The World is Flat(er)

Posted: August 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Flat EarthWhen Tom Friedman first released his provocative book, The World is Flat, people took notice; he had named dominant world currents that took everybody back to zero – the internet, globalization, democratizing movements. At the time we began to understand what he meant. But it didn’t turn out exactly as he predicted.

Those same currents generated tribalism and the emergence of new elites. The box was indeed shaken and reorganized, but the powerful made use of it for gain even as the less powerful suffered more. Social and world currents do have a leveling-out effect, even if not in the ways we imagine. Like pandemics, for example.

There is no doubt that the current pandemic has done the same kind of thing, at least for most of us. It has shaken institutions, organizing principles, the way we do commerce, family, religion and spirituality, family life, dating, education and entertainment. In many cases it has just  finished off what was already in the process of dying. In other cases our adapting actually pushes us to new ways of relating and organizing that creates a new way of typical living. For example, using Zoom as a way to gather is no longer novel, it’s simply assumed.

In the same way that Friedman’s observation that new communication and global commerce would shake us up and level us down, but at the same time did not take into account how the powerful would use it to their advantage, so our present pandemic has also leveled most of us out even as the elite and very wealthy have prospered. Even now wealthy politicians quibble about how many bread crumbs of unemployment benefits or relief assistance they want to throw under the table to the desperate.

As most world citizens have endured loss of health, life and livelihood, needed to adjust to new limitations, and in many cases made new discoveries about what is really important, a certain class of people — the elite and super-wealthy who are quite insulated from the ravages of COVID — have exploited the pandemic to their advantage. They have prospered off of the suffering of others, becoming even wealthier as millions have plunged deep into an economic depression. They have been helped to become even richer by government itself, which has favored certain people and corporations, giving them lucrative contracts and exceedingly generous bailouts. Even large churches that were in bankruptcy due to clergy child abuse cases were given aid – an artificial shot in the arm when they should have been allowed to experience the full consequences of their injustice.

It is not a new story, the wealthy exploiting hard times to get even wealthier. Every war provides that opportunity, and contractors that make every armament and supply necessary for the war effort profit, ending up better off after the war than before it. There are entities right now that are becoming fantastically wealthy as a result of our present pandemic.

Excluding that sorry dimension of the hyper-wealthy and powerful prospering during hard times, most people in the world are in roughly the same boat, even if located on  different decks for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd classes: We are forced to the essentials of life and our humanity; we allow ourselves to be remade not only for survival, though there is that, but also aspiring for a better self and world; the ways, structures and methods that used to carry us go flat even as new models and innovations take their places.

In important ways, the world is flattening again. When that happens everybody goes back to zero, a kind of universal flood that transports us in an ark of transition toward a new world. Just what world that shall become is as unknown to us as it was to Friedman. But it is being transformed, for good or for ill, before our very eyes. We are living at a dramatic inflection point filled with chaos. And the wise and courageous among us will walk across that newly leveled landscape and imagine a new world even before it appears.

Fork and Green Beans

Call it fortuitous. I was seated to the immediate right of Donald Trump on a bench before plank tables in a rather simple but spacious lodge-like dining hall. It was lunchtime. Though I wanted to avoid staring, I turned slightly to my left and watched him eat what was before him. Most conspicuous was the rather full fork of green beans that he proceeded to swallow in one hungry gulp.

“At least I’m eating my vegetables,” he said. I nodded. “And they were grown right here in Missouri,” I retorted.

In my dream, Donald was his present biological age, showing all the wear and tear of the years. But his emotional age was much, much younger. He was, as the unconscious goes, maybe ten. He sought the same kind of approval that a ten year old might desire. And because he was not allowed to grow into mature manhood, he remained stuck there, at age ten.

The trappings of his elite life had allowed him to move through growing up, but without the formation of mature manhood. He was given unbridled power and protected status too early. He continued a charmed life of little responsibility and self-indulgent freedom. His character never developed. In the end he became a menace to the world surrounding him, a person who exploited others as an immature ten year old might. He was enthralled with his own ability to get what he wanted. He was even excited by his ability to intimidate and harm others with his biases and prejudice.

But on that bench by that table with a fork of green beans, it was a different story. In a rare moment I looked upon a broken little boy and had empathy for him. That empathy in no way gave him a pass for his large catalog of future misdeeds. It was, rather, a glimpse into what existed before a course of events twisted it.

I suppose I have always wanted to look favorably upon Donald Trump. I want to look upon every person in that way before the world disfigured what was originally created in the image of God. But I have not been able to see Donald Trump that way, blocked as I have been by his heinous actions and thoughts. Even now, as his house of cards collapses, he doubles down on incessant lying, jeopardizing his own people, and threatening the democracy he swore to uphold.

The dream gave me what my waking self could not, some compassionate look beyond all the debris and destruction. I suppose we fantasize about doing that with other historical characters whose misguided motives harmed so many: every one was born somewhere to a mother, drank her milk, learned to walk, and toddled into life. If only we had known them before.

It was my subconscious that provided a boy eating green beans. There were no kids in cages, no obedient subordinates protecting him from prosecution, no unraveling of the hard work of generations.  We want to love people, or something of them, even a trace, that had some strand of a purpose in the mind of God. But everything they became keeps us from seeing it.

By the time this story is over, we will unable to see that part of him through our own contempt and disdain. But today, just today, I am allowing a benevolent eye to look upon a ten year old eating green beans. If I am capable of nothing more than that, at least I have this fragment of mercy, something I routinely depend upon for my own somewhat selfish, frequently unrighteous, and partially broken ten year old.

 

Constitution

Section. 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section. 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

 

Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Constitution

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Constitution

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Anne FrankFor those of us who are not on the front lines, not required to provide health care service during the pandemic, not work in jobs that are risky, our time of sheltering at home presents a different kind of challenge. We may have to contend with our own boredom, the loss of social interaction, or the interruption of life patterns. We may not like the ways our ordinary freedoms have been curtailed. Masks may be irritating. And the longer it goes the more certain psychological effects are felt: isolation, lack of direction, uncertainty about the future. Wondering about school.

However real this is – and it is real – it pales in comparison to other kinds of sheltering at home which are more urgent, the kind of necessary sheltering in which life is up for grabs: War that brings hiding from combatants. Blackouts to avoid the bombs from above. The power grid going dark in the middle of winter. Slow starvation. The Vietnamese living in tunnels as B52s dropped their payload on them.

In the midst of the rising genocide of the 2nd World War, Jews hid from Nazis who did everything in their power to exterminate them. In large part they were very successful in implementing their project, the “final solution.” If families were not able to flee to other countries before the borders were locked down, if they were not able to hide and remain undetected, they were captured, summarily executed, or sent to concentration camps. Such was the story of the Frank family and those who hid in Amsterdam with them.

Anne’s journal – and the later edits of it when she imagined a future book telling the story – reveals a world of horror told through the mind of a girl who went into hiding when she was thirteen and stayed until she was fifteen. It includes many of the preoccupations of any adolescent. But it also itemized the deprivations, military actions, racial profiling and death that stalked the Jewish community. We read the lists of Jewish laws that curtailed all freedoms and segregated Jews in every aspect. There are the tensions experienced among people living in close quarters for long periods of time. We are filled with fleeting hope as we hear the good news of the Allies advancing.

Anne and her family did not make it; they were betrayed, apprehended and sent to the camps. Her journals – left behind – were saved and later carefully published for the world to experience her story from the inside.

As I read Anne’s Journal, I realize how very shallow are my concerns about sheltering in place. I am not hiding. There is no imminent threat outside the door. What I experience is at most a psychological or spiritual challenge, some uncertainty about the unknown future. But I am not wondering if the Gestapo will find me or if some collaborator has informed on me.

Everything is relative. Just reading about the kind of sheltering required of the Frank family provides real perspective. My little concerns are just that, little. That realization provides room for compassion toward those who truly suffer in so many ways, and at the same time provides a merciful deliverance from self-preoccupation and the downward spiral into self-pity, a descent that can destroy us as surely as a virus can.

 

If there is anyone who models the evolution of the spirit, allows for old worlds to fall away in order that new ones take their place, it is Barbara Brown Taylor.

In the latest Christian Century series on “How my mind has changed” she did it again. You can read it for yourself;

 

Solitude as Art

Posted: June 25, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Solitude as Art” is the title of James A. Smith’s editorial in the latest issue of Image Magazine (105). It is an outstanding piece.

He states at the beginning, “We have lost loved ones; lost confidence in our institutions; lost both community and privacy; lost sanity and the simple things that give joy. Many of us have lost the mental bandwidth to dream and make. Can we find something in all this loss?”

And then he pivots. He turns to Stephen Batchelor and his book The Art of Solitude. The premise is stunning and timely: Just because you’ve been forced into solitude, even with those you love, that does not mean you know what to do with it. In fact, Improperly armed, it can work against you, undermine you, shred you. More demons of the restless soul may appear than angels. Solitude can be a graveyard.

“There is more to solitude than being alone,” Batchelor writes. “Solitude is an art.”

Which means that unless a cultivated inner life is not already developed before the pandemic strikes, that forced isolation can be more curse than blessing. But if one already works with the quiet spaces of the spirit those same spaces might represent an interior castle, to borrow imagery from Teresa of Avila.

The best outcome of the art of solitude might be a paradox. Again, quoting Batchelor:

“Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.”

 

 

 

 

 

picklesIt’s the first of the most elementary questions considered by any freshman philosophy major: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Why indeed? I asked the same thing of pickles.

Why is there a pickle rather than not a pickle?

First of all, we have to backtrack to the source. Why is there a cucumber rather than not? And why vegetables rather than none? And why plants rather than none?

So many pickles start their lives as cucumbers (but not all because you can pickle anything). You might wonder about the intervening steps that moved identity from one to the other. Of course, many cucumbers remain as they are, unaltered. I ate one just yesterday in my salad.

But neither cucumbers nor pickles voluntarily give themselves to my cause. We have not asked for their permission or consent. The cucumber was grown to eat and was eaten. If the meaning of its existence exceeds more than my need for eating it, I cannot say a word about what that might be.  We now see through a darkened glass.

The pickle, whether dill or sweet, is another matter. It comes as the direct result of the natural order of things being altered by human freedom and creativity. The cucumber is changed by adding other natural substances – dill seeds, cloves, garlic, mustard seed, celery seed, black peppercorn, and other spices of one’s choice to a vinegar and water brine. Over time it transforms a cucumber into the lovely pickle on your hamburger. Human creativity combines a variety of natural elements to make something novel – a pickle.

I had one for lunch just today.

Was my delicious, sour, crunchy pickle from God? Well, yes, by every element that came together in its creation.

But how do you explain the role of the humans who did the mixing – mortal or divine? Yes. Both. The pickle is a co-creation of God and humanity. And since human consciousness, especially the capacity of creation, exists as a part of the collective, universal consciousness, that’s divine, too.

So God made pickles. And we steward them.

And why is there a pickle rather than not a pickle?

When you tell me why there is something rather than nothing, then I’ll fess up.