Truth, Hope, and America

The Third Reconstruction, part 1

The Spirit of Truth image has stood before her White Plains congregation for over 80 years, on the front of the pulpit I have occupied for less than four of those years. I admire the equanimity and equipoise with which she assesses all that comes within her purview -- including, this week, a Time magazine cover asking, "Is Truth Dead?" -- using the same red letters on a black background as Time's 1966 cover asking, "Is God dead?"

In 1966, Unitarian Universalists were mostly intrigued by the Time cover. Few of us were bothered by the suggestion that God may be dead. (Many of us were familiar with Nietzsche's "God is dead" claim.) This time, however, knowing, as we do, what prompts the magazine's question, it does bother us. There are such things as facts, and they deserve our respect. While we can never predict with detailed precision all the effects of a given policy, attention to the general direction of the evidence is vital for building "a land that binds up the broken." We need the truth, or our most careful and rigorous attention to the evidence, of who and what is broken, where, and how badly.

In our fallibility and finitude, with brains built for confirmation bias rather than for truth, we can never be sure when the Spirit of Truth is smiling upon our words. What we can do is pursue unflagging fidelity to the evidence, with a vigilant attention to where our own biases may be leading us down paths of misinterpretation. No, we can never be sure that Lady Truth is smiling upon our words, but with a humble commitment to the evidence, we can at least have confidence that Truth isn't tearing her hair out -- nor has she succumbed to her abusers. As long as there are those who elevate the question, "What does the evidence say?" over the question, "What does my ego want to believe?" then Truth is not dead.
What though the tempest round me roars
I know the truth, it liveth.
We need the truth, or at least careful attention to real evidence, to speak to power, for power will not concede on its own. We need the truth, especially when the evidence is surprising, does not confirm what we thought. We need the truth, not because it sets us free all by itself, but because it gives us hope that the oppressor’s story is not the only possibility. We need the truth because energized by that hope we can then take action and make ourselves and all the children of the Earth free. Dear Spirit of Truth, may we be thy faithful servants.

If truth is dead, then so is hope, for all that would then be left would be the narrative of power's self-justification. Looking for sources of hope -- disruptions of the Oppressor's Tale -- I read William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. Barber sees the current time as one of possibility and hope for significant new progress toward justice against those forces that oppress the poor and the darker skinned -- a third period of reconstruction in US history, following the first Reconstruction in the post-Civil-War years and a second reconstruction in the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. Barber's book is the 2016-17 Common Read selected by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"Drawing on the prophetic traditions of Jewish and Christian scripture, while making room for other sources of truth, the book challenges us to ground our justice work in moral dissent, even when there is no reasonable expectation of political success, and to do the hard work of coalition-building in a society that is fractured and polarized." (Gail Forsyth-Vail, Discussion Guide 2016-17 UUA Common Read)
For an introduction to the reality we face, and the sense of hope for transformation, Langston Hughes' 1935 poem remains resonant.

“Let America Be America Again”
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Out of the recognition of our national failures, Hughes lifts up the possibilities of redemption. The poem "hopes" us. The mix of realism and hope was the brew William Barber was raised on. A few pages into The Third Reconstruction, he relates:
"When we were growing up, Grandmamma and her nieces always cooked for the whole family....When I was at her house, I often sat with them in the kitchen. They would hum songs from church as she rolled out biscuits and stirred pots on her old gas stove. They also had a ritual whenever the food was done. Grandmamma would take a bottle of the anointing oil that she rubbed on people’s heads when she prayed for them and slip it in the front of her apron. She and the other ladies would take some money, a rag, and some of the food they’d cooked and they would say, 'We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.' As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking – that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon....She knew in her bones that faith and works, belief and practice, were inseparable. And she knew in her careful choice of words that love in action was not simply about helping people. It was a practice of hope that both enabled others to keep going and helped her to keep her eyes on the prize and hold on.” (3-4)
About 120 pages later, at the end of his short book, Barber affirms the hope that has run throughout his story.
“If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. This is no blind faith. We have seen it in North Carolina. We have seen it throughout America’s history. And we are witnessing it now in state-based, state-government-focused moral fusion coalitions that are gathering to stand against immoral deconstruction. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America has never been America to him, even still he could swear, ‘America will be!’ Despite the dark money, the old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.” (122)
Truth is not dead. And as long as she lives, America may yet be born.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"


Neither Blame Nor Sympathy

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) describes the poor southern and midwestern culture that Vance himself comes from – a culture that President Obama had characterized eight years before:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Barrack Obama, 2008)
The President got some flak for that comment. In an interview with CNN, Vance acknowledged that Obama had identified legitimate problems, but said the President lacked “sympathy.” But only a certain kind of sympathy will do – otherwise sympathy is condescending. Indeed, it would seem that any sympathy that doesn’t blame, that is nonjudgmental, is therefore, necessarily, condescending.
“Vance is after a certain kind of sympathy: sympathy among equals that doesn’t demean or condescend. Such sympathy can’t be deterministic and categorical. In fact, it must be a little judgmental; it must see the people to whom it’s extended as dignified individuals who retain their moral obligations. For Vance, it’s ‘anger at Mom for the life she chooses’—recognition of her present-day freedom—that makes ‘sympathy for the childhood she didn’t’ meaningful and humane. That’s because sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality. It becomes a form of giving up. If you’re a politician representing a troubled community from afar, as many √©lite politicians must be, then it’s easy to fall into this sympathy trap. At best, you can be a well-intentioned but nonjudgmental—and, therefore, condescending—outsider.” (Joshua Rothman, New Yorker)
Not that blaming is helpful either. For those of us outside of that culture, there is simply nothing we can say. It’s neither helpful nor fair to blame them for their own problems, and it’s condescending if we don’t. For now, there’s nothing to say. As Rothman concludes:
“Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward.”
J.D. Vance hopes the “broad community of hillbillies” will “wake the hell up” – but he believes that any awakening must be done from within. Those of us who aren’t from the poor white culture Vance describes should just shut up.

Vance doesn't blame government for the ills that beset his hometown, Middletown, OH, but he does believe that government cannot possibly help. In this, I think, he is wrong.

Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, made a big difference.
“Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns—towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids.” (Alec MacGillis, Atlantic)
Not every part of the New Deal worked as well. But we've learned better the sorts of programs that will work.

Sometimes aid contributes to a work disincentive, and encourages gaming the system, fostering resentment against recipients (resentment that helped fueled Trump support). But we could certainly expand Medicaid and treatment programs for people with the drug addictions that have been increasing in places like Middletown. Public investment and jobs programs in the most struggling regions would help. Alternatively, policies could make it easier for people to move.

The rise of monopolies, the decline of American manufacturing, the weakening of organized labor, and the dramatic increase in income inequality since 1980 have all played a role in Middletown's problems, and are all susceptible to amelioration through government policy.

Income inequality has increased precipitously since 1980. Whether the reason was Reagan-era policies, or the inevitable fading of the equalizing effect of the WWII-economy, a more progressive tax structure could ameliorate income inequality.

The policy changes mentioned would help all the poor -- black or white, urban or rural. We can talk about the benefits of those policies without resort to either the stereotyped categories "hillbillies" or "ghetto." Beyond -- and perhaps prior to -- those policy changes, specific attention to the injustices faced by often-urban African American poor (and middle- and upper-class) is needed. It certainly isn't fair that the damage that drug abuse does to communities is met with sympathy when it's white folks abusing oxycontin and with blame/punishment when it's black folks abusing crack. That this difference exists is testament to the systemic racism that no discussion of poverty in America can overlook. A significant manifestation of that systemic racism continues to be the differential police relations with white and black communities.

There are certainly a number of steps that could be taken. But the impetus for legislative action to address social conditions requires sympathy or blame. We will never manage to pass any policy without the moral energy of sympathy, blame, and usually both. We can't do neither, so we'll have to try both: judicious blame encouraging responsibility, and a limited sort of sympathy that avoids condescension.

Criticism is a form of holding accountable -- a way to build community and connection by lifting an expectation that the criticized account for themselves. Criticism affirms the agency and the responsibility of those criticized. While criticism of the less privileged by the more privileged is fraught with peril, if done respectfully (and I have to hope that it is possible to criticize respectfully even across socio-economic power divides) it welcomes the criticized into the dialog of democracy, rather than subjecting them to deterministic treatment or the exclusion of being beneath notice. The behavior of members of dysfunctional communities -- whether poor small-town whites, poor urban blacks, or the police -- needs this attention of criticism. Balancing that criticism with sympathy should take the punitive edge off blame. And balancing the sympathy with careful criticism should take the condescending edge off sympathy. Thoughts?


Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy

The Blues, part 3
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight....Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)
Animals we are, with bodies made for pain, made for attachment and therefore made for loss. I understand that there is only so much of the grief of the world that one person can take in, before feeling the need to step back, turn away, think about something else. But as we grow wiser, develop spiritually, we can take in more, be present to more of reality for longer periods.

Most of us recognize and are generally sensitive to the limits of our capacity to be present to the world’s pain. We don’t want to be a downer, always talking about "the awfulness, oh, the horrible awfulness of it all." (We recognize that mocking, don’t we? It’s a device for pushing away the full experience of our grief.)

But here’s something you might not have noticed. It is the same with ecstatic joy. There are limits to our capacity to be present to the world’s ecstasy. Soon we feel the need to step back, turn away, get serious again, get back to business. Here, too, as we grow wiser, develop spiritually, we can take in more, be present to more of reality for longer periods – both the reality of grief and the reality of joy.

Your capacity to hold, take in, and stay with the world’s sadness is equal to your capacity to hold, take in, and stay with joy – for there is really only one capacity there that takes in both. “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

The spiritual path is one of growing that capacity, that single capacity for being present to reality exactly as it is. When we are able to take in the woe, take it all the way in and not turn away, we perceive shining through it a jubilant beauty. When we stay with a euphoria, a rapturous happy celebration, take it all the way in and look at it all the way through, we perceive also its foundation of tragedy and pain. Your capacity for sadness is equal to your capacity for joy, because they are the same capacity.

We live in a culture that is not very spiritually developed. It thinks we need to push sadness away rather than welcome it in. But even our culture of relentless cheer, with its insatiable appetite for the vacuously happy and the shallowly upbeat, has a crack. The blues. For some people, listening to sad songs is the only time they voluntarily allow themselves the greater wholeness of presence to sadness.

With training in a spiritual discipline, that crack grows wider, and capacity for presence to sadness grows, the inclination to push it away diminishes. One such spiritual discipline is Tonglen: a form of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism. In this practice, one visualizes taking in the suffering of oneself and of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving recognition, compassion, and succor to all sentient beings. You imagine yourself breathing all the world’s anguish, letting your mind move to world events of war, violence, disease or to specific loss and hurt of people you know. Breath that in – take it into yourself. On the exhale, breath out compassion for this suffering. Imagine that your exhaled breath flows out to hurting people and gives them comfort. Objectively, it doesn’t – but spending some time imagining it does re-orients us toward living compassionately.

The Dalai Lama reports he practices Tonglen every day. He says, "Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense."

We are in different places in our development of this capacity. For example, there once was a minister in his first year with his new congregation. At that congregation’s social event of the year, which included a big dinner, the new minister was invited to offer a prayer before dinner. And so he prayed, as was his way, calling to mind all of reality, those who are suffering and mourning, as well as all that is good, true, beautiful, and evokes our gratitude. It was a celebratory occasion, a time for revelry and cheer. For some of those gathered, the reminder of suffering seemed like a downer, inappropriate to the occasion. Others, though, understood that real joy is in connectedness to all of life, that every moment we intentionally push a part of reality out of our mind we perpetuate a kind of sham upon ourselves. For them, the prayer helped the occasion feel real and authentic. The call to compassion lifted their spirits because it connected them outside the little bubble of the moment. Centered in a wider reality, they were then ready to more whole-heartedly party.

The different responses illustrate that we are not all at the same place in our spiritual development. Wherever you may be on your spiritual journey, the blues offers to all of us a standing invitation for a greater presence to sadness – and the greater joy that goes with that.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also
Part 1: Dukkha and The Blues
Part 2: Happiness vs. Joy


Happiness vs. Joy

The Blues, part 2
“When things go wrong, I’d rather just be quiet with it than to feel nothing at all. It can feel good to hurt, or to at least bring the hurt up to the surface enough to get it out through tears, words or hugs. Life itself is incredibly tough, and that’s why we need sadness to get us through. If we ignore it too much, the world takes on a dishonest veneer, and we feel a bit dishonest ourselves.” (Lynn Cinnamon)
Blues music encompasses the full range of emotional expression – it’s a genre of a particular music structure that has been used for happy songs, triumphant songs, angry songs, or any emotion. What I’m particularly looking at today is the ones that are sad. They help us get in touch with our sadness – that is, they help us face rather than turn away from certain aspects of reality.

Facing the tragedy and loss, honoring it, becomes a part of a deeper joy that grows through sadness. Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You":
You made me leave my happy home
You took my love and now you're gone….
Love brings such misery and pain
I guess I’ll never be the same.
Love lost is so painful. Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” mourns both the separation from home – the alienation of a stranger in a strange land – and the unreliability of loving relationship.
But I'm cryin' baby
Honey don't you wanna go?
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago.
Outside of blues songs, sad songs are all over the country, rock, and pop pantheon:
  • Hank Williams, “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
  • George Jones, “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will”
  • R.E.M. “Everybody hurts”
  • Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
  • Townes Van Zandt, “Waiting Around to Die”
  • Eric Clapton, “Tears in Heaven”
Glen Campbell, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” At the beginning of 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This was his farewell song, recorded even as he could feel his mind slipping. To his wife of more than 30 years, he addresses the repeated refrain:
I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry
I’m not gonna miss you.
The song is powerfully sad, in part by reminding us how sad it is not to be able to be sad.

And then there’s Sarah McLachlen singing a Randy Newman song, “When She Loved Me,” from Toy Story 2. The song, as describes, is about a toy getting abandoned by her owner as she grows up. Bonnie Stiernberg commented: “I’m not a big Disney/Pixar person, but I have a distinct memory of seeing the movie in theaters with my parents as a kid, looking over during this scene and noticing that even my dad was crying. Over a cartoon toy cowgirl getting left under a bed.”

Why do we have songs like this? The theory that’s somewhat jokingly advanced is that it makes us feel better because we’re not as bad off as what the song depicts. I don’t buy that. We listen to the blues, or other sad songs, or go to sad movies or read sad novels, because it feels good to feel.

We have memorial services when a loved one dies, and we have taken to calling them celebrations of life – and they are – but there’s no escaping our need to have our sadness. In opening to that sadness, we open to a greater truth than we are likely to notice in happy times: that,
“the dead move through all of us, still glowing....The lost human voices speak through us and blend our complex love – our mourning without end” (May Sarton)
We practice sadness so we’ll know how to do it when we need to. And because empathizing makes us more compassionate, and compassion connects us to others. Because sharing tears, like sharing laughter, is an entrance-way into human community and the human family. It’s because it is how we face reality and discover in that reality an underlying joy.

You see, there’s a certain mistake we make when we treat happiness and joy as synonyms. I know that in many usages they are synonyms. But the temporary exultation of things going well is one thing -- let's call that happiness -- and the abiding sense that you belong, no matter how things are going is something quite different -- let's call that joy. If we adopt this way of distinguishing happiness from joy, then sadness is the opposite of happiness, while sadness is an essential component of joy. When we face reality without filtering out the parts we don’t like, without turning away from the hard parts even for a moment, our own belongingness in that reality grows more secure.

The more time we spend holding in awareness the sadness of the world – feeling the pain, loss, and tragedy – the more we are part of it, the more thoroughly we are integral to it all, the more clear our belongingness is, and thus the deeper is our joy. To an outsider, sometimes someone’s sadness might look like they’re depressed, but depression is a numbness, an inability to feel, and sadness is feeling – letting in the feeling and not turning away.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also
Part 1: Dukkha and The Blues
Part 3: Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy


Dukkha and The Blues

The Blues, part 1

Life is dukkha, said the Buddha. Dukkha is often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. The word dukkha comes from a root referring to a wheel with the hub off-center. Imagine what it would be like to ride in a cart with the wheel's hub off-center. Life is a bumpy ride, Buddha was saying. Alternatively, dukkha refers to a dark space – the wheel’s hub is a hole, a dark space at the center. So another way to read dukkha is that it’s about recognizing that life has dark spaces – dark times come to us all.

Buddha said this as the first Noble Truth in his very first sermon after his great awakening. Dukkha is the first point of the first sermon, and that sermon continues to be the first and central point of Buddhism. Why would anyone make suffering – or even dissatisfaction – into the starting point of a religion, or an approach to life?

Judaism’s starting point is Genesis: God makes the World and it is good. There was light – and “God saw that the light was good.” There was dry land Earth over here and the seas over there – “and God saw that it was good.” Vegetation – plants and trees – “and God saw that it was good.” The sun, and the moon, and the stars set in the dome of the sky – “and God saw that it was good.” Wild animals, cattle, and everything that creeps upon the ground – “and God saw that it was good....God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good.”

Now that’s the way to start off a religion, right? Good, good, good. Everything is very good. In Christianity, there is suffering. Jesus suffers considerably, but the point, we’re told, is that he suffers so we won’t have to. No suffering for us – so that’s OK. But why on earth would these Buddhists go for a religion that starts off saying life is suffering? Who needs that?

The Buddha does have reality on his side. Genesis does, too. They’re both right. The land and the oceans, the plants and the animals, the sun, moon, and stars – life IS good. It’s also got some bumps on the ride, some dark spaces.

Birth is unpleasant. Aging, sickness, death, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, despair, being around what you loathe, not being around what you love, not getting what you want – all of these are experiences that we all have or will have.

This is reality, and reality is never depressing. Denying reality can lead to depression -- the exhausting struggle to avoid facing what is there eventually can leave a person depleted, enervated. When we face the bumps clearly, our life can be much better.

And that is the wisdom of the Blues: When we face the bumps – the pain and grief – clearly, without trying to deny them, or push them away – when we “meet them at the door laughing and invite them in” (Rumi) – it makes life better. Through music and song, the blues addresses squarely the dukkha of misfortune, betrayal and regret. You lose your job, your mate falls out of love with you, your dog dies. You can try acting like everything’s fine when it isn’t. Better is to recognize that we need sadness.

If you haven’t seen the cartoon movie, “Inside Out,” I recommend it. It’s about an 11-year-old girl, Riley, and the feelings inside her head: Joy, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. As the movie begins, Joy is the primary organizer in charge, and Joy doesn’t see any purpose for Sadness. She wants to keep Sadness contained within a small space so she won’t touch anything. Joy doesn’t want anything to be touched by blue Sadness. She takes a piece of chalk and draws a circle and tells Sadness stay inside that circle. Perhaps you have wanted to relegate sorrow to a distant corner of your life.

Our culture teaches us to force happiness, and this ends up making us more unhappy – because we get unhappy about not being happy, which compounds the unhappiness. But being sad wouldn’t still be with us if it didn’t help us survive. Psychologist Joseph Forgas surveying empirical studies finds that
“sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.” (Forgas, "Four Ways Sadness May Be Good for You")
Of course, we’re not talking about debilitating depression. Mild, temporary sadness helps us cope with various aspects of life. The evidence suggests that humans evolved with sadness because our ancestors who got sad when faced with a difficult situation, could withdraw from the distractions of excitement and wonder, and were thus better able to work through the problem.

Over the course of “Inside Out,” Joy learns that Sadness can do things she can’t. When Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, speaks of his traumatic past, all Joy can say is “Cheer up, get over it.” It’s Sadness who can be with – without trying to fix. It’s Sadness that can empathize – Sadness that can be an accepting presence. When Joy offers only distraction, Sadness offers comforting, accepting presence.

Our sadness signals to others our vulnerability and invites others to a closer connection with you – and their capacity to welcome sadness allows them to accept that invitation. Your experience will surely bear this out: the friends that you’ve been through sad times with are the closest ones. The friends with whom you’ve shared only happy times: not so dear.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also:
Part 2: Happiness vs. Joy
Part 3: Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy


True Dialog

Dialog is generally regarded as a good thing. Particularly in these polarized times, we are surely in need of dialog, and a lot of it. But when we think of dialog, we are usually thinking of dialog about something. And we think of mutual understanding as the salubrious result. David Bohm (1917-1992) encouraged dialog that isn't about anything, and in which misunderstanding is a necessary component.

Bohm, as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th-century, thought a lot about very difficult things to think about. In doing what physicists do -- trying to get thinking to square with the ultimate nature of reality -- Bohm noticed that thinking itself is an inherently limited medium. We are always getting it wrong. If I think somebody did something wrong – I’m wrong. If I think somebody did something right – I’m wrong. As Korean spiritual teacher Seung Sahn often said:
“Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”
The best available corrective for the inherent error of any thought I might have is encounter with someone else’s thought. In other words, dialog. Of course, other people’s thought is just as wrong as mine is. The point isn’t to arrive at some better opinion to settle into, but simply to unsettle our opinions. He’s not saying get rid of your opinions. Just: unsettle them.
“People wish to be settled. Only insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
The great value of dialog isn’t that we get better or broader opinions, but that we come unsettled from any opinion, unsettled from any definite thought. Beyond that, said Bohm, true dialog can’t have a purpose. Dialog may end up accomplishing a lot of things, but we can’t start out with an idea of: “Here’s our problem, and how are we going to fix it.” That approach locks us into thoughts about what the problem is, and what a solution would look like -- thoughts that are always awry.

In dialog, we bring our thoughts, but try not to be locked into any of them. Everything is up for grabs in the free flow of ideas. A dialog group is not like a problem-solving group, a strategy group, or a planning group. It’s more like people sitting on the back porch sipping lemonade and gabbing about nothing in particular. In that context, anything can come up, and a thought at any level can be called into question without making people impatient to get on to the point. Indeed, whatever is being offered is the point. Goallessness is crucial.
“As soon as we try to accomplish a useful purpose or goal, we will have an assumption behind it as to what is useful, and that assumption is going to limit us. . . . In the dialo group we are not going to decide what to do about anything. This is crucial. Otherwise we are not free” (Bohm, On Dialog)
A dialog group needs conflict, so it needs to be fairly large. A group of less than 20 won’t generate enough conflict.
“If five or six people get together, they can usually adjust to each other so that they don’t say the things that upset each other – they get a ‘cozy adjustment.’ People can easily be very polite to each other and avoid the issues that may cause trouble....In a larger group...the politeness falls away pretty soon.”
In conflict comes the unsettling and the possibility of wholeness that we can never have on our own.

Dialog is something very different from the sort of discussion that “where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points.” Instead, dialog depends on careful attention to subtle implications of one's own, and the group's, assumptions and reactions, and a predominant mood of relaxed, nonjudgmental curiosity.

In Dialog, each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. “Suspend” doesn’t mean you don’t have the judgment. It just means you don’t live there.
"...people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don't believe them, nor do you disbelieve them....For example, if you feel that someone is an idiot, to suspend you would (a) refrain from saying so outwardly and (b) refrain from telling yourself you should not think such things.”
You don’t suppress the thought, nor do you indulge it. You “suspend” it – as if it were hanging in the air in front of you, and you just look at it, watch it. And you watch what the effects of the thought are. The thought “you are an idiot,” is going to be attended by feelings: agitation, anger, resentment. Don’t suppress those either. And don’t indulge them either. Watch the feelings as they run their course. See them without identifying with them. Suspending an assumption or reaction means attending to it without following through on it.

Dialog participants try to build on other individuals' ideas in the conversation. In this way, misunderstanding each other is central to the enterprise. In the misunderstanding of what another person meant, we might bring forth a new meaning.

"Bohm Dialog" does what the spiritual path generally does: helps us understand ourselves. What Bohm Dialog most centrally teaches is the current state of the group the participant is in.

Sound like fun? Find 19 other people and give it a try.


What Does Mercy Have to Say?

Scared, part 2

Let me mention another issue where our fear reaction overrode both rationality and mercy: our incarceration rate.

In 1930, about 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. It stayed relatively flat for the next 40 years. Indeed, as of 1970, fewer than 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. By 1980 it had climbed a bit, to 275 men per 100,000. Then it really took off. By 1990, we had jumped all the way to almost 600 per 100,000. By 2000, we were over 900 men per 100,000 in state or federal prison. The male incarceration rate peaked in 2007 at about 950 per 100,000. It’s dropped a little bit since then, but still stands about triple what it was in 1980. Women’s incarceration has also increased, albeit less dramatically.

The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Yet we have 22 percent of all the world’s prisoners. And we’re paying about $74 billion a year for all those prisons and jails. Adding in the people on probation or parole, and about 1 in 32 Americans are under some form of criminal justice system control.

The causes of the drastic uptick were both greater likelihood of a prison sentence, and longer sentence terms. These were driven by many states passing three-strikes laws, and mandatory sentencing. The War on drugs is a big part of this picture.

Americans got scared. We were scared of drug addicts, and whites were scared of African Americans, who are way disproportionately incarcerated.

We’re scared whether we have any basis for it or not. Gallup polling since 1989 has found that in most years in which there was a decline in the U.S. crime rate, a majority of Americans said that violent crime was getting worse.

Researchers suggest that changes in our news media contributed to growing fear and misperception. Media consolidation reduced competition. Media executives slashed budgets for investigative journalism. It was cheaper to fill the space from the police blotter. It is safer, easier and cheaper to write about crimes committed by poor people than the wealthy – who might be funding the advertising revenue. Stories about a missing white woman are cheap to produce and grab audience share "stay tuned for unfolding developments."

Fear grows, reactivity grows – we become, as a people, less rational and less merciful. The reality is that we in the developed world are safer than any human population ever has been. Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birth-dates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.

The numbers show decreasing crime, decreasing disease, increasing lifespan. However: “Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we deal with it? How do we find a path to mercy and compassion?

First, and foremost, notice when you’re scared. Your fear reaction is an important part of who you are. Fear is your friend, and it is just trying to protect you. Listen attentively to what fear says. Don't do what it says until you've checked it out with rational assessment, but do listen. Notice when fear arises. “Ah, there’s fear," you might say to yourself. "Eyes are opening wider, heart beating a little faster – yep, I’m experiencing fear. Hello there, fear.”

Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. And don’t indulge, either. You didn’t consciously decide for fear to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control.

Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. You don’t have to do what it says to give it a full hearing. And the fear reaction is sort of like an inner toddler: what it most wants is attention. If it gets the attention that it wants, its demands tend to subside. But if you ignore it or deny it, its demands will take over in more surreptitious ways.

If Fear feels listened to, then Fear will begin calming down. It may take a little while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Finally, it may help to remember that source of the living tradition that we are celebrating today: Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then choose to call on other inner voices you have. You can say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does my voice of universal love have to say? What does the voice of mercy have to say?”

That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does mercy have to say?

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Scared"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Stifles Mercy

Letting Go: Fear