Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Daily Discernment

I once heard that Quaker teacher Bill Taber didn’t do a single thing before stopping and listening for God’s guidance. Even when he was leading a weekend workshop, he never planned more than a session ahead, stopping at each break to pray for guidance for the next hour’s work. I aspire to be so grounded and trusting, but I’m afraid I’m still learning how to listen to my inner voice when the phone is ringing, the dog barking to go out, and the kids clamoring for help with their homework. This week I’m practicing with the daily decisions around scheduling a busy family.

This weekend, for example, is just ridiculous. My son has a soccer game on Saturday morning, while my daughter has a Middle School Friends activity in the afternoon. I am invited to an art exhibit opening where a poem I wrote will be featured, along with a piece of visual art that was created to accompany it. Both curiosity and ego made me want to go to the exhibit opening, which is being organized by a good friend. Unfortunately, it is a few hours drive, and not even the Pennsylvania mountains in autumn could justify such a long trip, especially since my husband (a hospice social worker) is on call, the kids need chauffeuring, and I have things to do to prepare for my husband’s birthday on Sunday. Once I admitted to myself that my ego was blocking my discernment, I was able to let that one go and erase the exhibit from the family calendar.

Then a trickier dilemma came along. Several of the parents of the Middle School Friends event, which has been planned for some time, realized that dropping our children at the meetinghouse at 1 was going to make us miss the human chain for peace happening at the other end of the city. I got the bright idea that we should take the kids to at least some of the peace march and start the field trip an hour later. One parent offered to drive all the kids from the march to the meetinghouse, but then realized she wasn’t going to be able to do it. Other family plans shifted as well, often when people remembered other commitments they had forgotten. To make a long story short, this dilemma generated scores of e-mail—we were, of course, hitting “reply to all”—as well as a few phone conversations. I felt like John Woolman who chided himself for wasting people’s time in business meeting when he realized he was keeping hundreds of people from starting their journeys home.

From a logical point of view, having Quaker kids go to a peace march made all the sense in the world. But yesterday morning I woke up with a strong sense that I needed to think less and listen more. (This also applied to the question of whether to offer a workshop at FGC Gathering this summer, which I had also been thinking about.) I took the dog for a walk in the predawn rain and felt a strong call to simplify, cutting activities unless they really were spirit led. The result will be one less peace march for my daughter, but I’ve realized she’s more likely to learn peace from having a peaceful mother than from rushing from one end of town to the other with a peace sign dragging behind her.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

More Courage

My last post drew a number of comments, some of them criticizing my description of Al Gore as courageous. John Comma suggested Quaker peace activist Tom Fox as a better model. I agree. After reading Tom’s last post from Iraq and some of the 92 comments from supporters, I am in tears. Being willing to risk one’s life for others is certainly the most profound kind of courage. Many people have been inspired by his example.

Most of us are so far from Tom’s level of commitment that I still feel a need to find smaller steps that people can take to develop courage. My friend Hilary Beard, whom I interviewed for my book, gave me this idea. She said that she learned in the corporate world that when you want to do something big and scary, you break it down into tiny steps that seem more manageable. In her case, she felt led to leave her corporate career and pursue writing, but even taking a night time writing course seemed frightening. So one day she brought the phone book to work. That wasn’t too scary. The next day she looked up the numbers of colleges that might offer evening writing courses. That wasn’t too scary. The next day she called and asked for catalogs. Every day she took a tiny step, so that now she is supporting herself as a full-time writer, giving people empowering information instead of selling them stuff they don’t need.

Of course there is a difference between acting on one's own behalf, and acting selflessly, but I am reminded of something Tim O'Brian said in The Things They Carried. Disappointed with himself for not having the courage to oppose the Vietnam War as an adult, he recalled a time when he was cowardly as a child and noted that if you want to develop courage in the big things, you need to start practicing with the little things.

But what about when even a tiny step seems too frightening? Last week I had a conversation with a woman who was irate at the prospect of the president vetoing children’s health care. She approached me and said that because I was “a political person” I should get people to phone the president in protest. I said I agreed with her on the issue and asked whether she had phoned in. She shook her head and laughed in embarrassment. It became clear that, although she felt passionately about the issue, calling a politician to voice her opinion seemed too scary. She wanted someone else to do it.

It would be easy to dismiss her fear as trivial or irrational. After all we are not living in Burma or somewhere where a tiny act of protest could be deadly. John’s comment on my last post was right about many of us living in privilege and relative safety, though I don’t think a lecture on her relative privilege would have helped this person. Frankly, I’m not sure if my encouragement did either, but I’m left with the feeling that many people's lives are paralyzed by fear, even the privileged. Although part of me wants to say, "Oh, give me a break," a deeper part of me feels we need to see each other’s fears with compassion, especially if we hope to create a more courageous culture. I remember once feeling judged in college for not being politically conscious enough. I think that judgment, and my defensive reaction to it, delayed my political consciousness by a few years. There has to be a better way to empower people.

I want to uphold the dramatic examples of courage—Tom Fox, Gandhi, Martin Luther King—but I also want to honor the more mundane examples, a woman quitting a lucrative job to follow her calling, or someone speaking up for the first time. Gandhi, after all, was terrified of public speaking. His autobiography is an inspirational account of small changes leading to dramatic transformation.


Friday, October 12, 2007


My eight-year-old son loves The Dangerous Book for Boys, which for anyone who has missed it, has been on the bestseller lists for months. It contains lots of old fashioned fun: how to build a go-cart, strategies for playing chess, even quotes by William Shakespeare. There is much to recommend it as an alternative to video games and violent movies, which is a relief since my adventurous son and his Quaker mother often disagree on the ethics of entertainment. I was pleased to find him reading this book with real interest and then scrambling around the house to find materials to make a battery. But last night I came across a section that greatly disappointed me and reminded me how my values are often out of step with the popular culture.

Of course it was the section on famous battles. I should have seen it coming that a book extolling the virtues of masculinity would sooner or later get around to glorifying war. To make matters worse, the battle I decided to read about was a Zulu battle with the British. Given that I am currently teaching a class on South African history, I dug in with interest. It was clear from the first sentence that the authors had a romantic notion of European colonialism, though that word was never mentioned. A boy reading this would have no idea that Europeans were systematically taking African land and resources, destroying their traditional cultures, and setting themselves up to rule out of arrogance and greed. Indeed the whole viewpoint of the story was clearly aligned with the British who were portrayed as heroes for fighting off a horde of wild Zulu (though the fact that the British had guns and the Zulu spears was not explored in depth). The piece ended by extolling the courage of the men on both sides.

Now I’m all for courage. I think we could use more of it in our world, and I’m happy for my son (as well as my daughter) to learn this virtue. I also recognize that many people have shown courage in times of war. My own father was on a ship that was sunk off the coast of Europe during WWII. He spent the night in the water with the Germans shooting at him and still managed to save another man. But I hope and pray that my son won’t ever need this kind of courage, that he finds other ways to prove his manhood.

I was musing on this when I heard that Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. I think Gore has shown the other kind of courage that I want for myself and my children. Granted Gore hasn’t been shot at physically, but he has taken lots of pot-shots, like being called “ozone man” during the 2000 presidential race. I think it took courage for Gore to raise climate change in Congress decades ago, when people thought it was a lark. It took courage to keep talking about it when people expected him to skulk away, like most defeated presidential candidates. Maybe he doesn’t have the courage to give up his big house or his big car, as critics charge, but I could use more courage in the area of personal sacrifice as well. I’m still glad to have his example to hold up next to generals and foot-soldiers.

As for other examples, I’m happy to say that The Daring Book for Girls is coming out soon, written by two friends, Miriam Peskowitz and Andi Buchanan. Given that both these women send their children to Quaker schools, I’m hopeful it won’t be glorifying battles, except maybe those for justice.

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Friday, October 05, 2007


Yesterday I had a guest lecturer come to my class on South Africa during Apartheid, a black South African lawyer, here on an exchange program. She spoke eloquently about the changes she’s witnessed during her lifetime, and fielded questions on everything from poverty to the Iraq war. Then, since she had been talking about the constitution, I mentioned how many people were surprised that South Africa’s constitution guarantees equal rights for gays and lesbians, given that they are not accepted in traditional African culture. She became animated, explaining that her Christian upbringing had taught her that homosexuality was wrong, so it was difficult for her when the judge she worked for made her work on that issue when it came to the Constitutional Count (which is like their Supreme Court). She had to listen to the testimonies of people requesting marriage equal to heterosexuals’ and reread the part of the constitution that says people may not be discriminated against on any grounds, including among other things, sexual orientation. “It gave me a little taste of what it must be like to be a white person who is raised to be prejudiced,” she said, explaining her internal conflict. She got the biggest laughs of her talk when she said that some friends had rented Brokeback Mountain without telling her what it was about. She was shocked when the sex scenes started, but found herself crying when one of the men cried. “Wow, it seemed like he really felt love for this other guy!” she said. It was clear she was still conflicted, but that some wall had cracked in her that allowed empathy to flow through.

Her story got me thinking about how much easier it is to change laws than hearts—and that’s not forgetting that it took decades to change the laws in South Africa. But to change a law, all you need is political power. It can happen relatively quickly once the conditions are right. Changing a heart or a mind can happen quickly too, but it’s a more mysterious process. It’s something that can’t be forced. The Civil Rights events that happened fifty years ago, and the conflicts in Jena Louisiana that happened a few weeks ago illustrate this. So do the changes in South Africa, which have been dramatic, though they haven’t eliminated racism. That will take a bit more time.

Sometimes I wonder where I am called to put my energy: to change the objective conditions that cause human suffering, or to change hearts. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact things probably go more smoothly if they shift together, though as a practical matter I have to decide where to put my energy. As a writer and a teacher, I tend toward the heart and mind focus, though the political activist in me doesn’t want to forget laws and institutions.

Several hours after the South African’s talk I met a Buddhist man who told me that when brought down to its most basic level Buddhism says we should stop doing harm first, then start doing good. Only after that should we focus on purifying our thoughts. It’s an interesting perspective. It reminds me that instead of thinking about changing the world I’m called to change myself first, like the South African lawyer who changed herself while working to change her country.


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