“An education in transcendence prepares us to see beyond appearances into the hidden realities of life—beyond facts into truth, beyond self-interest into compassion, beyond our flagging energies and nagging despairs into the love required to renew the community of creation.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known
That we are alone in this world is a fact which is confirmed by movies, reality shows, advertising, and economic self-help theories. That this is, in fact, false is something we must learn.
I don’t mean alone in merely a physical or social sense. I once had a colleague, a recent arrival from China, who went to a public gathering on the 4th of July in Baltimore and felt a sense of panic because she was in a crowd numbering only a few thousand. It’s all in what you’re used to apparently.
This kind of aloneness is not that of the weary commuter on the train gazing without seeing as the stations blur past. Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman, dying on the floor of his bathroom, a needle stuck in his arm, was alone in the way we are told is the norm.
This kind of aloneness is deeply American, although other cultures are sensing its allure. It’s a strand of ideological DNA which causes moral palsy in some: the hand outstretched to help twitches, the cup of cold water crashes to the floor.
We are taught to be unique at an early age. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” drummed the message in with eloquence and fervor: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And again: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”
There is something thrilling in these lines, and in many others that Emerson writes. He hated the mob, the unthinking crowd so easily swayed by demagogues and charlatans. He wanted people to think for themselves, to see themselves as individuals.
What the nation needed in 1841, he thought, was a sense of the present, not the past. Europe was the past: for all its intellectual glories it could not be the template for America. The country needed to build itself from the ground up and the way to do it was to boldly go where no nation had gone before. A nation of individuals, each one pursuing his or her course with a sturdy vigor, was the ideal.
But somewhere along the way that centrifugal honesty snapped its line and arced away. What we see now is not Emerson’s neighborly self-reliance, but what Parker Palmer calls an endless power struggle between the self and the world. Each self is convinced it is in a battle for survival, with dominance over the world the only possible goal.
Palmer has been a teacher for decades, a Quaker by choice, and a thoughtful critic of an educational system that trains people for arrogance rather than service.
He suggests that our hunger for knowledge arises from two sources: curiosity and control. Curiosity for its own sake is amoral, a need to know that shrugs off any restraint. Control “is simply another word for power.” Together, curiosity and control can generate knowledge that leads us toward death, not life.
But there is another kind of knowledge that contains just as many facts and theories as the knowledge we now possess, but that springs from something other than mere curiosity and control. “A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself (To Know as We Are Known 8).”
This is not a sentimental warm fuzzy kind of love, he notes, but a tough love—“the connective tissue of reality”—and we find it most often in community.
Palmer talks about “community” a great deal, a word that splays out in so many directions these days that it’s hard to grasp what it means. I can sense that it’s a good thing, though, and as spiritual qualities go, it tops any wish list I could draw up. I’m just not sure how it comes about.
Palmer ties it to transcendence, a word often misunderstood. We need to think of transcendence as not being drawn up and out of life to an eternal realm, but as a sideways impulse, a breaking in of the Spirit which breathes hope and trust into us. That’s the kind of transcendence which happens in community, a practical notion of love with its feet on the ground and its heart aflame with Jesus incarnate—God among us.
I get a much clearer sense of what ‘community’ can mean when Palmer speaks of a “discipline of mutual encouragement and mutual testing, keeping me both hopeful and honest about the love that seeks me, the love I seek to be (To Know as We Are Known 18).”
At Sligo I have found community in the study group I belong to, Believers and Doubters. For years we have prayed together, argued together, studied the Bible and books about it together, laughed and suffered together, and suffered the loss of members together. I would not trade it for anything. It has been an “education in transcendence.”