alternatives to war, beign fully human, change, Compassion, democrat, grace, Jesus, justice, politics, Progressive Christianity, republican, responsibility

The Politics of Values

Carl Sagan Quote
According to the Tao Te Ching:
Governing a large country
Is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was at an embassy reception when a rather arrogant senator walked up to her and said, “So you’re the famous Ann Landers. Say something funny.” So she said, “Well, you’re a politician. Tell me a lie.”

Whether her response was funny or just sad, the reality is that lies are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. After coming through the last two presidential elections, I can’t help but agree with Will Rogers that, “The more you observe politics, the more you have to admit that each party is worse than the other.”

Before we know it the 2016 election will be upon us and before then we have mid terms to contend with. As we wrestle with our decisions, it seems appropriate to take some time to look at our responsibility as spiritual people in the political world of today.

One of the teachers I have learned from over the years is Jesus. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus is placed in a political conundrum. He is asked about his view on taxes. If he agrees that taxes should be paid to Caesar he will disappoint the Jewish people, but if he states that no payment should be made to Rome, he could bring about his own arrest.

So he asks for a coin – you might notice at this point that Jesus doesn’t have a coin while the Pharisee does – and as it is tossed to him he catches it in the air. He looks at it and asks the crowd, “Whose head is on this; whose title?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Well, if it already belongs to the empire,” Jesus says, “give it back.” (At which point we might picture Jesus slipping the coin into his pocket.) But that’s not all he says. The second half is really the surprise ending: if we will give back to the empire what is the empire’s, then we are also to give to God what is God’s.

Looking for God’s Image

Caesar’s image was on the coin. That’s how we know to whom it belonged. So our first question is where do we find God’s image? According to the book of Genesis, we find God’s image in us. Humans were created in the image of God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, we have to give God ourselves, our bodies and our souls, all that we are – including that part of us that is involved in the political process.

Here’s the truth that Jesus shares: We cannot separate our spiritual life from our political life. We cannot separate our faith from the problems in our society. Like two sides of the same coin, the two are held intricately together as we bring our faith with us into the political arena. The next question then is how do we apply that faith in the world of politics today.

Jesus said that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor – even when that neighbor is an enemy. And that love reveals itself not in a sentimental fuzzy feeling – but as concrete actions that demand justice – even at the risk of a personal cost. We have a duty and a privilege to participate in the public arena of politics because we have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to exercise our power for the sake of the powerless.

God Does Not Lead a Political Party

And we must also recognize the danger of politics subverting our religion for its own purposes. Sojourners recently ran a wonderful ad in an effort to remind us that God is not a Republican – or a Democrat. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when people use religious language in order to advance their own national or domestic policy. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when my faith is used to as a political weapon that seeks to justify injustice.

We hear a lot of talk about security these days. The Pharisees who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also rightfully concerned about security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They don’t necessarily like the situation, but it seems to be working. And Jesus’ refusal to “show deference” to anyone must seem like an extremely arrogant failure on his part to appreciate the complexity of their situation.

So they try to trap him. But their strategy backfires because Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. Instead of getting into a debate over taxes, he pronounces God’s authority over everything. His answer provides no clear guideline for what aspects of national duty we are to accept and what we are to challenge.

Politics of Values 

But Jesus’ attitude should encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of this nation’s debate when it presumes that military and financial security are unquestionable values. If we take Jesus seriously at all, we will question the very notion that military and financial security are our values at all! And we will do so even when, as Sojourner contributor Kari Jo Verhulst states, it means risking that we will be called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.

The current social climate certainly yields an interesting mix of attitudes about politics from the pulpit. Some people feel very strongly that the church is no place to engage in political debate. Others expect their pastor to address the very real issues of our day and to place them in the context of faith. Martin Luther urged pastors to preach against economic injustice and public policies that work against the well-being of the poor. Well, you can’t get much more political than that.

Loving our neighbor demands that we engage in public affairs because they have such an enormous impact on people’s lives. Loving our neighbor means publicly denouncing oppression and exploitation wherever it is found.

What more important task could we have before us today? In the midst of terrorist attacks and questions of patriotism, we need to look beyond the debates, the media spin and the noise in order to ponder what is right, what is good, and what we believe our elected government should do.

Global Citizens

Groucho Marx said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” The truth of the quote can be so discouraging. It tempts us to hide in despair behind illusions of our own powerlessness. But we are among the most powerful people in the world. And nothing has ever been changed without the action first of a single person.

If we will take our role as a citizen of this country seriously, we will look deeper than political rhetoric. We will look at the whole global situation:  the whole machinery of international power and global capitalism. And we will begin to seriously call into question the values that keep it all in place.

But as we continue to look deeper, we will also begin to see glimpses of God already subtly at work in this world. We will find hope anew that the reign of God is indeed here – being ushered in before us as we hurry to try to catch up. God reign comes even in the midst of our politics and in that reign God’s will for justice and peace is being made visible.

There is no simple application of our biblical text to the political options before us. Each option, each party represents some element of the truth and some element of human fallibility. And no option that I have heard so far takes seriously our role as oppressor in a world where we only continue to grow more wealthy and powerful on the backs of an increasing number of people living in untenable situations.

God’s Reign Equals Our Reign

The hard reality is that no matter who wins, they will not usher in the perfect realization of the promised reign of God. Any political ideology can only be a shadow of that truth. So our final question is how do we weigh the various issues at hand? If we are faithful, we must first consider what it means to love our neighbor. Self-interest is never a God-centered stance.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must seek to be what we want to become.” We must start acting now the way we want to be in the future. We are a transformational people. We know we can change – our habits, our practices, and our way of thinking. Our world too can change – for justice, for peace, for community. Grace makes it all possible.

And in that grace you and I are given the opportunity to decide how we will manifest God, how we will strive for justice and peace in this world that we create.

As people of faith, as people of conscience, and as citizens of this country, we can raise our voices to proclaim where we see God at work in this world. And we can raise the question, like Jesus, of how we, including with our political decisions and action, will give to God what belongs to God.

Invitation for Reflection

  • What is the most critical political issue facing us today?
  • How do you participate in the political process?
  • Is not voting casting a vote for change or abdicating one’s responsibility?
Advertisements
Standard
ageism, aging, beign fully human, Being Fully Human, Buddha, change, Compassion, emotional, feeling, grief, Jesus, loss, moses, mourning, pain, physical, Spiritual, stillborn

The Worst Kind of Grief

griefI used to be a Lutheran. Then I changed and became a Christian Mystic Taoist. So my first question is how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t change. How many Taoists does it take to change a light bulb? You can’t change a light bulb. It can only be true to its own nature. How many politically correct clergy does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll never know. Politically correct clergy don’t tell light bulb jokes!

In a past life I was the Project Manager for the Primary Care Network at Mercy General Health Systems. That meant that my job was to know everything that could be known about a doctor’s office– and then to change it. So I spent time with staff, job shadowed doctors and interviewed patients all in attempt to be more efficient, more effective and more customer focused. Then I would present my wonderful ideas for change.

This is where my lack of human understanding would always rear its ugly head. See, I thought that if I explained what was happening and how it was going to happen and all of the reasons it would be so much better that everyone would be happy two go along. Wrong. You see everything I was doing made great sense intellectually, but I was completely disregarding the fact that change is an intensely emotional activity. I was simply disregarding everyone’s fear and pain and assuming everyone would now be happier and more content.

By the time I left Mercy General I had learned a lot about the process of change – the grief and loss that must be met with mourning, the fear that can propel or paralyze, the joy and anticipation that can lead to even more change.  Change is an opportunity for growth, an antidote against inertia and proof that we live in an ever evolving and creative cosmos.

Organizational change is a challenge, but there is other change that is far more difficult, more painful. In my last blog, I talked about the aging process. I challenged us all to embrace growing old gracefully as a sign of hope for those who follow us. I focused on what we gain as we age. Today in true Taoist fashion, it is only appropriate to acknowledge what we lose. Because loss is real. Aging with grace isn’t about denying that loss, it’s about acknowledging it, grieving it and then continuing to go on living.

Aging isn’t the only thing that brings about painful loss. There are accidents and injuries, divorces and layoffs, violent acts and natural disasters. There is death. And there are too many Detroit Lions football games.

Change can overwhelm us when there are too many of them too soon – and when they come not as something we choose and to some extent control, but as something that controls us. These changes are especially painful.

You know what I’m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life – those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.

What is the Worst Kind of Grief?

And what is the worst kind of grief? Your own. The worst kind of grief is whatever grief you are experiencing. The worst pain you will ever experience is your own pain.

Life is hard. And life is hard because we hurt.  We hurt physically, we hurt emotionally and we hurt spiritually. Pain is present from the very beginning of our life until our last breath. First we are pushed and shoved out of the warmth and security of our mother’s womb into a cold and uncertain world.

And from that day on we will know pain as an unavoidable aspect of life – as we cut our teeth, as we learn about gravity, as we realize why we were told not to touch the stove or play with knives. (Side note, when I was two years old I actually tried to shave my tongue. Any idea how much a tongue bleeds? Hard to bandage, too.) We know pain as we stretch ourselves to learn new skills and in the process fall flat on our face. Pain accompanies our journey as we maneuver our way through the sicknesses and injuries of life and keeps us company as our bodies age, reminding us we are mortal after all.

Then there is the emotional and spiritual pain that can bring us to our knees faster than any physical injury. As we are emptied of everything else – hope, dreams, desires, belief – it is the pain that comes into the void and fills us to overflowing. It arises in times of crisis, trauma and loss and serves as a cruel reminder of our own powerlessness and lack of control. And it is universal. None of us can participate in this world and not know its sting.

We have few role models, however, for learning how to deal with the sting. Our society does not encourage emotional awareness, let alone emotional expression. Instead we are offered a continual array of ways in which we can avoid feeling our pain or feeling anything at all. When any glimmer of emotional turmoil threatens to come our way we can choose alcohol, drugs, sex or food instead. We can distract ourselves from our own emotion by yelling, blaming, or trying to appease somebody else. When sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness threaten to descend we can run away, go shopping, or turn on the TV.

Feeling the Pain

The idea of actually FEELING our pain can seem strange and even frightening. But the only real way to get through it is to finally experience it. Fully. Unflinchingly. In all of its terribleness and terror. And the truth is, we can.  We can feel our pain without exploding, going crazy or dying. And when we do, we realize our pain is not endless.

Half of the battle with grief is just accepting the grief and letting ourselves grieve. We have to accept our grief because other people might not. Other people will mistakenly think that we should have “gotten over it” or that our personal loss shouldn’t be “such a big deal.” We may run into people who are so uncomfortable with grief themselves that they would rather not talk about it. Whatever the reason a lot of people will say or do things to discourage us from grieving. So we can’t depend on others to give us permission to grieve. We have to give that permission to ourselves.

And as we allow ourselves to grieve, we move beyond being a victim. It’s actually much easier to let the voice of the victim drown out the pain. The victim is the witness who carries our story and that is a very important role. As Michael talked about last week, there are times we need to tell our story. There are times people need to hear our story told. But our story is not all that we are. And when we choose to see ourselves as the victim in our own story, we choose powerlessness. We choose to remain stuck right where we are. We choose to do nothing to help ourselves or to help those around us.

Ultimately, we have to grapple with the pain itself in order to move through it. I can complain about my bad luck all day and all night, but until I’m willing to experience my pain, I will never know joy. For the same energy I use to avoid embracing my own damaged self with all of the hurt it carries, is the same energy that keeps me from embracing my own original joy and wonder.

For many of us who prefer to stay in our heads, this may not seem like good news. We cannot think our way into healing and health. We cannot think ourselves out of our grief. It takes great courage to listen to the damaged self, to stay with the painful emotion, explore it, and own it.

The Process of Grief

Grief is a very individual process. There is no roadmap. We all have to go through the stages, but we will do so in different order. We may thing we’ve worked through a stage and then suddenly find ourselves in it again. That’s okay. It just means there is something else that needs to be worked through. We need to let ourselves do that work.

How long does grief last? As long as it takes. In one sense our grief will always be with us. Those things that we’ve lost – people, pets, jobs, abilities, youthfulness – they will never be replaced. In another sense, grief does end. Eventually pain subsides, memories bring more smiles than tears, and the future appears more hopeful than foreboding.  There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe for grief. There’s only your unique and personal timeframe. That’s the only one that should really matter to you.

A Personal Story

Every year on February 1st I take time to intentionally sit with my pain. It is the anniversary of the date my son Malachi Aaron was delivered stillborn. He was a perfect little boy with 10 fingers and 10 toes, my chin (poor kid) and his brother’s nose. And his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his little neck, twice. It was horrible in every sense of the word, pain more intense than I had ever felt before. Physical pain. Emotional pain. And especially spiritual pain. I felt as if a part of my very soul and very being had been severed from me. This is the feeling I still know when I return to the cemetery every February 1. A deep and abiding ache that I surrender to once a year. A bleeding wound that I take time to expose, to kiss and to nurture and then to gently rewrap in bandages of remembering.

In fact, an important part of my healing was in creating a time to intentionally feel the wounds once more. In the midst of my grief there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay again – that didn’t want to let go of the pain. I didn’t want to simply blink and then pretend that everything had returned to normal. And yet my normal routine was beckoning me and the time came that I had to return to life. And so I returned. But I returned not to the same old world I had known before, but to a world where I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I returned having survived something I didn’t know I could survive with strength I didn’t know I possessed.

Spiritual Pain

Today spiritual pain is recognized as a very real factor in our total well-being. Health care providers are taught to recognize signs and symptoms and to help bring healing. Even the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation requires that routine spiritual assessments be part of every hospital patient’s care.

Spiritual pain is about feeling separation. It can include loss of meaning, loss of hope, and loss of one’s own identity. It can include anger, a sense of betrayal and abandonment, and a disruption to one’s core beliefs.

When we allow ourselves to move into our spiritual pain, to experience it fully, we can find new meaning and understanding in the midst of it. A community that welcomes individual questions and doubts can offer consolation and the promise of building relationships of care and of witness to one another, while assuring us of abiding grace and unconditional love.

This is what we seek to know and feel underneath all of our life long struggles. “Our problem,” according to David Richo, “is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adults they are still un-mourned. The hurt, betrayed, bereft child is still inside of us, wanting to cry for what he missed.” Because without that expression and the release it allows, we stay stuck. We don’t let go of the pain. We continue to feel stressful neediness. In fact, that neediness tells us nothing about how much we need from others. What it tells us is how much we still need to grieve a barren past that cannot be changed as it urges us to call upon our own inner sources of nurturance.

Pain comes out of nowhere, hitting us when we least expect it in the place that hurts us the most. When we do our grieving work, when we admit our powerlessness and express our mourning, when we whine and complain and yearn and yell and then take another step forward, we realize that we always have alternatives, no matter what our predicament might be. Knowing we always have choices keeps us from getting stuck in depression, apathy or the paralyzing stance of the victim. Instead we get on with our lives in powerful and productive ways.

When my oldest son Jackson turned 9 I remember his being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I’m already 9 years old. I’ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I’m 18. I’ve already lived half of my life with you. It’s just all happening so fast.”

As we grow, there is much we leave behind. But as mature human beings, there is also much we can recapture. As we live our lives more fully and deeply, we can even move outside of ourselves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people in their grief.

Entering Into a Broken World

It was the sight of pain that jolted the Buddha out of royal complacency and set him off on one of history’s greatest spiritual journeys. It was the sight of pain that made Moses give up his privileged status to lead a political and cultural revolution that is called the Exodus from Egypt. It was the sight of pain that stirred Jesus to follow the call of social activism in such a way that his teachings would influence history and get him killed.

There’s a story of two men in a hospital. One is able to sit up and the other can only lie flat on his back. Day after day the man who sits describes the picture outside the window – the trees, the sunshine, the children playing. His descriptions give the other man comfort and consolation as he struggles with his own failing health. One day the man at the window dies and is moved from the room. The other man asks to be moved to the other side of the room. He is very excited to finally see for himself the wonderful activity taking place outdoors. But when he is moved there is only a wall. The nurse explains that the man who had died was blind.

Indeed, one of the most significant changes for grieving people happens on the inside. Nearly every grieving person becomes more caring and compassionate with others who experience loss. They know what it’s like to lose something or someone precious and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs. Look to your own heart for your motivation. When you are ready and when you feel it deep inside, reach out to help someone else who may need it. When people give of themselves, they also receive.

Namaste

Standard
Being Fully Human, change, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, pluralism, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

Tension in the Tank

Tension in the TankI write today with a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to go online because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

 When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual lives. 

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

The spiritual journey offers us another option: a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure, a life of accountability. It is in our spirituality that we are challenged to do our best. To not take what we’ve received for granted. To take risks. To set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your faith fresh and vital?

A Conservative Country 

One of them, I have to guess, is living in the United States where we seem to be having an upsurge of Fundamentalism. Here in West Michigan I am perpetually challenged to be compassionate and understanding toward those who truly believe they owe it to me to let me know I am going to hell. When I was at seminary I had a fellow student who actually took offense at the idea that God could actually love everyone! That was one of the first indications that I was, in fact, in the wrong place!

And of course, so are you. As a spiritual person, you really don’t belong here at all. Which is why you are so infinitely needed here. Right here in this place of tension. We all have had times when the Spirit has broken through to add a little tension to our life.

For me, those moments began when I was quite young. I was welcomed into this world by Lutheran parents. Parents who brought me to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving and they wanted to slip me in quick before he drove away. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world learning the one true religion in the whole world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

The Path of Pluralism 

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you. Because if you have then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

I am very proud to be a heretic and I like to be in the company of other heretics. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our spiritual journey becomes tasteless and soggy, if not stagnant and dead.

If we are truly caught up in the mystery then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully find the words to express the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Which means we fully embrace the faith journey of all spiritual traditions as equally valid and rewarding, recognizing that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our faith experiences and others become more and more important as something to raise and up celebrate and less and less important as something to divide and separate us.

Father Thomas Keating reflects that religions are probably supposed to be the starting point of the spiritual journey. Pluralism and the interfaith movement are not about detaching ourselves or uprooting ourselves from our own spiritual history and tradition. In fact, mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they came to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. Dorothee Sollee writes that, “It isn’t suspicion that turns people away from the church; it is hunger that drives them to seek help wherever their dignity and their right to have a life are being respected.”

If I have to define myself at all, I say that I am a Christian Mystic Taoist. Mysticism is the direct experience of God. The path of the mystics is toward a transforming union with God. Mystical experiences happen in every culture and every faith tradition, among people of all different backgrounds and every walk of life. The question to ask when exploring mystical experiences is not “Who are these people? How are they special?” The question is “What kind of culture honors these experiences and which destroys them?”

For example, childhood is ripe for mystical experiences of awe and amazement and wonder. Among the Native indigenous people of North America, a mother will begin a conversation with her children by asking, “What did you dream?” In my non-indigenous North American home I was always more likely to lead with, “How was school? Do you have homework?” When our dreams and visions are not honored, they tend to become meaningless, embarrassing or simply forgotten.

We Are All Mystics 

The truth is that all of us our mystics and most of us have experienced heightened sensations of awareness or unity or being grasped by the certainty of knowing Spirit’s presence in our life – often at very young ages. But in our haste to leave childhood behind, we may end up labeling those experiences as crazy or silly or the product of an overactive imagination.

The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest anti-mystical force among us.

To have a mystical experience is to have an altered state of consciousness derived from an encounter with the divine reality. This state is referred to as illumination, enlightenment, awakening or the union of the soul with God. Mysticism is really no different from the promises many religions describe in the language of being made whole, liberation, the peace of God, coming home, and redemption. But mysticism deals with these experiences differently, by lifting them out of doctrine and freeing them for feeling, experience and certainty.

Mysticism claims that it is in existential experience, in the actual feeling of it, that we finally know what grace is all about. And to feel grace is to know ecstasy. Mystics claim a relationship with God based on love that arises not because of the demands of powerful institutions or of God, but out of utter freedom. Ken Wilber describes a mystic as one who does not see God as an object, but one who is immersed in God as an atmosphere.

Aldous Huxley describes three gates into mysticism: “We can begin at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.”

The lower gate is preferred by teachers like Gautama Buddha and those who focus on practices that increase concentration, like yoga, breathing techniques and spiritual disciplines. The upper gate is sought by philosophers and theologians who prefer speculative thought. And the middle gate is the way of spiritual religion exemplified by the Sufi’s of Islam and Christian contemplatives, like Thomas Merton who said we become contemplatives when God discovers God’s self in us.

A spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths as equal and valid and challenges a society that favors only one path, particularly here in conservative America where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

Beyond Tolerance 

Fred Stella talks about the stages of interfaith relationships that begin with tolerance – which essentially means I will let you live. Even in places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are occurring, the encounters are often more like a first date. I’ll make my best impression and only show you the really good things about me while trying to decide if I like the little bit of you your willing to reveal. It’s all very pleasant and we feel good afterward, but we never get into places of depth or dare to tread where conflict might exist.

First date relationships are a start, but they will never change fear, hatred or violence. For that we need communication, connection and collaboration. Our communication needs to be on a much deeper and a much more vulnerable level. Our connections have to lead to genuine relationships in which people of other faiths have actual names and faces. Our collaboration has to move us out of our own comfort zone into a space we may have never entered before.

I attended a conference once where I heard a Hindu Christian speak. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of you have experienced the consequences of this approach personally. And now those of us who are no longer part of mainstream Christianity have to be careful not to follow that example.

Genuine engagement with others means that instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, as superior, better or above others, we begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other and invites them in rather than shutting them out. We begin by approaching people of all traditions and beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true.

And we are wary of the shadow. Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

The Promise of Tension 

Today as Spiritual people, we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because Spirit does not call us into a place of relief. Spirit calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension. Which is why you are about your work at Spirit Space. You have heard that call and against all odds are pursuing that path into the heart of the Divine. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.

The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do; prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other, and to always be prepared for the Spirit to move us in an expected direction as our own heresies change and evolve. For as T.H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.”  

So my hope for you is that there will be more tension in your life and that you will think of me, although the image isn’t particularly flattering, as your visiting catfish! For it is the challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey that add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives.

Namaste!

Standard
ageism, aging, Being Fully Human, Bible, change, kenosis, perspective, self help, Spiritual

Celebrating 50 Years of Aging!

Barbara Lee at 50

To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. – Henri Frederic Amiel

This month I turned 50 years old. I was at the North American Interfaith Network Annual Connect Event in Detroit when it happened. Two days earlier I was working in my bed and breakfast room when the cold rain gave way to a hot front. Then it moved through and things chilled again. I marveled at the unusual weather. It happened again the next day. Once I returned home and turned 50 years and 1 day, I realized this unusual weather pattern had followed me home. It was the next day when it finally hit me – this must be what a Hot Flash feels like! Yes, I have chronologically grown up.

Earlier this summer I went to the wedding of the daughter of someone I graduated from high school with. I was looking forward to seeing my friend – even kidding her about not being old enough to have a married daughter. But when I saw her, my breath caught in my throat – she was wearing an old lady dress. Seriously old lady. What in the world was she thinking? It seems fashion sense may be the first thing we lose.

And that’s what aging is all about isn’t it? Loss? Losing something. My figure, my eyesight, my hair. Losing health and energy and vitality. Losing, losing, losing. As we lose our youth, as it slips away, we realize it’s all downhill from here.

I typed anti-aging in Google and you know how many hits were found? 1,830,000!

In ancient days, people never dreamt of living as long as we do now. Life was harsh from the very first breath. Many died in infancy, most died in their 30s and 40s. That meant that those who survived into their elder years had a special place of honor because they had outlasted most of the people of their own generation. They had actually lived with people and through events that others had only heard about. They were valued for their wisdom and their ability to teach and guide the young. 

Today elders are still the best choice for helping youngsters – not because of what they have lost but because of all they have gained.  As we age, we gain experience. We gain wisdom. We gain insight and understanding. We gain ability. We gain perspective. We often gain deeper and richer relationships. Studies tell us that we even gain in emotional growth. Aging can bring with it new ways of thinking and new interests. All of these gains are things we can offer to our families, our loved ones and our society.

Ageism  

So why does our culture seem to value youth so much more than age? In part, I think it’s always been that way here. We simply don’t have a history of respecting and celebrating age. Remember that our country was founded by young immigrants who were very consciously rejecting the “old ways.” They broke with the traditions of the past in order to claim something they felt was more valuable – something that was new.  Most of them left not only the old ways behind, but the old people as well. We often refer to these people as our Founding Fathers, but a more appropriate term is probably Founding Sons.

There was no space created for celebrating elders then and there is none now. In fact, we have actively tried to move people out of the mainstream as they age, and in doing so we have created ageism in our society. Like racism and sexism, ageism marginalizes people, encourages stereotypes and leads to discrimination.

Ageism teaches us to fight the aging process — to deny it and to do all that we can to prevent it. Rather than honoring older people as the holders of faith, wisdom and culture, ageism consigns the elderly to oblivion and dismisses their experience and wisdom as out dated. As a result older people are often seen as a burden, a problem to be dealt with – rather than a channel of grace for us and for society.

No wonder we’re afraid of aging. 

All is Vanity

But if any generation can change the stigma of age, it is today’s Baby Boomers. Like the rat moving persistently through the python, this giant size demographic is slowly moving forward, aging as it goes. In fact, this is the year that the tail end – those of us born in 1964 – all turn 50. As the whiney generation I know that we are not likely to stand idly by and allow ourselves to be treated as others have been in the past. We aren’t going to be willing to go quietly to a home where somebody tells us when the lights go out and when we can eat. We might be the first people to insist on Starbucks at our nursing home and to make other demands unheard of today.

In the meantime, we are all caught up in ageism.  And the damnable thing about it is that it keeps us from looking forward to aging, to savoring our experiences, to growing old gracefully.

There is a wonderful book in the Old Testament about wisdom called Ecclesiastes. It begins with an oft quoted expression: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” 

The term, vanity, is used 30 times in this short book to suggest that most of life has no more substance than a puff of breath. The author is almost yelling, “Wake Up! We are all on the verge of absurdity here with all our running about! Everything we cling to in the hope of happiness means nothing in the end!”

Ecclesiastes counters the claim that “pleasure is the meaning of life” and in doing so also counters the gospel of the American Dream that can so easily lead us far away from the vision of the Gospel of Christ.

The spokesman of this truth is the most powerful person imaginable in the ancient world of the Hebrews — a wealthy king in Jerusalem, someone like King Solomon who had all the wealth, wisdom and power he needed to fulfill any dream he wished.

But after pursuing all his desires, the king laments again and again that everything amounts to a passing breath. 

And what does have substance? A life of faith. A life of faith is a full life, and it is also a life of letting go. As we age, the Spirit continually nudges us from within to let go of all that is unworthy, all that weighs us down. Aging is an ordinary human process – that Spirit uses to bring us to our own Spiritual reality.

Aging Gracefully

Letting go of our things, letting go of our youth, even letting go of control, depending more and more on others to do what we once did can make us angry and bitter. Or it can become an opportunity to accelerate our reliance on others, to finally accept that we are all connected. That together we know no bounds, but as individuals we are limited. We find purpose and meaning in letting go of all of the artificial things that we think hold purpose and meaning.

So how do we go about aging gracefully? By living in the now. The past is important; it has shaped us and brought us to where we are. But it is in the present moment that we encounter the transcendent realities of our life. Our Spirit is not of the past; nor is it of the future. Our Divine energy is in this very moment now.

Next, we need to engage in memory work. Memories need to be treasured and brought to consciousness from time to time. Good memories help give us a sense of well-being; they help us validate our life. Painful memories remind us that there is still work to do. Most importantly, it is in retrospect that we so often come to realize that God has always been at work in the course of our life. Realizing that God has journeyed with us both in the good times and in the bad times can be a source of great comfort and an occasion for thanks.

Memory work may bring up issues of anger, guilt, shame, rejection, misunderstanding and other difficult emotions. Memory work reminds us — sometimes painfully — that there is much messiness in life and many loose ends. We may make efforts to resolve the unresolved. But faith also tells us that there is only so much we can accomplish and that completion is the Universe’s work.

Finally, there are many signs of despair in our society. Younger men and women need to know by word, deed and example that life is worth living. Little children need to see faith-filled, joy-filled role models in their lives. The presence of older women and men, filled with the Spirit, reaching out to others with compassion and grace, testifies to the promise that all may have the fullness of life.

Kenosis: The End of Aging

Of course any talk of aging needs to acknowledge that there is an end to the aging process. Sooner or later we all deal with our own personal death. Ultimately, we can view our death as a necessary event in the continuous cycle of life as our departing allows a new life to be supported on this earth. We can chose to live for today and hope to leave the world a little better than we found it. Or we can approach it kicking and screaming.

This threatens to become a bigger problem as we tenaciously cling to every moment of life – financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I look at the heroic measures taking place to keep people alive in their last two years – no matter what their quality of life has become. Often this comes not at the elder’s request, but as a demand of younger people. By not letting go of our elders, are we able to deny our own aging process? Do we avoid confronting our own mortality by refusing to recognize that of our elders?

I imagine all of us have known or heard about children who struggle with illness and disease early in life. Who face their own death with a sense of calm, courage and welcoming that we admire and marvel at? Could this be one more example of what Jesus meant by the kingdom belonging to the children?

How between being a child and becoming old do we get attached to so much stuff? The Greek word for letting go is Kenosis. Kenosis is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Can we learn to let go of the waistline and the welcome the wrinkles? Can we learn to let go of the absurdity of trying to find meaning in the meaningless and welcome a life of surrender? And when are bodies are worn out and ready for rest, can we find the peace we need to finally let go of life?

 An Invitation for Reflection:

1) What do you most fear losing as you age?

2) What do you most look forward to gaining?

3) What memories of elders do you carry with you?

Standard
Bible, change, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

The Fiction of the Rapture

raptureLast week we started looking at the “real” meaning of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. Frankly, we’re bombarded with so much information it’s hard to tell what to believe any more. So it is even more important that we spend time checking things out for our self – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

One way to do your own research is to actually read what the Bible and other supposed “evidence” says. As we do our own discernment, we find ourselves embracing a spiritual journey that includes a deepening reflective nature. We discover new insights and we find ourselves challenged to bring even more awareness and depth to our relationship with the Divine.

Each of the world’s great wisdom traditions suggest truths about the qualities of God/Goddess. For those of us who follow the lineage of Jesus Christ, we do not discover a murderous warrior, but a God of mercy and grace immersed in a mystery we cannot fully comprehend.

We do not find a get out of jail free card that allows us to escape the pain of this life while others stay and suffer. Instead we are given the promise of hope and healing for all of God’s creation. We do not watch on as others cry out in anguish. Instead we know the reality of Christ joining us in the midst of our suffering. We do not walk away from the uneasy questions of this life with a pat set of easy black and white answers. Instead we find ourselves awed by mystery and motivated by love to engage in the struggle for God’s new world of salvation with justice.

In researching the rapture, I came upon a 2001 news item. According to press reports in Arkansas City, Georgann Williams was killed after leaping through her moving car’s sunroof during an incident best described as a “mistaken rapture.” Apparently Mrs. Williams was convinced that the rapture was occurring when she saw twelve people floating up into the air as she passed a man on the side of the road who looked like Jesus. Her husband said, “She started screaming, ‘He’s back! He’s back!’ and climbed right out of the sunroof and jumped off the back of the car.” He said, “She was convinced Jesus was gonna lift her up into the sky.”

It seems Ernie Jenkins was on his way to a toga party dressed up like Jesus, when the tarp covering the bed of his pickup truck came loose and released twelve blowup sex dolls filled with helium. He pulled over to the side of the road and lifted his arms in the air in frustration shouting, “Come back here!” just as Mr. and Mrs. Williams drove by. Mrs. Williams was sure it was Jesus lifting people up into the sky. When asked for comment, truck driver Ernie Jenkins replied, “This is just too weird for me. I never expected anything like this!”

Well, you can’t believe everything you hear – even if it comes to you over the Almighty Internet – and neither the story nor the Rapture are true. Amusing perhaps, entertaining, but entirely fabricated.

Apocalyptic Literature

So if the book of Revelation is used to support the idea of the Rapture and if there is no Rapture to be found there – then just what is the book of Revelation all about? In a nutshell, the message of Revelation is something like this: Things are bad. Things are going to get worse. But in the end everything will be okay.

The Book of Revelation is what we call “Apocalyptic” literature. Apocalyptic literature arises out of the tiniest bit of hope that remains at the point of despair. Despair is certainly not a new development in this world. People of all generations have always wondered whether they were living in the end times. An Assyrian inscription carved in stone in about 1500 BC reads: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book; indeed, the end of the world is approaching.”

Faced with times of despair, the prophets call for reform and write about looking forward to God balancing the scales of justice within history. But apocalyptic writers have given up on history. Things are so bad that they can only be made right by God bringing a radical end to history itself, destroying all evil and beginning again with a whole new world. What we need now, they say, is a great big super-size God who will break in and shake things up so that they’ll never be the same again.

The Book of Revelation was probably written around the year 90 AD, the same time period as the Gospel of Matthew, when the Christian churches in Asia (now the western part of modern day Turkey) were experiencing severe oppression. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jesus had not returned. His followers continued to be martyred. The Roman Empire had such vast political and economic power that it was now contending with God in trying to secure the allegiance of its people. Against such a backdrop, John uses this cryptic form of writing – complete with bizarre visions, weird dreams and mysterious symbols – to tell his readers to hold on and to stand firm in their faith.

Resistance While Staying Alive

You might notice that John never speaks of Rome directly. There’s an obvious reason for this. If you’re going to criticize your own government, it just might be safer to talk about an earlier time so that the politicians who aren’t so smart anyway won’t know that you’re really talking about them. John can easily recall the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem some 600 years before – so in Revelation Rome is referred to as Babylon. Think of the movie M*a*s*h. The film was about the Korean War – but it was written during the Vietnam War which allowed it to make some pretty pointed remarks that really hit home in the time it was written. 

Revelation was written for 1st Century Christians. Its symbols and the assumptions behind them were not taken from the 21st century to be interpreted 2000 years later. Instead they were drawn from the language, experience and culture of the time – written to a particular set of people in a particular set of circumstances. So just what are we who are living in this time and place to make of this book?

The answer varies. For those who continue to live in a state of severe oppression and persecution the book continues to offer the same encouragement to endure in the faith in the certain hope that God will prevail.

But I think it’s a difficult stretch for us who live in the United States today, who worship in any way we choose, who consume far more than our share of this earth’s resources, to make a hard case for persecution. And I say that in spite of all of the emails I receive every year from people who are mightily oppressed because their sales clerk said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” to them while they were at the check out counter engaging in rampant consumerism.

The New Roman Empire

In fact, I think a much more cogent case can be made that as a nation we are not the oppressed at all, but have instead become the new Rome, the embodiment of a new global empire. We are not only the most powerful nation in the world; we are also the most formidable military power that has EVER existed. There are 800 US military bases that span around the globe and that reach from the depths of the ocean to the vastness of space.

On the basis of our own military strength we grant ourselves permission to launch wars, torture enemies, gain control over resources like oil, and produce nuclear weapons that can literally destroy the world. Meanwhile our economic ideology has led to widening economic and social disparities both here at home and abroad. In fact, our own survival at this point seems to be dependent upon the war machine and the industrial military complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about as he left office in 1961. 

If Revelation is only supposed to address the persecuted, we might be hard pressed to find a reason to resonate with the book at all. But what if the author had more than that in mind? What if he also wanted to reveal an alternative to living in empire? What if he wanted us to think beyond our cultural conditioning and embrace a way of life consistent with a God of peace and justice?

If we read it from this direction then we find a vision that exposes the empire for what it is in such a way that we have no choice but to oppose the way things are, even as we know we will suffer persecution as a result. In discovering a God of healing and wholeness, the fractured sickness of Rome – the violence, the corruption, the ecological destruction – becomes apparent. As we are swept up in the drama, two contrasting images become clear before our eyes and we decide we must embrace a new vision and withdraw our allegiance to the status quo.

Today and through time the Book of Revelation presents a cosmic drama of conflict between God and the Empire. It is a struggle against domination, economic exploitation and political idolatry. It is a call to political protest and to resolute resistance in the face of injustice. And John, two steps ahead of us, already knows and tells us, too, that this will get us into a lot of trouble.

According to New Testament Professor David Rhoads, apocalyptic literature challenges readers to question the core values that make the society work and dares its readers to imagine a different world. The Roman Empire with its wealth, power, and glory certainly looked as if it were blessed by God. But John urges his readers to see it as an idolatrous, oppressive and destructive empire. John gives his readers the hope to struggle, the courage to resist, and the faith to endure. 

So why has such a large segment of the US population come to view this book as a wrathful testament of God’s punishment of unbelievers? How could Christians in this country have come to believe that they are the victims that will at last be saved from the evil forces around them? How can we as a culture read this book today and fail to notice any resemblance to the old Roman Empire?

More next week…

Standard
Being Fully Human, boundaries, Buddha, change, Compassion, Jesus, love, Relationship, Respect, self help, Spiritual

My Enemy, My Self

the enemy withinThe preacher had just delivered a highly emotional 30-minute sermon on the topic of forgiveness. When he finished he asked how many people were ready to forgive their enemies. About half of the hands went up. Not enough. So he preached for another 15 minutes then asked again how many people were ready to forgive all their enemies. A few more hands went up. Not enough. So he preached on for another 20 minutes. By now people were getting awfully restless and it was getting to be lunchtime so when he asked how many people were willing to forgive their enemies every hand in the place went up – except one. It was old widow Miller in the back of the church. So the pastor asked her to stand up. “Mrs. Miller,” he asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered, “I don’t have any.” Well now, the preacher was might impressed so he asked her to come to the front of the church. “How old are you Mrs. Miller?” he asked. “I am 91,” she answered. “Well now, Mrs. Miller, can you tell the congregation how it is that you have lived to be 91 years old and don’t have a single enemy?” “Yes,” she replied, “I outlived all of them.”  

How about you? Any enemies still living? And when I say “enemies” I’m not implying that there are people you truly want to see harmed or even dead – although if there are those people in your life they certainly qualify. But I’m also talking about those people who make your life more difficult by being in it, the people who are hard to be around, who drive you crazy. I’m also talking about those people in your life who seem to have it out for you. And on a less personal note, I also want to include people and whole groups of people who seem intent on destroying your environment, attacking your life style, or ruining your country – from within or from without. And if you’re still just too nice a person to be willing to think of anybody as an “enemy” then consider the fact that somebody somewhere thinks you are an enemy of theirs.

We are not perfect and we do not live in a perfect world. Hence we join all of humanity in recognizing that people have been making each other miserable for thousands of years. We all drive somebody crazy – even if we have no idea we’re doing it. Of course, we don’t see it that way. We think our behavior is normal or justified or somebody else’s fault. 

Frankly, it’s a lot easier to focus on someone else’s actions than our own. Because to admit how our behavior affects others is to identify in our self the very things we condemn in others. In fact it is precisely that which annoys us in other people that really bothers us the most about our self. That’s why it stands out so much to us in the people we don’t like – we’ve attempted to disown that part of us so now we see it reflected in the people who drive us crazy. Dr. Mark Rosen wrote the book Thank You for Being Such a Pain.” In it he writes, “To understand our encounters with difficult people, we eventually need to accept the fact that we are them.” 

It’s also possible that difficult people don’t just show up randomly in our lives but that we find them when we need to grow and develop. Our adversaries may be some of our best teachers, showing up at just the right time with the characteristics that match exactly the places within us that need learning and healing. At least some of our enemies just might offer a spiritual “kick in the butt.”  

So if we’re essentially stuck with enemies and difficult people, how are we supposed to do deal with them? According to both Buddha and Jesus we’re supposed to love them. 

Love Your Enemy, Avoid the Trap

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” It is true. Love is transformational. There are all kinds of stories and movies about difficult people being redeemed by the power of love. And some of us love the idea that OUR love especially has the power to bring about THAT kind of change. Wow – we could be so special, so important. But when we decide someone else’s transformation is our responsibility, we have fallen into a trap. 

There are three major problems here. First of all, we can get really messed up thinking that love means allowing ourselves to be mistreated and abused. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect and we will never help anyone be a better or happier person by allowing our own safety or emotional well-being to be compromised. Next, you’re setting yourself up to be more hurt in the long run. Because to base our well-being on someone else’s behavior gives our enemies incredible power over us. Finally, it’s just not a very realistic goal. We have a hard enough time making ourselves be the people we want to be, let alone accomplishing that feat with someone else! In short, if your primary strategy for dealing with a difficult person in your life is getting them to change, I’d suggest that you give it up right now because odds are it will never work. 

The complicating factor in the teaching of love is that while we are told to love our enemies, we aren’t given very specific instruction on how to do it. I mean it’s relatively easy to “say” we love our enemies and on a spiritual level I imagine most of us strive to embrace all of humankind as our brothers and sisters – but we can’t manufacture feelings of love just because we’re told it’s the right thing to do and we can’t stop our emotional reactions just because we want to. Love is not a technique. It is more a state of being, cultivated over time and sustained through constant effort. We all seek to find a place in our heart to love someone in a healthy way regardless of what they do. 

But in the meantime, when someone is causing us pain, love is usually not our first impulse. Ignoring them, getting even or cutting them out of our life may come to mind as possible options. But none of them are particularly loving. So if we can’t get rid of them and we can’t change them, who can we change? It turns out the one and only person we really have any hope of changing is our self. Not that this is an easy task either – but it is the one in which we actually have direct control. 

What Can We Change?

So what can we change about ourselves? Our reactions are a good place to start. Thinking about how to react instead of simply reacting is something we will have lots of opportunities to practice. I used to endure horrible tirades by my ex-husband on the telephone. I was an anxious nervous wreck every time he called. Until I began trying to stop my automatic reaction and remain calm and detached. It took a long time to learn to stop that natural impulse, but on the way I got to the point where when the phone rang I thought “oh good – another chance to practice being non-reactive.” The difficult people in our life usually give us more than one shot at learning new responses and behaviors so we can be grateful for the opportunity they provide to practice!  

Another change we might aspire to is not just to control our reactions, but to work with our emotions as well. But again, that’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Even if we can get our reactions under control, we may still experience incredible feelings of frustration, anger and hurt. The first real task for us then is to begin to get in touch with those feelings. What is the precise emotion being stirred up within us? If we can experience our feelings for what they are and not try to deny them we have already gained a tool for responding more appropriately to our real nemesis.  Meditation is a great practice to help us cultivate patience and inner peace so that we can begin thinking about how we will respond to others and what feelings we will allow others to pull up in us. Eventually we may even find ourselves able to let go of the negative emotions even as they arise.  

Perhaps the most important thing for us to change is our perspective. This is huge because it means being able to see through another person’s eyes – to genuinely walk a mile or two in their shoes. 

It sounds pretty simple, but it can really have profound and powerful results. I’ll give you an example pulled from my interactions with my ex. In one of our rounds I had become extremely frustrated by the way in which he was pushing our son Jackson in karate. I was helping Jackson out by not making him participate in karate during the weekends that he was home with me. So I start by thinking about what a crummy father I think he’s being. Then I start a dialogue with him in my mind. When he replies to my accusations, I realize that our son doesn’t talk to him about how pressured he feels. So I can hear my ex responding by talking about the ways in which he believes he is supporting his son and his confusion that I am not. From HIS perspective that makes perfect sense. From his vantage point I’m the one that looks like I’m not supporting our son – no wonder he is so frustrated with me!

Another way to shift our perspective is to get to know whom it is we are struggling with. You might accomplish this by actually talking to someone over lunch. Or you might need to do a little more investigative work. I had a broken relationship with my father. I moved out of the house when I graduated and quickly cut him out of my life. In later years as an adult I came to the point where I knew I needed to do my self work. How do we do that? By dealing with the issues from our family of origin. I decided I needed to better understand who this man was that I knew as my father. So I started calling and meeting with his siblings, his mother, others who could help me fill in the spaces in the puzzle beyond my limited interactions with him. 

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a person who caused a lot of pain in a lot of people’s lives – and everyone knew it. I wondered if the priest would tell us how wonderful this man was while everyone suppressed sarcastic rejoinders. But Father Jim skipped the meaningless platitudes and instead said simply, “Not one of us can know all of the pain and hardship this man experienced in his life.” 

Suffering and Ignorance

Eventually, if we are sincere in our attempts to understand others, we will be led to feel compassion for the suffering and ignorance that is at the root of all difficult behavior. Not only that, but we will realize that our own suffering and ignorance add to the problem. That the friend and the foe both reside within our own self. In fact, we will come ultimately to realize that there really is no difference between me and you, that the idea of us and them is purely a human construct and an artificial barrier to healing and wholeness. 

To take that to its extreme, while on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”

We are a people who value the dignity and worth of every human being. We use the word “Namaste” a lot. That means that we see the Light, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Good and the Pure in each other and in everyone. Prayer and meditation are much easier spiritual pursuits than seeing the Light in those we label difficult and wrong and enemy. But one of the marks of spiritual growth is the extent to which it develops in us the attributes of tolerance, self-control, kindness, compassion, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and the desire to serve. Perhaps in the end we aren’t told to love our enemies because our love will transform them. Perhaps we are told to love because in doing so, we are the ones who are transformed. 

 
Namaste
 
Community Conversation:
What is your strategy for dealing with difficult people?
Standard