Sunday, August 19, 2012

Corporate Discernment in which the Sense of the Meeting is that of an Insecure Adolescent Hoping to Stay Popular with the Other Cool Kids in the Room.

The creative and destructive tensions between individual and corporate discernment among Friends have long interested me.  It seems to me that the successful process of corporate discernment involves the act of deep listening, both to each other and to the Presence that moves among us.

Deep listening is an art.  It involves the ability to honor one's principles without shutting oneself off to new evidence or to new possibilities.  It requires tenderness but not capitulation.  It requires firmness but not rigidity.  It involves applying enough compassion and imagination to allow us to stand outside of our own sense of attachment to our own subjective realities.  It requires patience to stay grounded long enough to transcend the personal and cultural differences that obscure our spiritual kinship.

Corporate discernment requires this deep, loving listening to our brothers and sisters so that we can remain in good and righteous relationship to them even as our individual ideas seem to struggle and strain for consideration.  But corporate discernment, as much as it relies on our abilities to engage in loving dialogue with each other, is not, in the end, about you and me trying to get along.  It is about you and me reaching out together to better understand the will of the Divine Presence.

It is a remarkable thing, and one I would not have considered possible if I had not witnessed it myself.  A room full of unique individuals could transcend their individuality to become a vehicle of adoration and obedience to a Holiness that embraces them all.  Both silent worship and worshipful meetings with attention to the business of Friends require a discipline of hearing each other with love while keeping one ear tuned in toward the Divine Presence.  In this way, what each of us may know of the Divine is magnified in a room full of other Friends tapping into that same Present Energy. 

In holding each other in this Light, we have the power to sit with the anger, the pain, the bitterness, the exuberance, the hopefulness of each of our individual human messages until such transitory things pass away and The Message, howevery stumbingly and imperfectly articulated, remains. There can be an exhilaration translated into solemn quiet tears in such moments.  I have seen this many times among Friends as the room seems to collectively acknowledge that Something Good Has Happened Here.  But from then, we come to the real human work of responding to that Message. Our relationship to the Spirit that moves us so powerfully and tenderly in a gathered meeting for worship does not end when we stand and shake one another's hands. At every step of action and reflection, we repeat our process. Slowly, deliberately, passionately...

But sometimes it seems to go wrong. We make corporate decisions that can't possibly be a reflection of Divine Will (unless Divine Will calls us toward apathy, prejudice, power-mongering, greed, and a slothful service of convenience and convention). So how does that happen? Why do we crucify our prophets?

I believe it is because in those times we are not faithful to our process but merely to maintaining the appearance of the process. Discerning the will of the Presence is not the same as discerning the will of the group.  There are times when the group leans away from prophetic voices called to move us closer to the Divine will in favor of voices that call us to lean toward that which is comfortable, profitable, popular, or conventional.  In these cases, the prophetic voices that arise in our midst are received not by a corporate body but by a room full of individuals who are choosing to be drawn toward the message, to remain neutral to it, or to resist it based on personal motivation. Those who resist it provide a counter-leadership even if their resistance to the prophetic message is silent.

I do not condemn Friends for this.  We are imperfect creatures, but our stumbling does not make us less beloved.  I think that it is natural and normal for us to pass through this very limited human response to messages.  It is perhaps even necessary for those of us who sit in the process of corporate discernment to allow ourselves to pass through our individual emotions and thoughts before we are able to draw more deeply into the Presence.   There is nothing inherently wrong with our individual perspectives, for they too are given to us as a tool for helping us understand the will of GOD.  Our problem lies not in our individuality nor in unity with the group.  Our problem lies when individuality or community are no longer the servants, but rather the masters of our understanding.  Revelation does not always arrive with a clap of thunder.  More often, perhaps, we may expect it after long and dull conversations, repetitions, emotional anxieties, and hard, hard work.

I'd like to hold up the psychological and emotional components of corporate discernment. It seems to me that while we may be more skilled at acknowledging the spoken conflicts and compromises Friends engage in during the process of corporate discernment, we are not always aware of the underlying and unspoken emotional conversations that define our relationships to each other and to our Source.  Even in silence we often project our intentions (so often personal and selfish) to our brothers and sisters even as we pay lip service to the process of corporate discernment.

So much of communication is non-verbal.  We read each other's faces and bodies.  We can sense emotion.  When we speak of the sense of the meeting, I believe we are often really speaking of sensitivity to the subtle, emotional feelings in a room. Many of us are weighing (albeit often subconsciously) the unspoken response of our neighbors to the messages we hear and speak. Even still bodies and faces speak loudly to those who have ears. They cast their disapproval into the energy of the room whether or not they say a word.

  I have wondered why we do not talk much about this. We seem to be aware that while our vocal and written conversations are helpful and community-building, they are also notional and therefore not a true substitute for relationship with the Divine. We know that we must be mindful of mistaking our words for the Word.  We acknowledge that the sound and fury of human language may distract us from a truer Message.

Well, there is fury in silence too.

Why do we not also acknowledge that many of our silent, emotional interactions are also notional, arising out of collective fear and insecurity far more than out of tenderness toward the Divine Presence? Why do we not acknowledge that we are picking up on our f/Friends' feelings and attempting either to resist them or to make it right with them (even if that means turning away from what we are called to do?)

That prickle of disapproval one feels in a room after a discomforting witness is as real a response as any angry speech.  One feels if the silence that greets one's words is a welcoming and thoughtful silence or if it is icy and disapproving.  The exchange of glances, the set of a jaw, a hardening distance in the eyes-- these things alarm us and distract us.

Perhaps we mistake the desire to bury that angry human subtext as corporate discernment. I have seen the angry, although subtle energies of one person poison "corporate discernment" as Friends scrambled to balance their desire for friendship (with a small f) with their desire to serve a greater Ministry.   In these cases, Friends seem to be saying, "God forbid we offend this man! (and too bad if we offended God in the process.)"  We make idols of each other.  One has money we cannot afford to lose.  One has influence we do not dare challenge.  Another pouts and makes us all feel lousy when she doesn't get her way.  Still another launches into speeches we would rather not hear.  How much easier it is to become people-pleasers rather than Truth Publishers.

Quaker history is full of examples of prophets whose ideas were met only with scorn.  It is full of examples of "corporate discernment" that claimed that God called not for equality, nor for peace, nor justice, nor love, nor integrity.  Quaker history is full of examples of Friends declaring their loyalty to the status quo rather than to the Almighty.  We have not always followed our Guide. 

I think, maybe, it all comes down to Integrity.  We cannot be anything other than human, and therefore, we must be imperfect.  But as imperfect as our faithful translations of the Living Word may be, they will so much more so if we are not honest with ourselves about our limitations.  Do we believe that, of all human beings, Friends alone are capable of corporate discernment of the will of the Divine will without falling prey to our own unspoken dialogue of pride, pain, and foolishness?  I believe that until we acknowledge that our words are not alone the vehicles of our voices, we will remain out of tune, and discord rather than harmony, will mark our community.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dipping My Toes

I'm not particularly good at titles.  In fact, I'm lousy at them.  A more honest title for this blog post would be "Dipping My Toes in a Sea of Despair:  A Melancholy Contemplation of a Depression Realized Incrementally."  But that doesn't fit into the little space the blogger designers allotted to me.

I'm also not particularly good at cheerfulness and positive thinking.  I am not incapable of joy, but I do tend to anticipate troubles and tragedies.  From childhood, I have found negativity to be a good personal policy.  As a perfectionist, I would study for four to six hours for every test I took.  I'd all but memorize the readings assigned to me by reading each of them five to ten times, and I'd check and recheck my work.  So great was my fear of making a mistake that I would jump up in the middle of the night to check my work one more time.  Yet, even after all that preparation, I always expected to fail and find myself humiliated.  I figured that to expect failure and humiliation prepares one for that horrid eventuality and if, for whatever reason, one did not fail and was not humiliated, one could enjoy one's non-failure as a lovely little surprise.  Of course, I should point out that "failure" to me was any grade lower than 97%.  100% or higher was good.  98%-99%  was a B (and a bit of a disappointment).  97% was a C and anything lower made me so ashamed I could hardly stand it.

Adulthood changed some of this obsessive brooding over grades.  In adulthood, I became a mother, experienced the deaths of loved ones, and learned that I too was vulnerable to illness and accident.  My tragedy-focus has shifted to the fear of death rather than to the fear of failure. I still fear failure very much, but I fear death and disability much more.  It seems that now I'm also beginning to fear the aging process.  I've begun to realize that when someone mentions "the young people", they are no longer referring to me.  This is astonishing and upsetting.  I no longer look at myself in the mirror when it can be helped because the person I see there is decreasingly recognizable to me as myself and I'd rather not look at her until through diet, exercise, and some miraculous lotions, she gets herself back in shape.

But all of this is not what I started out to say in this blog post.  I meant to discuss despair and how I've recently begun to dip my toes in a pool of it.  Usually it is just my toes although occasionally I get lazy and my whole foot slips in as well.  When such a thing happens, I try to back away and have a snack or watch some Star Trek or Doctor Who to reset myself through distraction.  This is a quick fix and like most quick fixes, it doesn't last for long.  Soon enough I find myself inching back toward that dark pool and itching to slide into it.

It is a terrible temptation, this pool of despair.  I want to dive into it headlong.  Very much.  I'm so tired of fighting that temptation.  It would be lovely to just relax into those waters and allow myself to be carried away.  It takes ever so much energy to keep my game face on and pretend that somehow, in some way, I am not being broken bit by bit by all the horrors around us all the time.  Do you suppose there is some committee of demonic people in a room brainstorming new varieties of fantastic injustice?  I'd like to think there is because to believe that normal, mundane human beings are this cruel to one another is just too heart-breaking to contemplate.  Yet, try as I may, I find myself doubting that there is a demonic committee bent on manifesting the heights of human despair.  Instead, very sadly, there is just the human race, just the lot of us, contributing a vast diversity of crappiness to the human condition.

I am very tired of straining against the brute force of injustice, nastiness, violence, and cruelty.  I often feel like I'm struggling alone.  Perhaps you know the feeling.  Have you ever read something especially despicable and wondered if maybe you were going crazy?  I try to remember, even as my mouth soundlessly forms the liberal lament, "What the f@ck?!!", that others share my morose and outraged assessments of the loathsomeness of the human condition.  I try to remember that just as I am not alone in my anger, neither am I alone in my attempts to struggle against what seems like the inevitability of our own self-destruction.  Lots of us are straining and we're all pulling together in that giant tug-o-war over that dark pool. 

I try to remind myself of all the activists, intellectuals, artists, teachers, healers, parents, lovers, and humanitarians who are struggling along with me.  I try to remember, but it is hard.  I keep reading about arrests and intimidations, beatings, dismissals, and demotions.  I continue shouting out the truth to which I've committed myself.  "Love! Love! Love!" I keep calling out, and "Justice, Compassion, Peace!"  I don't know if anyone is listening.  My students seem to appreciate the message in the days that they belong in my classroom, but their ability to carry their own messages into the world is doubtful.  They are working class people and already pretty disempowered and vulnerable.  I don't harbor any delusion that I'm teaching a new generation of activists.  If they can keep a roof over their head and find money to feed their children, it is about all they can expect.

The pool of despair beckons because it would be nice to just lose myself in it and surrender to a certain knowledge that there is nothing I can do.  The news is full of horrors so insane and absurd that I often think they are some kind of joke at first.  "Is this a real headline?" I ask myself hopefully.  "Maybe this is from one of those fake news sources that publishes absurdist stories for comedic effect."  Except the fake news stories are no longer as absurd as the actual news stories and no one seems to be laughing anymore.

Sometimes I stop watching or reading the news to try to save my sanity.  That is only partially effective because I continue to run up against injustice whenever I speak to acquaintances, friends, and relatives.  It seems that every single day I hear another story of the petty humiliations and discouraging injustices that are the regular fare offered up by both public and private institutions.  Being alive in the western world seems to require immersion in a Kafkaesque nightmare of paperwork, regulations, debt, and broken dreams. 

I won't get into my own personal stories of grinding, debilitating, petty injustice.  My own troubles, though interesting to me, would probably be tedious to you.  I'll just say that I'm an adjunct and as such, I believe there is a special place in hell for college administrators.  Also, my husband has just learned that he will be laid off from his dream job (or rather the crappy entry-level seasonal job that might possibly turn into his dream job)-- on his birthday.  So that's a bit of a bummer too.  We knew he would be laid off, but they had assured us that he would be able to work through the winter.  Now they tell him that the money in the budget allocated for allowing low-paid guys to clean toilets and paint fences is needed elsewhere.  Similarly, it is apparent that my college does not have enough money to pay their adjuncts a salary that allows us to make payments on our student loans.  Certainly, there is no money for adjuncts or seasonal federal workers to have health insurance.  Colleges and the governments have so little money.  That's why they can barely afford to invade multiple foreign countries and give tax breaks to billionaires or build useless stadiums and hire more college administrators with enormous salaries.  But I digress.

We were talking about despair.  It seems that fish and aquatic life are dying off enmasse.  And so are little kids in many parts of the world.  Hell, the entire effing planet is burning, baking, drowning, and withering.  Where climate change isn't picking us off, crazy men with automatic weapons are.  Or maybe you'll be lucky and survive all that and only have to worry about poverty, homelessness, or a lifetime of debt slavery. 

Why can't I stop brooding?  It could just be my age.  I've been reading up on the topic and it seems that Gen Xers are more likely to be despairing and to commit or attempt suicide.  My sister and I have always referred to our generation as "Generation F@cked."  Our parents lived in difficult times, but believed they could usher in an era of peace, love, and progressive change.  I grew up on those promises and was nurtured on my parents' faith in the principles of equality, justice, and compassion.  But I matured into a world marked by recession, warfare, climate destruction, and the rise of the Religious Right. 

So, I'm tired.  I think I've always been tired.  I can't remember a time when I was not tired.  It feels like we are slipping into Hell and I'm awfully exhausted by clinging to the precipice.  Wouldn't it be nice to just let go?

What does this have to do with Paganism or Quakers?  I don't know.  I guess they aren't helping me much.  In fact, both groups are currently on my list of "Groups of People Who at One Time Offered a Sense of Intellectual and Spiritual Promise in an Otherwise Degrading Life, but Who, In My Current State of Despondency, Disappoint Me So Much That I Feel Like Crying When I Think About Them:  A Topic for Future Blog Post Discussion."  See?  I told you that I'm lousy with titles.

(Also, here's a video of a song parody and accompanying article that is slightly related to this topic inasmuch as it is about people my age feeling bitterly disappointed and angsty.)

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...