Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pain and the (Quaker?) world

I've been reading Quaker blogs recently about pain. Quaker Harlot James and Hystery pop to mind. I have been thinking about them probably too much. Then I came across this from Cary Tennis at www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2009/09/29/envy/ (I'm not at all suggesting that any Quaker person's pain is the result of pursuing status or material good (au contraire as I think the pain derives in part from awareness of the unconscious worldliness of meetings) but that the theme of pain struck me:

Look around you. Recognize that we stand at a crucial point in history. I submit to you that your discomfort with attainment of status and goods is a form of knowledge; it is a form of seeing; you are seeing what is in front of you and naturally it makes you nauseous. It should. Because in the background the planet is burning.

Your discomfort is a form of world knowledge. You are being called; you are being nudged by the world. What you feel is not envy but contempt, and what is behind the contempt is the nudging of the world; it wants something greater from you.

Is it so far-fetched to consider that all our discomfort with present conditions is in fact the world speaking to us, begging for our help?

Does planting trees feel good? Does feeding the hungry feel good? Why is that? If the world were giving us instructions, how would it do so? Is not pleasure the world's chief instrument of instruction and guidance? Is it not pleasure that the world has used to ensure procreation?

Why would it not speak to us by giving us pleasure when we do certain things and depriving us of pleasure when we do other things?

Then we ask, what feels good to do? Has your life of constant attainment and striving ceased to give you pleasure, as you see it mirrored in the striving of others? Could it be that it feels good to be of service because that is the world's wisdom, because that is what it wants of us? Yet observe how cynically we dismiss the good feelings we get from charity work or volunteering as a kind of false do-gooderism, as unworthy of us. We say that we are buying our way out of true commitment, buying our way out of guilt with this little bit of charity work, this donation, this volunteer time.

Maybe we are not buying anything. Maybe we are indeed joyfully paying -- paying as the fruit tree pays by bearing fruit, as the bird pays by singing, as the antelope pays by running.

Could it be that our feeling of worth when we do good things is genuine? Could it be that it is only with great reluctance that we steel ourselves against our better natures, in order to participate in useless, wasteful activities? Could it be that our willingness to sacrifice our need for meaningful lives is the one thing our masters most desire in us? Could that be why this quality is the thing they stress through stultifying educational programming, through empty television and media, through the utter meaninglessness of political drama, through advertising's attempts to transform us into conditioned consumers of armchairs and cold creams: that the whole system that has taken us to this point of unimaginable calamity -- the earth, our source of life, now threatened in some fundamental way -- needs to be reorganized and reoriented. And why? Because what we have arrived at is indeed an organized calamity -- not in any conspiratorial way but more in the way of the tragedy of the commons multiplied by a million, a logical clustering of individual decisions that collectively, by deracinating a million small commons, brings us to a collective tipping point?

Why is that such a strange or novel idea? Isn't it, to the contrary, more or less obvious?

I think it is obvious but hard to accept.

I know this has taken us a long way from your personal discomfort with your attitude toward your peers, but this is my suggestion: Treat your discomfort not as something to be cured or eradicated, but as a sign of your dissatisfaction with your own current life, and a sign that you are being called to a new and deeper relationship with the world.

What do you think of this?

Shouldn't all of us with commitments to religious communities feel at least a smidgeon of hope, a soupcon of joy, and a large serving of humility because we are at least one tiny step closer to solving the world's problems? Shouldn't we embrace our pain and the pain of being in our communities and become the change we want to see? Are we being called, through our pain, to a closer and deeper relationship with our spiritual homes? I keep coming back to reaching out. It is painful for me to reach out, painful because more often than not it's a good deed that doesn't go unpunished, because the person who reaches out embraces vulnerability and gives the other the power of rejection and dismissal ... and because I love my solitude ... but I've determined that it's not me or you or us having done something wrong or been something wrong that gets us treated badly but that people treat us as they've been treated and for a long time we've been treating each other badly, thus it will take a long time for the slapdowns to be finished ... but we still keep on ...


Hystery said...

Yes. Keeping on is so important. Pain does not justify surrender to defeat. We must continue to reach out to each other despite risk. I don't happen to feel good when I do good things. Typically, I feel worse because doing good puts me in closer contact with the pain others' carry. One doesn't do good for reward (as you say "no good deed goes unpunished"). We do good because it is good and good must be served.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Well worded and interesting. Reminds me of Ecclesiastes. God can direct us through the world, and through our experiences of life, but bottom line is to fear God and keep his commandments. There are some people, me included, who are not necessarily going to feel good, regardless what we do. Though the end result is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Ted M. Gossard said...

The end result of seeking to follow God through Jesus, I meant.