2013-05-29

Woooo-Hoooo!

I’ve now had a chance to talk with a number of people on a path of spiritual practice. All of us, or so it seems, began, as I did, in some form of contradiction. We felt broken, wrong, inadequate, and we thought spiritual practice would fix us. But spiritual practice isn’t about fixing anything. It’s about realizing that we aren’t broke and don’t need fixing. We aren’t broken and from the beginning never have been – at least, not in a way that needs fixing.

We live in culture that constantly tells us we aren’t good enough. Get better, buy this product, this treatment, this school, this exercise, this method. It's difficult in such a culture to really believe that we aren't broken, that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with us. Spirituality is about learning how to remember the fact of abundance in the midst of the daily barrage of messages of scarcity.

Even when intentional spiritual practice begins in self-contradiction, as it usually does, staying with it, slowly smoothes our rougher edges, and, like bird-watching, yields unpredictable glimpses of beauty. We don't get "fixed." We just gradually grow comfortable with who we are and always have been.

At the end of Dr. Strangelove, the bomber plane is set to release its nuclear payload, but the release mechanism jams. Slim Pickens climbs down into the bomb-bay to fix the jam. He succeeds, and, unfortunately, the bomb is released while he’s sitting on it. In the film’s most memorable shot, Slim Pickens is waving his cowboy hat and whooping as he rides the bomb down to his – and what will soon be the planet’s – destruction.

"Woooo-hoooo!"

Maybe that’s what learning to stop worrying and love the bomb looks like. He does seem to be living in the moment.

That was such a striking shot when I first saw it because I knew if I were falling out of the sky riding on a nuclear bomb, I’d be freaked out in fear and despair: “My god, my god, my god, I’ve only got maybe one minute to live.”

But look at what Slim Pickens’ character is doing with his minute!

Woooo-hooooo!

That’s us. We’re all riding that bomb. Our time is so short before life blows up on us. There’s something very pure about this – just one chance at every minute.

This is it.

* * *
This is part 6 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"

2013-05-27

But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?


The Temperament and Character Inventory developed by Robert Cloninger assesses self-transcendence as the sum of three sub-scores:
  • Self-Forgetfulness
  • Transpersonal Identification
  • Acceptance
There’s a fly though, I think, in Cloninger’s ointment for measuring spirituality. My complaint is not so much with the particular reliability and/or validity of his measure. My complaint is with the idea of measurement itself when it comes to spirituality.

The implicit message of any measurement is: "measure up!" With measurement comes judgment – as most of us know from the last time we measured – and judged – ourselves on the bathroom scale. When it comes to physical fitness, or cognitive fitness, or emotional-social fitness, judgmentalism about ourselves or other people might sometimes provide short-term motivation. It can also often be counter-productive. When it comes to spiritual fitness, judgmentalism is flatly contrary to the very spiritual fitness we are judging inadequate.

There is an appropriate, limited role for judgment. With spiritual development we learn how to also at the same time hold in our awareness the wider context within which judgment has its little corner. That wider context transcends our petty assessments of better and worse.

Your spirit is the part of you that understands that you are good enough – that you are, in fact, (as mentioned in the "Blessed Affliction" series), perfect, exactly the way you are.

Moreover, you can’t make yourself spiritually mature. Yes, there are practices that will tend, over time, to strengthen the spiritual virtues: equanimity, peace, compassion, wisdom, presence. Spiritual practices do tend to do that, though not with the kind of predictable timeline that benchpresses strengthen the upper body. Rather spiritual practice cultivates spiritual virtues on the spirit’s own schedule, in its own way, on a path with irregular ups and downs.

"So, Meredith," you may ask me, "why would I undertake a practice of such uncertain payoff?”

And why would I want spiritual development if I'm already perfect?"

Those are logical questions. I can only say I began a spiritual practice because I didn’t feel perfect. In fact, I started my primary spiritual practice for the worst reason: because an authority told me to.

Twelve years ago I was in Chicago trying to pass muster to become a minister, trying to prove I was good enough. I had just finished my first year of divinity school, and I was meeting with the Midwest regional subcommittee on candidacy (which is a subcommittee of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The path to professional ministry is gaily festooned with committees.)

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" asked a member of that subcommittee.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church.

But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there.

But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't. Nothing I regularly did was centering or cleansing, or put me much in touch with myself, or interconnected me with all beings, or produced a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world, or made me feel lighter as I went about subsequent tasks -- or even inclined me to smile more. “Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me.

It is contradictory to take up a path of self-acceptance and trusting in my own inner wisdom because an outside authority told me to. Yet that’s what I did.

It is contradictory to judge myself for judging myself too much. Yet that’s what I did, and still do, albeit somewhat more gently, usually.

* * *
This is part 5 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

2013-05-24

Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?

As the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) measure it, "self-transcendence" is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Whether the activity is sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, we might sometimes lose ourselves in it, and the sense of being a separate independent self takes a vacation.

Second, transpersonal identification. This is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification.

Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. The sentiment, "there but for the grace of God go I," can be a start toward a compassionate response. Transpersonal identification goes further. It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you because, in fact, you are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification.

Third, acceptance. This is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts. Spiritually mature people are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection.

"Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually mature are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid recrimination and blame ("Those evil oppressors!") They see that blame merely recapitulates the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together the scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is the self-transcendence – or spirituality -- score.

Would you want to grow or change toward being the sort of person whose scores in these areas were higher?

Answer carefully, because there are trade-offs.

Cloninger says self-transcendence is disadvantageous in most modern societies where idealism, modesty, and meditative search for meaning might interfere with the acquisition of wealth and power. People who are low in self-transcendence, Cloninger finds, are described by themselves and others as practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling. These are people well adapted in most Western societies because of their rational objectivity and materialistic success.

So maybe, like Otto Ringling, you have all the spiritual development you’re inclined to want.

Or maybe not.

Those low in self-transcendence may be geared for materialistic success, but they consistently have difficulty accepting and adjusting to suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death. When people are confronted with these bombs that explode the long-crafted illusions of control and success, as we all inevitably will be if we live very long, self-transcendence then is, as the psychologist Cloninger puts it, “adaptively advantageous.”

If living in peace in the midst of tragedy, without shutting out the tragedy, is what you’d like to be able to do, then cultivating spirituality might be, for you, worth the disadvantage that you’ll be less interested in acquisition of wealth and power.

* * *
This is part 4 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

2013-05-22

The Class Atheist

I just love being a Unitarian Universalist. We’ve got such a full spectrum here. The chance to be a part of a community of such diversity is an enormous joy, blessing, and grace. Twenty years ago, Cecelia Ringling (a fictional character whose business is "Tarot and palm reading, past life regressions, and spiritual journeyings") typified what I thought of in connection with “spirituality,” and I was pretty much an Otto (Cecelia's practical-minded, no-nonsense brother), so I saw the Cecelias as interesting, often lovely and wonderful people, but with these interests that just seemed, well, flaky as a good spanakopita crust.

In 7th grade: Year 4 of being the Class Atheist. Oh,
the existential angst of breakfast! My sister Alizon
is clearly oblivious to the unbearability of it all.
It goes back to when I was in fourth grade, and I first heard the word “atheist” – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one. This was a scandal to my classmates in that rural Georgia school. From then on through high school I was “the class atheist.” But, you know, after awhile they got over being scandalized. Apart from a few kids who were hostile, and a few others who undertook to try to save me, my classmates preferred to ignore our differences of theological opinion. If there was a disconnect between us because of religion, looking back, I’d say the distance-making, the wall-building, came more from me than from them. As a child and teenager, my sad heart hardened and chose contempt as its protective strategy. I did not go for “spirituality” – did not use that word for my experiences. Nor did I think in terms of sacred, divine, transcendent. Wasn’t so keen on awe, mystery, or wonder either.

It was several years after college before, very slowly at first, I began to find a place – to want a place -- in my life for transcendent love, inner peace, “all-right-ness,” acceptance, awe, beauty, wonder, humility, gratitude, a freshness of experience; a feeling of plenitude, abundance, and deep simplicity of all things; “the oceanic feeling,” Sigmund Freud spoke of, calling it “a sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.” These are ways of describing the spiritual. In moments of heightened spiritual experience, the gap between self and world vanishes. The normal experience of time leaves us, and each moment has a quality of the eternal in it. There is no better name for this than “spirituality,” and it turns out that it does not require theism or any of the things Cecelia Ringling is into.

Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis sought a way to define spirituality more definitely, empirically, and measurably. Their 240-item questionnaire called the "Temperament and Character Inventory,” includes, as one of the dimensions of character, something they call "self-transcendence" – and I’d call spirituality. Self-transcendence is an orientation toward the elevated, whether that is experienced as compassion, ethics, art, or whether it is experienced as a divine presence.

By orienting toward the elevated, we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed. Self-transcendence means conceiving oneself as integral to the universe as a whole. Self-transcendent individuals are spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled. This self-transcendence, as Cloninger measures it, is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

Self-forgetfulness. Transpersonal identificaltion. Acceptance. Are these qualities on which you'd like to improve your scores?

* * *
This is part 3 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

2013-05-20

Spirituality and Types

Let me tell you how I learned to stop worrying and love spirituality.

Some of you might remember Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove.” It was a black comedy satirizing the prevalent fear of the time: nuclear bombs. The subtitle was, you may remember, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Life sometimes hits like a bomb, blows up the world as we have known it: the loss of a loved one, traumatic tragedy. Bombs are fearful things: the nuclear bombs with which nations threaten whole populations, and the little explosions inside handguns that propel bullets for neighbor to kill neighbor, and the in-between bombs that ripped the Boston Marathon – and our hearts. The bombshell of violence shakes and saddens our souls.

Life also explodes in beauty: the birth of a child, the arrival of spring.

How do we learn to ease the worry and bring love to the bombs we fear? How do we learn to stop worrying and love...everything...even the hard parts?

It calls for development of such spiritual virtues as equanimity and compassion, the cultivation of which beyond our native dispositions is a slow and unsteady business in the best of circumstances.

This spirituality, though, might be itself the bomb we fear. It was for me. I’m the first-born child of rationalist humanist academic parents. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist humanist academic. If you’d said “spirituality” to me 20 years ago, the image that would have come to mind would have been of someone like the fictional character, Cecelia Ringling.

In a recent Roland Merullo novel, Otto and Cecelia Ringling are siblings. Otto is 44, competent at his job, common-sensical, no-nonsense, straightforward, and upbeat, devoted to his family: a wife and two teenagers. Otto makes a comfortable living. But his sister Cecelia, four years younger, barely scrapes by in her line of work. Cecelia’s line of work is indicated by the lavender and cream sign in front of her house:
“Cecelia Ringling, Tarot and palm readings, Past-life regressions, Spiritual journeyings.”
“’Journeyings,’” mutters Otto. “What kind of word is that?” Otto describes his sister as: “a nice enough woman who is as flaky as a good spanakopita crust.” Otto has all the spiritual development he is inclined to want, and has little interest in “the types of things my sister was always talking about: synchronicity, psychic wavelengths, auras, healing energies.” And the aforementioned tarot and palm reading and past-life regressions. We might add things like astrology, reiki, healing touch, s√©ances, psychic powers, astral projection, crystals, pyramids, channeling – what Otto calls, “all the frizz-frazz of people who couldn’t deal with solid reality.” Cecelia has a penchant for “floppy, too colorful dresses” and “sandals that were supposed to massage your acupuncture points and keep you free of illness.”

You recognize these types, don’t you? These characters are archetypes of the contemporary scene. We Unitarian Universalists have our Otto types who think of themselves as oriented toward dealing with solid reality and not escaping into magical thinking and woo-woo, new-agey stuff. We also have our Cecelia types here. What seems to Otto to be dealing with solid reality seems to our Cecelia-types to be limiting oneself to a very narrow, restricted portion of reality.

We also have a lot of folks who are kinda in-between, I guess you could say. These are the folks who would never pay good money for an astrological forecast, but in their medicine chest is a bottle of herbal pills the benefits of which, the asterisk explains, “have not been verified by the FDA.”

* * *
This is part 2 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

2013-05-17

This Is It: Atheist Spirituality

Gentle Reader, take a few minutes with this post to set aside the illusion of your past, the gossamer dreams of your future. Take this moment to return to right now, this place: your body, your surroundings.

After all, this is it. The point was whimsically expressed by poet James Broughton:
This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It
I recently became aware of a phenomenon called atheist spirituality, which may sound like an oxymoron. Here’s how it is explained in a video called, “My Spirituality as an Atheist”
"...I’d have to consider myself a spiritual person. I’m not talking about some ghostly, ethereal soul...inside my body.... I’m talking about the essence of human...: the action or ability to see beauty, to feel wonder, and to be in awe. The Grand Tetons.... A pile of stars...still and perfect.... At times I can be so overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive that I cry or I laugh or I scream or I just breathe deeply. Being humble is simply the feeling of recognizing the reality of one’s small significance to a universe so massive. Being grateful to be alive doesn't require a person to be grateful toward.... I am one with the universe. I am as much the universe as a supernova: made of the same particles, governed by the same forces. I am genes that mutated randomly then were selected naturally based on their success in survival. And I love apple butter on a biscuit. I collapse in awe at the magnificence of this place.... I breathe appreciation for it all. I have to – with all my essence, with all my spirit."

Andy Walters described his Atheist Spirituality on his blog, "The Journey":
"As a spiritual atheist, I mean that I reject the supernatural but affirm the reality and value of what most people usually mean when they say 'the divine.'...[The divine is transcendent love, and] Transcendent love is valuing others’ interests above your own....Practicing respect, humility, compassion, and altruism, for example, is intensely gratifying....It is the divine -- the part of me that “transcends” my ego....Second, by “divine”, people also mean inner peace -- being unafraid of what is, has been, or will be....When I experience it, I am flooded with a sense of “all-right-ness” with myself and my circumstances. Although it is a sense of acceptance, it does not rid me of the desire to better myself and my circumstances....Awe is the final component of what people usually mean when they speak of the divine. Divine awe is a sense of utter astonishment and wonder at the mystery of existence...the degree of awe that can come from observing the mystery of existence....For thousands of years, humans have mapped out the divine and many have explained it in terms of the supernatural. With the advent of modernism, however, that language no longer makes sense. But that doesn’t mean that the divine isn’t real -- it only means we need a different vocabulary to describe the same reality. I call it spiritual atheism." (Walters' whole blog post: see here)
Walters, too, videotaped himself offering his reflections:


Yup. "It is now, and here it is, and here we are, so this is it."

There’s something very pure about each moment, just one chance to experience it: blossoms and sunshine and one morning’s journey together. This is it.

* * *
This is part 1 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 5: "But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

2013-05-15

If You're Lucky Your Heart Will Break


A friend of mine, James Ford, is both a Unitarian Universalist minister and a Zen master. James has a new book out. I haven't read it yet. I love the title: If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break. For in that breaking is the chance to find yourself and your light. That’s the blessed affliction.

Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, had a stroke in 1997, at age 65. The stroke left him with expressive aphasia -- he lost the ability to speak fluently. He also became wheel-chair bound. He called the stroke fierce grace. He wrote:
“For me to see the stroke as grace required a perceptual shift. I used to be afraid of things like strokes, but I’ve discovered that the fear of the stroke was worse than the stroke itself....Since the stroke I can say to you with an assurance I couldn’t have felt before, that faith and love are stronger than any changes, stronger than aging, and, I am very sure, stronger than death.”
Ram Dass also said:
“The ego is like my wheelchair. It’s a beautiful wheelchair. Use it. Enjoy it. Just don’t think it is you. Don’t take yourself so, so personally.”
Don’t take yourself so personally.

That's easier said than done.

It's not easy to maintain a helpful and functional ego while at the same time not identifying with it. Moreover, "don't take yourself so personally" easily becomes one more "should" in life, which undermines the point.

Accepting yourself means accepting even the parts of you that aren't self-accepting.

If I hadn’t been cracked, if I hadn’t failed, if things had gone as I was once so sure they “should,” I might still be teaching philosophy, still living in my head, still assessing everything other people said as either something I agreed with or something I had an argument against, rarely simply present to the beauty and fascination of another person – concerned only with whether they were right, rather than with understanding where they were coming from. I might still be with Evelyn. Boy, would that be awful!

In fact, as I play that “what if” game in my head, I realize that: no way. There's no way that old life could have lasted. If those "shoulds" hadn’t failed me when they did, they would have soon after. They were unsustainable “shoulds.” The question though is: am I learning what life is trying to show me about the ground of what is, or am I jumping from one delusion to another? Or clinging miserably to the same one?

As Pema Chodron says:
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
The blessing of affliction is offered. May our hearts receive it.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Blessed Affliction"
Previous: Part 3: "Failure and 'Should'"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nobody's Perfect?"

2013-05-13

Failure and "Should"

Our brokenness is itself our gift. This, however, is not easy to see. Often, we think we should not have that brokenness.

It’s always the "shoulds" that plague us. After all, what would there be to bother us about losing a leg except the thought that we should have two of them? Does it bother you that you don’t have wings and can’t fly? Inability to fly doesn’t bother us much because we don’t have in our heads the idea that we "should” be able to fly. Get over the idea that we should have two legs, and one leggedness won’t bother us either.

Brokenness, affliction boil down to this: failure. And failure is always relative to the success we think we should be having. We failed – or something failed. Our bodies failed, our relationship failed, our job failed, our brain failed. There was a failure of something in ourselves or in our world to be what we were so sure it should be, was supposed to be. Brokenness, the blessing of our affliction, arrives as failure.

Seventeen years ago, I lost my job as an assistant professor of philosophy. It was wrong -- so obviously wrong. It should not have happened. I was so upset. Stricken. My skin felt like it would really rather be somewhere besides wrapped around my body. I couldn’t make things be what it was so clear to me they should be.

Failure and “should” are concepts that go hand in hand, and that separate us from reality.

I was in a relationship with a woman, Evelyn. This was after the dissolution of my first marriage and before I met LoraKim, to whom I’ve been married now for 13 years. That relationship with Evelyn reached the point where it wasn’t working out – at least, it wasn’t working out for her. She “should” have loved me. I was younger then – trimmer, fitter – smart, funny -- take my word for it, I was adorable. But she didn’t love me, not anymore. I couldn’t make her, and I was, again, so distraught. You could have told me it was my choice to feel that way, and in some sense you’d have been right. But I didn’t have the skills to feel any differently. I didn’t know then how to choose otherwise, to get over my conception of what should be and get back to the ground of what is.

Now, don’t get me wrong: this is not about being complacent. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we don’t speak out against injustice. I just want to say there’s a way to do that without being upset, without “demand energy,” without rancor, without thinking anyone is evil, without discomfort or distrust. There is a way to stand for justice while also being at peace with ourselves and at peace with those whose actions seem to us to have been instrumental in creating the state of affairs we are working to change.

There’s a way to be a peaceful warrior. It might be possible to become a peaceful warrior without having to break. I don’t know. Maybe. For me, though, and for everyone I have ever known personally, somewhere in growing up our lives became as a vase, shellacked with “should” until opaque. And the light within us does not shine out until something breaks us. Some very important “should” fails, and we crack. We break open.
.
* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Blessed Affliction"
Next: Part 4: "If You're Lucky Your Heart Will Break"
Previous: Part 2: "The Brokenness Is the Gift"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nobody's Perfect?"

2013-05-10

The Brokenness Is the Gift

Rev. Clinton Lee
Scott (1887 - 1985)
What we aren't and don't makes possible what we are and do. The great Universalist minister, Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, brought this point home to church life. Scott's "Parable for Pulpit Committees” illustrates the competing qualities that congregations seem to want in their minister.
"Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad. And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up, yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that puts the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed." (Scott)
Sometimes we say, “well, no one’s perfect” – when the point really might be better expressed as: no one simultaneously exhibits contradictory qualities. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, it’s not a fault to not have youthful exuberance. If your gift is youthful exuberance, it’s not a fault to not have the wisdom of experience. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do.

So the first point is that the shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow is the necessary enabling condition of the gift. Now let’s go a little further with that. The shadow is not merely what makes the gift possible, but actually is the gift itself. Our broken-ness is itself the very thing that is our strength. That’s the paradoxical truth: the weakness is the strength.

Here’s a story to illustrate. It’s a story of a young man who lost his leg – his leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. Rachel Remen is an M.D. and now Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She’s a pioneer in the mind/body holistic health movement and sees the practice of medicine as a spiritual path. This young man was one of Dr. Remen’s patients. She writes:
“He was twenty-four years old when I started working with him and he was a very angry man with a lot of bitterness. He felt a deep sense of injustice and a very deep hatred for all well people, because it seemed so unfair to him that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly a profound shift began. He came to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. Once he visited a young woman who was almost his own age. It was a hot day in California. He was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered her hospital room. The young woman had lost both her breasts to cancer. And she was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'” (Remen)
A year later, Remen says,
“We sat down to review our work together. He talked about what was significant to him and then I shared what was significant in our process. As we were reviewing our two years of work together, I opened his file and there discovered several drawings he had made early on. I handed them to him. He looked at them and said, ‘Oh, look at this.’ He showed me one of his earliest drawings. I had suggested to him that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image of his body and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again. He was grinding his teach with rage at the time. It was very, very painful because it seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again. It could never hold water. Now, several years later, he came to this picture and looked at it and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ And I said, extending the box of crayons, ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body.” (Remen)
That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness is the gift.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Blessed Affliction"
Next: Part 3: "Failure and 'Should'"
Previous: Part 1: "Nobody's Perfect?"

Acknowledgment: I'm indebted to Rev. Mary Katherine Morn for bringing the Remen material to my attention.

2013-05-09

Nobody's Perfect?

“Well, no one’s perfect.” 
Almost everybody says this from time to time. Is it true?

There is one group of people, I have noticed, who don’t say this. New parents. I do not have actual study data on this, but I’m thinking that when their brand new daughter or son is laid in their arms, it’s a pretty rare thing for new parents to say, “well, no one’s perfect.”

My own children are here today – my daughter Morgen and my son John. I got my first exposure to clear and undeniable human perfection 32-and-a-half years ago, when I first laid eyes on newborn Morgen. And in case I missed the message, I got an equally powerful form of it two years later when John was born.

They grew, and there were challenges, and they were teenagers, and there were challenges. But if I ask myself, when did they stop being perfect, I have to say, they never did.

By contrast, the official traditional theology of the Catholic church offers a different answer. At age seven you enter the age of reason, can make moral distinctions, commit sin after that, and join the fallen state bequeathed to us from Adam. That’s not our theology -- and it’s not my experience. Oh, sure, Morgen and John would occasionally, rarely, do something that might reasonably be called a mistake – but it was a perfect mistake. It was exactly the mistake they needed to make to learn what they needed to learn. If they never stopped being perfect, neither did I, and neither did you. Which means perfection isn’t static. Pefection is dynamic.

A newborn is perfect, and at the same time, we wouldn’t want it to stay exactly as it is for 40 years. Having the capacity for change, growth, and learning is a key part of what makes them perfect just as they are. So it is with every infant, every child, every youth, and every adult. Perfect.

What we aren’t, and can’t be is everything. We have our gifts, and with them come our shadows. We have our vulnerability, our woundedness, our brokenness.

I’d like to say two things about that.

First, the shadow is necessary for the gift. Being not so good at X is what allows you to be good at Y. The so-called “weakness” is what makes the strength possible.

Second, I want to go a step further than that. Your weakness IS your strength. The part of you that seems broken is itself your gift to the world – it is your blessed affliction.

For the first point, consider this. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, looked at a variety of fields and discovered a kind of magic number: 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours is what it takes to really become outstanding at something. A dedicated athlete or scientist, musician or dancer, can sustain focused, intense practice or study for maybe 20 hours a week – so it takes 10 years to get to 10,000 hours. Whether there’s really something magic about 10,000 hours, or whatever the number is, what this reminds us is: no one can be good at everything. We get good at it by doing it – and we’re inclined to do it if we think we’re good at it – and the hours you put in sharpening your tremolo technique were hours you weren’t practicing your jump shot.

You can’t be everything. Whatever your gift, every gift comes with its shadow. What we aren’t and don’t makes possible what we are and do.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Blessed Affliction."
Next: Part 2: "The Brokenness Is the Gift"