Love and Justice

Why am I here?

Well, they say that the Army teaches you to never volunteer. I was never in the Army.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, on Christmas Eve, I was reading one of my favorite books. After finishing the most powerful part, I stood up in my pajamas, emptied my mind, and said to the One Who Is Existence, “I pledge myself to your service.” The One took me at my word.

It goes a bit further back, maybe; I’d talked to my deity before, and on a few occasions my deity had said something in return. I can’t even remember the earliest conversations, or so my mom reports. She took me to silent Quaker worship from birth, and she tells a story about it: once a friend asked me about silent worship; I said, in classic four-year-old fashion, “We sit on our chairs in a circle and wait for God to talk to us.”

“And does he?” asked our practical friend.

As my mother tells it, I replied, “Oh yeah” — totally matter-of-fact.

Suffice it to say: I’ve had a long relationship with the Light and Spirit, to use Quaker terminology, quite possibly as long as my life. And I volunteered to serve. I did not specify the method of service, and that was chosen for me. Continue reading

The Storm

From June to September, I have a regular practice of checking the National Hurricane Center webpage to watch for storms. I’ve done this a few years now, and every time I see another hurricane coming, I find myself wondering: is this the one? Is this the holy storm that will hit us so hard that we’ll finally see the light? Katrina shone some light, made us see the wretchedness our society has papered over, made us see the poverty and contempt that creeps through our culture like a cancer. Then Katrina blew itself out and we looked away. So every time another alert goes up on the NHC website, I ask: will the wrath of a wronged, forsaken god finally come down on us? Will heaven finally stop pulling punches, truly lay us out, make us change?

And then I do this: I hope. I whisper, “Make it this one. Do it. Break us. Shatter our cities, open our eyes, make us see. Hit us. Hurt us.”

There’s a storm brewing; I hear there hasn’t been a storm like this since Gloria, or Bob, or the “Long Island Express.” This one is called Irene. It could tear up the whole coast, whack every city from Savannah to Boston, roll right into New York Harbor and hit that city as it has not been assailed in generations… no, not even ten years ago.

I was talking with my friend Jay, of whom I’ve written before. She lives in DC, and I said to her, “I’m glad you don’t live in New York.”

Saying this, I stopped. Jay’s not in New York, but Phoebe is; she’s an old flame of mine, I’d hate to see her hurt. And Jo, to whom I owe so much, is in Boston, which may suffer just as badly. In fact Irene is going to pass over every woman I’ve loved in the last five years.

Which made me wonder: do I only care if someone I’ve had a crush on is in danger? I actually have people all along that coast. Friends. Family. So many people I love in so many ways, from Atlanta north.

It hit me then: every single person in the storm-path is loved by someone.

If even one person dies, then someone’s heart will be broken.

I was ashamed then. I still am. Ashamed of quietly calling for a killer storm on everyone else, whispering prayers for divine judgment so long as they didn’t touch me or mine, not seeing or not caring that any deaths would rend someone as much as I would be rent if Jay or Jo or Phoebe or anyone else were hurt. Here I was, just months ago, saying how we are all connected. Here I was, just days ago, teaching myself to see everyone as people, so I can take the next step and love them as neighbors. And here I am today rooting for a city-breaking, world-changing storm to hit the next town over from my friends. I’ve drawn a circle around the people who matter to me and said, “Take the rest.”

We all do it, of course, not that it excuses me. Everyone has that circle, and beyond it we rarely raise a finger. Oh, sometimes we do, when a quake hits Haiti or a storm smashes New Orleans. But we don’t care enough to change the world’s ways — our ways — that put those people in the path of the storm to begin with. They are outside the circle.

But Christianity is about drawing one big circle around everyone ever created and saying, “This is who we care for. No one gets left out. No one is unloved.”

Hard, yeah. Likely impossible. But it’s written plain right there in the law: “Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love your enemy.” If we don’t… well, then, the man from Galilee won’t even want to know us.

Then I remember that the One I follow is mercy and forgiveness incarnate, and that we absolutely get points for trying.

Irene is not the wrath of the One. If there’s anything heavenly in this hurricane, it’s in the hope that people will help each other. Not just this week or this year but all the time, in advance and ever after.

And if there’s no such thing as god, then absolutely nothing changes. If there’s no one watching us, we’re still watching each other. If there’s no reward, then helping just for helping’s sake is all the more beautiful and selfless.

Hurricanes will come. They aren’t the wrath of a heaven too long ignored. There won’t be a god-storm that opens eyes. If I want eyes opened, then I have to speak up.

So.

What will it be? Will we turn away from each other? Will we leave each other in the lurch again, forever look the other way?

Or will we face this storm and all storms? Face it together? Together as a community, as a country, as one people? Shall we again disappoint, or shall we rise to meet our promise?

Take my hand. Make the circle. Bring everyone in.

Giving

I am depressed.

I mean that both about my life in general and about me, today. It’s genetic; I can see traces of problems on both sides of my family. I could also attribute it to a biological father who left me and my mother when I was young, or a stepfather who meant to teach me to avoid ego and instead taught me to avoid self-worth. I can blame brain chemistry, an awkward and isolated childhood, my social life, lack of light in Seattle winters. But ultimately blame leads nowhere, least of all to solutions.

For me depression means lack of energy, lack of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and above all a bitter self-loathing and self-sabotage. I can remember feeling sad with no cause when I was very young, and I can remember taking out my frustrations against myself. I learned emotional masochism, making myself feel worse through guilt or making my life more difficult, so that at least I would be in control of the amount of pain I was feeling. Since I was a storyteller from almost my first word, this meant my heroes would all prevail against vicious odds, but pay the price, suffering serious wounds in the moment of victory. They would then live out the rest of their lives maimed and meaningless.

It took twenty-odd years, but eventually I went from telling stories about it to doing it myself. I was a cutter for a year and a half, and I have nearly a score of scars visible on my arm.

One night I tried to go further. I knew a high place, and I intended to jump off it. Something or Someone stopped me, but it was a struggle. I contemplate suicide to this day. I won’t do it. But I think about it. Living is not easy; it’s like going through life in heavy chains, forever constrained by the bonds and by the sheer weight. Everything is a little harder, a little worse, a little more painful, and self-destruction to one degree or another is my constant companion. This is what depression is.

Yet for all this, my case is light. Many days I have no symptoms, and I can live like anyone else. My case is sufficiently mild and sufficiently idiosyncratic that I have never considered medication. I have never trusted any method that would rely on me alone. I am too good at self-sabotage to be solely responsible for my own health. If I chose to take medication, I could just as easily choose to not take it, and frankly, knowing myself, I would stop at the worst possible time.

Besides, I have a cure.

It is not a quick fix; nothing is. My cure is more Sisyphus than silver bullet (and while it works for my mind it couldn’t possibly work for all mental illness). And it is less easily weighed, measured, and dosed than any pill. My cure is other people.

When I look into a mirror, I see flaws, failures, a useless lump of flesh that cannot–will not–accomplish anything that is worth the oxygen it consumes. This is because mirrors lie. We look into them and see what we expect, out of our pride, our misery, or our mediocrity. It takes someone else, someone who loves us for who we really are, to tell us the truth and do what no mirror can: show us our real selves.

Sometimes one person is a strong enough force in my life to bring my mind into balance for a time, by herself. I’ve already written of Jay, who helped me through my addiction to cutting. She didn’t do it herself; she couldn’t have helped me unless I was willing to be helped. And I could not have done it without her to help me. So we owe each other the victory. And Jay isn’t the only one who’s been so stabilizing for me.

Hanging my sanity on one person works, if it’s the right person… but only for a time. If nothing else it’s tiring for them. I try to give back, but I can’t always, not at the right time or in the right way. And even strong relationships of mutual support will eventually end, one way or another, because everyone dies. So the only way I can make my cure work is by drawing on many people, and the only way it’s fair is if I use the strength and stability they’ve given me to help them in return.

I have often wondered why, in the One’s big plan, I was born under such a shadow of depression. And if there is no grand plan, I’ve wondered what use I can make of my illness, how I can make it serve me rather than the reverse.

Now I know.

My cure is the world’s cure, or the beginnings of one. The support I need–and the support I hope I can in turn give others–is the support we all need. I just need a little more of it. No one can go through life alone. Every great hero we’ve ever heard of had a hundred helpers; even Jesus of Nazareth needed family and friends. I have said, “We are one.” This is what I meant. People supporting other people and being supported in turn. Those who have–be it money, power, or in my case just a better view of who I am–supporting those who have not. And then, as all such stories go, the balance shifts, and those who were needy become those who give. Many times it is love and truth, as with me. Sometimes it may be a larger act, perhaps those who have money and power giving to those who need it more, and getting back what they most need: forgiveness.

It all begins in weakness. It begins by saying that we need help, then by asking as I have asked. It is a renunciation of power, a confession of vulnerability, and for many of us it is the most terrifying act of our lives. But do as I have done. Say, in your weakness, “Please. I need help.”

You’ll be amazed, as I have been amazed, at who comes to your aid, and how. Then in time you will become the one to give, so listen to your neighbor’s whispered cry–“Please. I need help”–remember your own weakness, and give to them in the same measure as someone gave to you. And so our weakness becomes our strength.

This is the story of all family, of all community, of every union and every alliance, the story of all democracy, of all humanity. Asking for help and giving it, not once but always, giving back what’s been given, day in and day out. It is the story of all hope.

Give and ask and give again, world without end, forever and amen.

Recap For Recent Readers

For those of you who’ve started reading only recently or are just joining us, here are some key posts that somewhat capture the character of this blog.

The namesake post that explains what the generous grasp is — or at least what it could be.

My “belief basesline,” otherwise known as a Credo.

One of my favorite posts, on a topic dear to my heart.

Here’s what the Weekly Query is all about.

A post from last year, but still somewhat timely/seasonal.

Unfortunately this one’s still timely too.

That should get you started — but there’s plenty more out there for you to find on your own. I’m a teacher; did you think I was going to do all the work for you?

Peace Is Courage

These times erode people like me; they gnaw us, leave us diminished. We spend so much energy in just staying on our feet that to take a step forward exhausts us. Just as well, perhaps, since so often the path’s unclear to my type and I. Our victories are hard-won and our defeats seem to come too easily. Storms are coming–and we are already weary. It sometimes seems that the whole world has gone gray.

It’s at times like these that we must remember our inspirations. Inspiration, meaning putting spirit back in us–and spirit meaning, in the oldest sense, breath. Life. The light may be failing, the storms may be gathering or breaking, but we carry the fire in our hearts that never leaves us, if we can only remember it. There is life in us yet. There is strength we have not yet called on. We can rise, and rise again.

Let us rise by making peace.

Peace flows from the still center within. Some have accused those who choose peace to be cowards, but remember: peace is nothing but courage. It is the courage to go unarmed–although perhaps not undefended–while everyone else is girded for war. It is the courage to walk into the fire in order to pass through it, when everyone else tries to flee. It is the courage to go up against every command, every assumption, every instinct of one’s own body, and trust.  So, remember courage. And remember courage is not the same as fearlessness. We are afraid; we have reason to be. War and struggles for power stem from wanting to have nothing to fear, by killing or dominating all sources of fears. Peace stems from facing one’s fears.

But peace within is only a job half-done, although it’s a grand start. We must also have peace between us. This can be done by taking our courage and adding compassion. Everyone around us who is lashing out, everyone who is dominating and conquering, is doing so out of fear and pain. Yes, even the most greedy and arrogant. Yes, even the most power-hungry and destructive. They fear justice, after all–and time. All the money and all the force in the world cannot hold off time. Remember that, too. Others have joined them for other fears: fear of poverty, fear of change, fear of what they do not understand, fear of Hell, fear of isolation–fear of being alone in a world they no longer recognize. But it’s all fear. So peace can be built, oftentimes, by facing our own fears and then teaching our enemies to do the same. Peace can be built, stone by stone and seed by seed, when we come to our enemies in compassion and say, “Don’t be afraid.”

It won’t always work on the first try, or on the fiftieth. But it can work, and it will never work unless we start by trying.

So, my friend, we have work to do. Let us make a covenant between us, you and I, here and now–to be at peace, and to build peace wherever we go.

When we see fear or grief or rage or hate building–in an act, in a word, in a lack of a word–let us step forward and speak. When the argument builds on the street, don’t turn away, don’t flee; these are your sisters and your brothers who are in pain. When the cruel joke comes, or the casual harassment, remember the fear behind them, and speak–especially if the joke is aimed at another, especially if the harassment is aimed at someone who isn’t there to speak for themselves. When fear sweeps into power, when hate takes charge, stand up and speak out–speak with compassion for the fearful, even if they are oppressing you, even if they boil your blood. Underneath everything, they’re afraid too.

You will be rejected. Facing that chance takes great courage.

You will be laughed at. This is worse; facing that chance is courage also.

You will be ignored. This is worst of all, and is courage’s very core.

But there will be times when you will not be rejected, not be laughed at, not ignored–not entirely. So stand. Speak. Be brave. And take the chance. Build the world anew, one act of courage at a time. One day at a time. One step at a time.

No matter how we are burdened, no matter how lost we feel, listen: the sun will come up. Day will come again. The clouds and the darkness cannot keep out the light, not forever. Remember that, and be brave.

 

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— JRR Tolkien

“We cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between. But there is still a chance to seize that last, fragile moment. To choose something better. To make a difference… and I intend to do just that.”
— J. Michael Straczynski

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
— Isaiah 40:31

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
— George Fox

“Somebody has to speak for these people… so now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as anything I know this: they will try again… A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”
— Joss Whedon

I will not let you fall.
— The One Who Is

Hear the Word

I would see justice done.

I would see the long labor of the poor rewarded at last, rewarded as it has never been even acknowledged in full. I would see the return of investment and the fruits of harvest benefit all who sweated for them, not merely those with their names on sheets of paper.

I would see children fed. I would see the sick tended. I would see the prisoners and the impoverished remembered as human. I would have it so that no one has to stand on the sidewalk and beg for scraps. I would see us remember that all who live on this earth are our kin, our family, no matter the color of their skin, the language of their tongue, the riches in their pockets, or the faith of their heart. I would see justice done as it has never been done, not since some few thought to exalt themselves at the expense of the many.

I am done with this misery. I am done with this suffering. I am done with laws and codes and customs that claim it is fitting that the poor live in pain. I am done with “deserving.” I am done with “They are lazy.” I am done with “Don’t coddle them.” Do you hear me? I love all, and deserving’s got nothing to do with it. In this I follow my god, the One, and the words that the Holy One gives to me. Continue reading

Credo

I believe in choice, and I believe in choosing wisely.

I believe that I have an independent will and that I can use it — but I also believe that there are good ways and bad to use that will. Liberty is therefore a great good, but only because it allows people to make the right choices — it is a means to an end, not an end itself. Unbridled freedom, choosing solely for choice’s sake — living in the Land of Do-As-You-Please — can be both good and bad, and choosing well requires more than simple freedom.

I believe that everyone can be helped to choose wisely. My own choices, or at least the wise ones, are helped by my friends, my family, and (greatly important to me) the stories I have heard and I myself tell. This is why I went into teaching, to tell stories that could help people choose well.

I believe that the Golden Rule is a pretty reasonable guide for our choices, as long as we remember to apply it to those living in the past and the future as well as to those living in the present.  But I also believe that everything should be put to the test, for there are always exceptions. I also believe that sometimes wisdom needs to give way to nobility and heroism — and, occasionally, to pure silliness.

I believe, moreover, that people can only learn what is wise by being foolish for a while. As much as we can manage, therefore, we should let them make their mistakes, and then help them learn afterward. Continue reading