Thursday, April 10, 2014

Vocation and Hindsight I: Beauty

Recently, on the Lamb's War, Micah wrote (at about how difficult it can be discern what is truly important in any moment or season of life: it is often only in looking back that what really mattered--or what God's plan was--becomes apparent to us.
    I sometimes look back and try to make sense of my life, and one of my puzzles is trying to understand the tangled knot of my working career(s) or why it has taken me so long to find my vocation, and I believe I have one answer. I also can hardly complain about my strange career paths: I have had a rich and varied life.
     When Roger and I took a trip to Italy in the mid-2000s, and I saw Florence again for the first time in 25 years,  it hit me very powerfully  that when I was 20, I fully believed I would bump into Florences around every corner, that the world was awash in such wonders. I took Florence for granted, and used it carelessly, though innocently. Returning in my 40s, I realized, in contrast, what a comparatively rare gift Florence is, how extraordinary it is, and how important it is to fully appreciate power of extraordinary places and people.
     This reminded me of a very powerful memory I have of being on the Johns Hopkins campus for a graduate school interview. In the end, they offered only tuition and no stipend and no teaching assistantship as a first year student, and I accepted instead a full scholarship with stipend to attend George Washington University to study international relations (a mistake) and eventually ended up doing graduate work in literature at University of Maryland, which offered, financially, a full ride. I want to note for the record, too, that these opportunities were much more abundant and far easier to access 30 years ago than now. In any case, what I remember was an extraordinarily powerful desire, while walking across the Hopkins campus the day of the interview, amid all the brick buildings, to be on such a campus as Hopkins, to stay in such a setting. I was emotionally atremble with it, which is why I remember it so distinctly. I should have listened to what the Quakers call that Inner Guide, but at that time I knew nothing of Quakers. So I repressed the feeling as ridiculous, overwrought and sentimental. But I now realize, that just as I thought that Florences were everywhere, I thought that other careers, other jobs, other paths, could bring me the same glorious and intense joy as academic pursuits. I did find joy as a journalist. But other career choices made me miserable, as the world is in general a mix of darkness and light, and we are all formed differently.  I only found that out through experience, just as I discovered there is not a Florence around every corner.
Light within or Inner Guide: to me the Holy Spirit

   We live in a society that does promise us that everything beautiful or desirable can be reproduced over and over, ad infinitum. Do you like the Mona Lisa? You can have 1,000 copies. Or a million! Or why stop there? Two million! Do you like Beethoven's Ode to Joy? You can listen to it, performed by the best orchestras in the world, over and over and over, every waking moment of every day of you life. Enjoy Picasso? You can buy wallpaper, curtains, shower curtains, note cards, napkins printed with Picassos. Tired of your friend or spouse: You can find a new one from the many endless models out there. No wonder I thought I would encounter Florences everywhere.
    Isn't it more about class and privilege that I am able to wax eloquent over
the beauties of Florence? Didn't I simply go, like any tourist, and consume the Florence "experience?" Is this not effete, the stuff of parody? Don't I understand the oppression and injustice it took to build such a city?
    Yes; yes and no; possibly; and yes.
    As for my yes and no on tourism, when I visited the city at 17 and 20, it was about consuming an experience. I can remember wanting to race from the Botticellis to Michaelangelo's David to buying jewelry. Undoubtedly, I did some of that on my return trip in my 40s. But on the return trip, it was less about seeing and doing and more about simply being in the city. I can remember feeling content. Unlike your average consumer experience, it didn't leave me wanting more. Although we did do some touristy things, I was satisfied simply to sit on a stoop with Roger or walk around the streets, not needing to take from the city as much as appreciate it. Although no doubt built on human suffering, as all cities are,  I understood it as a place than cannot simply be reproduced like the waterfront tourist mall, with its obligatory tourist shop, Starbucks and Cheesecake Factory.
     What I underestimated when I was younger was that when you find joy and love and affinity, these are rare, not endlessly replicable, and you must cling to them with all your heart and soul and mind. You can't simply interchange them with something else, which is a truth about vocation it has taken me a long time to recognize. Not surprisingly, my happiest, ie most content, memories are of the simplest, most mundane things.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Community: Do we get to choose?

In the film Arranged, a friendship develops between an Orthodox Jew and a devout Muslim, both teachers at the same school. One day, the two put their young charges in a circle. Each child has to write or perhaps draw a single-word attribute about themselves. The teachers then have each student state their attribute. Initially, the children choose predictable and positive words, such as beautiful, kind or funny. But when a young black boy's turn comes, he holds up the word Nasty. 

The faces of the young teachers themselves grow grim and nasty. Are you sure that's what you mean they ask him coldly. He nods yes. As a result, the teachers  force him to leave the circle, stigmatized and isolated, then deliver a moral message to the other students: we can choose our friends.

I wondered that these teachers did not ask the boy what he meant by nasty. As we know, language is slippery and  a word that has a negative connotation to one person or cultural group might have a positive connotation to another. I immediately thought of the classic use of "bad" meaning "good" in some subcultures. Maybe to this boy, nasty meant brave or bold or adventurous.  But how could we know? Like many people with power, the teachers simply imposed their own assumed interpretation on his text.

But what if they had spoken to him, and he had affirmed their understanding of nasty as disgusting or undesirable? What if that was his self image? Wouldn't excluding him from the group merely reinforce his perception that he was a bad person?  Wouldn't it force him into an outer conformity to gain a minimal level of acceptance, while doing nothing to address his inner anguish?

I also wondered how these two women could be oblivious to the idea that this youngster had possibly internalized  racist stereotypes about blacks that permeate our culture. Should he be punished for this? 

One  of the biggest challenges facing community involves how to treat those who are different.

The movie's solution, that we can choose our associates, feeds into an individualist notion of community as a consumer choice. It's also factually untrue in most cases. We largely can't choose our family, our schoolmates, our workmates, our neighbors or the people we share civic space or the planet or history with. Personally, I don't choose to be in the same species as Adolph Hitler, but I am. I don't choose to live in a society where many would cut off people's food stamps or refuse to accept global warming, but I do.  We can try to control community, but in the end we will inevitably have to contend with difficult or disagreeable people. The dream of insulating ourselves from the feared or despised other becomes the nightmare of genocide. And even with genocide, the hated others have a way of multiplying, like the sorcerer's apprentice's broom, the more you try to eradicate them.

Community, especially spiritual community, is not based on exclusion and control. It recognizes instead that we are mutually interdependent, that attempts to control others are soul killing for all involved and that people who confront us in uncomfortable ways have lessons to teach us.  In contrast, cliques allow us to believe we are different from or better than others and reinforce this by walling out those deemed lesser. They are not real communities because they can exclude a member the minute he or she becomes unacceptable, which often coincides with the moment of greatest need. True community, on the other hand, ideally serves those at their weakest points, and fosters humility, openness and growth as we learn to embrace those who are different and perhaps disagreeable.

Of course, no human can fully embrace everyone else. How do we decide when the permeable, inclusive boundaries that characterize a healthy community should become more rigid? And who decides?

Sent from my iPad

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Do we really want community:" A woman's view

I very much appreciate, resonate and am in harmony with the work of Micah Bales, so much so that I subscribe to his blog, a rare occurrence for me. Lately, he wrote a post called "Do we really want community?" at I want to respond from a woman's point of view. 

Like Micah, I believe community "requires that we consider the needs of others on an ongoing basis, even when it frustrates our own desires," but also find this highly problematic for anyone who has been part of a group that has routinely been indoctrinated to "frustrate" its "own desires." Forgive me as a woman for being leery of  such a call. As theologians such as Dorothy Solle and Andrew Sung Park have written, issues like sin, sacrifice and subordination look different depending on one's social location: male or female, black or white, First World or Two-thirds world. Do what extent do I have to be submissive for the good of the group? Who benefits? Who, in reality, will sacrifice the most?
Dorothy Solle

Much of the social fragmentation we see in our current culture arose from the identity politics that emerged from the 1960s as women, blacks, native Americans, gays and other groups demanded a new community more inclusive of them as fully human (ie, as being like white males) and more responsive to their needs. Many stood up to a social cohesion--a "community--" based on exploitation and caste. Much of our recent apocalyptic literature speaks, I believe, to the fragmented and desolate social landscape we have all been living in for the past 40 years. 

But are women and minorities to blame for destroying community in pursuit of our own needs? Have we sinned? Park would say no. As the oppressed, we have  challenged  forms of community that harmed us, and thus have produced what Park calls han, the damage caused by the protest of those who suffer against injustice. I realize that my sufferings as a white woman in a privileged country have been very small; all the same I immensely grateful to these minor indignities for the sensitivity and insight they have given me to the more intense sufferings of others in greater oppression. When I recognize how angry I can get when I am, say, dismissed  or condescended to or accused of being a whiner for even mentioning gender, I am humbled by what much worse oppressions people bear with grace.

What first jumped out at me from Micah's post was his mention of the Howard Thurman quote that I use it as a tag line for Emerging ... Micah writes: "The famous Howard Thurman quote –Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. - is twisted into justifying boundless individualism. If it meets your needs, do it."

I am glad Micah noted that turning this quote into an individualist manifesto involves "twisting" it. It never once occurred to me that this statement could remotely support selfish individualism. I have seen it affirming a community that values everyone's gifts, a vision countering a totalitarian view of community that I witness so often as a college instructor, in which my students deny their own deep gifts to pursue a vocational major seen as valuable to society (ie, subordinating their own needs to the good of the group) because it offers a job at the other end. These choices are couched as individualism, but are, I believe a form of market totalitarianism in which human value is reduced to a paycheck.  Thurman is quite clear that we should pursue our own gifts not for reasons of self-fulfillment or individual ego gratification, but because the world--and I love the use of the term world for allowing inclusion of an eco-spirituality that transcends mere human needs--cries out for our gifts: our specific, God-given gifts. 

I realize that gender plays a huge role in why Thurman's quote resonates with me. As a child growing up in  the 1960s, I imbibed completely traditional gender expectations. When the woman's movement erupted as "bra burning" in the late 1960s,  it was treated by adults in my community as utterly bizarre. I grew up, albeit only half consciously, having internalized a strong message that my needs were  naturally subordinate to male needs. The Thurman quote has helped liberate me to be a person who dares to use my gifts with a confidence that doing so serves the world. I can't express how much I have leaned into that wisdom.
How seriously can we take women when our society reduces them to beer cans? Can we blame them/us for being leery of "community?"

I know Micah hardly envisions a community that replicates the gender and ethnic oppressions of the past. But we can hardly build a new community without being conscious--acutely so--of what has gone before. Even in Quaker circles, which tend to be less sexist than the wider society, the unconscious sexism--not to mention racism and classism and other isms-- we have all internalized ought to be addressed. 

We need community.  As long as we are, to use Biblical metaphors, clusters of scattered sheep or lone sheep, we are easy pickings for the wolves of the world. Yet this new community needs to be a truly new community, based on the kingdom of God. Jesus showed us how to do this. Through the foot washing, he demonstrated that the privileged must serve the less privileged. This doesn't mean that the priest washes a few parishioners feet once a year. It means-- a repeated message through both testaments-- that the stronger care for the weaker. Jesus said, three times to Peter, feed my sheep. He didn't say feed my sheep only if they work or only if they subordinate their very selfhood to your needs. His kingdom means the stronger--and this includes the many privileged parts of me--take on greater frustration for the good of the group. Can we do this?
It can be hard to find images of community that don't foreground men and whites, but this one was OK. 

Part me of me, falling back on Thurman, wants to say we must each put on our own oxyen mask  before we can participate in community, but clearly, we need others even to wear an oxygen mask. Often, I simply want to reject community. After all, the subtle oppressions of community are both easy to perpetrate and easy to dismiss.  However, I will, as I have done, continue to struggle with this issue through a lens that highlights the knowledge that some have been treated as more equal than others.