Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Houston, We Have a Problem

"Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced."  -- James Baldwin

Last week, I had to write a summary of my journey of faith for a class I am taking this Fall.  Since I have been writing about faith and life for a long time, and have been working on a book about it for the last two years, you would think this would have been an easy assignment for me.  It wasn't.  How do you condense 200 pages down to less than 20 and not leave out anything important?  It seemed impossible.  So, first, I tried to ignore it:  I put off the assignment all summer long.  Then, I tried to get out of it: "Could I just send you chapters of my book, please?"  Then, I looked for a shortcut:  maybe I could rehash a 15-minute talk I gave at church in 2012 -- but, that wasn't too appealing either as I've learned a lot about my journey in the last two years.  Finally, I started thinking.  As I thought about all the God-moments in my life, it dawned on me that for most of my life, for 36 of my 47 years, these moments only occurred as a result of some crisis.  Since I only sought God in those moments of crisis, I only learned something new about God on those rare occasions.

Crises have a way of focusing your attention. When you are in the midst of a crisis, there is very little else to think about except surviving.  In a crisis, you need help now:  from God, from friends and family, from your community, or from your government.  Some of my crises came unexpectedly, such as a miscarriage, but others started out as mere difficulties, such as a lack of communication.   And, as you see from the example above, I would, and maybe most of us would, often rather ignore, or avoid, or short-shift, difficulties; pretend they don't exist and hope they go away.  Unfortunately, problems don't go away if they are ignored.  They just lead to more problems, until, sometimes, you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.  Problems only go away if you pay attention to them and seek a solution. 

But, and here is the thing, I also have learned a lot about God in the last ten years, even in non-crisis mode, simply because I started thinking about God, about faith, and about Jesus.  It seems so obvious, doesn't it?  We learn about whatever we give our attention to.  Clearly this doesn't just apply to understanding God.  People become specialists in a field of study because they have spent countless hours thinking about it.

And that's the other obvious thing... thinking takes time.  I recently watched a biography of Benjamin Franklin and learned that he did not become an inventor until after he retired from the printing business.  He didn't discover that lightening was electricity until he had time to devote to thinking about whatever came to his mind.  He didn't get involved in politics and become one of the founding fathers of America until he had time to devote to thinking about the problems around him.

How much time does the average person set aside for just thinking?

In our western society, very little.  Americans highly value productivity, hard work, lending a helping hand, and even highly value entertainment and the pursuit of hobbies when we are not working.  We don't value sitting and thinking, unless that leads to greater productivity.  Eastern society may have a different understanding of productivity.  I recently learned that the Dalai Lama sets aside at least four hours a day to meditate.  No wonder he is so wise and harmonious.

I envy Benjamin Franklin, the Dalai Lama, and other inventors and discoverers, for their freedom to just think.  Women do not often have that luxury.  Women with children especially do not often have that luxury.  Not even women with children who "stay-at-home."  How many women with children do you know who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pulitzer, the Field Medal, or become a saint?  Throw in the adjective "stay-at-home" and I'm pretty sure the number would be nada, zilch, zippo.

As a stay-at-home mother, I have odd working hours:  geting the kids ready for school in the morning, taking them to school, housework, groceries, laundry, errands, picking up the kids at the end of the school day, helping with homework, making dinner, getting them to do their chores, spending time with them, and then getting them to bed.  However, thinking that all this isn't enough, I often fill the gaps.  This last year I filled it with volunteer and charity work, and, as a result, I wrote less and I thought less.  My garden, so to speak, was chock-full of plants.  They were pretty plants, and grew fairly well, but I didn't leave any room for grass to grow.

I wonder what would happen if I set aside three or four hours of time each day and made that time inviolate, sacred, sealed it off from my other responsibilities, and just thought.  I doubt that that's always going to be possible; usually something unexpected comes up:  a kid gets sick, the toilet gets clogged, the dog needs to be taken to the vet, my car breaks down, etc.  But I wonder if I could at least try, as far as is within my power, to set that time aside.  I know it's worth the effort.  It is truly essential.

This last week, I read "The Plague," by Albert Camus, which echoes these thoughts but adds even greater significance to them.  The story is, on the surface, about a French village in Algiers, whose citizens work from morning until night, and then "fritter away at card-tables, in cafe's and in small talk, what time is left for living."*  Then, over a nine-month period, half the population is killed by an onslaught of both bubonic and pneumonic plagues.  The story chronicles how the citizens respond:  some ignore it, some despair, some try to escape, some blame, some make rules, and some get into the thick of things and help.

But the story also hints at the fact that there are many kinds of plagues.  One of the characters in the novel says, "...I had the plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here.  Which is tantamount to saying I'm like everybody else.  Only there are some people who don't know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know it and want to get out of it.  Personally, I've always wanted to get out of it. ... Then one day I started thinking...."** 

You know... racism is no less a plague than eboli; child abuse is no less a plague than AIDS; war is no less a plague than cancer; hunger is no less a plague than malaria or leprosy.  And the only way to counteract a plague is with effort and courage and understanding.

Yet, how often do we give these problems a thought?

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* Modern Library College Edition, pg. 4
** ibid, pg 222

Friday, August 15, 2014

Tunnel Vision

"Every Day is a Gift."  -- unknown

"Life is difficult."  -- M. Scott Peck, M.D.*

Both of these sentences have been much on my mind over the last several weeks.  The first one I found on a wall plaque in a second-hand furniture store.  The words resonated with me, especially since the day before I had had a particularly wonderful experience of God's grace.  "Yes, indeed," I thought with a smile.  On that day, all was right in the world.  The second sentence I read after a particularly aggravating day in which I wondered if I would ever be able to not be deeply hurt by the negative remarks of my husband.  "Yes, indeed," I thought with a grunt.  On that day, the first saying came to mind and I thought, "Yeah, right.  Every day is Not a gift."

Why is so hard for us to remember the difficulties on good days, and to remember the good stuff on difficult days?  Why do we have such tunnel vision?  Why is it always either/or, black or white, good or bad, and very seldom both/and, or gray, or a mixture?

Maybe because either/or, black or white, and good or bad, are simpler constructs and therefore, easier to see and understand than the alternative.  At least it seems easier.  In reality, it's much harder in the long run to maintain such tunnel vision.  The world, and everything in it, is not all positive or all negative, all good or all bad, all high or low.  To think that it is requires constant effort, energy, and resistance to reality.  Ignoring reality -- both the good and the bad that makes up life -- will cause us much mental and physical pain in the long run.  For life will continue to surprise us with its opposite, and turn us around, or upside down, whenever we think it is all one way. 

I don't have to look far to see the truth of this.  Think of Robin Williams.  It is hard to believe there was a more joyful man than him.  He exuded wonder and delight.  And yet we know that he was also a very unhappy man.  Think of Richard Nixon, who is in the news because it is the 40th anniversary of his resignation.  We mostly think of him with disgust, and yet he also ended the Vietnam War, ended the draft, gave 18-year-olds the vote, and helped desegregate Southern schools -- all very amazingly good achievements.  I was talking to a friend the other day about a school we both taught at.  It had a reputation as a tough, gang-riden, school, but we both agreed that it was full of the nicest students we'd ever had the pleasure to teach.  Another friend's back disintegrated while on vacation in a most luxurious hotel in gorgeous sea-side town.  She could see the beauty around her, but could not move.

For better or worse, life is very ironic.  Just when you think "all is right in the world" something beyond your control upsets the apple cart.  Just when you think life can't get any worse, you're given a precious gift:  of love, of sympathy, of insight.

Somehow we need to learn to accept that this is they way the world is, and remember it, holding these opposites in our minds, at the same time.  When we are in the midst of great difficulties, we need to remember that things will get better.  When we are in the midst of great joy and happiness, we need to remember that this too is fleeting.   We need plaques on our walls that say, "Every day is a gift," but we also need plaques that say, "Life is difficult."  And they need to be placed side by side.

Acceptance of reality, both the wonder and the pain, is key.  Resistance -- to all that is good, or all that is not good -- is truly futile. 

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth,"  pg. 15