Friday, June 20, 2014

How long can you tread water?

      Many of us will remember Bill Cosby from the scads of wonderful television shows in which he appeared/starred (Oh, Cliff Huxtable's sweaters!).  Many of us will, likewise, remember all of the work has done in the field of education and parenting; he does, after all, have a doctorate in education from UMass. But my memories go WAY back to those 12' circles of vinyl we used to put on "record-players" at 33rpm.  There were so many classic comedy routines on some of those records that set the stage for some of Cosby's TV shows (think "Fat Albert").  But one of my favorites was the routine he did called "Noah."
      For those readers who've not heard (or seen) this routine, the context is a conversation between Noah and God about the building of the ark.*  Noah/Cosby doesn't quite understand WHO is addressing him.  He doesn't know what an ark is.  He's not sure about "cubits" (but, then, neither is God).  Part-way through the construction of the ark, as well as bringing on the animals, Noah questions God about who's supposed to clean the bottom deck (given what the animals do-do).  
 God had told Noah that he was going the destroy the world, and Noah had a role in ensuring that, despite that catastrophe, the world would be able to repopulate and continue.  So, make sure there are even two mosquitos!  Then, imagine what Noah's neighbors might be saying!  At one frustrating point, however, Noah tells God he's quitting the business.  To which God replies, "Noah, how long can you tread water?"
      It's NOT the current Russell Crowe film about Noah that brought the Cosby routine to mind.  It was another actor, Richard Gere, who occasioned the memory.  Several years ago, I was attending a conference, part of which coincided with a gathering of folks (including the Dalai Lama) discussing compassion. 
This week, I found my notes from that day.  During the main public event, I wrote that Gere said "We live in an illusion in the west that things are relatively okay.  But we're really drowning in mediocrity."  So I began to wonder if we ARE drowning, or are we simply treading water?
      I think Gere was on to something; I think we ARE surrounded by mediocrity in so many ways.  On the other hand, as I recall the students walking across the platform and receiving their diplomas several weeks ago, AND knowing what many of them are setting off to do, I am encouraged by their unwillingness to settle for (or drown in) mediocrity.  I am heartened by their eagerness to engage the issues we face.
     But I'm also reminded, on a daily basis -- whether it's in the pages of the newspaper, or the advertisements on television (or the internet), or in simple conversations with others, that the new graduates' excitement isn't necessarily shared by all.  There are times when I can't even think that we're settling for a happy "middle-way", but rather for something far less.  I am not disputing that they may be "out there", but are the visionaries that seek to change things for the 
better able to be heard amidst the clanging of the "mediocre bell"?   And are we willing to stop treading water in the "sea of mediocrity" and swim to shore to establish a new, enticing, exciting, way of being?  We ought all, always, be engaged in "commencement".
      One can only tread water so long.

Chaplain Gary
*The biblical story of Noah can be found in Genesis 6.5-9-17.  A recording of Cosby's version can be found here:

Friday, June 6, 2014

The important things

      I imagine that most readers of this newsletter have seen, at one time or another, the quotation (attributed to Anthony d'Angelo):  "The most important things in life aren't things."  And, I would imagine that, deep-down, we may all believe it.  Of course we live in a culture that preaches exactly the opposite.  Whether it's some product that will smooth our skin or change our hair color to the next generation of smart-gadget to this year's run-way fashion out of Italy to that one component that will make your bicycle 5 grams lighter, we are led to believe that our lives will be infinitely better if we shell out our hard-earned dollars to acquire something.
      Maybe it's not just some physical "object".  Perhaps we pursue a cushier, or more prestigious, job, or a position on a particular committee or board, or even another academic degree/honor.  Something "out there" either pushes, or draws, us to acquire, gain, or claim it.  It turns into another line our resumes, some thing about which to crow.
      I do not mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with any of these things (although I may have some questions about hair-color preparations, since the little I have left wouldn't really benefit from the expenditure).  The problems arise when the pursuit of these externalities overtakes, or overwhelms, us to the exclusion of just about anything else.  The classic observation in this regard is that nobody says, on their deathbed, "I wish I could have had more time for work", implying, of course, that "work" was not as important as many other things they could have pursued.
      Commencement season, to me, brings these considerations to the fore.  A new diploma is something to hang on the wall (I have enough of those, to be sure!).  What that diploma might mean is a cool new job!  Cool new job might mean better living quarters, more reliable automobile, better meals, a more attractive trophy spouse.  In other words, things begetting things begetting things.  And the beat goes on.
       It was surprising to me, then, to learn that a commencement address last year at Syracuse University went viral on the internet.  George Saunders, a creative writing professor at Syracuse, charged the graduates of 2013 to seek a simple goal:  To try to be kinder.  He spoke about all of the things he had done, and that he had regretted.  His biggest regrets were 
not failures of achievement or failures of acquisition, but failures of kindness.  Clearly his advice hit a nerve, as his speech was tweeted all around the world and it has become the basis for his latest book:  Congratulations, by the way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (2014).
       For most of us, at the end of an academic year, there is some time to back down, to "vacate", to recoup, recuperate, re-create, before starting up again.  Might we revisit what are the important things in our lives and reconsider how to spend our time with them.  Maybe everything will change!

Chaplain Gary

Note:  Image/quote is from Story People.