Friday, April 29, 2011

The goal may not be the destination!

I am a goal-oriented person. I set goals; I aim to achieve them. Daily goals, weekly goals, quarterly, yearly, life goals. And I set up checklists so that I know I'm keeping on track. Have I done this? that? Gosh, have I done something NOT on the list. I'll put it on, and check it "done", so I'll have achieved another goal! If I don't attain a certain goal, I have this inner sense of frustration (at least!) -- perhaps even failure. (Of course, if I sit back and think about it, most often the only one I've "failed" is me!)

I've been pondering this ever since I heard an interview with a scholar/author who suggested that the process-engaged-in is often more important than the goal-achieved. That suggestion (or insight) related closely to a conversation I'd had this week with someone who was wondering whether or not he would ever attain his goals. I suggested, in my conversation with him (prior to listening to the interview) that, despite his frustration about attaining the goal, he had made a huge difference in the lives of folks around him while working TO attain the goal. And that those changed lives may have been as important as anything else in the grand scheme of things.

Physician, heal thyself!

A critique sometimes leveled at (some) Christians is that they are "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good". I think that the sentiment may be just as appropriate for those of us who are so focused on the destination that we miss the joys--or the intermediate successes--of the journey. I remember a wonderful book of several decades back by William Least Heat Moon, entitled Blue Highways. The author recounts his travels around the United States on "blue highways" -- those roads on the map that aren't Interstates (or red/yellow highways), but rather are the "roads less traveled" where he met loads of fascinating people and had amazing experiences. For a time I tried to emulate Moon, taking more time and traveling roads whose designation didn't begin with "I-". Wow, what wonderful drives those were! As time has gone by, I've become so concerned with the destination that the journey has simply become the (quickest) means to the end.

The road in the picture above leads somewhere; there is no clear destination. The destination is suggested by the glow on the horizon, but if that is our only focus, what have we missed? The perspective is amazing. The gravelly surface of the road, and how it affects the painted lines. The rocks on the side of the road; the gnarled trees. The clouds. The light. Color in a gray-scale photo.

I'm not suggesting to "stop and smell the roses" (although that's not bad advice). I'm wondering, along with Dr. Rao (the interviewee above), whether the process of getting "there" is just as significant--if not more so--as getting "there". And, if so, what kind of change-of-mind might that mean? Is "making a difference", for example, located solely in the end result of alleviating some external need, or just as much located in changing ME as I seek to change the world?

What if satisfying God was not the destination, but rather the goal? What if we were able simply enjoy the presence of God, the challenge of God, the sustenance of God, the teaching of God, on the journey?



Friday, April 22, 2011

Tell me a story; tell me the truth!

When my daughter was much younger, and I'd be driving her to preschool (or home), she'd ask (well, demand), "Baba, tell me a story!" I had a repertoire of about three (without venturing into well-know fairy-tales). They usually were populated by my daughter, me and monsters. . . .friendly monsters. They were stories I made up and varied a bit, usually with the sole purpose of entertainment. If there was a point, it probably had something to do with appreciation, or overcoming, of difference (since we almost always made friends with the monsters and their parents).

Often, these days, the word/concept of "story" has these kinds of connotations -- something made up, perhaps with a point, often to entertain; the "truth" of the story is not assumed. And, if the account we tell did actually happen, we usually don't call it a "story" to keep it a bit separate from something that's "simply" a story.

This all came home to me this week as I became surrounded by sacred stories. We are in the midst of the Jewish festal season of Passover. In the Christian calendar, we have entered into the most solemn time of the year, the three days leading up to Easter. Both of these "seasons" have meals and rituals that serve to help re-enact sacred stories. The telling of the story is a re-entry into the story. The command that Moses gives the Israelites concerning the celebration of Passover is quite direct: "You shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Exodus 13.8). The child becomes a participant in the story of redemption -- but more than a story, in the miracle/act of redemption.

Likewise, in parts of the Christian tradition, there is a great hymn often sung on the Saturday night prior to Easter Sunday. In that hymn, known as the Exultet, are the following lines (emphasis added!): "This is the night, when you brought . . . the children out of bondage in Egypt. . ."; "This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell . . ."; "How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight . . ." The point is that THIS is the night -- not some night in the past. We are participants in the story-no, participants in the event itself.

The events of the past -- whether the Exodus or the Resurrection -- are re-lived, made ALIVE again in the telling of the story. The great stories of the Hindu tradition are made alive in festivals; the Jataka Tales of the Buddha likewise. These stories have great power; that's why they've held the attention of minds, hearts and souls for so long.

I heard a teacher of Torah (Avivah Zornberg) the other day say that "Over and over again, God says to Moses, Moses says to the people, "All this is happening so that you shall tell the story" (from an interview with Krista Tippett on OnBeing). The event compels the story; and we must tell the stories again and again, anew and anew. The Hagaddah (the Passover story) has been re-worked for many different communities, celebrating different kinds of liberating events from different kinds of oppression. Different contexts lend a very different sense to the weekly celebration of the Mass (as the amazing composition "Mass" by Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein amply shows).

So we tell the stories that speak truth to us. We hope that our children will hear them and, in the words of a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them." With those stories, we can better face the less-than-friendly monsters out there!



Friday, April 15, 2011

How much is a picture worth?

What would we do if there were no video available? Two very different pieces crossed my desk this week that prompts that question. The first was an essay by Barbara Kingsolver in her bookSmall Wonder. The second was an article in the on-line "Religion Dispatches."

Kingsolver's essay is entitled "The One-Eyed Monster and Why I Don't Let Him In." As you might suspect, it is directed at television. It is not that she is adamantly against television; she confesses to having a VCR connected to hers (the article was written in the early 2000's). She is not, however, a big fan of broadcast, or cable (or satellite), television. And one of her complaints is that it is visually driven. That is, if there is a news item, for example, that doesn't have a good video/picture to accompany it, OR that cannot be reduced to a video clip, it won't play much on the evening news. Big issues that demand a lot of thought and discussion don't make it to the evening news (she uses global warming as an example). Hence we don't think or talk much about them. So, she argues, it is better to get our news from radio and/or print media -- better for us, and, ultimately, better for our society and world.

The article in "Religion Dispatches" is "Pornographic War Gazing: Why We Don't Look Away" (by Daniel Martin Varisco). Varisco argues that the problem is NOT the media or the "war machine". Rather it is OUR inability to look away, or our addiction to visual thrills, that is the larger issue. Our unwillingness to avert our eyes from "bad news" helps drive the visual-oriented media. And, therefore, helps (as Kingsolver notes) to keep us from really becoming involved in the issues being represented. As Varisco observes, we are fascinated by bloody news, as we seem to be with pornography. And the fact that it is all there for viewing turns the news (and what it portrays) into a commodity for consumption. We may feel compassion, Varisco argues, but unless we do something to alleviate the suffering we see, we are merely voyeurs.

Kingsolver and Varisco have a lot of historical company in making their arguments. Various religious traditions -- past and current -- demand that women cover their bodies in ways that are not demanded equally of men. The rationale is frequently that men can't control their gaze, and are incapable of thereby controlling their response to the female form. (While this is usually seen as demeaning to women, I think it's equally demeaning of men!) On the other hand, some early Christian writers call men to account for NOT being responsible: "Don't look! Avert your eyes. And if you can't keep from doing that, don't act like a beast!" (There may be similar charges in other religious traditions; I just don't know them as well.)

I cannot control everything that I see; some things appear before me in "real time". I can, however, choose (à la Kingsolver) much of what I see, and much of how I respond. Simply because someone says I must see something, I musn't. Just because the news is on television doesn't mean I have to watch it (I do get most of my news from the newspapers and secondarily from the radio). Just because news items are aired as sound-bites or headlines doesn't mean that the whole story is revealed. As a citizen and as a morally-concerned human being, I have to go past the visual short-hand. (And I say all of this recognizing that I am a visually-oriented learner/thinker; I find pictures/diagrams invaluable in helping me understand complex ideas!)

A picture may be worth a thousand words. But are those thousand words what we REALLY need to know, or what someone else wants us to know. And, are they enough in either case? Can I limit my reliance on visuals, and look for "the rest of the story" (as radio-personality Paul Harvey used to say)? And, once knowing a little more of the story, act appropriately?



PS: I wonder what either author would have to say about "sharing" a news item (with accompanying picture) on Facebook pages?!

Friday, April 8, 2011


My wife's birthday occurred this week, and as is usually the case, I cooked dinner for her. She chose the menu (again, as usual), and I was surprised this year that she didn't choose something "off the barby". She chose, instead, a spring-oriented pasta dish from the Greens Cookbook: "Basil Fettucine with Green Beans, Crème Fraiche and Walnuts". It was a dish I hadn't prepared in many years, and I was looking forward to becoming re-acquainted with it.

Preparation includes a lot of chopping and shredding of basil and shallot, toasting the walnuts, making the pasta itself (thank goodness for food processors and pasta machines!), and then the assembling of the final dish. Very sensual process: sticky garlic juice, VERY fragrant basil, hot steamed green beans, the sound of shallots sauté-ing -- and then the taste! I was struck throughout, as I often am when I cook, how different it is eating something I have prepared from scratch from how it is eating something pre-prepared, or at a restaurant. I've got something invested in the final product, not the least of which is pleasing the other diner(s).

Satisfaction comes as much from the assembling as it does from the presentation and consumption. It's a meditative process, the chopping and slicing, the sauté-ing and stirring; focus has to be kept on what's happening NOW, not in the past. Not even the future, for if I miss something in the present, the future may not be pretty (or palatable)!

It is a process of making one thing out of many. The "one thing" may have many facets; flavors are melded, but separate, aromas hint at all sorts of things. But it is the one dish, "Basil Fettucine with Green Beans, Creme Fraiche and Walnuts". It occupies one bowl, and it is impossible to recreate the separate ingredients. It is, as I mused on it, a process of bricolage, a relatively recently-coined French word that means "construction or creation from a diverse range of available things". One who engages in bricolage is known as a bricoleur (and above, we have "Bob le Bricoleur" -- the French version of "Bob the Builder" -- who, in the kid-oriented television show, often has to improvise from materials at hand to finish his task).

I suppose it's an entirely natural process most of the time, for most of us. We read, we view, we listen, we think -- and we become different as a result. And we may forget that we're even doing it, or that it's a good thing: a plate with a bunch of pasta, a side of shredded basil, a little pile of walnuts, a cup of crème fraiche, etc., is NOT as satisfying as they are all cooked together. It is the melding of many different things, or to switch metaphors, it is putting them in conversation with one another, that creates the magic.

I have a tendency, I know, to read the same kind of literature, hang out with the same kinds of people--even eat the same kinds of food! But I learn so much -- I grow so much -- from differences. I'm struck, in this regard, by the verse in the Quran: " O humankind, We [God] have created you male and female, and made you into communities and tribes, so that you may know one another" (49.13). I read this to mean that differences are not meant to be frustrating (let alone means of defining a superior over an inferior), but enlightening.

So, cook up something new and different this week, with a variety of unusual ingredients, and see what you learn! (It doesn't have to be food!)

"Vive le différence!" as Bob le Bricoleur might say.



Friday, April 1, 2011

I won't hear you!

It seems always to be the case that when there is some sort of major disaster--especially one where human hands have been involved--we begin to hear reports of "Well, we should have taken better care of . . ." We've heard a lot of this regarding the nuclear reactors in Japan that have been damaged as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Sure, there were back-up diesel generators for the reactors . . . but they were at the same elevation as the reactors, so the tsunami knocked them out as well. "They (the designers) should've known and placed them higher!" we hear.

Well, I wonder. As well as the Japanese have planned for earthquakes and tsunamis (and they HAVE planned well), I find it hard to believe that no-one pointed out this potential flaw. What I don't find hard to believe, however, is that someone DID point it out, but that someone else buried the memo because (1) it cost too much; (2) it might shed a bad light on someone else; (3) it might put the construction behind schedule. In other words, the "bad news" at the beginning is news that folks didn't want to hear.

I'm currently in Houston at my sister's house. In talking about the events in Japan, my sister observed that her husband had pointed out many years ago that some of our nuclear waste sites were inadequately protected against certain risks. He was told by the energy company involved that those memos had better never see the light of day. Too much money; too much work. Let's just hope the risks never become reality. So we hope that the "bad stuff" never happens to us . . . We don't want to hear about it. We make alternative noise to drown out the nay-sayers.

It's relatively easy to point this out about others, especially those that seem to have political or financial interests in hiding the truth. And by focusing the noise in that direction, we are often able to keep the truth-tellers at bay with regard to our own problems or short-comings. I'm perfectly capable of ignoring things I don't want to know. I can busy myself in supposedly essential tasks so that I don't have to deal with those "nattering nabobs of negativism" that might suggest I make some changes.

Human nature, I suppose. And perhaps that's a reason why many of the major philosophical and religious traditions of the world stress "waking up" to what's really at play in our lives. Buddhism, for example, is all about enlightenment--recognition and acceptance of the true nature of things. Socrates pointed out that "the unexamined life is not worth living." The Gospel of John says that Jesus came as the light of the world, but that folks prefer darkness. I clearly need that reminder that there's more than my own self-limited vision; wisdom points me that way.

Time to take off the blinders, open the sealed records, wake up, make some changes, and be prepared better for whatever the future might bring.