A Buddhist and a Methodist…

A year or three ago I came across a children’s book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, called A Pebble for your Pocket. The whole thing is quite lovely. I especially loved and remember the section about anger. He talks about holding one’s anger as one would ideally hold a colicky baby — listening warmly and affectionately and tenderly, not threatened or reactive or otherwise taking it personally; not dismissive, suppressive, scornful, or otherwise pushing it away; not enraptured, enmeshed, or otherwise morbidly attached to it.

Recently my friend gave me a most beautiful book on prayer by J. Neville Ward. In the chapters on fear and suffering, he talks about pain, whether of the body or the mind, as an alarm signal, a warning that something needs attention. The right use of the mind, whether in fear or in pain, is to either come to some decision to act, or else to realize that in this case no action is warranted or possible. In the case of fear, it is then necessary to detach or disengage from the fear, as “further brooding on the matter is a misuse of the mind” (68). In pain that goes beyond the ordinary warning signal, it is necessary to “accept the situation, reject [one’s] resentment and self-pity, and… to wish to do God’s will in this situation” (77). I imagine Ward would see both cases as a detachment, and that detachment does not mean denial or repression, but involves acceptance and wise action.

I think the two could talk to each other, especially in further illuminating what detachment is and is not.

Thich Nhat Hanh might point out that it could be fruitful to explore how brooding and self-pity compare to and differ from compassion toward the self. That sometimes sitting with a feeling or set of feelings might be more fruitful when it is less focused on solution and action, and more focused on simply listening, observing, allowing, feeling, caring — on simply being with the self that is afraid or in pain. How often what our friend needs is not our advice or problem-solving assistance or external help, but our compassionate presence, affectionate and warm, often silent, unhurried, unworried — should we not offer the same friendliness to ourselves?

J. Neville Ward might suggest that it is important to know when enough time and energy has been invested in the matter, and when it is time to turn to action, whether action to resolve the matter, or some other action of doing God’s will in the situation.

I wonder if both would agree that the cessation of the sense of fear or pain is not the only or most reliable signal that it is now time to detach and move to other things. The very terms “detach” and “move” suggest something to detach and move away from. So there must be some other signal or signals by which one can sense when to remain still and silent with the feeling(s) and when to go on to something else while the feeling(s) continue in the background — some sense of having done what is called for, having reached the end of what can be done in this moment.

Perhaps it seems peculiar that I could worry that detachment could entail any sense of scorn or lack of compassion toward the fearful or pained self, that I would need reassurance that compassion and acknowledgment don’t (have to) cease when one turns to action or other matters. I wonder if either or both of these authors would readily understand that worry.

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Request

We all rather desperately need one another.

None of us is entitled to anything from anyone else (with the exception of young children, entitled to appropriate care from the parents that bring them forth).

It is sort of fascinating, that the existence of legitimate needs does not imply any entitlement. How often we explain it away — either it must not be a real need, or else we must have a right to the fulfillment.

Is it the hardest lesson of all to learn? How to ask for what we need without demanding it, even in established and committed relationships, and how to live well when our needs go unmet?

It starts with such little things.

Make eye contact and ask the baby if she wants to be picked up.

Ask before tickling. Stop instantly when asked to stop.

Speak to children not so as to display your wit to the other grown-ups, but to make a real connection.

No one, even a relative, is entitled to hugs or kisses.

This evening someone started teasing my daughter about her dessert. She didn’t catch on right away but was answering him seriously. When she started to seem confused, I mentioned to her that he was teasing. She told him, politely enough, “Besides, I don’t like being teased.” The guy said, “What, don’t you have a sense of humor?” He continued to tease her a while longer, until I repeated, “Amy doesn’t want to be teased right now.” He stopped talking to her altogether.

I get it — the guy wasn’t malicious or creepy or abusive. He was having fun. He wanted to include her in the fun. But no matter how friendly what you’re doing is, if someone asks you to stop, how is it possibly respectful to persist? I wonder if he would have persisted like that if he had been talking to a boy instead of a girl? Or to an adult instead of a child?

The vast majority of people don’t get violent with their sense of entitlement and unmet needs. On the other hand, the equation of unmet needs and entitlement is a pervasive problem — whether you’re a child or a woman or anyone bearing the brunt of someone else’s sense of entitlement, as mild as our dinner partner this evening or as threatening as the fellow in this comic. And it’s a pervasive problem we find in ourselves — and I think we all do, if we’re honest. We have all experienced moments when we felt we didn’t have all that we needed, and that it seemed so perfectly easy and reasonable for someone to provide it, and maybe we asked, or maybe we just expected, and we didn’t get it, and what do we do with that? What kind of friend or spouse or whoever wouldn’t do this thing for us? Is it not a real need? How often do we not even recognize this kind of thing as a sense of entitlement?

Merton reminds me that “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.”

Willard reminds me to ask — to make a request — and not to demand.

Peter reminds me to cast all my cares, including the distress of unmet needs, on Jesus who cares for me.

Life and death

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

I have come that they might have life, and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)

Some err pursuing pleasure at all cost;
I sometimes err pursuing death instead.
If gaining life requires life be lost
Then let me miss no chance for getting dead.

What consternation, finding death brings life;
Does it not mean life must be lost again,
Again, again? How does one cease this strife?
This winless cycle’s not what Jesus meant.

He also came that life abundant be.
Not all that feels like death does death require.
Not all that feels like life should make me flee.
Not death nor life the rule; let my desire

Be all to follow you who are the Way
Through death and life; with you, find peace and grace.

God got a dog

I browsed the YA shelves at the Culver library last week while Amy was playing on the computer one afternoon. I love reading theology and the like, but I needed a break — I needed a different kind of challenge, a different kind of heavy reading, the kind that comes through fiction, especially young adult fiction, especially the kind that doesn’t even consider making any deliberate effort to conform to any kind of Christian worldview. From the stack I brought home, so far I have read Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and Fortunately, The Milk, and Unhooking the Moon. And this weekend I read God Got a Dog.

I was introduced to Cynthia Rylant through her Henry and Mudge books, which I adore for their simplicity and sweetness — there is nothing saccharine, cutesy, or precious about them, they are just straightforward, ordinary, and evocative. They have a similarly rich understanding of child life as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad.

Rylant’s God Got a Dog is a collection of poems that imagine God in various human situations. Her simplicity and openness shine here, too; clever and witty and creative and provocative without melodrama or heavy-handedness. There are moments that are mildly annoying — easy dismissals of some traditional doctrines that I believe remain vital — but I can also imagine enjoying a conversation with Rylant hearing the stories and thoughts behind these lines as well as those behind the parts that resonated with me.

Here is one I especially liked. The poems touch on various aspects of the human condition, including, as this one does, embodiment and gender and expectations, but not in a strident or aggressively political way. Each poem is illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her images are beautifully gentle and full of just the right kind of energy, inviting and engaging.

God took a bath

With Her clothes on.
Her robe, to be specific.
Why did She do this?
She was shy,
that’s why.
A little self-conscious
about Her body.
God wasn’t always
this way.
She used to be free as a bird,
running stark naked
everywhere.
She never thought
about bodies at all.
Then these things started coming back to Her:
The whole misunderstanding
with Adam and Eve.
Then circumcision.
Then talk talk talk
of everybody being made
in Her image.
Until She got afraid
to look in a mirror.
Everybody had such
high expectations
and now She was
a little insecure.
Could be She was flabby.
Love handles on God
would have to be HUGE.

So She kept Her robe on.

Utterly safe place

Last year I read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. I got bogged down in the first few chapters, but found the rest of it interesting, very challenging, and potentially very hopeful. The basic gist is that if we really think Jesus is the Son of God, we ought to pay attention to what he has said, and try to live by it — and that doing so doesn’t mean legalism, but something more like supported habit-training.

One bit that came up a few times was the idea that the universe is an utterly safe place for us to be, because God is there — here — all around us like the air. And that God is utterly full of joy — not unfamiliar with sorrow and all, but that his joy is so firmly founded that his sorrow can be fully itself in the midst of his irrevocable joy.

I don’t live in this utterly safe and joyful universe.

I would like to. And I am open to doing so more and more, and looking for and practicing that supported habit-training.

I have written before, I think, about Tim Cornwell, the youth pastor I volunteered with when we lived in Virginia, and how he dealt with wiggly distractible middle schoolers. He was able to invite them to step out into the hallway to take a break, get their wiggles out, get their bodies ready again, and then return to the group — in a way that was not a threat, had not a hint of shame, but was a sincere, dignified invitation, an acknowledgment of a legitimate need and an appropriate way to meet that need.

The same exact invitation, same words, everything, can be and often is issued with exactly a note of threat and shame in it — the expectation is that the kid recognize how badly they are behaving and pull their act together, without having to go to the extreme of stepping out of the room.

In the same way, it is easy to take such an invitation, even if delivered the way Tim did it, as a threat, scornful and shaming. I think we are used to it. Threats and scorn and shame are often delivered in phrases that sound polite, perfectly correct, with words that ought to indicate a real opportunity but are really intended as an ultimatum or a “don’t you dare.”

Amy is quick to get on the defensive. Quick to feel attacked, rejected, dismissed, disliked, enslaved, oppressed, shamed, etc. Sometimes no matter how well I think I am delivering certain information — warmly, calmly, lovingly — she will take it defensively. Sometimes she’s right; sometimes my chosen, intentional words and tone of voice can’t cover the fact that I am feeling irritated and scornful. And of course there are also times where I can’t or won’t control words and tone of voice.

And, what seems both odd and perfectly understandable, is that I am the same way.

Coming from a peer, a lot of the things Amy says and does when she is unhappy about something would be serious threats, insults, attacks, and just plain rude — not to mention the unfairness of turning everything back on me (“well YOU shouldn’t / did / etc”). But Amy is not my peer. She’s a little kid. An extremely clever and articulate little kid, but still a little kid. That doesn’t make it okay for her to treat me badly, but it does mean she’s not deliberately malicious — more likely afraid (of not being good enough, of facing her own sense of remorse, of being rejected) or frustrated (having to do what she doesn’t want to do, unable to do what she wants, not meeting expectations internal or external) and her loud and defiant expressions just happen to be the way it comes out.

It also happens that loud and defiant are really really hard on me. As are rude, personal attacks, getting in my face… and even persistent argument and negotiation, and even more, limp sullen resistance.

If I lived in the utterly safe and joyful universe, all of these things could be, without unnerving and provoking me quite so much.

I could handle what Amy dishes out without taking it personally, without being manipulated or cowed or worn down by it, and could respond in ways that would be helpful to her — to provide reassurance against her fears, hope and acceptance and confidence against her frustrations, and guidance to develop habits of expression that will serve her better in her relationships. I could see my own irritation and scorn with compassion and grace, hold them kindly and tenderly, let go of them more easily, with less sense of self-condemnation and pressure. I could see my own depletion earlier, and take steps to replenish myself. And if I could do all of that, perhaps Amy would grow less prone to fear, frustration, and her own defensive scorn.

What does scorn do? It protects against vulnerability to being wounded by rude attacks, including the scorn of others. It withers the opposition, to something unworthy of notice, something inferior, shameful, wrong, betraying frustration. It bolsters pride and a sense of security; betraying fear.

In utter safety and joy, there is no need to fear the scorn of others and no need to resort to scorn ourselves. In Willard’s chapters on the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about the call to abandon habits of anger and contempt and threats and manipulation.

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt…” (Ps 123:4)

I suspect I have written this post before.

Talking to flat-earthers

As I have been reading political opinions and articles folks have posted on Facebook, I have had a few thoughts.

I will start by stating that I took AP American History in high school precisely because it included neither a government nor an economics unit (if I recall correctly). I did take statistics in graduate school. I am a fairly intelligent person and fairly widely read, but I do not have any expertise or experience in political science, economics, government, etc. And I get all of my news through Facebook. By choice. Fact-finding has become such an onerous task for the non-expert that I am often unmotivated to invest the necessary time and energy at the cost of other things. I apologize… sort of. I feel a vague shame — that I ought to find politics important enough to invest significant time in it. And yet I also feel a vague conviction that spending time with family and friends, cooking and homeschooling, making music, reading, prayer and worship, and various other things are as important — if not more important — than wading through political stuff looking for truth. I understand that I ought to care more, and do more, for people outside of my social circle, perhaps including wider actions designed to have an impact on the systemic level… not sure yet what form that should take at this point in my life, but am trying to be open and willing.

TOLERANCE, RESPECT, DIALOGUE, MODERATION

One of the things that bugs me, and a lot of you from what you post and link to, is the amount of ridicule, intolerance, shaming, name-calling, and dismissing that goes on in so-called political discussion. We want to see everyone treated with dignity — everyone’s opinion heard with respect — everyone given the assumption that they have done their research; that they are acting from good will, in good faith; that they are reasonably intelligent and committed to the truth; that, if Christian, they are faithful to the Bible and to God and that they pray and read carefully. Except we can be so quick to assume that some folks’ opinions demonstrate that they can’t possibly be both intelligent and sincere.

We want everyone to be willing to negotiate and compromise — except we think some things are non-negotiable.

We want everyone to respect the views of others — except we think some views have been thoroughly debunked, some views are obviously and uniquely true, some views are solidly founded on incontrovertible evidence, some views have no support whatsoever.

To take an extreme example — because often the extremes are the easiest things to see and think clearly about, or to avoid — let’s consider the shape of the earth. Pretty much everyone agrees that it is a sphere. Science says so. So no one needs to respectfully consider the arguments of flat-earthers. No one needs to enter serious dialogue with them. There is no need to try to compromise or negotiate about it.

However.

A) Is it okay to ridicule someone for being wrong, even wrong about something so obvious and widely acknowledged? Perhaps the person doesn’t have much intelligence or knowledge, in which case they’re ignorant but not malevolent. What’s actually the most effective way to lead them to learn? Perhaps the person knows it’s wrong and claims it anyway for some malevolent reason. How possible is it to know that? Can we see their heart? What’s the most effective way to invite them to repentance? Perhaps the person really believes some alternate theory with what looks to them to be plausible arguments and interpretations of evidence. Who knows what could lead someone to that point — something plays on their fears or presuppositions and derails their otherwise intelligent approach to things? What’s the most effective way to restore them to clear thinking?

Surely in any case we can emphatically respect the dignity of such persons as bearers of the image of God, and beloved by him. Surely we can call out falsehood and deception without resorting to name-calling. I find it unfortunate that the letters of Paul and the Gospels include name-calling, sarcasm, and hyperbole in addressing opponents. I suppose it was acceptable rhetoric for the times. I wonder if any Pharisees repented because being called a brood of vipers or white-washed tombs confronted them with a reality they hadn’t known before. Or if any Judaizers repented because Paul wished they’d emasculated themselves. If we think the trajectory of Scripture is toward more inclusive loving, why hold onto this form of rhetoric? Why don’t we talk as much about the dignity of every person — even slimy politicians — as we do about the ministry of women or the full inclusion of homosexual Christians? Doesn’t a politician count as our neighbor? Or is name-calling really the best way to love them, to confront them with important realities and call them to repentance? Does loving one group of people justify hating and vilifying another group that oppresses them? In what way is that “loving our enemies?” Isn’t that what’s wrong about many of the psalms? I wish the Bible more clearly distinguished between behavior and being.

I appreciate that quotation that floats around — “be kinder than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” I maintain that however evil someone may be right now, they didn’t start out that way, and never simply decided “Today I am turning to the dark side.” Even Anakin had a reason — he didn’t simply freely and consciously choose evil. There is always a history, hurts, disappointments, frustrations, that leads down that path. Evil people are not some separate species, some category distinct from “us.”

Maybe you might argue that the slimy evil people don’t deserve or need our love as much as the “least of these,” whether you put the unborn, the poor, the gay, the bullied, or some other group of people in that category. The arrogant, the mean, the blasphemous, the hateful, are also among the “least of these.” Hand in Hand Parenting talks about the importance of the needs of the kids who bully and hit and yell — they are just as afflicted and hurting as their victims. An aggressive kid is a scared and threatened kid. I think that’s true of adults, too, although the fear and hurt and threat is usually deeper, more hidden, and more complicated to parse out than in a child’s case.

B) I am pretty solidly convinced of the spherical earth. Other issues? How am I to know which ones are really obvious, solidly supported, incontrovertible, not worth further discussion or negotiation? When people are involved, there are so very many factors. Statistics CAN be manipulated. Fairly easily. Non-scientists are not equipped to evaluate scientific studies. Media articles about peer-reviewed studies don’t always present them accurately. If an issue involves people on both sides, it seems chances are rather good that it is not as clear as either side thinks it is. The number of people believing or disbelieving something doesn’t determine whether the something is true or not… and yet on some level numbers are useful. There are very few flat-earthers. But there are a LOT of people arguing on both sides of issues around health-care, poverty, foreign policy, and so on. So much depends on your assumptions, especially if you are not aware that you have any. So much depends on your personal experience and the anecdotal evidence you hear from friends. So much depends on which people or media outlets you trust as authorities and experts.

Intention: Evil

No one deliberately sets out to be evil. Even the worst culprit you can think of was not always so horrid — something, more likely some long string of somethings, influenced him in the direction of the dark side.

Greater good — Sometimes a person turns to what we think is the dark side out of a conviction that they are actually following the good. They feel justified in the acts, choices, values we condemn, because they sincerely believe these things are serving some greater good, or are more in line with reality and the way things actually work — and accepting and working within reality are good things. Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps they have been deceived. There might even be a chance that we are the ones who are wrong.

Carelessness — There is also evil that is done with hardly any awareness at all; without thought for any consequences, morality, or ethics. Or if there is awareness, the evil is rationalized as not so bad, as excusable, as expedient, as quid pro quo, as looking out for number one, as not really hurting anyone or anything, as something that can’t be helped, as everyone else is doing it, as just this once, as unfortunately necessary, as the least evil of the available options, and so on.

Despair — Then there are those who are driven to evil by despair. Life is absurd. Anything that looks like goodness or the possibility of goodness is an illusion. There’s no chance to have deep needs even acknowledged without ridicule, much less fulfilled with kindness. There’s been horrific abuse or neglect or tragedy. The hurt and outrage, and / or the sense of absurdity and helpless emptiness, burn within and must come out. One might as well hate, do as much damage as possible, take down as many others as one can.

It is not fruitful to divide people into the good, like us, and the evil, like them. However good we really may be, we have great kinship with the wicked. We both bear the image of God and are his beloved. We both have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps we the righteous are indeed on the path, embracing the rule of God in our lives and working with him, and this makes a great difference. But it doesn’t separate us from the wicked as if we were different species, as if we had no kinship with the wicked at all. It is conceivable that the righteous could have responded to some incident differently, or that we might do so in the future, and wander from the path. It is conceivable that the wicked could come to themselves, see reality more clearly, repent, and turn to God. We are kin.

This sense of kinship is one of the reasons I love G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. It is because Fr. Brown sees the potential sinful inclinations of his own heart that he can understand the criminal mind so well.

It’s also one of the things that appealed to me about Hand in Hand Parenting. They, and other gentle parenting resources, emphasize that how we interpret our children makes all the difference in how we parent them. If we think they’re manipulative selfish brats who must have the sin beaten out of them (literally or metaphorically), we’ll be more likely to foster an us-vs.-them mentality and condemn them too quickly and too often without seeking to understand them.

If, on the other hand, we consider that our children want to do well and want to please us, and that in each moment they are doing the best they can with what they have, we will be more likely to notice that they’re tired and hungry, or that they feel disconnected, or that they’ve lost their impulse control, or that they are too overwhelmed with strong feelings to access their rational mind. We’ll want to set and hold limits in a way that doesn’t isolate or humiliate our kids. We’ll want to solve problems in a way that fosters connection, warmth, and safety. We’ll be inclined to empathize, remembering that we, too, get tired and hungry and overwhelmed at times.

In the same way, therapists are supposed to maintain an unconditional positive regard for their clients — to assume that however deluded they are, whatever evil they’re engaged in, they are doing the best they can with what they have — that there’s reasons why they aren’t doing what we think they ought to be doing, and that they didn’t deliberately set out to be as messed up as they have become.

It is important to speak truth about evil, to call things by their right names. It is nonetheless crucial to speak truth in love — to treat all people as we would have them treat us, as beloved image-bearers of God, as those who are not beyond hope, as those who face challenges we often know nothing about.

“Be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”