We Are What We Think

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Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada

The world is orderly and simple.

The world changes constantly and is immensely complex.

These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.

Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.

He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.

But that turns out not to be the case at all.

In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.

Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.

Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.

The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.

By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.

“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”

No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.

Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions.

That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals, in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.

Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put out to sea.

Photo: Rendiahsyah Nugroho on Unsplash.com

Beauty and Terror

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He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” — Luke 9:3

When He called us together finally, it was in order to send us out together alone, without Him. We had been with Him long enough to know that He did not stand on protocol. In fact, He did not stand on much except faith in the ineffable Spirit of God, a gossamer thread that was subject to stress with us, but was a linked chain of cast iron for Him. So when He said He was sending us out with power and authority to throw out demons and heal diseases and generally talk up the good news of the kingdom, it was the release of breath we had been holding since we first met Him.

I’ll be honest with you, I remember that moment with crystalline clarity because I was terrified. He was asking us to go out into the hills, where people had been out of work for months, where opioids opened some doors and closed others forever, and where a gun in the hand was worth two in the cabinet. Demons and diseases, devils and dust, there was scarcely an upside to this.

But I went. We went, Andrew and I, and the others, two by two. What the hell, I thought, it’s time to take Him at His word.

There is a lightness in just going, nothing in hand, and no clear plan for the end of day. The first town off the interstate that we came to we headed for the 7-11 and asked who might be sick in town. It took persistence.

“Are you doctors or something?” asked the kid behind the counter. He didn’t bother to get up.

“Not exactly,” said Andrew, “but we can help.” The kid didn’t say anything. He looked out the window at the pickup next to the pumps.

“Talk to Roy,” he said finally. “His mom’s been laid up for months. You want some buffalo jerky?”

I shook my head.

“Heh Roy,” said the kid, “these guys can help your mom.” I turned as a tall man with a scraggly ponytail came through the door.

“Why you talking about my momma, Craig?”

“These guys said they could help.”

“That true?” he asked. “Here’s ten for the gas.” He dropped the bill on the counter and stepped back.

“Yes,” said Andrew, “it’s true.” He looked at Roy steadily. I held my breath.

“Are you doctors or something? Preachers? ‘Cos we’ve had enough of preachers up here. Can’t trust ‘em.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” Andrew said, “but we’ve been given power to heal.”

“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Roy. “Not interested.”

“It’s not about money,” I said. “We want to help. It’s about the kingdom.”

“No kingdom around here,” laughed Craig. ”What you talking about, kingdom? Jesus!”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, it’s about Jesus,” said Andrew quietly.

“Okay, then,” said Roy after a moment. “Get in the pickup. We’ll go see her.”

I sat in the bed of the truck, while Andrew sat up front. I didn’t feel like being crowded as three men in a space for two. Besides, I wanted to savor the strangeness of the moment: how was I in the back of a pickup truck high in the hills of Appalachia near sundown to find some woman with God knows what illness and to heal her? And then what?

We turned off the main road after ten minutes and jounced down a dirt track beneath an arch of trees and vines. At the end was a stained double-wide trailer in a clearing with a wooden hut nearby and a rusting 1981 Ford truck up on blocks. Roy braked to a stop and switched off the engine. We got out.

“I don’t know how she is today,” said Roy. He looked down. “I talked to her yesterday. She doesn’t take well to strangers.”

I tried to imagine her life here, how she waited for her son to come by, maybe watched television and smoked in the evenings. There were cigarette butts everywhere on the ground around the steps.

“Shall we go in?,” said Andrew gently. Roy rapped on the door.

“Momma,” he called. “It’s me, Roy. I’ve brought a coupla friends by. They want to meet you.”

“Is that you, Roy?” came a voice from inside. The door opened a crack and then wider.

“It’s me, Momma,” said Roy, and he swung the door open enough for us to see the woman inside. She stood, clutching the door frame with one hand, the other pulling a robe together across a thin chest. She wore jeans and slippers and a Batman T-shirt that was frayed and dirty. Her hair was long and gray, with yellow streaks, and hung limply around her shoulders. She looked right through us and put out a hand.

I realized she was blind when Roy gently touched her shoulder and turned her to the inside. “Come in,” he said to us. “You can sit over there.” He pointed to a table in the back with a built-in window seat and two folding chairs. He guided her to the table and steadied her as she sat down and slid behind it. He stood awkwardly next to her.

I sat down in one of the chairs. Andrew made as if to sit down but then straightened again. “I’m Andrew,” he said, “and this is Thomas.”

The woman across from us put out her hand.

“I’m Suzanne,” she said. “How do you know Roy?”

Andrew took her hand in his. “We met just now at the 7-11. We’d like to help you.”

She didn’t pull away, but her back stiffened. “With what? How?,” she said. “Roy, what’s this about?”

There was a pause. Roy looked at Andrew and then at me. “Well,” he said hesitantly—.

“You’re blind and we can help,” I cut in. I realized how that sounded, but I rushed on. “We can heal you if you’ll give us a chance. Really,” I added lamely.

She laughed bitterly. “And how much is this going to cost me?”

“No, no!” I said. “It’s nothing, it’s not about money, it’s about. . .” I paused and looked at Andrew.

“It’s a gift from God,” said Andrew simply. “Just that. We know someone.”

There was silence. Roy shifted uneasily.

“Well,” she said at last, “I suppose it’s worth a shot.” She held out her other hand to me. “What are you going to do?”

I took her hand in both of mine. The skin felt dry and cold, cracked across the knuckles and reddened in places. I licked my lips; I was sure my voice would break.

I glanced at Andrew. He nodded. I took a breath and looked up . . .

 ****

I must have drifted for a moment because when I came to myself He was saying, “Look, now I am sending you out. I’m giving you authority over demons—all of them, and power to heal and to announce to people that the Kingdom of God is here.” He smiled: “Bring them peace and travel light. If they don’t want you, leave and go to the next town. We’re not in the business of forcing anyone.”

Later that afternoon, before we left, I took out the battered copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours that I always carry in my backpack and read this:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Photo by Ozark Drones, Unsplash.com

Building to True

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I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden in the Yale edition (2006) with an introduction, notes, and a beautifully-designed cover. It’s a satisfying chunk of a book, fitting easily to the hand, and a good price at less than ten dollars. I went back to Thoreau because I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, the story of how he built himself a writing hut in the woods behind his home. Pollan, a journalist for the New York Times and the author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules, among other books, wrote two of his books there and probably would have written more had he and his family not moved from Connecticut to California in the years after it was built.

Pollan cites Thoreau’s opening sentence to ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’ as he describes the reasons that compelled him to plan and to build: “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Elsewhere, Pollan notes that Walden can be read as Thoreau’s exploration of foundations for life, what it takes to build a character deep and strong.

Digging down below the frostline, weary with the labor, and allowing himself the fantasy of slacking off, Pollan is brought up short by his co-worker, a sometimes laconic, sometimes obstreperous day worker, who quickly reminds him that houses fall out of ‘true’ when subjected to the upheavals of frozen ground straining at a foundation. Later, quietly exultant as he stands on the footings he himself poured for his place, Pollan muses about the nature of foundations, the need to plant ourselves on solid ground, and the architectural metaphors we freely borrow for the blueprints of our lives.

Michael Pollan built his writing house because he wanted to grapple with material, feel the roughness of the wood and stone in his hand, and turn ideas into something with weight and heft. He’s a master at the reflective moment like Thoreau, both of them hewing the blank stone of experience into a textured wall of meaning. Thoreau’s sturdy independence is not exactly Pollan’s way; he is under no illusions about his ability to put up a house in the woods all by himself. But he reaches back to Walden as a touchstone, it seems, to capture Thoreau’s sense of being in a site and to fit the words to the experience.

Thoreau’s prose in Walden is spare and as lean as the man himself. At times, when he is describing the color of the water in the pond or the thick pleasure of feeling one’s way through a forest in a night without stars, his sentences become poetic, though always with a lightly bemused air. This is a man for whom words are gems in the rough to be cut to refract light in a hundred directions. He renders experience, shapeless and dark, into bright moments you can hold in your hand.

It’s that ability to dig deep into remembered experiences and form them into something that can be experienced by others which makes Thoreau such an exemplary teacher. In a letter written to a friend in 1857 he suggests a theme for an essay recounting a hike up Mt. Washington. State to yourself, he urges, exactly what that experience meant to you and why. Keep coming back and back to it until you are sure you’ve gotten to the real heart of the experience. “Not that the story need be long,” he advises, “but it will take a long while to make it short.” Climbing a mountain and getting blown all over the summit isn’t unique: it happens to many people. “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?” In other words, until we interpret our actions they are simply occurrences. Reflecting on them shapes them into experiences filled with meaning.

There are days in which we enter the classroom brimming with intentions and plans and it all seems to fall to the floor as lifeless as last year’s leaves. And there are days in which the air in the room seems charged and there’s a grandeur shining through each face before us. Those are the times in which Thoreau’s—and Pollan’s—incandescent ability to see the foundations rising to life from the ideas on the page become an inspiration.

To state it plainly: reflection on our practice gives meaning to our actions. It is the foundation upon which we may ‘build to true.’

Photo: Travis Grossen, Unsplash.com

Why Writing is Hard

WritingHard:dmitry-ratushny-412448“Writing is hard work. . . .If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

“How long do you want this paper to be?”

It’s an annoying question from a student. It assumes that the subject assigned can be measured out like twine and cut to the desired length. But even worse, it puts the burden of responsibility on you, not the student. The student is merely the supplier trying to fulfill the customer’s order.

That order can be filled by copying and pasting, pulling together a quilted arrangement of unattributed quotes, stitched throughout with a few original but insipid transitional sentences. Or if the hour is late and the need is high a paper in the proper style and length can be bought.

The machinery for grinding out such fodder is well-oiled, maintained with precision, and apparently provides a lucrative return-on-investment for the entrepreneurs in the business—and many universities have installed anti-plagiarizing software, anti-cheating hardware, and student-monitoring devices in classrooms.

We can look at this another way. While the outcome may be framed as plagiarizing or cheating, the context in which this plays out can lead to other conclusions. People act out of character when they are afraid or unsure; they try to reduce the odds of failure by any means necessary. If they’re afraid of writing they’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

Writing is hard, says William Zinsser, and he should know. During a career as a journalist, critic, editor, and teacher he has written over 15 books, many of them on writing. His best-known, On Writing Well, now over 30 years in print, has been revised, updated, and expanded through four editions. Each time Zinsser returns to it he reworks, rewrites, and cuts. What makes it so hard? Making it simple, making it clear.

He points to Thoreau’s Walden as a model of plain and orderly simplicity. On every page we see the deliberate and patient stride of the celebrated walker from Concord who rid his life of clutter by reducing it to the essentials. And we, says Zinsser, can free ourselves from clutter by thinking clearly. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing,” he says. “One can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

E. B. White agreed in The Elements of Style, saying, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Writing is hard because clear thinking is hard. This is a surprise only to those whose writing originates from their inner mud-puddle. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” says the Tao Te Ching. Simplify and clarify.

Which brings us back to the question we began with: “How long do you want this paper to be?” They are the words of someone acutely aware that the teacher holds most of the power in the classroom. They are the words of someone trying to minimize pain and maximize benefit. Someone who has learned to hide a lack of meaning behind a pile of clutter.

At times, as a teacher, I have answered that question with Sphinx-like equivocation: ‘How long? As long as it takes to make your point persuasively.’ There is a cloud of assumptions behind that answer. It assumes that the student knows a persuasive answer from a hole in the ground. It does not show that writing is a process. And it can encourage the confusion of length with erudition and spontaneity with creativity.

If we want students to write well we need to help them learn several things. First, clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Second, clear thinking usually begins as a social process of ideas thrown together, pressed down, shaken up, and poured out. Third, clarity and simplicity emerge through subtraction, not multiplication. We get to the meaning of the idea by throwing away everything that doesn’t advance the story. Finally, all of this takes time. Simple is harder because simple takes time. Better to do one long paper well than to do three short ones badly.

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter,” said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, in a letter to a friend.

And with that gentle reminder I shall cease.

Photo: Dmitri Ratushny on Unsplash.com

How We Prevail on Earth

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They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ — Luke 4: 32-34

If you can believe the sign in the parking lot, the church is a demon-free zone. Just who certified this isn’t exactly clear. But up to now there’s never been a demon there in all the years I’ve been attending, at least not one that was visible.

If I’d wanted to see a demon, the church would be the last place I’d go. Yet there it was. And where there is one, there are many. It’s like switching on the light in the kitchen and seeing a lone cockroach scuttling across the floor. You just know there’s never just one.

That man was carrying one in his gut like a parasite. That’s the only explanation I can think of. To look at him you’d never think he was host to a Legion of devils. In fact, he was the one who talked the most about them. “There could be one among us today!” he’d exclaim. You could hear him out in the narthex, grilling the visitors. I guess he thought they could wipe their feet before they came in and that would somehow do the trick.

Do we think the demons avoid the church because there is some magical aura that rebuffs them, some force-field against which they cannot hurl themselves? Don’t be silly. A church is like any other building, just quieter when it’s full. Not much happens at our church; perhaps that is why the demons have always left us alone.

But he wouldn’t let it alone. “We’ve got to stand together,” he’d say. “All of us in unity. If we give the Devil an opening he’ll crack us like a walnut. If you harbor thoughts otherwise you will not stand in that day! You’ll be the one who lets the Devil in amongst us. Do you want to be that person? Really?”

In a meeting someone finally said, “Pastor, why do you think we’re demon-bait? Have we ever given you reason to think we are?”

“Can you prove you’re not?” said one of the men next to him. “Do you really think you’re qualified to know the signs? Don’t you think the best thing is to trust those of us who’ve had some experience in these things?” He waited.

In the silence the pastor cut in. “We’ve argued about this long enough,” he said with a frown. “There are doubters among us.” He pulled out a form and laid it on the table.

“We’ve got to be unified,” he said. “We don’t have any time to lose. I want you to put aside your doubts and join me in a pledge to stand against the Devil and his hordes. That’s what this church has always stood for: unity for the mission.”

He tapped the form in front of him: “This is your day of decision. Sign this or forfeit your right to speak.”

“But you can’t do that,” someone protested. “Besides, signing a piece of paper doesn’t prove anything. What matters is what we decide in our hearts. It’s between us and God.”

The pastor stood. The late afternoon sun poured redly into the room, casting him in both light and shadow. His hands balled into fists.

“Do not oppose us,” he said softly.

Photo: Ian Espinosa, Unsplash.com

Another Homecoming

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And you know it’s time to go

Through the sleet and driving snow

Across the fields of mourning

Light in the distance — U2, A Sort of Homecoming

In the parable of the prodigal son, it’s the prodigal who gets all the glory. It’s an old story, played out across countless families, in every small town, to the tune of heartbreak in a million hearts. He’s the badass boy that all the girls want, the one who brushes off the worshipful without a sideways glance, who gets his ‘Vette with the money that’s coming to him and roars out of town for the city.

He’s every arrogant kid who struts into the stagelights, full of himself and full of life, aching to make his mark by sheer force of need, daring himself farther up above the abyss like some flaming Icarus, until desire cracks full force into indifference and he plunges.

I could have told you so.

I’m the one who stayed behind, the older brother whose diligence was mistaken for acceptance. The one who was expected—not in so many words—to pick up the slack and obediently plow the fields until sunset every day. Now that he was gone there was an understanding that everything left would be mine when the time came. Until then it was mine to lose; if I didn’t work it there would be nothing left to claim.

* * * *

In Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” the elder brother stands alone, isolated in a pool of light, his stiff resolve drawing him up and into himself. He stands on a platform, the diagonal of which bisects the plane and separates him from his father and brother. Although only a single step forward would put him on the same level as his brother, we sense there is no power that could induce him to any movement except to withdraw further into the darkness behind him. The eldest son is all verticals; the father and the prodigal are rounded, bent toward each other at awkward angles, the one falling into the embrace of the other and both in light. On the elder brother’s face there is sorrow, hurt, and anger. This is the moment he has played out in his mind countless times; now that it is here he is mute and paralyzed.

* * * *

I know what the people in the town thought of me. They would tell you that I was the resentful one, angry because my brother took off to live for song and women in a far city. In this version I would have been long gone—even before him—if I had had the balls. But that’s not me.

The story has a life of its own now, and there is little I can do to change it in the minds of those who hear it. I am not a man of words. Even this is difficult to express, but I can only tell you honestly what I held in my heart all that time he was gone.

I loved my brother and I knew why he left. I knew he would leave and I knew there was nothing any of us could do to make his leaving seem right. He would take his leave, to put it quaintly. He would take it and run with it and he didn’t give a damn if anyone got hurt in the taking. But frankly, there was nothing for him here, and if he could play out his talents on a larger stage, well, more power to him.

When I’m working in the fields I’m always thinking. I’m thinking about Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Castor and Pollux, James and John—the “Sons of Thunder,” as Jesus called them. What I do you might not call prayer, but I think of my brother and imagine him in his life. I hope for his safety at the very least, and I hope for the enlargement of his spirit.

He returned in winter. The days were bitter and short; it was all I could do to get the chores done in the daylight. That year we had more snow than usual and more days of flying sleet and slosh. I was up to the hills out back, seeing to the sheep, when I caught a glimpse of a figure stumping along the road to the house. As I strained to see through the rain and sleet, I saw the old man in his pea coat hobbling up the road. They met in the road, their figures melding together in the gathering dark, and they turned toward the house. By the time I was down the hill and coming through the upper pasture all the lights were on in the house and smoke was pouring from the chimney.

*  * * *

In Rainier Maria Rilke’s retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son, the young man returns home to the welcoming embrace of his family. They hover, hanging on his every word, their faces shining, laughter quick in their throats. He retreats to his childhood room, tired and pressed on every side.

In the morning, before light, he gets up, quietly steals out the back door, and runs across the frosted fields as the sun comes up. We know he will not stay; he is drowned in love and has no defenses against it. He feels himself to be disappearing and knows he will lose himself if he doesn’t leave.

* * * *

His story came out over the days as we worked together in the fields and the barn. I didn’t press him for the details. I knew he couldn’t hold them back. Whatever my brother was feeling was written on his face and there was little in his actions that winter that I could not have predicted. So when he came to me one night in the early spring, I knew he was leaving.

Now that our father has passed on, the farm is my responsibility. I could no more leave than my brother could stay. But I love the land; we each find our level. I’ll be here when he returns.

(Photo: Unsplash.com)

Live in Light

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It begins with light.

No, rather it begins with darkness, but the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. He came to his own people — to us — but we were in darkness and the darkness was complete, for in us there was no light.

And I looked, but I could not see, until he mixed up some clay and pressed it on my eyes.

“What do you see?” he asked, and waited. I could hear the cicadas droning in the trees, felt the blood pounding in my ears, a dog barked somewhere in the village, feet shifted near me and I heard the murmur of voices.

“I can see . . . people,” I said, and cleared my throat. “But they look like trees. Nothing is clear. . . Yet.”

At that, he smiled. I saw him smile! He pressed clay on my eyelids again and I felt the cool touch of his hands on my face.

“And now?”

At that, the light poured in and his face snapped into focus. Behind him I could see other faces, people whose bodies cast hard shadows under their feet, for the sun was almost directly overhead and the cicadas filled the silence under the brassy sky. I closed my eyes, for the light fell like shards of glass and I called out to my friends because I did not know what they looked like, but when I heard their voices, gasping and laughing, I knew where they were and I laughed too. The darkness, again, was familiar, but I wanted to see and to see my friends, and I opened my eyes. They were around me, brushing the mud smears from my face, and by their voices I could see who they were, finally.

It was by hearing that I saw.

He told stories and we listened. To be honest, most of it went right over my head.

“No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

Everybody knows that a lamp is for light. Without light it’s just a piece of clay. That much I knew.

“I am the light of the world,” he said. So this is what he was doing: he was lighting the world and he would not be hidden. The light is here, right now! Everything will be seen for what it is; the secrets that people have hidden will be revealed; all will be in light. Pay attention! If you can truly listen you already have much and those who can listen with attention will be given much more. But if you cannot listen, if your attention is only on yourself, and if what you want to say stops up your ears, then you will lose even what you have.

That came after the parable of the sower and after we asked him to explain. Those who hear the word and hold it fast with an honest and good heart are good earth, good humus, good humans. Holding it fast with patient endurance, that’s what it takes. It begins with hearing the word and seeing the light.

“So let your light so shine among them, let your light so shine,” he said. “Let your light so shine among them that they may see your good work and may know that it comes from the Father of lights.”

And we who sat in darkness saw a great Light and that Light was the light of the world.

(Photo: Ying Chouhan, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #8

Committed to Memory

 

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Our global story is not yet completed,
Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on,
But, as narrators find their memory gone,
Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated.
— W. H. Auden, XVI from “Sonnets from China”

I recoiled in horror at the scenes coming out of Charlottesville, at the torch-lit faces of the marchers, indistinguishable from the clean cut young men of Nazi era photographs. There was the same glittering intensity, the straining throats and clenched fists, the bodies taut with anger, the adrenaline stiffening their limbs. Then came the images of the car plowing into bodies, bodies that were tossed and flung up into a frozen moment in which we could see every detail suspended in time. Did that man sprinting to the left make it to safety? Where did the body land that was upended and flailing in the air above the car? Did the driver think of his mother in the moments before impact? Was his face contorted with hatred or was he a masque of cold ruthlessness?

In a summer redolent with memories of World War II, it is astonishing to see Nazi flags and salutes in the streets of Charlottesville. These are self-identified “blood-and-soil” foot soldiers whose primary myths reek of violence, hatred, and mayhem. Separately, these people might be merely obnoxious and irritating: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Together they are the dark, atavistic, blunt force which has caused such trauma to the body politic through the centuries.

It was a spiral of violence that inevitably hit its crescendo in Trump’s first remarks. If ever there was a time when the better angels of our nature should have been hovering over the president, this was it. In a moment of genuine grief and justified anger he could have opened his heart to the nation and called out the evil so evident before him. He could have played the man and unequivocally denounced by name the self-designated forces of hatred and racism. He could have exercised leadership and called us to remember our higher values. But he didn’t. When he finally made a fuller statement some days later it was delivered with all the empathy and expression of a child forced to apologize. And then, in a press conference which stunned even the commentators at Fox News, he raised the moral equivalency stakes even higher. Asserting that there were good people among the Nazi marchers he charged that the counter protestors, many of whom were clergy leading in nonviolence, were just as violent as the white supremacists, the KKK, and the Nazis, who poured into the city from all parts of the country for the protest. It was a bridge too far, even for some of his allies who had gritted their teeth through the interminable months since he took office, and by mid-week after the protests enough CEOs had resigned from the president’s economic advisory councils that he abolished them.

It is clear that this president cannot be the moral leader that the position calls for. He has chosen that which benefits him personally over that which the country needs in order to rise above this present shame. The President’s unwillingness to call evil by its right name is a trigger warning for all of us. It means we need to face up to the racism that pervades our system and to recognize that no one—none of us—is free and clear of this poison.

* * * *

Racism is endemic to human nature because it feeds our fear; if we understand the fear we may have a chance to rise above this—but only if we are both constantly self-aware and consciously focused on a love for others that can endure the fire. To rid ourselves of this poison we need to reflect, renounce, and announce.

We reflect on our past—not just our own individual past, but that of our country and our world. We remember through history, scripture, drama, poetry, film, music, and art the painful stories of our long love affair with violence. We recognize—re-cognize—that any of us could be the face of violence and evil for another person.

We renounce our fear and our inability to see others as people like ourselves. We have to set aside our gut reaction to dehumanize others when provoked. And we have to put away childish thoughts about stamping out evil by killing the millions of us who are tainted by it. Evil is a cord that runs through all of us, tying us and our enemies together in a chain of mutual destruction. The way we cut the cord is to recognize it in ourselves and give ourselves over to God, Allah, a Higher Power, whatever we call that Being which is being itself and which gives us life.

We announce to ourselves the commitment to the effort and struggle to love each other. It is a struggle, mostly because the easiest thing is to ignore the humanity of those we fear and hate. Making that claim each day to ourselves makes it real. In a strange reversal this is one case in which “saying makes it so.”

* * * *

We do not live in the present only, but always with a glance over the shoulder to our past. When we are not simply preoccupied with ourselves we also look up ahead to where we think we ought to be. This is how we make and remember history, not just “one damn thing after another,” as Henry Ford is reputed to have said, but a perspective on human action that involves making order out of our myriad choices. We live at once in these three worlds of past, present, and future, although we scrutinize them separately.

The present moment is indefinable: is it truly a “moment” or does it stretch like putty to touch both the past and the future? The question matters because our always-on social media shrinks the present to hours, sometimes minutes. “Here is the latest on the stories we are following right now,” says the news host, genially taking us by the hand before shoving us off the curb into heavy traffic. Thus we are ceaselessly borne downriver, to change up the metaphor, desperately clutching at anything we think will define and preserve the moment we just saw.

It is memory that keeps us alive and alert. Memory that functions to string together the millions of droplets of time that make up our sense of continuity and that define the boundaries of our experience. Memories of our personal history and our collective histories. Augustine likened memory to a long hallway with rooms off to each side, each one containing moments that defined us in time. Those moments are who we are today, but not what we may yet become.

Let’s not forget who we are, who we wanted to be as a nation of people. We remember when we write it down. Writing it down becomes a commitment to remember and to be accountable to ourselves and others and God. “I want to enact the truth,” said Augustine, “—before you, by my testimony; and, by my writing, before those who bear witness to this testimony.”

So . . . listen, reflect, write, and speak out. Start a blog, keep a journal, write a paragraph of encouragement to your friends on Facebook every day. Share what you write with the rest of us; in the writing we will keep the memories of these times alive for ourselves, those around us, and the people we are still to be in the future.

(Photo: Eric Ward, Unsplash.com)

An Attitude of Gratitude

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

GratitudeWoman:cristian-newman-277738.jpgGratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches, and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night.

I’ve wondered why we find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . .” or “I have gratitude for . . .” Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go.

But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence.

There are days when I walk out of the classroom absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . .

It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, “They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! But in moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and author of some forty books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, both a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman comments on Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments.  As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:

But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son Sean taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure he had. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident.

So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!

(Photo: Cristian Newman on Unsplash.com)

In Blindness Then We See

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“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.

When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)

And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.

“They’ve come for you, you know!”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders . . . but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and the awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.

William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”

Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by troops in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.

“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”

We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick and excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision googles, all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.

Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! . . We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”

So let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees, as a matter of course, that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, that he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t? How does he even do that?

Elaborated Spontaneity #7

(Photo: Joao Santos on Unsplash.com)