Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Little More Than a Day's Work: Sadness, John Woolman's Words, and the Story of Human Calling

I have been thinking, a bit, about the dark times of personal calling. I've been thinking about how sad and hard and even unfair it is that working toward what we know is good and right and just often leads to such unhappiness. Police don't hand out lollipops to demonstrators. You won't become a millionaire as a social worker. During a war, pacifists are never the toast of the town. I've been teaching about feminism and civil rights and my students have made some important comments. They've been wondering how the men and women they read about kept going in the midst of all the opposition and unkindness they encountered. How many times can a person get slapped down before they refuse to stand up again?

In part, I think this has grown out of the juxtaposition of the work we must do and the bland and saccharine statements well-meaning people often make about the work. Specifically, I note that many very liberal people (people with whom I otherwise agree) often make statements in meeting about finding bliss and finding peace and contentment in their lives. They speak of a belief that God wants us all to be happy, as if God is some kind of cosmic middle-class parent admiring our macaroni necklaces.

I know we all experience the Divine differently. Perhaps for some the experience is more peaceful. Perhaps their God's face is never darkened by the suffering I find there. A woman in a meeting I once attended gave a message in which she explained that she would now carry a very expensive toy from her collection of very expensive toys with her all the time to remind her to appreciate life. I guess that message must have been for someone else in the meeting. I kept thinking that I knew of lots of people who might appreciate life a bit more if she sold the very expensive toys and gave them the money so they could eat. Her evaluation of what is demanded of us is very different from my own.

Now I'm not saying that I'm some kind of saint. Far from it. Indeed, that woman may very well be a much better person than I am. It wouldn't be a difficult task to out-good me. I'm a self-centered malcontent on my best days. I figure that's why I've experienced the Divine more harshly than others have. Rainbows and kittens are far less likely to move my stubborn heart. I have what is kindly called "a challenging personality." It requires a little tough love. It has been through tears and in the times when I had no more tears to shed that I have been closest to my Source. For me, it has been in the darkness, when my outer shell is finally broken that the tender shoots emerge. We are called to grow upwards toward the Light but also deeply into Earth, in the Darkness. We are called to Joy and we are called to Pain. We are called to grasp- playfully, desperately-- onto Life, and then to let it go. In this paradox, we are called to serve, to serve and never know, perhaps until the end, why or wherefore.

Knowing what to do with the darkness is at the heart of this for me. I'm not interested in any philosophy that chooses to gloss over it, to ignore its presence and power in our lives. I am struck by the number of times people say that if we follow our calling of service, it will make us happy. Really? I wonder. If that is the case, then all of history mocks us. Specifically and personally, I resist suggestions that I should ignore my sense of calling when my calling makes me unhappy (and it does make me unhappy so often.) You know what I would do if I thought that I could measure my success with happiness? I'd tell everyone to go piss up a rope and then I'd go home and read Star Trek books with a big ass bowl of popcorn on my lap.

But here's the thing. We aren't called to personal happiness. We are called to unconditional love. And you know what? Unconditional love hurts like hell. Sign up for that kind of service and don't be surprised when you find yourself slogging through hell. The world is broken, my friends, and it will take an army of us to put it together again. Matilda Joslyn Gage, suffragist, theorist, and historian warned us that we would need both patience and strategy. "We need not expect the concessions demanded by women will be peaceably granted; there will be a long moral warfare before the citadel yields; in the meantime, let us take possession of the outposts."

I often wonder if I'm making any difference at all with my speeches and my blogs and my papers and my research. In the end, who cares? There are some days when I sure as hell don't. But I keep on working because, well-- because this is the work I do. It is the work a lot of us do. "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!" said Sojourner Truth. Well maybe we've still got some turning to do but in the meantime, we're taking possession of the outposts. This story I study has not been a happy story. Not by a long shot, but what a story it has been!

When I'm reading the histories of saints and reformers, I like to linger on the passages where they sound angry, bitter, hopeless, compromising and discouraged. It reminds me that they too were human and that if they sat and wrote down discouraged thoughts before picking themselves up and throwing themselves back into the darkness, I can do it too.

"...The uprightness of the first reformers in attending to the light and understanding given to them opened the way for sincere-hearted people to proceed further afterwards; and thus each one truly fearing God and laboring in the works of righteousness appointed for him in his day findeth acceptance with Him. Through the darkness of the times and corruptions of manners and customs, some upright men may had had little more than than their day's work to attend to the righteous principle in their minds as it related to their own conduct in life without pointing out to others the whole extent of that into which the same principle would lead succeeding ages."

So said John Woolman in his journal as he labored to end the practice of slave ownership Friends. "A little more than a day's work" just to get righteousness in your own heart before you could spread it to others. How sad. What a slow, long process. Is this what he believed? Does this mean that all the good he did in other lives was veiled from him? It is easy to see what a profound influence he had on the abolitionist movement of the following century. It is easy to look back at Woolman as an exemplar of how gentle faith can change the world. But what would John Woolman think of his progress?

"Being weakly, I was covered with sorrow and heaviness on account of the prevailing spirit of this world by which customs grievous and oppressive are introduced on the one hand, and pride and wantonness on the other."

His journal is full of such remarks about his uncertainty and his sadness as he engaged in what must have been work that was often disheartening, exhausting, and dangerous. He was a modest man, often painfully so, yet he felt sent into the world to speak and behave in a way that could only have been seen as bold and arrogant to the slaveholders to whom he was sent to minister. Would he be rewarded with a happy ending, the kind we promise young people who "follow their bliss"?

By the end of his journal, we follow his long journey to England, a journey he undertakes out of a profound sense of obedience to the will of the Divine. Crossing the ocean, he refuses the good accommodations available to him because it troubled him deeply to be comfortable while the sailors suffered. Taking passage in steerage, he ministered amongst the sailors through the long and perilous ocean voyage. The sailors were a rough lot, often drunk when they weren't engaged in hard
physical labor. "I often feel a tenderness of heart for these poor lads, and at times look at them as though they were my children according to the flesh." His words here echo his feeling of brotherhood among the Native American people to whom he also ministered and of whom he said, "A near sympathy with them was raised in me, and, my heart being enlarged in the love of Christ, I thought that the affectionate care of a good man for his only brother in affliction does not exceed what I then felt for that people." With neither the sailors nor the Native American people did he feel safe (love does not guarantee safety!) and indeed, both on ship and through his travels through the wilderness of North America in a time of war between native and colonizing people, he was not safe. Yet, his heart was "enlarged in love" and he continued.

When Woolman finally arrived in England where he was immediately impressed with the suffering of the poor, he proceeded in haste to the Yearly meeting where he presented his certificate from Friends in America. But his costume of undyed wool was outlandish to British Friends and they suspected him of being a troublemaker. Without hearing his message, they dismissed him from their presence and told him that he may go home. This was a shocking and heartrending outcome for a man who had committed so much of his life's resources toward this ministry. He had sacrificed nearly all he had and risked his life to be among them and they have rejected him. He sat there quietly for some time to discern what he was called to do. Finally, humbly and in tears he told them that he could not go home but that he would be willing to work in a mechanical trade if any would hire him so that he might not be a burden to any. Maybe it was his humility, or his tears, or his frank and gentle manner, but in any case, their hearts warmed to him. They repented of their hasty judgments and welcomed him among them.

He was with them only four months. John Woolman, who sacrificed so much of his own and his family's comfort and happiness to fulfill his calling in England died of smallpox and was buried in York. He was 52.

This is a story of humbling, Christ-like service with obvious positive results but it not a happy story.

So don't tell me that happiness is sign that I am following God's will for me. I won't buy it. History tells me that those committed to change are not guaranteed lives of ease, comfort and happiness. History also tells me that those who rise above trial often do so on the backs of the poor.

I joke that my expertise is in the history of oppression but the other side of that is that my expertise is in the history of hope. Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." But it takes time to change the world.

As private as these thoughts feel, I share them openly because I know they are common and I know they are ancient. "The arc of the moral universe is long," said Dr. King, "but it bends toward justice." That is a little comfort but it must be enough to sustain us. The revolution of peace is a long, slow business.

Even so, there are days when I have no patience for the moral arc of the universe. Are we meant to languish so long? Sometimes it seems just so to me. There are times when I feel the Universe is awash in sadism and there is nothing for any of us but sharp teeth and slow decay-- but then there are the stars, and lovemaking, and good food and the unnecessary beauty of flowers. There's music, and back rubs and the warmth of my baby's trusting body curled against mine in sleep. There is the quiet surprise of Love. There is the humbling truth that even broken people are capable of immeasurable kindness. I take comfort in this; the world is harsh but tears, after all are gentle.

"A brighter day is come for the world, a day when the intuitions of woman's soul shall be accepted as part of humanity's spiritual wealth; when force shall step backward, and love, in reality, rule the teachings of religion."

Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote those words at the end of the nineteenth century after a lifetime of work advocating for religious freedom and for the rights of women, African Americans and Native Americans. Gage believed this, and I do as well, that a willful remembrance of our historical accomplishments of love, mercy, peace-making and justice would lead to a "regenerated world." Success is more attainable in our present if we know that we have done it in our past. Nations are made of human beings. If I can make one human being believe that the good can triumph, then I still have hope that the world is not lost.

Silly maybe. And naive. But that's my job. That's my calling. I'm never sure if I'm doing it right. I'm full of uncertainty but I keep writing, giving speeches and teaching classes as if everything I do counts. When the dark times come, when the headaches and the depression overwhelm me, I try to find the voice of God there too. This is also part of the day's work. When people know you are a story collector, they'll tell you theirs. Painful stories. Dark stories. Maybe there is healing in the telling. I don't know. Sometimes all I can do is carry the truth of their story with me, incorporate it into my knowing and weave it back into my searching. In story weaving, dark threads offset the gold.

I tried to choose a profession unlike my parents' because I did not think I could carry any more of the stories I learned in childhood of rape and sexual assault, incest and child abuse, drug addiction, poverty, police violence, injustice, corruption, disease, depression, and loneliness. When I was a child, people, knowing I was my parent's daughter, would tell me things no child should hear. I swore I'd never become a social worker or a therapist so those stories couldn't follow me but the stories found me anyhow. Those stories are all around us if we have ears to hear them. People are broken every day of the week.

I don't know if I'm doing any good. The planet reels from the weight of us. I cannot watch the news anymore because it sends me into fits of weeping. There is too much sorrow. Too much death. Whatever I do I cannot do it fast enough or well enough to see the difference. Have I helped? Oh, God, please let me help! Please let me hear you clearly! Please don't let me make a false move. There is so much at stake and you need all of our hands and hearts. You need all of our work in full measure. I beg you to help me see clearly so that I may serve-- and I beg you to leave me alone because I am so tired of the work.

We may be led to places fierce and frightening and we may lose all we enjoy and cherish in the process but it is always worth the effort. I must believe that. I make the study of love and service in the face of terrible odds my profession. "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it," said Helen Keller. Her physical body cloaked her in darkness and silence but her lucidity and her voice as suffragist and socialist belie expectation. And her story is a sad story too, a thoroughly human story, the same kind that has been blessing us all along. We were made imperfect. We were made injured, unwholesome, uncertain, flawed and failing. We were also made for each other and in that is our hope and calling.

I am reminded of Ruth the Moabite whose service to Naomi was humble and steadfast even in the midst of sorrow, starvation, and loneliness. No great queen, prophet or healer, she was a gleaner, a nobody, a foreigner,a widowed daughter-in-law of a widowed woman. But she was also an ancestor of Christ. We do not always know why we are called to serve or who will reap the rewards when we do.

"I never forget that we are sowing winter wheat," said Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy." At the end of her life, Stanton was rejected by the suffrage movement she helped create. She never lived to vote and until recent historical efforts, she was nearly forgotten. We see the triumph of her life now but forget how much frustration and bitterness she must also have carried. The beginning of her career she wrote of equality and justice in ringing words that would (eventually) change the world, but at the end of her life, in her resignation from leadership, she wrote more bitterly,

"From the mountain-tops of Judea long ago, a heavenly voice bade his disciples, “Bear ye one another’s burdens”; but humanity has not yet risen to that point of self-sacrifice; and if ever so willing, how few the burdens are that one soul can bear for another! . . .

So it ever must be in the conflicting scenes of life, in the long, weary march, each one walks alone. We may have many friends, love, kindness, sympathy and charity, to smooth our pathway in everyday life, but in the tragedies and triumphs of human experience, each mortal stands alone."

So it must have seemed and I would take her at her bitter word, except that I know the story of her last hour. Her daughter recorded that Mrs. Stanton kept looking forward even to minutes of her death when she stood looking steadfastly ahead as if making one more speech before slipping into personal and historical oblivion. What held her dying body erect? What words passed within the fading lights of her mind? Her last thoughts are veiled forever from me. So why should I take comfort in her silence?

Why? Because hers was a life lived in service. Because I sense that as she stood waiting for death, the speech she conceived in her solitude of self was for me and for the betterment of humanity. Why should her death be any different than her life? As alone as she felt, she and others like her throw themselves into the sacred story of all humanity. When we make our lives a sacrifice of love, we are received into a common Heart.

I suppose that this is the best we can do. We bear our own and others' burdens as well as we might and still we fall short, we crumple from the weight. Do not tell me that God wants us to be happy or that with Love all things are least not in any time a human mind can measure. History tells me that people rarely know how their work will fulfill the Promise. Social historians now pay more attention to all the "ordinary" people in history but we rarely understand the impact of a life until long after it was lived. We cannot know how a simple kindness today may grow in glory as it is passed from one generation to the next. If we expect to be the stars of the drama, I'm afraid we will be very disappointed. For all the Stantons and Woolmans and Kings and Kellers there are a thousand of us history will never remember. It is no matter. Keep working. The Story must be carried forward. When there is no audience to applaud and adore you, keep telling the Story with the best of yourself. The common Heart hears and that is enough.

The Story the Heart tells has no name. It just is. I know it is the darkness in which I take root and the Light in which I fly. It is the reason I reach out and the reason I still stand. John Woolman pondered it too. "Through the darkness of the times and corruptions of manners and customs, some upright men may have had little more than than their day's work to attend to the righteous principle in their minds..." Still, it is a good day's work.


Lone Star Ma said...

I wish I knew ho to make italics in comments. This really, really, really speaks to my condition, and it really helps me to have someone validate that we are supposed to do good, hard work, and not necessarily enjoy it. Because I frankly feel pretty miserable at it most of the time. and lots of people don't get that. Thank you, Hystery.

When I ran a little municipal juvenile justice case management program that did great stuff and was under the auspices of the City's P&R dept., higher ups from less tortured parts of city management used to give speeches to groups of employees saying things like "if you wake up dreading your job every day, you should go somewhere else. You ought to have a good time at work". I really felt they didn't get our area. Dealing with people in the straights our clients were in was not fun - hardly ever, though I did enjoy it in a strange adrenaline-addicted sort of way. It was worthwhile, though - very worthwhile. Teaching now, in a very tough middle school full our city's poorest children who live in very gang-infested areas, I am often asked if I enjoy teaching. I do not. I really do not. It exhausts and upsets and depresses me, mostly. I enjoy summer. I do think teaching is important and worthwhile, though. I think I am doing things that need to be done. I think it is important to keep doing them.

Thank you.

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, it will take me a while to take this all in, but I wanted to say thank you for such clear-eyed, heart-full rendering of your truth.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Thanks for sharing and for standing in the gap:-)
Here's another quote by Helen Keller: Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

In the Light,

ellen abbott said...

Why do you think the world is broken? Because there is misery in it besides the beauty? The world is no different than it has ever been. Perhaps, probably, it is exactly the way the creator wanted. Full of lessons and experience, to know the full range of what it means to be human, to be incarnate. Man has created many myths, of which Eve is only one, to explain the unexplainable. The dark is just as much a part of the whole as the light. Certainly, we should grow towards the light but as you say, we have our roots in the dark of the earth.

Hystery said...

I agree wholeheartedly that Darkness and Light of of the same sacred Source. That is a key belief of my Paganism as understood particularly through the lens of Goddess feminism as influenced by Gimbutas, Spretnak, Christ, Baring, Cashford and others.

The "world" to which I refer (rather carelessly given the multiple possible meanings of the word!) was the world of human interaction. Death exists because it exists. Injustice exists because we are cruel.

I differentiate between the "all is well" of the natural world which must include disease, fear, pain, death and the social world of human relationships in which we are called to mitigate the effects of the natural world with comforting presence for each other. We are social animals and our hominid ancestors could not have survived were it not for the love they had for each other.

You are right. Perhaps the world itself is not broken, but our relationships with each other and with the sacred are broken and strained. It is out of the severance of these most important bonds that much unnecessary suffering grows.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Ellen and Hystery,

In response to your question to Hystery, I feel the need to jump in and share too. Hope you will understand:
>>Why do you think the world is broken?
I would say, please work with young people like in a hospital for emotionally disturbed children and in public school for many years (as I did) and you will see the terrible brokenness and downwrong evil of how adults have wrecked the lives of countless young:-(

Or work with outreach agencies in other countries. See how the "kissing bug" devastates the lives of the little children in Central America. Follow the trail of disease, especially in places like southern Africa, poverty, injustice and see why individuals such as John Woolman were never satisfied with the way things are.

I strongly disagree with your statement that "the dark is just as much a part of the whole as the light." Early Friends called themselves "Children of Light" and took the images (as Howard Brinton points out in his Quaker books such as Friends for 300 Years)from the N.T.emphasis on God as Light, in which there is no darkness at all.

Of course, St. John of the Cross, the great Catholic mystic spoke of the "darkness" of God, but he wasn't speaking of either the natural evil of survival of the fittest or of human evil but of the ultimate mystery of God.

Please read Night by Elie Wisel.
The world isn't at all how the Creator wants it to be.

Dear Hystery,

I suppose your response here is why (while I respect and identify with your Story mythos)I do so disagree with Paganism and Neo-paganism in general--their seeming acceptance of natural evil and, for some N.P. and P. of human wrong (as in the tragic case of Carol Christ).

The witness of Jesus the Chosen One and so many individuals of faith since is that this world is far more than broken--it is wrong in so many ways and we are to be working for change to participate with God in bringing Light. (Even Richard Dawkins,the Darwinian thinks we should work against natural selection!)

And it's true this world is in process. But it and we are destined for a time when "the last enemy that will be abolished is death."

I feel so very strongly about all of this. I hope you can hear my concern.

In the Light,


Tom Smith said...

I do appreciate your comments and believe that you are following the Word, Spirit, etc.I do not discount Darkness at all. However, my image of darkness is more from a "scientific" point of view that corresponds with Fox's "but the darkness cannot overcome the Light." I see darkness as the ABSENCE of Light. Only barriers to the Light "create" darkness. If these barriers are removed the Light overcomes the darkness.

These barriers are all around us and thus there is darkness all around us. The hope that we might do a little more than a day's work and help in removing those barriers around us will allow the Light to "brighten the corner where you are." (I must apologize for my sense of humor and the use of that "old" song."

I appreciate your understandings and look forward to more seekimgs/findings (paradox that really works).


Hystery said...

Dear Tom,

I always love when you comment! I'll be thinking about light overcoming darkness as you describe. That seems like a fruitful way to envision our calling.