out by individuals, groups and members of the mob.  We saw this played out after WWII in Germany when so many folks intoned the excuse, ‘I was only following orders.’  We have seen this played out in our own country when a citizen would also say, ‘I was only following orders.’ We saw this dramatically being played out again in our Nation’s Capital on 6 January, 2021 when a gathering became a protest which became a mob which became a mob of insurrectionists.  We will hear many of them utter similar words, ‘I am not responsible for I was only following the other’s lead.’

As a Nation we are being whelmed over by a pandemic.  We are also beginning to be whelmed over by a long standing infectious dis-ease.  This National dis-ease has been infecting us from our earliest days as a want-to-be Nation.  We have not been able to ‘own’ this National dis-ease and hence we have not been able to ‘name it.’  Some on the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ and some in the ‘middle’ have striven to name our National dis-ease – the result continues to be more division – more partisanship.   

There is an illusion in striving to name our National dis-ease.  In naming our National dis-ease we come to believe that we are on the way to a cure.  The naming provides us with the illusion (or, again, is it delusion) that we are now ‘in control.’  History reminds us, over and over and over, that this verbal exorcism cures nothing – it simply allows us to float on the river of denial [we deny, for example, that ‘WE’ are infected and the naming allows us to identify ourselves as the victim and the other(s) as the persecutor(s) and enables us – the victim – to guilt-free persecute the persecutor(s), which now become the scapegoat(s)]. 

As victims who become persecutors (how’s that for irony) we believe that we have discovered, or unmasked or revealed, ‘the truth.’  If ‘we’ have ‘the truth’ then it is clear that ‘they’ are guilty of ‘the big lie.’  Liars, as we know, must be punished.  ‘We’ and ‘They’ believe in truth, democracy, the Republic and freedoms (too many to name here, but Gentle Reader, you know what they are). The challenge, from our earliest days, has been to agree upon a common definition for truth, freedom, democracy, and Republic. 

We continue to suffer a number of consequences as a result of all of this – too many to enumerate in the space allowed for this posting – but here are a few.  ‘Fear!’  We become fear-full of losing what we believe is our right-full place in our Nation.  We then transform from ‘being afraid’ into ‘becoming our fear’ – our very identity is threatened.  We become the victims.  We then identify those who are persecuting us and they become the scapegoats and this enables us to guilt-free persecute them and they then become the ‘victim(s)’ – and this vicious cycle goes on and on and on.

Often, ironically, the persecutors are the powerless.  In our Nation we have always been able to point out those who want to persecute us by ‘taking over’ and, ironically, many of those folks have always been powerless (for example: Jews made up less than .0l per cent of the population of Germany in the 1930s and yet they were viewed by ‘True Aryans’ as being a real threat).  Just think of our history with the immigrants: Catholics, Irish, Germans, Jews, Chinese, and Mexicans – at one time each of these were viewed as powerless and yet were also viewed as being ‘true threats’ to our Nation.   

During the days following the mob insurrection of 6 January, 2021 I heard a number of the mob telling us that they did what they did because their voices were not being heard.  What does it mean, ‘to be heard’?  Anyone who has raised a child knows that these words – along with ‘You don’t understand!’ – actually mean: ‘If you hear me – understand me – then you will do what I want!’  Folks equate being heard and being understood with agreement.  The mob insurrectionists were indeed ‘heard’ and perhaps even understood – they were not, however, agreed with. 

We constantly confuse ‘being heard and being understood’ with ‘agreeing with.’  Prior to their participating in this mob-insurrection, folks – almost exclusively ‘white folks’ – had spoken out, had been heard, had freely cast his/her vote AND had not been agreed with (they lost a fair election).   Their fear was inflamed in a number of ways (the ‘Big Lie’ was just one of the inflamers) and they then became their fear.  They also became threatened – their identity was being threatened.  We know that when we believe we are being threatened that we flee, fight or freeze. 

In a democracy when a ‘Big Lie’ is spread by those we elect then key institutions are weakened (think: Congress and the Executive Branch) and space is created for the mob to form and to transform from being demonstrators to being insurrectionists.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us many years ago, when this happens it is crucial to note and remember that some are guilty and all are responsible. 

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