Friday, January 13, 2012

Mild or Spicy?

      A number of years ago, I was part of a committee at UC-Berkeley planning a campus-wide student leadership symposium.  The committee was still in its formative stages, so every meeting needed to start with an ice-breaker.  One day, the ice-breaker was called "Mild or Spicy".  Basically, each person would declare "mild," "medium", or "spicy" -- these would indicate the kinds of questions that any of the other members might ask.  "Mild" would be something like:  "What's your favorite color?"  "Medium" would increase the potentially embarrassing nature of the question, one can imagine the nature of "spicy" questions.  Each member would have two minutes to answer questions from anyone else.
     As it would happen, the questioning began with the person on my right and proceeded in that direction, i.e., away from me.  Given the number of people in the room, and the time set aside for this exercise, when it came to me there was about 30 seconds for me to answer questions.  Wanting to be "hip" and somewhat confrontive, I declared "Spicy".  The room went quiet; no-one had any idea how to ask a chaplain a spicy question.  After a moment, I said, "The clock's ticking!"  One of the committee chairs, a student I had worked with before, asked, "So why ARE you involved in religion, anyway?" I responded, "In 30 seconds or less?"  Laughter erupted.
      I then looked at the student, and said, "You asked a great question.  You deserve a serious answer."  I thought for about five or ten seconds (the clock WAS ticking, after all), and finally responded, "I guess it's because my religion provides the best way I know of making meaning in the world."  After a few seconds of silence, he simply said, "Thank you."  And we returned to the agenda.
      I've told this story a number of times in the years since that meeting; clearly that brief exchange had an impact on me.  I have no idea if the questioner remembers anything at all of that meeting, let alone his "spicy" question to me.  But that question rocked my world, and crystallized a lot of things for me.  I realized that I had a "Sacred Canopy" (in the words of sociologist Peter Berger).  Very little of that canopy had to do with dogmas or practices; it was more about a framework, a structure from which I could navigate my world.  And so it often is, we find ourselves in unexpected situations where some sort of clarity descends upon us.  The moments may be positive or negative, times of stress or calm.  And sometimes the pressure of the moment will occasion incredible insight.
      A couple of things this week reminded me of that meeting:  an interview with physicist Arthur Zajonc who was discussing the "process" of discovery, and reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist.  Remembering the meeting always makes me revisit my answer, and the content behind it.  And that's a good thing.
      I assume we all have those moments . . . mild or spicy.



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