Imperfect Serenity

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


A writer friend of mine, who is also a very spiritual person, says that whenever life seems to be getting in the way of your writing, consider the possibility that the distractions are there to teach you something you need to learn in order to do the writing. I’m trying to remember that after a week when I didn’t get to write anything, not even blog. Looking back at the events of the week, I can see ways that my friend is right.

For instance, last night we had dinner with a troubled young woman whom I would like to “fix,” though I know I can’t. I can’t undo her rough childhood, her exposure to drugs and alcohol at an early age, or the genes she inherited from her two addictive parents. I can’t prevent her from making foolish financial decisions or questionable relationship ones. But I can sit and listen, which I don’t think many people have ever done for her, and I can pray for her. The irony is that the chapter of the book I was working on before this distracting week was on dealing with other people. There is a section on accepting that we can’t change or control other people (although other sections of the chapter talk about how we can bring out the best in them through things like deep listening). This morning I realized I need a paragraph (at least) on praying for people when there is nothing else to do, and maybe one on how hard it is to listen to someone who is not making much sense. It would have been more efficient if I could have gotten these insights without the four-hour painful dinner and the following sleepless night, but my writing process is usually not that efficient. I have to actually learn things before I can write about them.

I’m hoping the class I am now teaching on “Race at the End of the Twentieth Century” will also enrich my writing work, rather than distract me from it, though this first week of the semester it took up much of my time. Likewise the Quaker work that is coming now that my meeting has approved building a new meetinghouse I’m sure will be educational. I’m less certain what I was supposed to learn from this week’s chipped tooth and the morning I spent at the dentist’s getting a temporary crown. It could be another lesson in patience, though I would have thought I get enough of those as a parent. I guess this week brings me back to my two favorite themes: trust and discernment. I have to trust that if I am on the right path, then everything will work together for some purpose I can’t always see. On the other hand, I have to keep discerning if I am on the right path and not saying yes to too many things that will distract me from the work I am really supposed to be doing.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hearing and Being Heard

Many years ago I was in the Peace Corps in Botswana, where most people speak Setswana, which I learned better than most Whites, but not fluently. Because I spoke some Setswana, people sometimes assumed that I knew more than I actually did. I remember once when I stopped by the shop near my little round house. One of the women behind the counter told me something in Setswana, and I had to answer, “Ga ke utlwe”—I don’t understand. The woman repeated herself, more loudly this time, but my response was the same. This went on until I felt she was shouting at me, and we were both frustrated. I finally left the store, still not knowing what seemed so urgent to the disappointed woman.

The problem was that Setswana uses the word utlwa to mean both “understand” and “hear.” I could hear the woman fine; I just had no idea what she was talking about. I think Quakers sometimes have a similar problem with language (and maybe not just Quakers). When we talk about hearing each other and feeling heard, we usually mean something other than the literal hearing that can be amplified by a computerized devise in the ear. We do need to speak up, to be mindful of those older Friends in the back benches who have no chance of understanding us if we don’t project a bit more, but that’s not the kind of hearing I’m concerned with here. This morning I’m thinking about how we can better hear with the heart and how we can speak in ways that make us more likely to be heard in that deeper way.

In English we are blessed with a number of words with different connotations. We can listen but not hear, hear but not understand, understand but not agree, or agree but not comply. Hearing with the heart is harder to define. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with someone or doing what they want, though it does imply a deep understanding, empathy, and respect. Sometimes when people complain that they haven’t been heard, I sense they are just frustrated that they haven’t gotten their way yet, but more often I think it is because they haven’t yet felt the respect and empathy of their listeners. In my experience, once I feel truly heard—understood, respected, and empathized with—it is easier for me to stop repeating myself, which of course makes it easier to hear what the other person is saying.

I first started thinking about these multiple meanings of the word “hear” when I was living at Pendle Hill fifteen years ago. There were some earnest community members who felt they were “not being heard” on issues of gender equality, so—like the woman in Botswana—they simply kept repeating themselves more vehemently. In the end, some people who hadn’t thought deeply about gender concerns really did hear the pain in their voices, and some wonderful healing and growth took place in pockets of the community. In other parts of the community, however, there was no real understanding. There were many people who were glad at the end of the year to part company with the folks they were tired of listening to. I’m thinking about this experience now as our meeting community is engaged in some difficult discernment. After eight years of threshing sessions, discussions, meetings for worship for business, personal conversations, and called meetings for worship, I have the sense that we still have not totally heard each other. It’s all a bit exhausting, but unlike Pendle Hill, we are not a community that has near fifty per cent turn over at the end of every year. We can’t just wait this out.

I don’t have any solutions, but in Quaker tradition I have some queries, for our meeting members and for others who face similar situations:
Have I spoken my truth as clearly and honestly as I can, trusting that mine is just a piece of a greater Truth?
Have I felt understood and respected by my listeners?
If not, am I called to repeat my message, express it differently, or let it go?
Have I listened deeply to each person in my community, trusting that each holds a piece of a greater Truth?
Have I understood the concerns of each speaker and empathized with them?
If not, why not?
Have I spoken about anyone in my community in ways that disparage their perspective, perhaps making it more difficult for others to hear them with respect?
Have I done my best to help ground the community in the kind of deep speaking and listening that brings us all closer to God?

(For those who are unfamiliar with the Quaker use of queries, these are questions asked not to provoke an immediate or logial answer but to prompt us to examine the issues and our response to them more deeply. Friends often read queries at the beginning of a meeting and then sit in silence and let the questions work in us.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Teaching Discernment

I’ve been thinking about a comment from two posts ago about trusting the discernment of our children. It seems to bring together two huge and difficult questions: How do we know if someone else is truly listening to God’s guidance? And how do we prepare our children to be adults?

On the first question, it’s hard enough to know if we are really being faithful ourselves; it is so easy to frame our own desires in the language of leading. Early Friends were suspicious of their own desires—to the extreme perhaps, living as they were at a time when anything “natural” seemed suspect—but we’ve gone the other way. We consider our own desires something to pay attention to when discerning God’s leading, which in general, I think is right. However, it is awfully easy to confuse our superficial, insecure, socially conditioned desires with the deep desires of our “true selves,” to use the language of many religious writers.

In Quaker tradition, the community helps to challenge our inclination to fool ourselves. Today we have clearness committees, but in earlier eras I have the sense that Friends challenged each other more regularly, not just when they were asked to serve on a committee. In contrast, today I have the sense that we accept that another person has a leading without much question, unless they happen to run up against our own preconceptions about what God wants. For example, if I announced in meeting that I thought God was leading me to get a BMW, Friends might be suspicious. But if I announced that I felt led to get a Prius, I suspect few would question it, even though it could be a leading or just an attempt to look cool and environmentally hip without really changing my driving habits. (I give this example not to criticize anyone who has a Prius but because I’ve been toying with getting one myself, and I’m not sure where the impulse is coming from.)

Of course, in many ways we are the best ones to question our own motives, if we are willing to challenge ourselves, that is. I know best how I usually feel when I am led, and how I can fool myself when I am not. But the question of how we assess each other’s discernment becomes important when an individual asks the community for support. For example, when Quakers want to be married under the care of a meeting or when they want funds to support a ministry they are carrying out, the community has a role in checking their discernment. We ask questions, listen deeply, and see if what they sense matches up with what we sense.

Perhaps being a parent is like being the member of an oversight or clearness committee, but I think that might be too simple. Parents have to recognize that their children are growing and changing over time, so the guidance and limits they need at four are quite different from what they need at fourteen. And part of our job is to encourage them to listen inwardly for guidance, while we approach clearness committees with adults more or less assuming (sometimes optimistically) that the person we are meeting with already knows what to listen for. Sarah’s question has me thinking about how to develop my children’s discernment more deliberately and what role I play in challenging it.

I just looked up the comment that sparked this train of thought and realized that she never used the word discernment. Here is her wording of the question:
The Quaker perspective is that everyone has some piece of the truth. How do we honor that in our children - truly honor it?
I remember a story I heard when I was living at Pendle Hill many years ago. Fran Taber—who grew up in a rural Quaker community that was more insular and conservative than the world my children experience—shared the memory of being given a piece of candy when she was a girl. She asked her mother if she could have it, and if my memory is correct, her mother said, “What does thou think, Fran?” Being given this important choice herself, Fran took it seriously and decided to save the candy until after dinner.

When I first heard this story, I thought it reflected the idea Sarah was getting at, that everyone has access to truth, including children, and that we need to honor and encourage that in each other. However, when I told this story to the children in our meeting’s First Day School (Quakerspeak for Sunday school), I remember the regular teacher looking at me like I was crazy. I had a sense that the story didn’t make sense in our circumstances where a piece of candy is not a rare treat, but something to be taken for granted. At the time, my own children were quite young, but I felt a sudden concern. How do I give my children the freedom to learn to make decisions for themselves in a culture where McDonalds, Radio Disney, and a myriad of other corporations have marketers paid specifically to shape my children’s tastes? In this culture, especially now with an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old, I find myself trying to shelter my children more than empowering them. When my daughter says she wants an iPod nano, I suspect it is the advertising and peer pressure at work, rather than her inner truth.

But I’m still left with the question of how to prepare my children for adulthood, when they will need to make their own decisions, not only about consumer choices, but about many other things as well. One of the women I interviewed for my book talked about the fact that when she was raising her children she always kept in mind that she was ultimately preparing them to leave home and live their own lives. It is easy to forget this in the midst of packing lunches and signing permission slips, but there is a truth there that I am becoming more aware of as we approach adolescence. I’d love to hear stories from others about how they are helping prepare their children to live independently, and especially how they help children pay attention to God’s guidance. Please post any wisdom you have to share!

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Hope

It’s a new year, and I have a new haircut, which makes me feel a little lighter. But the real reason I am brimming with hope this morning is that Barack Obama won in Iowa with record turn out, especially among young and new voters. The fact that his victory was sound in a state that is 95 per cent White only adds to my optimism about his prospects in the rest of the country. (For why I am now capitalizing White and Black, read this post.)

Of course Obama’s victory does not mean that racism is a thing of the past, or that the great disparities in wealth and power than exist in our country will disappear if we elect a Black president. It is important that we not buy into that illusion. But it does indeed seem to be a “new day,” as the candidate said, at least in terms of electoral politics. This seems to be confirmed in Philadelphia, which just got a new mayor in a race that broke the old mold of racially divisive elections in our town, ending with a Black man winning with an unprecedented 83% of the vote.. The fact that Michael Nutter will be inaugurated next week—the guy I wanted to vote for from the beginning but was told didn’t have a chance—only adds to my optimism about 2008.

Balancing optimism and realism is tricky business. We can’t forget the real challenges that face both these men, the real and historic problems faced by our city, and our country. But I don’t think people ever find creative solutions without optimism and the hope that things can be better. I’ve always said that the thing that makes Barak Obama different than previous Black candidates for president is not his grooming (Remember Chris Dodd’s stupid comments?), but the fact that he is the first Black candidate to believe he can actually win. This struck me months ago when Obama wrote an editorial for the Irish Edition, a Philadelphia monthly that my mother subscribed to for years. He made a compelling case for why the Irish would appreciate his approach to immigration and other issues, a pitch I don’t think Jesse Jackson ever bothered to make. The article struck me as exceedingly smart, and optimistic.

Perhaps it is Obama’s optimism that propelled him to victory last night. I know I’m sick of feeling hopeless about the world, and I suspect I’m not alone. Although I still have criticisms of The Secret, I think it is basically right in this respect—things will never improve unless we believe they can.

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