Friday, October 29, 2010

A Bully Pulpit!*

A few weeks ago my 7-yr-old son was given a test in which he was asked to state the opposite of "friend". His answer: "bully". That, apparently, was not in the list of acceptable answers, and so he missed the question (this was not a tragedy!). But as his mother and I considered his answer, it was perfectly understandable, given all of the attention being paid in schools to the topic of "bully-ing". I would imagine that most of us would not count bullies as among our friends.

And the overall topic of bullying ascends to the highest levels
for discussion. Yesterday, the first lady, Michelle Obama, brought up the topic on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show". She challenged adults to help solve the problem of bulllying by leading-by-example. If our kids see us behaving civilly in daily, and political, discourse, they'll learn how to behave appropriately. This, of course, is a simple extension of a lot of other research that shows that kids do learn from the adults around them. We adults can claim "Do as I say!" but if we do something else, as the old saying goes, our "actions speak louder than words."

In this vein, many of us in Colorado are being harangued by a (radio) political ad that asserts "Colorado can take a hit . . . . It's time to hit back". Wow! Now that's productive rhetoric. Our political process has become all about doing violence -- to the other candidate or point-of-view. It's not about debate. It's not about ideas. It's about force. No wonder our children think that they can bully their way into getting what they want. Forget about "speaking softly". It's all about who's carrying the biggest stick.

We live in a culture that seems to believe that success always comes at the expense of someone/something else. It's a zero-sum game. I can't win if you don't lose, and if I have to hurt you to win, I'll do so! That sensibility runs so counter to so many of our higher, religious, ideals. We must be bracketing our almost religiously-universal commitment to
the Ethics of Reciprocity (i.e,.the "Golden Rule") when it comes to making our point: "Do to the other before the other does it to you!"

Some years ago a Christian organization encouraged folks to make a fast. It was not about giving up food or drink or sex or gambling. The challenge was to fast from violence. And that's a pretty major challenge. The challenge was not simply to DO no violence (as if that were easy), but also not to view or listen to violence. There go most movies, and a lot of popular music. Oh, and the news. And which sports do we watch, hoping for a fight???? Umm . . . video games?

I'm not suggesting that we give up going to hockey games (I'd probably lose my job if I did that! GO DU! Beat North Dakota!), but I do wonder if we recognize how enmeshed, and therefore, complicit, we are in this culture of violence. Can we say "no" to attack ads? Can we limit the amount of violence that we allow INTO our living rooms? Do we even recognize that certain cherished institutions, like the democratic process, are a bit violent? (Ask those who lose the elections next week if they feel "beat up"!) Can we instead restructure our conversations - both public and private - to seek understanding or consensus rather than victory? Most importantly, what will my son learn from how I conduct my relationships about friendship, or about bullying? That's where I have some ability to effect change!



"A bully pulpit is a public office or other position of authority of sufficiently high rank that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter. . . . The term is not related to the noun bully, i.e. a harasser or someone who intimidates" ( See, too, the article in Answers.Com.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Got the t-shirt (Not!) . . .

On Sunday and Tuesday of this past week, I was fortunate to hear the Dalai Lama in person. The Sunday event was a small gathering of university chaplains (there were only about 25 of us--plus security personnel). At that gathering, His Holiness spoke of things of concern to us: compassion and harmony -- common enough topics for him. (His current book is entitled Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. In it he argues that compassion is part of all religions and that we can strive toward harmony through that understanding, without diluting any particular tradition.) Near the end of our time together, he turned to another common topic of Buddhism: attachment, or non-attachment. In the context of what he'd just been saying he cautioned us not to become attached to our own religious traditions. And then he turned the tables and pointed to himself, "I cannot become too attached to my Buddhism! And I'm a Buddhist leader!" And he began chuckling.

The Tuesday event was a conversation between the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere and Alice Walker, or the topic of Creativity and Spirituality. This was a "buy-a-ticket" event, and apparently some 1200 folks bought tickets. The conversation between the three was fascinating. And it was wonderful to hear them answer such questions as "is there a connection between compassion and art?" The Dalai Lama, "Yes. Next question?" More chuckling all around! And when that conversation was over, we were all encouraged by the event planners to visit the Tibet Shop on the 2nd floor. I was with a group that decided that leaving the auditorium was more to our interest than a crowded gift shop.

As we were walking back to our conference room, we ran into another of our fellow conferees. He had purchased a t-shirt commemorating the Dalai Lama's visit to Atlanta. And I began to wonder aloud about attachment and gift shops. As I spoke of my musings, another colleague pointed out that the gift shop was raising money for Tibet. I understood that. But what I found humorous was that we had just heard about non-attachment, and then we were encouraged to buy something to keep us attached (via t-shirt) to the experience we just had.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, let me state that I have LOTS of t-shirts from sporting championships, concerts and bike rides that remind me of those events!) And I was reminded of the Dalai Lama's own self-caution about holding on too tightly to things that might keep us from moving forward.

I'm reminded, too, of the Israelites who, after their Exodus from Egypt -- believing in God's promise of a "land flowing with milk and honey" -- when things got a bit rough, forgot their future and began wishing for their past: "[O]n the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt, . . . [t]he whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Ex 16:1-3). Slavery preferable to freedom. Hmmmm.

And, of course, at this time of THIS year, I'm reminded of this attachment to the past with each television ad for a political candidate, or each dinner-interrupting phone call from US Chamber of Commerce funded tele-marketers.
The disillusion of some voters who chanted the "change" mantra of just two years ago is a counter-melody: "Let's go back to when we believed in change. Far be it from any of us to actually do the hard slogging to realize change -- however long it takes. It hasn't happened in the last eleven months? Throw da bums out!"

The Dalai Lama tirelessly works for change (Richard Gere said that he couldn't keep up with the octagenarian leader!), and he has changed his attachments over the years. Alice Walker asserted that she has to find "joy in the struggle" -- THAT's a positive, look-to-the-future, attitude. No attachment to the past, or even a static present, there.

There is a future to which we can aspire, a future for which we must work if we are to create a better place for our children and grandchildren. Are there attachments to the things of our parents and grandparents that we must be willing to relinquish to realize that future? Certainly there are gifts from the past that empower us. May we build with them.



PS: If you'd like to know more about the Dalai Lama's recent visit to Emory University, there's some good information on the event in general here and on the conversation on creativity here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Out of darkness into light . . .

When a house guest and I arrived at my home last Tuesday evening, the first of the Chilean miners had already come up to the surface. As we watched the second emerge from the capsule, our guest asked "Why are they wearing sunglasses? It's the middle of the night?" My wife, who had been watching, told us the reason: to protect their eyes after so many weeks underground. Their eyesight had adjusted to low levels of light. The brightness of even the artificial illumination surrounding the work site would be painful. And then, of course, there'd be the issue the next day of actual sunlight! (The front page of the Denver Post today carried a photo of the men still wearing sunglasses in the hospital!)

I was reminded of the story of Plato's cave (from The Republic, 514a-520a). In the story (my rough paraphrase!), prisoners are chained to the floor of a cave, unable to turn and look at the entry. They are only able to look at the back wall. Behind them, puppeteers are controlling the "reality" the prisoners are able to see. Finally one prisoner is freed, and is able to face the mouth of the cave. He is no longer looking at shadows but light. He has to relearn everything! And eventually the painful process or education is accomplished. And he can do new things!

The miners will have to re-acclimate. Those sunglasses will come off. And the world that they knew three months ago will be long past, as they deal with book offers, opportunities for interviews and trips to Graceland (now THERE's reality!). And my suspicion is that the miners will want to take those glasses off; they will want to enter into in the changed world. Some have already spoken of the good they wish to do.

On the other hand, there are many of us who are reluctant to remove our shades. The blurred reality to which we've become accustomed is safe as it is. In a conversation with some parents this morning we talked about the vicious nature of expectations at colleges and universities like DU. Whether those expectations have to do with relationships between students, or the level of involvement that needs to be reflected on resumes once college is done, the pressures are intense. And, we noted, they begin in secondary schools (or even before!). We talked about how we all are , as members of this pressure-ridden society, complicit in perpetuating the situation. We don't feel we can take of the glasses and see-and confront-an oppressive reality. And we and our students suffer.

The Chilean president has had his "glasses" forcibly taken off by this disaster turned miracle. The global spotlight has challenged him to make some changes in regulating the mines and other industries. I wish him well, as do those folks in Chile who are currently giving him an 80% approval rate. If he is forced (by politics and the market, for example) to put back on the "glasses" that led to these kinds of disasters, a major opportunity will have been missed and justice perverted.

Enlightenment is what I'm really talking about here, I suppose. Enlightenment, for Buddhists, is that recognition of the Truth that most of us never sense. Other religious traditions have the same concept, but may not call it "enlightenment". The biblical character Job, for example, at the end of God's self-disclosure and questioning, proclaims "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you" (Job 42.5). That's enlightenment! In that process for us, our glasses are removed and a new, hopefully better, reality confronts us, and compels us to act.

It is a spiritual exercise of major significance to labor to remove our own glasses. It is risking pain and dislocation as we seek to find a more just, humane, and stable place to reside. It is also a spiritual exercise to refuse to hang on to those glasses when situations (like the Chilean mine disaster or a relationship breakup) force them off. The light comes on. We are turned to the mouth of the cave. From darkness to light. May we have the strength to walk to that light!



Friday, October 8, 2010

"History is difficult to predict . . . "

. . . was apparently (according to something I heard on the radio this week) an oft-quoted proverb in the former Soviet Union as past events--and the traditional understanding of them--were given new meanings to conform to the prevailing ideology. What the proverb suggests is that there is more than one way to interpret the past. Some feminist theologians, for example, by reading scriptures with an "hermeneutic of suspicion"*, have uncovered some pretty startling things for people within religious traditions. Recognizing that "history is usually written by the winners" leaves a lot of important material out of the discussion. Perspective is important. Careful reading is important. And, as an historian myself, I confess that much of my work has been focused on giving new, alternative, interpretations to old circumstances. That's part of the discipline! How else would we sell books?

All of this implies that we bring a lot of our own "stuff" to understanding the past . . . including our own past, whether distant or nor-so-distant. And I believe it's important to be aware of that. One of the philosophies I embrace is "what we focus on becomes our reality". And many of us look at our own pasts with a lens that focuses on the negative aspects of that past, or with a lens that perpetuates the errors of the past. The resulting "reality" can become a kind of shackle that keeps us from moving forward.

I remember (as I imagine many of us can) some broken significant relationships. And the experience of being "dumped" or fired is no fun. "Will I ever love again? Will I ever get another job? Clearly I was inadequate, or (that) so-and-so wouldn't have shown me the door!" I recall a particularly depressing evaluation of one of my early dissertation chapters. My immediate thought was "Well, I guess I'd better just leave the program. I clearly haven't got what it takes." My own STUFF was getting in the way of a different reality. The fractured view I had kept me (for weeks) from talking with the people who could help me see a way through that dissertative log-jam. When I finally remembered that the vision they had of me when they admitted me to the program was probably more accurate than my wounded ego, I re-connected with them and moved forward.

The main difference, I think, is between despair and hope. I opt for hope. And I believe that most of our faith traditions point that way as well. We long for a vision of the future that builds upon pieces of the past -- the best pieces of that past, and leaves the dregs behind. Dig deep with me. Let's do some revisionist history-making on our individual and collective pasts and see what new future we can create!



Friday, October 1, 2010

Now I can see trees!

. . . was the comment of a colleague when we were talking about the destruction of one wing of the Boettcher Center on the DU campus (photo to the left!). Her office is in another wing attached to the one being torn down and, while she can feel the whole thing shudder at points, the expanding view out her window was clearly worth being shaken up. An article in the DU Clarion suggests that what will replace the old building will be another campus green -- a gathering place at the far south end of campus--so a grassy area will soon join the trees as a pleasing, soothing, sight.

The building is being taken down because it requires more renovation than financially reasonable. In short, it has outlived its usefulness. Or, put another way, keeping it up and running is not a good use of resources. But, paraphrasing Henry Higgins' comments about Eliza in My Fair Lady, "We've grown accustomed to its face." We grow accustomed to LOTS of things that, even though they're only marginally useful, once they're gone, lose their allure.

I've spoken, in the last few weeks, with a couple of folks who've recently moved to Denver from other states. They arrived to work before most of their possessions or furniture. Office spaces lack bookshelves (and books!); homes may have only a bed and chair. Both of the guys commented on how, after a few days without the stuff, they hardly knew it was missing. The bare, simple, space seemed sufficient, almost calming. I could easily relate, given the number of times I've moved. My experience, however, was the flip-side to their coin. ALL THOSE HEAVY BOXES OF BOOKS I was moving -- and so many of them read only once (or not at all). Baggage I carry around with me that weighs me down! Why do I keep them -- if not as reminders of what was, or because I've grown accustomed to them. And now those boxes sit in my basement unopened, mocking me! Better that they're gone! (So I've hidden them out-of-sight in the furnace room!)

Our possesions begin to posses us! And letting them go, releasing them, relinquishing them is extremely difficult. What part of our identity is bound up in what we have? And how much energy do we expend to hold tightly to those things -- energy that could be spent opening our arms, hearts and spirits to others, or simply to a fullness of life?

Buddhism asserts that suffering is related to attachment -- attachment to things, people, even views of self. Early Christians were noted for their sharing of possessions -- an un-attachment for the good of the whole. The most esteemed member of Hindu culture has been the sadhu, who live simply, and on the generosity of others (thereby providing those who give the opporunity to relinquish THEIR hold on all of their goods). The Jewish prophets were strong proponents of social justice -- the sharing of goods. NOT hanging on is seen as a good thing.
But it's not just the sharing of goods, or the total relinquishment of those goods that is beneficial. It is that new perspective that I gain when my view is not obstructed by all of the stuff I've put up, and that has since outlived its usefulness.

Golly, when the walls come down, I can see trees! And I can even tear down the walls myself.



PS: The Peace Pole -- the subject of last week's "thought" is being put in the ground this very day!