A case for seeing human affairs through the eyes of grace


“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.” ~ Anne Lamott, from Grace, Eventually

Grace is a word you don’t hear much in secular discourse. Last week, President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was both about grace and full of grace itself. It awakened a memory of a conversation about grace with my father when I was in High School. He was one of those traditional dads who worked and did dad things, so I didn’t have a lot of interactions with him. This conversation about grace was a rarity. Turns out, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, either. I think he spoke of God’s presence or friendship, and we both enjoyed wondering about it together. That in itself was a moment of grace, a precious heart connection to each other and to something bigger than us.

Human affairs are full of flaws, opposition and contradictions. There never seems to be that one right solution that we can all agree on. And so we wrangle. In interactions with friends about the President’s recent successes, they were quick to point out his many failures and betrayals. It’s true he compromised on health care reform, and I can’t say I understand the appeal the Trans Pacific Partnership, which seems to me like a nightmare for workers and the environment. And let’s not forget, these friends say, about the drone strikes and the “Surge.” I get it, I do. And yet, there’s something we are missing when we argue like this. It’s too easy to find these imperfections. Continue reading

I nominate Pope Francis as the leader of this movement


“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

I’m going to come right out and say it: I am jazzed about the Pope’s encyclical, “Laudato Si,” or in English, “Praise be.” I’m excited that it’s getting so much attention from all quarters, even the Wall Street Journal and conservative talk-show hosts. I haven’t felt this hopeful about the environmental / social justice movement since “Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, or “11th Hour” in 2007, or Van Jones’ brief tenure in the White House in 2009. As Paul Hawken observed in his 2007 book, “Blessed Unrest,” this is the largest movement in the world—and it has no leader.

We do prefer charismatic leaders for our big movements. Hawken helped me to see that this one is just too big to have one figurehead. We won’t have our Gandhi or Martin Luther King, because each of us in this movement is part of the earth’s immune response to an infection, a fever. This movement is an entirely decentralized set of self-organizing systems nested within self-organizing systems the way Nature herself works. And that’s as it should be. Still, I admit wishing now and then for someone to come along. Each time it seemed to happen, we were disappointed. Continue reading

Tragedy of the study of the tragedy of the commons

2014_7.14_620wWith the summer heat comes an uptick of articles about the continuing, perhaps accelerating, breakdown of our social fabric. Whether it’s the arrest of children’s parents for letting them play alone outside or for camping with them, or the absurdity of drinking bottled water, the cracks in what we like to call civilization are growing wider. The public good has gotten so muddied that we are left to argue over semantics: whether a headline was too hyped or a date was cited incorrectly. Or we turn it over to the sociologists to tell us what we’re missing and what it all means.

There’s more to this than the decline of community, as Charles Eisenstein succinctly points out in this essay. He cites our inclination to surrender to authority, our need for control, our obsession with safety, and tendency to self-preservation. He laments the inevitable slide from avoidance of danger and uncertainty to the prison of “consequence-free zones” like video games. All of this is to the detriment of creativity, play, exploration, and risk-taking—everything we so desperately need in order to navigate this threshold time between stories. Continue reading

Confronting the “other” is an invitation to spiritual growth


“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” ~ Dalai Lama

I’ve heard the term “spiritual growth” so much that I at some point I stopped wondering what it means. Wise teachers tell us that spiritual growth stalls when we attack others as evil instead of facing our own failures. With honest self-appraisal ideally comes the humility to recognize our need to grow, literally to expand our capacity to learn from those with whom we disagree. In that sense, then, spiritual growth is a process of making room for opposites inside of us.

This requires a stretching of consciousness, a way of confronting our self-imposed boundaries, our cultural story of separateness. The story is so deeply ingrained, though, that it taxes the imagination to see good and evil as part of one whole, rather than an opposition that begs to be resolved through force and war. Continue reading

Creative play is key to resilience and possibility

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“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” ~ Julia Cameron

I’ve been following my heart more and paying attention to a) what it guides me to do, b) how it feels to do it, and c) what the aftereffects are. Yesterday I was reminded that I have more resources in potentially frustrating situations when I’ve been creative at some point in the day. Yesterday morning, inspired by Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books Series,” I played with arranging random but interestingly-titled books in stacks to form poetic phrases. Later, I spent maybe twenty minutes doing a quick watercolor of clouds over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge while at the after party for the annual Bay Swim.

That evening, when faced with a cranky, most unpleasant teenager, I seemed to have endless patience with him. Instead of the usual reactionary “who do you think you are” inner voice goading me to say things I’ll regret, I kept trying different tactics to reach him and bring him back to his usual sunny self. I stayed calm and nimble, creative instead of triggered. What’s behind this magic? My first thought is that creative play inoculates me. It puts me in a good mood, so I can face challenges with resilience. And, while that’s true to a degree, there’s something deeper at work here. Continue reading

We can’t see the shadow but we know it’s there


“When you turn to the sun, all shadows fall behind you.” ~ African proverb

I usually visualize the shadow as a dark cavern deep inside me, the kind you have to swim to the bottom of a lake to find, and that leads almost to the center of the earth. I like this proverb because it provides another image. The shadow follows us wherever we go. Maybe it can even take on a life of its own. In the second book of the children’s series, Peter and the Starcatchers, the evil Lord Ombra steals people’s shadows to possess them, read their thoughts and enslave them. The shadow is imagined as a kind of repository for an individual’s essence, but the fact remains that it is ever and always behind me. I never can turn around and face it squarely.

In the Tantric tradition, the back body is aligned with the universal, the front with the individual. This is a wonderful way to imagine wholeness: it’s in our body that we integrate our uniqueness with the wider world. The front is our place of effort, of being who we are in the world. The back is the unknown, the unseen, and yet it is always there, ready to support and help us when needed. This fits nicely with the classic teaching that the shadow is part of our childhood survival toolkit. Continue reading

Dragons and princesses: the magic and power of the shadow

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I’m feeling resistance to delving further into this topic of the shadow. It demands honesty and strips off masks. With nothing to hide behind, I tell myself it’s too hard or it’s all been said before. What can I possibly add to the conversation? And yet this resistance itself is a perfect invitation, a dare to keep going. Shadow is not only a repository of shame and evil. It’s a treasure house of insight for those with the courage to look.

As slippery and tricky as the shadow is to pin down, we encounter it daily just by living life. Whatever shows up to block my way, to challenge and frighten me—that’s showing me my shadow. When a person or situation brings up strong emotion—especially aversion, fear, anger, or shame—that’s revealing something deeply buried. Either I know about it and thought it was safely under lock and key, or it’s been so long ignored, denied, or unacknowledged, I’m taken by surprise. Being blindsided happens less often now, but it does happen. Continue reading

Does shining light have value beyond avoiding darkness?


I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet

Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.

The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting: Continue reading

What if our role is to balance the opposites?

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Today begins a series looking at the role of the shadow in cultivating new stories. Madness, darkness, the untamed and unpredictable—what do we do with these fearful things? Fairy tales and myths always made a place for the shadow: the evil stepmother, the witch, the monster in the forest. The wild forest itself. The bottomless well, the unexplored cave, the labyrinth beneath the king’s castle. Those unknown, uncharted places that house beasts, witches, demons, and all manner of nasties.

In the stories, they mirror our own psyches—at least that was the understanding for quite a long time. We tend now to prefer our villains to live outside of us, so we can point to them and say, “Not I.” Depending on who you are, your proxies might be Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and Ann Coulter, or Amy Goodman and Barack Obama. We impoverish ourselves by offloading our inner darkness onto other people, real or fictional. As Carl Jung teaches us:

“Wholeness . . . is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.”

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Two ways of making space for truth

1987_8.2_Agrigento-Temple-of-Juno_620wI recently had the great privilege of seeing Anna Deavere Smith and Sherilynn Ifill in conversation. Ms. Ifill lives here in Baltimore, though she works nationally as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Smith grew up here, and played one of my very favorite characters on “The West Wing”—the no-nonsense National Security Advisor who had no trouble standing up to the generals of the Joint Chiefs’ office. She’s a talented actor, and she’s also a playwright and teacher.

Ms. Smith is working on the “Pipeline Project,” which investigates “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.” She’s interviewing hundreds of people involved in the pipeline at all levels: students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, and others. Using the alchemy of theater, she’s going to perform the stories in several cities, as fodder for town hall meetings and further advocacy. The tie-in to Baltimore’s recent civil unrest (also known as an “uprising”) is clear, although she began this project long before then. Continue reading