Friday, April 22, 2016

Not the Shallow End of the Pool!?!

      When we first moved to Colorado, we lived in Highlands Ranch (a Denver suburb). One of the perks we enjoyed was the opportunity to visit the recreation centers there. With two elementary-school-or-younger kids, it was great . . . . especially during the winter months (and accompanying vacations). When playing in the snow lost its fascination (or it just got too cold), a trip to the rec center and the humidity of the swimming pool was a welcome respite. It was in those rec centers that I first encounter "zero-entry pools". Since I am NOT a swimmer by choice, I'd never had occasion to be in a place where the entry to the pool resembled a sandy beach, i.e., that the lapped onto the "shore" rather than into a recessed "return. For small kids, it was GREAT! Certainly the water increased in depth, various levels marked by float-lines, "preventing" those who weren't swim-qualified from getting in over their head. As an adult (who could swim, by the way), I did see others (both kids and adults) who never ventured beyond the limitations of those float-lines; they hadn't learned to swim. They were having fun, to be sure (or at least it appeared so!). But even I, who only swim on occasion, knew that there was a different level of satisfaction being out in the "over-my-head" water. I had some responsibility for my survival; I had to exercise in different ways just to stay afloat.     Not surprisingly, I see something analogous here to many other situations. People won't try new foods, staying with their favorites ("Mmmmmm, Mac-and-cheese from a box again! Why would I EVER want home-made!?"). I recall a student who, upon graduation from university, found himself headed to graduate school in another state on an opposite coast. . . . the first time he'd ever been any further away from his birthplace than a few counties.  It was frightening for him to contemplate. For many of us, it's simpler to stick with what we know, or to follow the stream of culture/society. The proverb (with some reference to "Whack-a-mole"" in some totalitarian countries is apt: "Don't stick your head up; it's more likely to be bopped!" In other words, "Conform!" Or, to review the metaphor from above, "Don't go beyond the 3-1/2'  line!"       Given that all-too-common human tendency to seek safety or familiarity, then, it seems striking to me that many of the major religious leaders throughout time have called their followers to go beyond the culturally familiar. It doesn't take a particularly close reading of the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus to realize that Moses' call to the Israelites as he physically led them away from Egypt (literally and figuratively a foreign-but-familiar culture. His--(or God's--instructions to the people were that they were NOT to (re-)adopt the practices of other peoples (including both the Egyptians that they had left, or the peoples of Canaan to which they were headed). The Israelites were to be a unique, peculiar, people in relationship to their God. Easier, to be sure, to "be like everyone else", but not what God called them to be.
        Similarly, it doesn't take a particularly close reading of the New Testament Gospels to see that Jesus was calling his followers to adopt a different way of being in the culture/world. His famous "beatitudes" overturn cultural norms (I like Luke's version, 6.20-26):  "Blessed are the poor: blessed are the hungry; blessed are those who weep". Those kinds of sentiments are certainly not in vogue now, nor were they 2000 years ago. Or, we recall the woman who came to the Buddha wanting to be relieved of her grief over the loss of her one-year-old son. The Buddha instructed her to bring him four or five mustard seeds from any family she could find who had not known suffering and death. Her task, of course as she discovered, was impossible. She became a follower of the Buddha, recognizing that the normal, human, desire of a comfortable, suffering-free, life was an illusion.* The prophet Muhammed (PBUH) called his followers to leave the cultural influences, practices and rivalries of the tribes of Arabia. the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, as well as the gurus of Sikhism, likewise summoned their followers to go beyond the "normal" order of things.
       This invitation, or demand, to transcend the fears and customs that beset and surround us seems to me to be as much a common factor among religions as the more-oft cited "compassion". (Compassion, of course, can be pretty counter-cultural!) The usual, the expected, is safe; it demands little. Our religious leaders, however, call us to something greater. They ask us to leave the shallow end of the pool, to get in over our heads, to exercise different muscles, to attain something greater.**



* A version of the story of the Kisa Gautami can be found here.
** This footnote aside, I had to struggle NOT to make any political comments above . . . . .   That would have been too easy, and I'm trying to transcend that impulse!

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