Great and Small

(As I expect we will have some new readers shortly, this is both a new post and a guide to some of my recent thinking. Most of the links connect to earlier posts I’ve made.)

It’s quiet in my apartment this week. My partner Adrian is gone on work business, and it’s the first time we’ve been separated since we moved in together, so the daily rhythm that we’d begun to get accustomed to is suddenly gone. I’m not alone in the place, however; our cat, Hannah, is with me. Hannah is a tiny cat—in fact, her official nickname here is “Small One.”

I decided to take advantage of the quiet, and of Adrian’s library, by doing some reading and then some meditation. I picked up a book on alternatives to capitalism, a topic much in my mind of late. The theme dominated my thoughts as I tried to balance on my exercise ball and enter meditation.

I put the query out to the Spirit: “What would you want the economy to look like?”

And the Spirit answered, quite promptly: “Listen, and I’ll tell you.” So I listened. And the Spirit said:

“The great take care of the small.”

Ah, I thought. That makes sense—those with the greatest resources should take care of those with the least. Very Biblical, really. But how is that to be enforced? After all, there are many mechanisms in today’s society where the powerful and wealthy are supposed to look after the weak and poor, but too often they don’t seem to be doing it, or seem to do it so selectively that it’s not generally helpful for most people.

As I pondered this, a plaintive noise intruded on my thoughts. I looked down and saw the cat, trying to climb up into my lap. But since I was sitting on the exercise ball, I didn’t really have a lap, and Hannah was mewing with dismay. Oh, right, I realized. The great take care of the small. And here was the Small One, asking for some help. So I moved to the couch to generate a lap for her.

At first she decided she didn’t want it, after all, and roamed about the apartment for a bit—but before long she came back over and settled down, purring up a storm as we helped keep each other warm. Then the second piece of the lesson fell into place. “The great take care of the small” isn’t just an instruction—it’s a definition. If you don’t take care of others, you’re not great. Simple as that.

Which reminded me of many things: the idea of asking and giving rather than buying and selling; my thoughts on heaven and hell; how you get into heaven, according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; the laborers in the vineyard; and the story, probably apocryphal but still containing much truth, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to recite the whole of Hebrew Law while standing on one foot. Hillel promptly stood on one foot, recited “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), put his foot down, and said, “The rest is commentary.”

What should the economy look like, according to the Holy Spirit? One where people take care of each other. The rest is less critical.

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Weapons and Women

This is a week of anniversaries. The 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for instance, and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But today is my anniversary, my 5th. It’s now been five years since I last tried to handle pain by inflicting more, and deal with the damage in my life by dealing more. A couple retrospectives are in order.

Both the aforementioned presidents knew something about violence, and of course violence took both of them from us, at great cost to the country. So I could have reposted this first flashback on the 19th, or, with still-greater significance, on the 22nd:

“Use of Weapons”

(The friend I mention in the first lines no longer owns firearms, by the way, but my point stands.)

And how did I get out of that cycle of violence? Well, a lot of hard work, and a lot of patience. But I give credit where credit is due, and I give a lot of the credit to

These Women

Many of the women in question, when I praise them for their help in my return from darkness, tell me that I did the work; they just helped. Which is true. But the women in question made me want to do the work. There’s a lot I can do, if the Spirit is willing and my desire is strong. But the trick about depression is that internal motivation is hard to come by. Yeah, I did the work. Yeah, I got myself out of my hole. And yeah, now I’m much more able to get started and get things done on my own. But I could have stopped cutting any time. I could have gotten help any time. I didn’t want to. Not until these women gave me reasons. And so I am deeply blessed by the Spirit that I have known them.

I could add to the list of women by now, by the way, but that will be for future posts.

So rejoice, my friends! My clouds have lifted and my storm has passed. Five years of ever-improving health. Five years of getting stronger. Five years of victory. My scars are badges of honor now, nothing I am ashamed of, for they show the world how far I have come.

Sing a joyful song today, my friends, in honor of the Spirit of Healing and Life who so beautifully drew me out of darkness. Sing a joyful song and dance.

Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

Quiet

Keen-eyed observers of this blog have no doubt noticed that it has gone silent. All five of you might be interested in an explanation.

I began this blog because I have something to say… but to be honest, mostly I felt like I had to do something. I felt powerless and unheeded, and I felt a fire in my bones—a fire which threatened to explode and break me, if I did not find some way of taking action. So I howled my thoughts into the internet, and occasionally people paid heed!

My life is changing, however. After a rough winter and a rough spring, I was finally persuaded to deal with my depression through medication. My suspicions about putting chemicals in my head were eroded by the experience and counsel of friends. Moreover, for years I had felt a simple leading: “Be yourself!” To which I always responded, “But I’m terrible.” Finally I came to realize that I am not my illness, and that to be truly me, I had to face my depression down.

The medication I am taking seems to be working quite well. The real test shall be this winter, but for the past few months I have felt somewhat more energetic and significantly more in control. So far the side effects appear to be making my bed and writing to my grandmother. But I also began—virtually spontaneously, which I find telling—to set aside some time each day for silence and worship. I’d tried and failed to develop this habit in the past, but now it is part of my daily life. I have no set length of time or time day for this practice; in fact, I have felt the call to silence at almost any time: walking in the park, reading the news. I center myself through quiet and slow breathing, or through my “mantras”: “Thy will be done.” “Thank you.” “Make wide my soul.” Sometimes the Spirit lends a hand, and I am told in no uncertain terms, “Be Still.”

This new practice has deepened my spiritual life considerably, not that it was altogether shallow before. I have felt the presence of the Light in my life quite strongly in the past weeks—I feel it as I type this now. This has steered me to finally act on some leadings I only toyed with in the past, such as giving up playing war games (and thus giving up a major part of some friendships). It has led me to speak in meeting several times, and other times led me to help deepen the silence.

Most significantly, this greater silence in my life and my new clarity of mind has led me to look again at my course. I find that while most of the essays I have posted in this blog are valuable, only a few rise to the level of messages. So I have slowed my writing, waiting for true Inspiration instead of being motivated to write by my anger—or even by my compassion. I have also seen that I do not need a blog to build an audience for my words: in fact, many Quakers seem to be seeking my opinion! So I begin to see that instead of shouting into the Internet abyss, perhaps my true calling is to speak into the silence of Meeting for Worship, and Meeting for Worship for Business.

At least for a time, my calling is to work in the Society of Friends. How I shall do that remains to be seen, and in many ways depends on how well I fare through the bleak winter months. But I know my course. It passes through all my meetings, and through next summer’s Friends General Conference gathering in Colorado. Beyond that I am not sure where I go, but knowing where to start is enough, and it makes a nice change. I have some inklings as to where I might go, however; I have some projects in the works. One, at least, is written; I am seasoning it for a long time, due to its weight. Other projects are more communal, for instance my attendance at other regional monthly meetings and some trips down to Portland for a young-Quakers potluck.

It has been months since I felt helpless, and months since I felt the fire in my bones burning its way out. I do not think this is because my medication has made me so mellow that I simply don’t notice or simply don’t care; nor do I think the fire was just a symptom of my disease. Rather, I think I no longer burn because I am finally on my way.

I am far from finished with this blog. Among other things I still have some essays waiting to be posted. I also have some ideas for future commentary, and I might sometimes write on some of my spoken ministry (as I have done occasionally before). But the Generous Grasp is no longer my primary means of speech or action in this world, though it will remain one of my tools. Expect new posts when you see them, but keep your eyes open; there is probably more that needs to be said.

What I Mean When I Say Compassion

This one is about definitions. This is how I define respect, how I define compassion, how I define the old Quaker injunction to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” And since it’s me writing this, we start with a story.

When I was in high school, there was a student named April who was developmentally disabled, with the conversational ability and habits of a seven-year-old, though she was older than I was. She was always cheerful, always smiling. On two separate occasions, I happened to see two different people interacting with April in similar ways. Both times April was brightly telling the other person about her day, or what she was headed off to do next. The difference, however, is what stands out. Continue reading

Getting Back Up

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting anything lately, breaking my intention to post twice a week for the whole of the year. This was not from lack of material; in fact I have several essays waiting in the wings, and more still waiting to be edited, but the pipeline has ground to a halt.

There’s a simple reason, and a familiar one for all who know me well: depression.

Depression isn’t quite the same as sadness, which could be cheered up; depression makes everything harder, including being happy. So easy tasks become difficult, difficult tasks become hard, and then the work backlog kicks in. Nor does it work to be cheered up, though it doesn’t really hurt; the problem with depression is not that I’m walking backward, but that I can’t walk.

Depression is also tidal. I took on the blog project at high water, and like many of my projects begun at such times, it suffered when my mind’s tide turned.

I’ve dealt with my mental illness for a long time. I’ve had the “black dog on my shoulder” since I was a small child, at least; I remember walking around my old neighborhood feeling desperately unhappy about nothing in particular. Some days I can pull myself out of it, or push myself through it; other times I need help from outside, and I’ve gotten it from many excellent friends; sometimes there’s just nothing to be done about it until it goes away on its own. Sometimes it passes in a day or two; sometimes it eats whole months. I don’t remember much of September 2007, for instance, or March 2011, and there’s nothing good in what I can recall. Sometimes my illness leads me to self-harm, though I’ve avoided that for three years and counting.

But even when I’m depressed, I’m still a depressed teacher, and here are a few of the lessons I’m trying to draw from this latest round with with the traitor in my head.

One of the constant whispers in my ears, one of the mental assaults that I am so frequently fighting off, is that I am powerless. That nothing I do will matter. That I am alone.

Thing is, that’s not altogether wrong… if the third one is true. In this world no one can make it alone. This means two things worth remembering: one, those who have made it didn’t do it on their own, and two, anyone can have power when they join with others. A comedy duo was once asked, “Do you think one person can really make a difference?” They replied, “Of course not. That’s why there are two of us.”

If you’re alone, then yes, you’re powerless. But you don’t have to be alone.

Because so many people feel alone, it’s worth asking why they do, and I think the answer lies in depression as well. Depression digs us into a hole so deep that we can’t see the people around us. And depression can be taught: psychologists call it learned helplessness. In times like these, many people feel alone and powerless because they have been trying and trying for so long with no real success. So they have learned that anything they try will fail. This is not true, but it’s not foolishness, either. So many people have tried so hard for so long, and because of forces too great for them to control, they have failed. The thing to do is try another way. But the holes that depressed people live in don’t let us see other paths.

So here’s the crucial lesson: keep going. Crawl out of the hole. “Inch toward daylight.”

I’ll be honest: in the long run, I can’t promise that this strategy will succeed. It’s quite possible that nothing we do will matter. Except that trying, in the face of despair, in the face of certain failure, matters a great deal.

I’m getting back on my feet. I’m going to keep writing, even if I’ve already failed at what I set out to do, and even if no one ever hears a word I say. Even if I can’t always walk well, I’m going to keep moving.

A Change in the Wind

So the blog looks a little different today. That’s because after a hiatus of several months, I’m taking the Generous Grasp in a new direction. Not in terms of content, but in terms of presentation and frequency.

I will now be updating at least three times a week. There will be two essays posted weekly, between Tuesday and Friday, and I’m reviving the Weekly Query for Mondays. On occasion I’ll also be including a “Pick of the Week,” with an exceptional item I’ve read lately. The Picks of the Week have to reach a certain standard, however, so they may be few and far between.

Keeping up this schedule could be a little intense on my end, but I’ve been stockpiling essays for some time now, and I’ve got queries enough to last a year. So I’m rather looking forward to this intention. The other element is that I will be publicizing this blog (slightly) more widely, so more people may be joining the conversation.

For those who’d like some reminders and for those just joining us, I’ll also do a few “flashback posts” to give people a taste of what the archives are like. I’ll keep these to a minimum. Still, people might be interested in what the heck “the generous grasp” is, for instance, and so I’ll fill in a few gaps.