Sunday, May 29, 2016

The remarks of Donovan Livingston*, Ed.M.'16, student speaker at HGSE's 2016 Convocation exercises.

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin,
Is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” – Horace Mann, 1848.
At the time of his remarks I couldn’t read — couldn’t write.
Any attempt to do so, punishable by death.
For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.
Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys —
The guardians of information.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen more dividing and conquering
In this order of operations — a heinous miscalculation of reality.
For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time.
How many times must we be made to feel like quotas —
Like tokens in coined phrases? —
“Diversity. Inclusion”
There are days I feel like one, like only —
A lonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises.
But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice.
Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction.
With a passion that transcends the confines of my consciousness —
Beyond your curriculum, beyond your standards.
I stand here, a manifestation of love and pain,
With veins pumping revolution.
I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree.
I am a DREAM Act, Dream Deferred incarnate.
I am a movement – an amalgam of memories America would care to forget
My past, alone won’t allow me to sit still.
So my body, like the mind
Cannot be contained.
As educators, rather than raising your voices
Over the rustling of our chains,
Take them off. Un-cuff us.
Unencumbered by the lumbering weight
Of poverty and privilege,
Policy and ignorance.
I was in the 7th grade, when Ms. Parker told me,
“Donovan, we can put your excess energy to good use!”
And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.
She gave me a stage. A platform.
She told me that our stories are ladders
That make it easier for us to touch the stars.
So climb and grab them.
Keep climbing. Grab them.
Spill your emotions in the big dipper and pour out your soul.
Light up the world with your luminous allure.
To educate requires Galileo-like patience.
Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations.
If you take the time to connect the dots,
You can plot the true shape of their genius —
Shining in their darkest hour.
I look each of my students in the eyes,
And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt
And the pyramids of Giza.
I see the same twinkle
That guided Harriet to freedom.
I see them. Beneath their masks and mischief,
Exists an authentic frustration;
An enslavement to your standardized assessments.
At the core, none of us were meant to be common.
We were born to be comets,
Darting across space and time —
Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.
A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here —
An indelible impact that shook up the world.
Are we not astronomers — looking for the next shooting star?
I teach in hopes of turning content, into rocket ships —
Tribulations into telescopes,
So a child can see their potential from right where they stand.
An injustice is telling them they are stars
Without acknowledging night that surrounds them.
Injustice is telling them education is the key
While you continue to change the locks.
Education is no equalizer —
Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
So wake up — wake up! Lift your voices
Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.
Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.
I’ve been a Black hole in the classroom for far too long;
Absorbing everything, without allowing my light escape.
But those days are done. I belong among the stars.
And so do you. And so do they.
Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
For generations to come.
No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.
Lift off.

*Donovan Livingston is a Black Graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education
His address, delivered on May 25, 2016 is found on the Harvard Graduate School of Education website

Friday, May 27, 2016

Experiencing silence as an integral part of the spiriutual path...thankfully and joyfully

When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from our selves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality. (Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude, Boston, 1993)

In the third day of a spiritual retreat, under the supervision of a Jesuit guide, I heard these words from his mouth: “If I had recommended an eight day retreat, instead of merely a weekend, that would have literally killed you!” He laughed out loud, at my impatience, my need for words, and my irrepressible energy firing those thoughts and words. I joined his laughter, knowing that, in merely a few selected hours he had been able to see all the nearly half-century of my existence as the nervous, excited, skittish gnat that had flown across the top of so many ponds looking for other gnats of the human variety, and all the while hoping no one would really ‘see’ me, that is the hidden self, so desperate to be loved and accepted without knowing the depth of that need. At a supervision session, under another Jesuit, following a memorable pastoral counselling session, recorded for replay and review, I heard these words from the mentor: “You two (the client, a mid-twenties young man and I) sound like a couple of hummingbirds buzzing around the room. When are you going to settle and demonstrate for your client what he really needs from you?”

These two  independent and unknown to each other Jesuit mentors were commenting honestly, if somewhat poetically and tragically, and also truthfully, on a half-life lived in anxious interactions that neither provided, nor permitted  any time and space for silence. I recall daily being one of, if not the, first to raise my hand to answer the teachers’ question; I also recall sitting on a sundeck where visitors from ‘the city’ had gathered for evening summer barbecue’s, sitting near some interesting and unfamiliar person, fully engaged in whatever topic of conversation seemed to be appropriate to the ‘adult’ who was willing to engage with this precocious pre-adolescent. Having been introduced to the school-drill that accompanied the formation of sentences and paragraphs, I loved playing with words to see what new combinations might emerge from my meanderings. At night, after going to bed, throughout my teen years, I had the radio tuned to what was then CKEY, (later CKFM) where such luminaires as Russ Thompson, Stu Kenney and Carl Banace were the voices of my pubescent dreams of finding a way to deploy my voice, as they had done theirs’. In university, the first year English professor was a man named John Whichello Graham, (about whom much is written elsewhere in this space, and who recently left us, sadly, after a full and robust career as professor, scholar, actor, father). His command of the language, including his visceral, crisp and dramatic lectures on Elizabethan poetry flew off the ceiling in the lecture hall, far above my capacity to comprehend, at least for the first two or three months. I did not, however, cease to try to grasp the words, thoughts, provocations and motivations of this “Pericles” of a man, transported to the campus of the University of Western Ontario. During college years, I also sought out and found homilists like George Gogh, and Dr. Andrew Lawson, both in the United Church of Canada, who also inspired oral communication that compared favourably to the rhetoric of the recently newly elected president, John F. Kennedy. His words, phrases, and later those of his two brothers were added (although certainly no longer needed) fuel to my  burning sense of the various uses of the human voice to inform, to inspire and to evoke images of historic proportions that, to a lower-middle-class kid from a very small town, drew me away from the mundane, the ordinary and the pedestrian, in so far as the uue of language was concerned. (I was later permitted access to microphones in both radio and television, for the purposes of interviewing interesting guests, and also for broadcasting “editorial” opinions, another chapter in a live full of oral communication!)

Silence was then so foreign to this high-strung, verbose and animated (most would say agitated) that there are rumors, even sleep was punctuated with talking, much to the dismay of anyone near. Teaching English, then filling a marketing role, and then  both training for and the practice of ministry all demanded both a respect for and a facility with words, language, mostly oral with a little written communication.

And, of course, I followed whatever public displays of various forms of oral communication from such comedic pieces as Don Harron’s Charlie Farquharson, Dave Broadfoot’s Bobby Clobber, and in a more serious vein, Patrick Watson’s and Laurier Lapierre’s “This Hour has Seven Days” were baked into the cake of my consciousness about humans verbal engaging.

All of this is mere background to a more recent decision, by my wife and I, to insert some silence into our regular time allocation each week, as part of our way to seek for God, to experience the still small voice, to listen to the inner voice, and to remain calm, and outside whatever the week’s “fray” may have brought, or may yet bring next week. It is no accident, nor is it surprising, that many have written about their experiences in silence, as an integral component of their spiritual pilgrimage. There is truth and profound blessing in the silence, not having been accessed in a regular and systematic and disciplined manner in the last several decades. Busyness, obviously, negates silence; it also negates solitude, except for the millions of eyes glued to the cell phones, fully(?) engaged in some conversation with another about topics ranging from the bizarre to the platitudinous. (please forgive my sarcasm!)

In these new moments, now quite literally an hour each week, thoughts settle, eyes want to be closed for some inexplicable reason, ears still pick up sounds while that may not continue, and both hopes and fears find a new way of being experienced, less threatening in the case of fears, and a little more expansive, in the case of the hopes. With others, in a circle, also silent and respectful of the silent space, I have grown to appreciate the experience, following, and look forward to the return to that space each week, in the middle of the somewhat frenetic pace that fills most day. So there is a kind of ‘banking’ of silence, and a kind of return/retrieval/withdrawal of silence that has been quite noticeable in the moments which previously might have provoked anger, anxiety, disdain and even disgust. Returning to a space where silence is both remembered and refreshed definitely changes the colour, the intensity and the outcomes of situations which previously could and often did result in division.

So, personally, psychologically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually, I feel different  because of this new way of spending silent time. And, from the perspective of encounters with others, silence, while not a fully-developed habit yet, nevertheless accompanies each moment, giving it a new dimension that if the new dimension were a new light, it would be a kind of soft glow, or if a sound, it might be a quite melody, that infuses the moment. And that, dear reader, is a spill-over never even imagined prior to the start of the regular experience.

I look forward to finding and taking the time, space and solitude in which to enter into a silence which, perhaps with more practice, might and hopefully will, deepen potential insights, calm previously agitated nerves over issues seemingly unresolved, and make their resolution less required, and certainly less forced, and those issues perhaps even less visible in my conscious mind.

“And, where is God, in the silence?”

In the silence with each of us, present and accessible in ways not available through spoken words, or songs, and in groups animated with talk.

“How do I know?”

I have a sense of change in my relationship(s) to myself, (more accepting, more accommodating and less judgemental) to others (more tolerant and accepting) and to God, as companion, mentor, friend, and poet, and less as judge, jury, king and parent.

“Is this discipline worthy of my continuing?”

I only would wish that I had fully listened and entered this spiritual practice way back when those Jesuits were nudging me in that direction.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

More on experience as the root of and guide to spiritual pilgrimage

Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice,, hate tyranny, hate greed---but hate these things in yourself, not in another. (Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, social critic, and spiritual guide. Born in France 1915 died, 1968)

The discipline of the spiritual life is never glib or facile.  It is rather an often painful acknowledgement of attitudes, traits, qualities and tendencies in ourselves that we have perhaps ignored, denied, rationalized, dismissed, or even failed to see. On the other hand, even the process of such acknowledgement is never taken as a solo flight; there is always another holding the hand of the seeker. And there is never only darkness in the process of bringing to the light those previously secreted hates, or injustices. The human spirit is deeply steeped in a eternal light for which none of us can claim authorship. The light, in which we all walk, sleep, reflect, meditate and even prayer, is part of a larger light that keeps our universe from  fully imploding in despair and in total darkness. And each of us is a small beacon of that eternal light, flickering however faintly barely perceptible to the naked eye, yet always there in a corner of each picture painted in our imagination.

Choosing a spiritual path for many includes shedding many of the kinds of threats and predictions of hell, fire and brimstone, especially given our overwhelming burden of evil and sin. Those teachings, so long an intimate and frightening voice from many pulpits in many Christian churches, so deformed our images of ourselves as pathetic, hopeless and most importantly worthless, at least in the eyes of God, and the often important person whose larynx was vibrating with those judgements. Young children are unable to discern the difference between the ethic/religious import of a judgement such as “You are no good, and you never will be any good!” from the kind of psychological damage such venom inflicts on a young, and for the most part innocent, child. Even giving the speaker the benefit of the doubt, and interpreting such judgements as motivated by a stern and lofty aspiration of making the young child “fear God” (through fearing the parent or the teacher, the coach, or even the boss), there are unmeasureable and permanent psychic scars from such interactions. Hatred of the agent of such encounters is the most likely response from the early adult who looks back on such abuse of power. And, as one moves into the third, fourth and fifth decades of one’s life, there is going to be time for such hate to become the healing elixir it was meant to be. When one comes to the place where the hatred of the agent of those early judgements is replaced by the hatred of that hate that has seized so many of our unhealthy responses without our even being aware of why we were hating, long after the initial experiences.

Each of us has a sack full of experiences from which we learned our responses to another’s tyranny, another’s greed, another’s injustices. And, because those experiences were often extremely painful, and also depending on our age and our embarrassment and the depth of impact the experiences had on our psyche, we may have kept them deeply buried, secret, long after the date of their occurrence. Such entombment of our deepest and most painful emotions only keeps us focused on the person and the reason for our pain. It does not address the impact of such experiences, locked, on our psyche, nor our spirit. As we find the support, and the culture in which to  begin to unpack those previously locked-boxes, often even sealed vaults of painful experiences, we begin to imagine how we experienced those moments, and how we might do such moments differently today, if they presented themselves to us, in a similar way. Just as, when we read a deeply moving and sensitive piece of literature, one that moves us both to admire and to despise certain characters, attitudes, behaviours and  uttered words, we similarly are moved by deeply imprinted life experiences. And both through a formal discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of literary figures in novels, plays and movies, as well as through our own painful encounters, we are repeatedly introduced to those traits that help drive the world’s human dramas, both traits like love, compassion, forgiveness, empathy and integrity, as well as those less admirable, such as those noted in Merton’s quote.

As we each accept full responsibility for our own clinging to our negative potential, we thereby help to rid such elements from our environment.

And we need not paint and carry placards that shout our vehement opposition to war, nor engage in street conflicts with those who support “bombing the hell out of ISIS” for example (as Trump advocates), nor mount propaganda campaigns in our determination to stamp out human conflict. Our unique, authentic commitment to focussing on our own hatred, tyrannies, greeds and the like, ( a much more demanding and  challenging course than parading through the streets,) and beginning to see these traits perhaps for the first time, in a light that wraps us round in love, support and compassion, while at the same time, shining brightly into the dark corners of our hidden spiritual demons, for us to become fully familiar with those experiences in which we inflicted harm, hurt, pain through our own tyranny, greed and hatred on others. And from the “film” that emerges from the darkest recesses of our memories, into our consciousness, also comes a new awareness of just how important this healing actually is.

It is not some hokus-pokus, smoke-and-mirrors spiritual seduction; rather it is a new getting to know, to love, to accept and to find  a new gratitude for the release of these ‘demons’ fully, like entrapped encaged doves into the atmosphere of eternity. Significant and universal demonstration of the validity that spiritual growth, developing a relationship with the self and with God, whomever and however you might envision that to be, refers directly, intimately and unreservedly to each individual’s experience, both in the initial encounters as well as in the reflective, meditative, prayerful unpacking of those memories.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Experience, the root of one's spiritual pilgrimage

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy.* If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.”
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

*ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.

Our lives are a compilation of experiences, encounters, readings, rejections, trophies, scoldings, teachings and losses. As Tennyson's poem, Ulysses, puts it:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
For both Tennyson and Armstrong, (a serious contemporary writer about comparative religions), there is a common theme of action, putting into practice, behaviour linked to transformation. In fact, without the discipline that accepts the premise of both free will, including the will to experiment, to adapt, even to adopt the wisdoms of the ages. This collected wisdom includes the basic foundational pillars of the myths and the legends and the unique conflation of our experiences with those stories in a dynamic, kaleidoscopic patterning of colours, sounds, sights, scents, memories and dreams, all of these influences discerned, parsed and reflected upon, as an integral process of spiritual each individual like a rotating magnet gathers those figures from literature and from film, those pithy sentences from poems and diaries, those memories of canoe rides under a midnight moon, and those walks on endless beaches, while also passing by other characters, phrases, memories, walks and ideas that seem irrelevant at that moment.
In a groove of masculine-based, hard-copy-enshrined, intellectual bricks, history has passed along millions of bricks of philosophy, morality, ethics and an expectation that, in order to pass into heaven, as a "chosen" one, one  accepts and adheres to a specific collection of specific bricks, memorized often, repeated frequently, literally incorporated into one's world view and character. There has been a kind of stability, a kind of security, and a kind of permanence in our perception of the inherent ethical value of these bricks. Rooted, for the west, in The Decalogue, the archetype of rules as a basis for social and personal integrity and stability has and continues to serve many people, especially those responsible for the preservation of those institutions whose existence depends on finding and securing adherents to a galaxy of intellectual lights.
There is a fundamental challenge to this archetype, however, that comes directly from nature: a universe that remains static, constant, unchanging and immoveable does not exist. Nature, including our understanding of the many millions of planets whirling through the universe is evolving, dynamically demanding a renewed perspective from both amateurs and professional scholars.
Similarly, the issue of a personal spiritual pilgrimage that remains open to new and verdant discoveries of both our blind-spots from our past, including those dismissive attitudes of what have now become significant people and ideas, re-opened briefcases of files of our personal history, looked at through eyes and emotions and perspectives previously unavailable or merely closed opens possibilities of growth and development, shortened walls of fear and isolation, tentative steps into previously avoided 'dark rooms' of trauma, memory and failure.
However, such openness to and acceptance of a fluid and evolving universe as well as our own personal opportunity to grow and change requires a character strong enough to be able to acknowledge new ways of looking at and of imaging how we would today face some of the chapters of our past. Such openness and acceptance also needs a culture in which those close to us are supportive of our choices to revisit previously unopened doors in our own histories. Meeting others who, themselves, have opened their consciousness to new paths of seeing, feeling and remembering is a highly supportive feature to growing a cadre of individuals who share the potential of such a pilgrimage.
Whether such a biography is more linked to spirituality or a specific religion may be a question to be answered only by each unique individual. For some, the experience may be enhanced through association within a faith community; for others, the process may be significantly impeded by the restrictions imposed by a single, especially dogmatic, enclosed faith culture.
There would seem to be, today, a drama of these two paths playing out in world history. Those who cling to a narrow band of black-and-white dogmas, regardless of whether those dogmas are based in what is generally known as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or a fragmentary segment of any of these three main world religions, are repelled and perhaps even revolted by the spectre of others who reject such an approach to religion, faith and spirituality. Similarly, those already on a path that can be characterized as open, receptive and transformative find their colleagues adhering to a fixed star of dogma are also saddened by their approach.
Much of this divide can also be framed by a difference in one's evaluation of objective as opposed to subjective truths and realities. When and where one injects a perception and a need for absolute fixed truth(s) differs from one person to another. And while no spiritual path is sustainable without some mix of objective and subjective, a higher proportion of the latter is important to those open to transformation. Objective truth, especially those ascribed to a deity, will continue to sustain many, while their counterparts continue along a different path, "one less travelled" (Frost).
How these paths, and their respective variants, influence social and political policy, of course, is important. Those who believe higher ethical and moral values existed in the past will seek laws and policies that return to those values; those who believe that we can and continue to move toward a world of more compassionate, ethical and moral values and their implementation will likely favour new approaches.
And, almost none of this discussion will make its way onto the public airwaves. There is almost no likelihood that advertisers, and ratings monitors would support such a conversation of spiritual pathways, and their influence on public policy, for the simple reason that, in some states, religion has to be kept cordoned off from public policy (at least on the surface of the public discourse), while in others, the anticipation that audiences would find the discussion divisive would make advertisers shy away from engaging.
However, for the purposes of this piece, it seems significant to warn that one's world view, including one's receptivity to new evidence, and new ways of seeing and integrating such evidence into our personal lives is and will continue to be an important variable in our estimation and evaluation of those who seek public office. Their adherence to a party's policy might even be replaced by a careful examination of their spiritual life, and that not indicated by whether they "prop a Bible on the podium' to demonstrate their spiritual bona fides.  
Surely, the body politic is more sophisticated, and less gullible and more perceptive than the levels of those qualities currently on display in the United States of America, as well as those demonstrated in October in Canada.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Linking spirituality to public policy....a wide chasm!

 Margaret Atwood referred to the dialogue between Quebec and Canada at the height of the sovereignist movement in Quebec as the "dialogue of the deaf". It would seem that, in today's extremely complex world, (or at least a world in which there is an apparent colliding vortex of many ideas, personalities, technologies, ideologies and religions) her metaphor, while widened, still holds.
There are apparently many factions screaming past the ears of other equally vociferous factions, all of them vying for the same king of public attention.
Anti-abortionists (pro-lifers) want access to abortion eliminated from the public arena. (In Oklahoma, this week the legislature sent a bill to the Governor's desk for signing that would effective make it a felony for any doctor to perform an abortion in that state. She refused to sign, calling the bill 'vague'.)
On the other side, of this debate, the pro-choice advocates seek full access to therapeutic abortions, with the decision being fully in the hand of the woman in consultation with her doctor. Neither side listens to, fully comprehends, or seeks accommodation with the other.
On the issue of immigration, the extreme positions continue to seek and to find followers; those encouraging the welcoming of refugees and immigrants from lands especially fraught with war, famine, drought and disease want the wealthier states to open their doors to these people, arguing it the 'right thing to do' and that such public policy will only enhance the culture and the economic prospects of the welcoming state.
Equally as intense are the arguments coming from the anti-immigration lobby, whose proponents argue that immigrants bring added cost to an already strained public purse, added pressure on small communities to accept new people, added pressure on the health care system given the potential for untreated diseases, and importantly, the potential of hidden terrorists among the immigrant arrivals.
Similarly, with respect to how to "eradicate" terrorism, much of it still under an Islamist heading in most minds, public opinion is deeply divided. Some, like the current Republican presumptive candidate for president would bomb the "hell" out of those guys, as if there are not such actions already underway following directions of the current president. Others, including a few imams, are beginning to forge a funded public policy of addressing the question of how youth become radicalized, what social conditions are most fertile for incubating radical terrorists, what public policies, in addition to the surveillance approach of heavy screening at airports, cameras on many street corners in some large cities, and limiting access to weapons, might prevent radicalization.
The current public debate over whether Great Britain exits the European Union has evoked strong and nearly black-and-white arguments for and against.
It is as if the ethos of the court-room is becoming the climate for the exchange of ideas, with the public hopefully serving as jury and judge, at least when it comes time to enter the ballot box. Prosecuting public policy, whether it might involve suspected breaches of public trust (the Canadian Senate, the President of Brazil, the accounting firm of KPMG and off-shore tax havens for their clients, the dumping of previously secret public documents by whistle blowers like Snowden) to name only a few) or the contamination of foods or drugs that enter the mouths of millions of innocent consumers, or the purchase of  war machines, or the pollution of the eco-system especially by private corporations for their private profit....these are normally considered separately, in their discreet and statistically measured impact(s) on the public, in order to be both communicated about, and studied and contained for the policy wonks, the politicians, the news reporters and eventually the ordinary voter. For example, the Paris conference on Climate Change and Global Warming expressed some desire (not policy, nor directives, nor sanctions if not followed) to limit the rise in temperatures resulting from these monsters to 2 degrees Celsius, given that current projections point to a rise of at least 3.5-4 degrees, considered unsustainable.
It is the collision of empirical evidence (the stats, the comparisons, the predictions and the projections (of the academic kind, not the psychological kind) with the human dimension, including the values, the ethics, the cultural and religious norms, the unmeasureable imagination and spirit of human beings that interests us here.
Working with, and sustaining all of the arguments for and against each public policy, on each issue in every country, human beings, with all of our strengths, vulnerabilities, hopes, dreams and especially our fears that play a leading role in the development of each of these dramas. And, in a time when phrases like "mindfulness" or "raising consciousness" or "spirituality" are bandied about with both glee and abandon by those in the "creative neighbourhoods" of our many cultures, the question of how our better angels have, can and will increasingly impact our collective decisions as a race rises, like the daffodils in Wordsworth's poem, to call attention to the rising spring of our human potential.
The churches for their part have become almost muted in the public discourse, except when the Pope calls corporate profiteers "blood suckers" on the weak and the poor, as he did last week. Alone, however, he can and will have minimal impact. His is, like John the Baptist's, a voice crying in the wilderness. To a considerable degree, this space, too is dedicated to similar cries, without being attached to any specific faith community.
There are welcome individuals and institutions dedicated to the 'big picture' like Bill and Melinda Gates, and other philanthropists, foundations dedicated to remediating many of the worlds open and festering human sores and diseases. And even governments in wealthy countries are contributing some of their public tax money to the alleviation of social and health blights in poor countries. However, given the impact of public policy over the last half century on the growing divide between those with wealth and those struggling to survive, it is apparent that the powerful continue to seek to support and enhance the wealth of their peers, donors, and confidants.
And all of the bleeting and bleeding heart "liberal" voices only stiffen their determination to grab all the perks and all the benefits of a public policy structure available and purchased by their unwanted and unneeded cash.
And, yet, from a universal, human and compassionate, even an ethical perspective, we all know, (even the corporate bandits) that such short-sighted, self-serving, narcissistic public policy is both unsustainable and eventually sabotaging the very survival of the planet. We all know that, without a radical change in the way public policy is determined, without a radical shift in the public consciousness around issues like climate change, global warming, and even attempting to manage the already "spits-demanding" chasm between the rich and the poor in the wealthy countries, we face a dangerous future, and our grandchildren face an even more threatening life than we can, or are willing to, postulate.
The human capacity to see beyond the immediate, the dividends from today's stock options, the potential rise of stock X or Y, the immediate "deal" to borrow from the prophetic/pathetic clown who purports to rule the world, the immediate rise or fall in the unemployment or inflation numbers, requires a persistent and legitimately prophetic voice, not only to articulate the dangers (both in numbers and in poetry) but also to paint pictures of potential landscapes that sustain life, hope and the dreams of those humans who will be born and expect to live in the 22nd century, not to mention the centuries further out.
Underpinning such hope, in this space, is an ultimate being, reality, God, whose infinite love and hope and tolerance and forgiveness surpasses our capacity to imagine such "care" and the relationship of the mere mortals who inhabit this little sphere in space to that God is at the core of our potential for change. Whether to accept such a being, and whether to give obedience and attention to that entity, the incarnation of everything that is good, honourable, loving, hopeful and tolerant....not the embodiment of everything that computes with our rational brain, or our personal needs and interests, or our personal ambitions for our material success, or our picture of a Ferrari in every driveway, or our distorted vision of a single religion, or our restricted definition of how and why God wants us to behave and to our free choice.
And, clearly, from the evidence that pours over our consciousness every day, we are individual and collectively making some fairly obviously bad choices. And we have the power within each of us, to make different choices.
It is not a matter to be settled on the streets of Baghdad, nor the streets of Paris, nor the stumps of the presidential election, nor in the shootings of black men or white police, nor in the cubicles of the Canada Revenue Agency, nor in the state rooms of hotels in Vienna. These matters of survival and human shared choices are too big for those venues, and cannot be contained in any mosque, synagogue, or cathedral, nor in any university seminar room nor in any court room, even in those countries with the most advanced legal system.
These are matter that have to be resolved in the human heart, and that means in the human heart of each and every human breathing. And whether or not we will choose our own best angels' advice, and surmount those multiple and growing obstacles to our collaborative energies, both as a service to our grandchildren and their children, and also as an obeisance and gratitude to God for our own opportunity to have enjoyed the beneficence of this life, the spring flowers, the spring rains, the cloud poems, and the birdsongs, the baby's first smile, and the dying's last good-bye.
It is a commitment and a pursuit of what gives us life that unites all faith communities, that inspires all artists, that energizes all writers and poets, and that can and must infuse the hearts and minds of all those whose shoulders bear the weight of all of our hopes and dreams, and not their own ambitious career curves.
This is not rocket science, but it will take more than the energy to lift many rockets off the platform, if we are to change the current trajectory of human expectations.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Longing for the moment when in prayer one can "creep into God"...not only for mystics?

Soren Kierkegaard wrote: Just as in earthly life lovers long for the moment when they are able to breathe forth their love for each other, to let their souls blend in a soft whisper, so the mystic longs for the moment when in prayer he can, as it were, creep into God.

The first half of the comparison is so obvious and true that for any who are yet to experience that moment, there is great hope, and also great sadness that it has not yet become an extremely memorable part of your experience. In fact, parents and teachers, doctors and nurses, clergy and social workers would do well to abandon their pursuit of their behavioural, objective and virtually CYA (Cover Your Ass Professionally) “treatment plans” and commence a radical shift in direction, by putting the pursuit of love at the heart of their engagement with their clients/patients/students/parishioners. Of course, the church’s trashing all notions of love, outside of marriage, as evil, coupled with the roaring fire of private enterprise that champions sex as power and sex as titillation, and sex as pornography, and also sex as primary sales strategy together these two thrusts have effectively rendered such a sweeping conjecture as both heresy and blasphemy, not to mention completely outside the bounds of objective, professional, and “safe” relationships between professionals and vulnerable clients. (And while it says here that there is a complex connection between the church’s puritan ‘take’ on sexuality and the public square’s steroidal deployment of all forms of sexual enticement, that is a subject for another space and time.)

It is the second half of the quote, the mystic longs for the moment in prayer when s/he can, as it were, creep into God, a moment analogous to the lovers blend (as one) in a soft whisper. Kierkegqaard’s linking of the two highly intimate and highly engaging, without being enmeshing, activities, the one between lovers, and the other between a mystic and God is both poignant and challenging. We have, as a culture, been so remiss in objectifying our relationship with God, in following some rules said to be directives from God, really what ‘inspired’ humans wrote as their intuitive and imaginative picture of the expectation God might have for a species created in His own image. Whether anthropomorphised or not, God is and always has been eminently approachable, regardless of our testy and nervous and even perhaps falsely modest attitude that might be expressed in these words: ‘What would God want with me? Or perhaps, ‘Why would God want to have anything to do with me, He being so perfect, immaculate and unblemished, and me being so soiled and sullied in my iniquity? There is a well-known question in some spiritual circles: A person says, “I feel so far away from God” and the answer comes back, “Who moved?” (The implication being that it was not God who moved!)

Creeping into God evokes images of humility and a kind of confidence and imaginative perspective that stretches beyond the perceivable and the rational, scientific, stretching so far as to include a warm and receptive and welcoming heart (being, sacred space, universe, cave, cocoon, or perhaps even cloud or an enveloping branch of an old oak tree, wherever it might feel safe, and totally understanding) into which to creep, open to our creeping and welcoming of our surrender and self-awareness of a higher relationship to God than that contained in such platitudes as “thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not”..... Mysticism itself, and of course all who consider themselves mystics, along with all those writers and thinkers who have considered many of their spiritual mentors be mystics, are usually rendered delusional, out of touch with reality, and therefore suspect with regard to their mental and emotional stability and maturity. Even to move to a place where “creeping into God” is a phrase worthy of serious consideration, as a direction for our spiritual pilgrimage would evoke derision and dismissal in many so-called Christian quarters, and certainly in many seminaries where men and women are allegedly ‘in formation’ for ministry. We are, as a culture, fixated, even obsessed with extrinsics, numbers of people and dollars, and growth in our religious institutions, to the point where a question about one’s spiritual life, even to a bishop, brings such a mundane response as “I think he is ‘red book’ or “I think she is green book” (in a tradition in which contemporary liturgy is inside green book covers, and traditional worship planning lies in red book covers.) “Creeping into God” if uttered among religious adherents, would be heard by many as “creepy” and even potentially sinister, evil and strange.

“Creeping into God” as a prayerful experience, accessible at all moments of every day, by every person, holding out the promise of a different way of being human invites us to rise out of a somnabulance, out of a boredom, out of a dashed dream, out of a deep and profound loss. Rather than learning the rules, and the punishments for breaking those rules, (criminal, social, familial and cultural) and then learning how we might complete our detachment from all things intuitive, emotional, insightful and even mystical so that we “fit into” the classroom, the family, the school, and eventually the job/profession, we might better open ourselves to a different set of perceptions, expectations and possibilities! We have become slaves to an ethic that defies our humanity, our emotional truth and reality, our capacity for compassion and our capacity to create new ways of being in relation. Being in relation does not mean merely being social, and competing for an finite economic trophy or trophies, or joining some corporate “team” all members of which are dedicated to enhancing the profits and the dividends of their investors and their executives. Being in relation with another, and with God, and with our authentic human peers cannot and must not be reduced to the transactional analysis of consumer/supplier, or of doctor/patient, or of teacher/student, or of clergy/client, or of social worker/client. We are capable of so much more empathy, connectivity, understanding, sympathy and support than merely writing cheques by the millions after a fire scourge like the one that hit Fort MacMurray recently. We have constructed systems, organizations and role guidelines that obstruct, impede and actually crimp and restrict our full humanity. It is as if we have to live a double life: the one that we offer to the public, no matter who comprises our specific public, and the one that we offer to our spouse, or our children, or our colleagues. And there is so little of each of us in the script that is required to fulfil our role(s) in these public encounters. (Of course, this is not an argument for sexual encounters gone awry, proliferating in all offices, classrooms, sanctuaries, court rooms or even board rooms. And therein lies our great fear, and also our great collective shared denial. It might be expressed this way:

Our current culture, based on rules, expectations, inculcation and absorption of those rules through training, punishment, and judgement, can be considered (as it is here) a perversion of the universe envisioned by a Creator God, even after the myth of the Garden of Eden. Gaining knowledge of the difference between good and evil is not necessarily a premise for a social and cultural ethos in which our sins are our defining attributes, especially in the eyes of the religious among us. Worrying about whether we are, have been or will be “chosen” as one of the “preferred” who have earned a passport into Heaven is not, has not, and will not in the future, supply human beings with a foundation for a healthy approach to their needs, their relationships, or their capacity and willingness to discern appropriately when large questions of meaning, purpose and morality come into our face. Omniscience on God’s part, has already provided the Deity with a perspective so epic, and so compassionate, and so generous and so magnanimous that our tiny and grovelling hair-shirt mentality is almost ironically completely at variance with an attitude and a faith that remains both open and courageous especially when it is challenged by serious threat. And, we need to prepare for such serious threats, not by cowering before some Panjandrum or regal God who seeks to punish, but by opening ourselves to the beneficence and the beauty and the opportunities to “creep prayfully into God” that are our’s for the taking.

Try to imagine a culture in which each of us is hopefully and earnestly praying to ‘creep into God’ as an integral activity in our spiritual journey. Such a priority among a large number of humans would generate a far different and more stable and more sustainable world in which to live and to fulfil our highest dreams, hopes and ambitions. Imagine a place where men and women grow up liking and respecting each other, where parents are not competing for the attentions and affections of their children, where teachers can and do hug their students and students get to express all of their emotional responses not only to the literature they are reading, but also to the situations in which they find themselves. Included in this alternate universe, are conversations about real thorny issues, between friends in real time, inside the structure of their respective lives, in which secrets are not withheld for fear of embarrassment and of public ridicule and scorn, but rather shared as a common and expected norm. Doctors might even fall in love with their patients, but likely only if and when their own relationships are so unfilling as to prompt such exploration. Lawyers might fall in love with their clients, as might nurses and teachers, without all this hypocritical pretending that we are above all that, or at least the “good” ones are. We disclaim false modesty; why do we not disclaim false pretense of our true emotions, requiring the reciprocal and responsible response either of engagement or of rejection, in a humane and open manner. Under an umbrella of such a foundational concept as “creeping into God” as a primary guiding principle of our individual and family life, as well as of our public interactions, we might begin to bring to consciousness, along with an unconsciousness, of an intimate relationship with and connection to God that inspires our every thought, response and attitude. If we were open to the invitation from the mystics even to consider “creeping into God” as the central goal and purpose of our lives, we might be more enabled to hold ourselves gently, to hold each other more gently and compassionately, to hold our neighbourhoods and our institutions more empathically, and also to hold our shared universe and eco-systems more reverently. Of course, we would have to set aside, through a dramatic shift in our priorities, separating ourselves from the mass-culture that engulfs millions of lives, those shibboleths that currently entrap millions in downward spiralling lives of desperation, depression, failure, judgement and reduction to mere function. All of which is both preventable and worthy of our conscious choosing.

Guided by signs in heaven, inspired by images of beauty, uplifted by sounds of harmonies in concertos and in wind blowing through the pines, warmed by greetings of real appreciation of our presence, both offered and received...all of these spiritual manuscripts of symphonic inspiration, if and when fully absorbed, integrated and entered, without worry of social acceptance and confirmation, could and would in the long run, replace our proclivities for besting the other, for judging the other, for trashing the moment in favour of our own pursuit of power and dominance, and would ultimately and inevitably disarm even the most compulsive support of the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. The Quakers have a phrase in their ‘process’ guidelines, “be humble yet bold”...a spiritual, psychological, emotional and even intellectual guidepost for a culture and an individual to shift away from our current clinging to conflict, to competition, to our consideration of the human component in our “enterprise” as little more than raw materials, like iron ore, or like crude oil, and a shift toward an honourable honouring of the poetic, the mystic and the divinity which comes to each of us with our birth.

If we can imagine living within a persistent, continuing and prayerful longing to “creep into God” as an act to which all aspire, and even enter, regardless of the religious “dogma” surrounding our teachings about the Deity, we surely can and could and would be willing and able to open our eyes, ears, hearts, minds and spirits to a possible culture in which freedom is not defined by how much we can afford, how far we travel, how much we thumb our noses at the law, including the taxman, how much we hold it over others whom we consider inferior, (by education, income, social status, house size, car brand or wardrobe). We already, almost involuntarily and most likely universally, prayerfully enter into God when we learn of a new birth in our families, when we also learn of an extremely ill person returns to a normal life like a candle that refuses to be extinguished, and when we experience the death of a loved one. These moments enhanced with deep emotions and the experience of ultimate and infinite reality are often turning posts in our lives. Silently, at such moments, many actually engage in a prayerful moment that could readily and feasibly be aligned with something called “entering into God.” We are at such moments, neither embarrassed, nor afraid, nor reticent nor even awkward in our prayer. Would that we could and would graft onto such a moment, and many others, a belief and a wish and a prayer to “enter into God”. And if we could then begin to refer to such moments and others of inspiration and of awe in a similar prayer, we might enlarge the potential scope not only of our prayer life, but also leaven the universe with an attitude and an approach that seeps through our anger, our disappointment, our angst and our feelings of inferiority.

 And to perhaps live in a culture in which “creeping into God” is not merely an option open to the mystics, but a legitimate option shared by everyone would inevitably generate fewer cardiac arrests, fewer criminal arrests, fewer melanomas and sarcomas, far fewer broken relationships, and a significantly reduced appetite for the Rolls Royces and the Jaguars and the BMW’s and an profoundly enlarged public appetite for green spaces, for poetry, for music, for care of each other and the planet.

And no corporation could or would own the culture, nor the tax system, nor the armaments, nor the power to deceive and to dominate. And of course, this utopia is conceivable only in the most naive and the most innocent and the most immature imagination like that of your scribe!  

  If our lives were able to be described and defined as searching for and finding pathways through prayer, in order to enhance our potential and our opportunities to creep into God, imagine the energy such a spiritual discipline would generate, the creativity and the forgiveness and the unfolding and opening of so much human spiritual potential, that would find even more and more creative pathways into the divine, to which we are already said to be connected by our own inner divinity.
It was Tolstoy who reminded us, “The Kingdom of God is Within You”!!! Was his voice in vain, or prophetic of a vision to which we continue to learn and hope to aspire.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Walls....keeping ghettos in and out!

In one city, the divide takes the form of a major street south of which lies the university, and north of the street, one finds the poor section of town. In the small town where I grew up, the dividing line was a river, running south and emptying into a large Great Lake. To the east of the river inside the town boundaries, the poor people lived, worked and almost universally travelled outside their section of town for employment. Founded first, the east side of the river was dotted liberally with houses in need of repair, sidewalks that were broken and given that the section of town was out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the decision-makers in the town, was unlikely to see the kind of municipal attention in terms of improved public works like upgraded roads, updated schools, street lights and what has become known in larger cities as gentrification. Another dividing line was ‘snob hill’ that piece of geography and topography that hosted the large, historic, architecturally designed homes of some of the professional class. Snob hill provided another higher status in the collective mind of townspeople, to the west side of the river. Looking out from these elegant homes, one viewed the “Big Sound’ of the Georgian Bay, one of the more spectacular views on that lake.

Although there were hymns to a classless society not so long ago, they have faded into the mist of a few politicians’ never-to-be-realized dreams. We are now living, each of us in our own town or city, in a society one of whose primary characteristics is the class war. It used to be that a university education was a passport into a secure, well-paying job, with considerable benefits, a pension and social respectability. Now, according to one study in the United Kingdom, universities are segregated by the incomes paid with graduates from Oxford and London Universities earning considerably more income than graduates from universities like the University of York in the north. It used to be that the suburbs housed the gentry class, and the centre of major cities were crippled into crumbling buildings and suspect ethos. Today, with the renewal of downtown cores, in many cities, the people with the money, and thereby the status and the class, the people with the power, the influence, and especially with the networks, reside and rule.

This social stratification continues, morphs with the changing directions in the flow of investment money, without even putting on the table such other divisions as that between male and female, between ethnic backgrounds, language differences, and origins of birth. And the stratification defies many of the initially studiously planned reforms of various political movements to bring the ‘monster’ to heel. Welfare morphs into workfare, attempting to excise the demeaning patronizing of the have-not’s by the have’s. Subsidized education fees, grants and bursaries have made some impact, in enlarging the university entrance demographic among the working poor, without ever succeeding in changing the attitudes of both have’s and have-not’s to each other. A university degree, however, is little more than a basic education, for most entry-level occupations, and many university grads have found it necessary to top their degrees with the icing of a community college-acquired skill. Simultaneously, peer pressure to have the brand-signatures of an ‘in crowd’ such as an I-Pad, I-Phone, the ‘in’ brand of athletic shoes (selected from a football-field filled with models), and for some even the family Beemer to take to college naturally generate a deep divide among undergraduates attending both “ultimate” universities and more ‘proletariat’ campuses. Little wonder, then, the campus administrators have to face the prospect of despairing students from “the other side of the tracks” (and we all know the translation of that phrase in anything  but flattering). Those reared on the right side of the tracks come with their own upper-class breeding that includes a disdain for those ‘lesser’ mortals who might just happen to have achieved the grades necessary to be granted admission. “Somebodies” need and depend upon “nobodies”  in every city, and town, and certainly college and university. Perhaps the inverse is also true: ‘nobodies’ also need ‘somebodies’ against whom to rail, compete and vent their envy and jealousy. The competitive culture, so honoured, almost revered by the corporate/business community, does nothing but enhance and enlarge the divides that we build physically and more importantly psychically and imaginatively.

The paradox of the “social animal” dependent on and magnetically drawn to others is that we also are eager to separate ourselves from those people, groups, parties, clubs whose attitudes, beliefs, actions and philosophies are outside our unique comfort zone, whatever that may be. Sometimes the divide is based on longstanding bigotry, as, for example, the historic divide between protestants and Roman Catholics, or, in Canada, the divide between the reserves that house indigenous peoples, and the off-reserve remainder of the population, or, in the large cities, the sections reserved for the uber-rich, the gated communities. Many of the most “valued” properties are along the shore of large rivers, lakes and oceans. And value, in this case, is measured in dollars as well as, and not insignificantly, status within the community. Some historic towns in Canada have also found that their tax base has withered as larger, more sumptuous homes were built on the periphery, attracting both a more professional clientel and increased tax revenues for the adjoining townships.

Children amicably engage in “parallel play” in sandboxes, and even in play-pens until the crunch of mutually exclusive needs for the same toy, when someone intervenes, or one exerts dominance over the other and claims the toy as his for the moment. Shared dorm rooms, shared apartments or condos prepare some for the long-term commitment of marriage. However, within such arrangements, each person also stakes out his/her territory, perhaps even to the point of some “locked” desk or cupboard drawer. These ‘secure’ places somehow, we think and believe, protect us from what we anticipate might be the wandering eyes and hands of another tempted either to “ borrow” or “use” or even “take” without asking. And to some extent that is true. One wonders, however, if those locks are protecting us from “others” or from our preconceived projections of lack of trust, built from our earliest exposure to stolen pencils and pens, in our classrooms where the desks were not locked, or from the stolen bicycle from our front porch, or the hockey stick that suddenly vanished while we were showering after the game or practice.

And now through the tech-revolution, parents seek fire walls to prevent their children from unwanted and unwarranted exposure to websites that seek to take advantage. And for each firewall, there appears to be an equally adept and powerful “delete” software to overcome the wall. It is almost as if whenever we build walls, there are inevitably others eager and willing to turn their ingenuity to scaling those walls, too often for personal profit. And so, we are living in a time when we are so scrupulous about our social environment that one wonders whether we have really enlarged our “community” or simply built millions of walls to resist open and honest engagement with those we care about.  Putting smart phones and tablets in the hands of millions may provide a veneer of connection, and for purposes like crowd sourcing, or instant protests, they are highly effective. However, most of us have to delete unwanted messages from unknown sources daily. And our digital garbage bin overflows with “trash” just like our landfill sites.

Out-of-sight, out-of-mind is a protective device to enable our denial, avoidance and confronting of those people whom we consider “untouchable” even though we do not reside in India. And, we find various devices, including our internal, mental walls that attempt to erase the people with whom we do not wish to deal, (and that includes  organizations, churches, professionals). There is an interesting piece of data about the difference between the way Canadians treat their corporate misadventures and the way Americans do. Canadians for the most part, simply walk away. Americans, on the other hand, write complaints back to the companies who have offended them as consumers.

We Canadians seem more private, or perhaps do not really trust that our complaints will make any difference, or perhaps, we simply cannot be bothered with the hassle, given the irritations we have already experienced from the objectionable business.

So there are geographic walls separating countries, separating social classes, separating neighbourhoods, and in some cases, also segregating schools. And there are fire walls in our digital technology, serving both purposes of protection and of challenging the criminal/terrorist segment of our population. And there are walls  in rooms for privacy, for solitude and for quiet. And then there are those walls that we build in our minds, segregating out those elements of our universe that we consider dangerous, or even too complex to deal with, or perhaps even more likely, too “unconventional” in our way of thinking. And as for the last, there is no earth-moving equipment that can or will eradicate them; there are however, substantial social and political agencies determined to maintain them, allegedly for the purity of their own “kind” and for the protection from heathens and heretics who might contaminate their “kind”.

It was not until adulthood that I encountered another adult who required a minimum of 7 feet of what he termed social space. That requirement was enough to build a wall, at least in my mind and attitude, that this person was not someone whose acquaintance urged me to pursue past the first meeting. And there was only the wall he had built over years of conditioning, presumably to the acquiescence of his friends and family.

Are we teaching children to construct walls, based on their respective fears, or on the assimilation of social stereotypes of “less-than-desireable” untouchables?

Are we propagating a protective mind-set that requires walls of various kinds to keep us safe, in a world gone wild with alleged threats?

Are we also building communities that contain the seeds of our own segregation, in order to give obeisance to the rich, the powerful and the oligarchy?

Walls keep in, and keep our different ghettos, yet only those inside refuse to see themselves as residents of a ghetto.

How sad!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Refections on personal projections...mining their threads of gold

Psychological projection was defined by Jung as an unconscious transfer of subjective psychic elements onto an outer subject—person or object.

Suppose someone perceived-right or wrong-his father as tyrannical. As an adult he may have the tendency not only to act in a tyrannical way but also to project in people with some authority this feature. He will be convinced-again right or wrong- that the subject of his projection is a tyrant. This is a psychological projection.(Happiness Academy Online)

As a son raised by a tyrannical mother (and an emotionally absent father) I have lately become aware that in my youth, it was my mother’s unconscious projections, both negative and positive, onto her only son that both entrapped and exaggerated the potential of my own life. She was determined to put her signature on her offspring so deeply and in 72-point type, that she quite literally forced her absolute will on the number of hours of piano practicing that were required every day from when I was five until I left for university. And within those hours, she also imposed her military marching orders on each piece, slapping the piano case with some hard instrument as an overpowering human metronome. And then, of course, there were the expected recitals, exams, and public command performances. I was convinced then, and am even more so today, that she was living her failed musical career vicariously through her dependent child. Some would refer to her as a “Hollywood mother”, determined to force her child into progeny expectations, whether or not those expectations were achievable. There were certainly situations, such as her nursing practice, in which she functioned as a diligent, compassionate, exacting professional, lauded and much sought after by suffering patients. So, whether my perceptions were right or wrong, they were indeed my indelible perceptions. As an adult, this early experience has coloured many of my perceptions, and thereby my experiences with people in authority, both male and female, but certainly more frequently among women. Projecting, unconsciously, my perception of my “tyrannical mother” onto any attitude, behaviour, belief, body language, verbal expression that even gave a faint scent of the abuse of power, I have become an over-active radar screen for even potential tyranny, whether or not the intentions of the other warranted such a reading.

Along with this aspect of my ‘projection’ dynamic, I have also valued, sometimes too highly, those expressions of support, compassion and appreciation that have been directed to me, once again, particularly from women. Having felt starved for such kindness, I have been like a moth to this often flickering light bulb, without actually acknowledging whether or not such attraction was healthy for me, or for the other. Distinguishing between authentic kindness and ‘political manipulation’, naturally, has been quite tentative, if not misinterpreted. Along the way, of course, an ex-spouse, and later a few ‘significant others’ have suffered from my form of psychic entrapment, as I became increasingly conscious that something about my way of being was ‘not working’ to put it mildly. (These early patterns neither clarify themselves, nor do they have developmental lectures and seminars in which to unpack them, in the normal course of seeking and pursuing both an education and a career! Duh!) Experience, blundering mistakes, bitter interactions, repeated reflections, and even immersion in spiritual direction and counsel might provide some light out of a tunnel and then, perhaps only a faint glimmer. Having been immersed in the white water of cascading projections for most of my first decades, like a salmon swimming to the spawning ground, up-stream, I learned that flayling and deep breathing kinds of hard work were necessary just to stay afloat. And often that hard work, including intense encounters that were at best unproductive and at worst, overwhelming, portrayed my person as the most needy nerd on the block.

Complicating my early naivety, in the realm of masculine-feminine relationships, was the daily, almost hourly presence of a father who, while compassionate and tolerant in the extreme, nevertheless, was either fearful of confronting his spouse, or chose what he considered the ‘high road’, silence, agreement, complicity, and then, when he could no longer hold his feelings in, passive aggression. As an adolescent, I was never sure when the complicity and compromise stopped and the passive aggression began. So I learned both: that men, in order to generate peace and harmony in their marriages, were long suffering, tolerant and always the compromiser, and that, if such accommodations were unreachable or unfeasible, then he resorted to P.A.

Mix into this domestic cocktail a puritan ethic that demanded physical work over mental concentration: “Don’t read, do something!” was the rallying cry of the ethic, uttered whenever I recall picking up a book (infrequently) and settling into its adventures. (You have already intuited that it was not the male parent who uttered such black-and –white commands.) An over-bearing female parent, coupled with a still silent river (or was it a swamp?) of a father, fertilized with a protestant, puritan ethic of hard work, and a maternal ambition to polish her public reputation through piano performances of her son, (and later of her only daughter), will generate complex and unresolved feeling and perceptions that are inordinately loaded, at least in my case, with unconscious projections.

Exploring Literature with high school students, we continually encountered the recurring theme of  the tension between “appearance and reality”. Delving into the back stories of novels and dramas and mining, with the students, evidence that helped to inform a degree of discernment among them, for me always evoked by a silent and private pursuit of my own, pulling apart the evidence of secrecy, distortion, personal neuroses and projections that blew through our little salt-box brick bungalow, churning the gestation and the development of unknown and unacknowledged origins of my own discomfort. Overtly and almost ostentatiously church-going, scrubbed and clean were our bodies and our clothes, while underneath, there was always a raging torrent of anger, discomfort, embarrassment and even despondency that “our truth” was deeply buried and hidden from public disclosure, through both the complicity of each member of our family, and through the normalizing of secrecy that came to be our family rule. We were not living with alcoholics; we were not living with addicted adults, in the conventional definition of the word. We were not living in extreme poverty, nor were we living in squalor. In fact, our physical environment was sanitized into sterility, comparable to the operating rooms in most small town hospitals. And yet, emotionally, psychically, ethically, and most importantly, spiritually, we were living in a desert wasteland. Conflict, in the form of weeks of extended silence, without a single word being exchanged between each parent, was not unusual, or even irregular; it was so frequent that when there was what one could term normal conversation, we actually breathed differently, wondering just how long the pastoral interlude would last.

Conflicts were resolved through the only method available, apparently, maternal edict. Father did not dare to ask,

“Could we re-think this decision and talk about it some more?”

Nor did he consider, as was the case with all of his peers, seeking counsel outside the home, given the masculine requirement to fulfil the maxim: “You made your bed, now lie in it!” without public complaint or even public discussion among close friends. Questions about the length of piano practice were never a matter of discussion; they were ‘settled’ by a unilateral edict, with which I completely complied. I never recall even once uttering a voice of protest that I really wanted to ‘take a break’ and go outside to play with my friends, who would sometimes knock on our door in their attempt to ‘free’ me. Of course, it was inevitable that our public “mask” would crack, and, also apparently it would be inevitable that I would be the agent of the cracking, unknowingly: Taking my father’s half-ton truck out on a Saturday night, without formal permission, I rolled it into a large immoveable boulder, on our return from the local YWCA, where three of us had been visiting counsellors in training. The next morning, Sunday, the whole town could witness the crushed truck, blazing my father’s name, keeled over on the lot of the most prominent car dealership on the main street in town. Whether walking or driving, everyone rounded that corner almost daily, and my embarrassment was extremely difficult to hide. I doubt I was successful.

In school, I was a generally compliant student, as I found the atmosphere collegial, although I could not have described it that way then. I deeply enjoyed learning, reading, answering questions, and especially discussing the various nuances of a situation, whether in history class or in language class. Teachers, too, were collaborative, collegial, and fair disciplinarians, for the most part. ( The incident in which I was strapped, in grade four, and later punished more severely at home, is told elsewhere in this space. However, another angry, controlling female, this time the teacher, was the agent of the unwarranted punishment. I say, unwarranted, but so do all other witnesses of the event).

Later, in college, I ran up against two notable female professors, one in Child Psychology, the other in Zoology. Both had eminent and laudable credentials; both were engaged in honourable research and both were fully committed to their teaching assignments. Neither, however, even seemed to make it to my list of role model educators. And that reality was the result of no action or omission on the part of the two professors. It was, on deep and long reflection, the sole result of my own unconscious projections, about which neither they nor I were ever fully conscious. As proof of my conviction of my responsibility, I failed in my first attempt in Child Psychology as well as in a supplemental examination. The professor’s memorable quote, on appeal was, “I can only conclude that you know absolutely nothing about Child Psychology!” As far as Zoology goes, I also failed that course, and had to enrol in an alternative science course, before graduation. These were in years when I was just entering my twenties at least chronologically. Emotionally and developmentally however, I was still a very young, naive and innocent adolescent, blinded by my own painting another with a brush that neither of them deserved.

Projections are, almost predictably and universally, at root, agents of self-sabotage. People will neither know cognitively, nor acknowledge psychologically at the time of the encounters, that they are attempting to cope with another’s projection. They will, just as I and many others have done, puzzle over why things do not seem compatible. How could they be? When one comes to the table with an unseen and unknown and unacknowledged impediment to healthy compatibility, one tilts the scales in the direction of turbulence, fractiousness and potentially disappointment, if all parties remain connected.

Seeking to fill the gaps in my own development, especially those in the realm of emotional intelligence and maturity, I have fallen into unhealthy relationships with various women who, themselves, were projecting their own unconscious “hero” or “rescuer” onto me, without their, or my knowing I was the target of their projections. Of course, such encounters take inordinate amounts of psychic energy, rise to inconceivable heights of joy and fall almost immediately to deep and dark caves of disappointment.

It is no surprise then, not only that my father was handicapped and restricted from taking healthy and caring initiatives to confront his spouse’s shadow, but that millions of men and women continue to labour under the clouds of competing projections, seeking shelter where none is available, seeking solace from dried-up sources, seeking companionship from another who is also attempting to break out of her own emotional swamp. However, let’s be very clear!

There are helpful resources, reflective retreats, professional psychological and spiritual guides available and open to entering into professional relationships that can and do lead to enhanced clarity, enhanced self-awareness and thereby enhanced potential for healthy reciprocal, dialogic and collaborative, and most importantly mutually supportive relationships. That is especially not only to be sought, but also attained, with another who also acknowledges her own unconscious projections, and the role they play in her life, and relationships.

I can speak with some considerable confidence about that last statement. For the past fifteen years, I have had the good fortune to participate fully in such a relationship. Michelle has both her inner and physical eyes open to the moments when our projections sand-paper each other, and we continue to identify those moments, and seek the ‘threads of gold’ that inevitably emerge from a loving unpacking of the entanglement. Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Michelle especially, and also to all of those whose lives have intersected with mine, less than happily and less than in complete fulfilment. Nevertheless, there is no final termination to these explorations, except death, and even after death, these projections, and those of our sons and daughters, will  continue to dance in the universe of their generations.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Reflections on words, words, words....

I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are as slaves. (Jonathan Swift, on lawyers)

George Orwell’s ministry of truth is one of literature’s best examples of Swift’s satire. In 1984, War is Peace and Peace is War...enemies now were friends once, and the reverse is also true. Just as in Orwell’s satire, truth telling is one of the casualties of the modern political culture (not only of war in the literal sense). The speak-masters, the silver-tongued orators are paid handsomely for their skill in getting others to listen, and listening today means “buying” or “taking the bait” or “marking the ballot” or joining the group....

Call it prosletyzing, marketing, political rhetoric, advertising, propaganda or the more recent infomercial, the hybrid that openly admits it is selling the audience on some product or service, political party, religious community or recruitment program, or put in more euphemistic terms, public relations, information management, brand-polishing....the spin-doctors are the slave-masters unless and until their message and their client are exposed for having kept the body politic in the dark.

And of course, the courtroom is still the venue where the art and skill of manipulating the perceptions/realities of the judge, magistrate and/or jury matters most directly and most immediately. The lives of those “on trial” are in the hands of those best trained and most practiced in the multiple tasks of research, investigative detective work, taking on the experience of their client and then illustrating how that evidence demonstrates their desired outcome. The definitions of words, especially words for which there are a plethora of images in the minds of diverse people, takes on a special significance when used to compose a legal defence. Similarly, when one seeks a path on which to trod as a spiritual pilgrim, it is words and the multiple sources of those words in our individual lives, that help to shape our experience of various faith components such as “Jesus,” “God,” “salvation,” and of course, “heaven and hell”.

We have all, in the western world, walked paths filled with sounds, sights, messages and even imaginations’ expressions of all of the  significant signposts that form the linguistic foundations for our basic understanding of the meanings of individual lives (see existentialism, for example) and the relationships between individual lives and the wider body politic. And most of the language available for our discourse can be found in our forefathers’ early exposure to what Northrop Frye calls The Great Code, in his work that links English Literature back to the stories, the structures and the foundations in what we know as the Bible.

So much of our understanding of our own lives, and the lives of those around us is rooted in the pathways of heroes and outlaws originally painted in scripture, picked up by later writers and massaged over the centuries, as we attempt to put our own ‘mark’ on the original images as our contribution to history. And those individuals who were in touch with troubling truths, those truths that others would rather ignore, colour or cover-up, postpone, or even deny, were often among those most despised among their peers.

We are a species who work like beavers to mask the gaps in our sight, our memory, our capacity to face our own self-sabotage. And most of the early signs of developing masks are the words we select to ‘frame’ our situation. Recently, I learned of a young woman who, while co-habiting with an older male, became pregnant, knowing of her partner’s deep and profound conviction never to father children. Conflicting motives in the light of a new life, of course, have and will continue to raise “issues” in the lives of the couple, as well as the life of the unborn child, starting with the ‘issue’ of whether or not to abort the fetus.

Our culture feels quite comfortable tossing around words like “victim” or “jerk” when individuals feel trapped in circumstances over which they perceive they have lost control. And the vocabulary of the entrapped becomes the first wave of a potentially ensuing conflict, both in human and domestic terms, and also in geopolitical terms. Frye, in another of his many insightful writings, “The Educated Imagination” describes the two levels of language, that of ‘practical sense’ and that of literature. The former is the language of daily discourse, in which words and sentences attempt to cope with our individual and professional responsibilities. Courtrooms, news agencies, water-cooler conversations, pub-talks, workplace interactions are the stuff of the language of practical sense. Literature, including novels, poetry, movies, plays deploy language of a different level: the language of the imagination which generally seeks to unite what would normally appear to be opposites, through literary devices like metaphor
(in which two things are identified: he is a bull in a china shop), simile (in which two things are compared: she is like a birdsong in the early morning) or personification (in which an object is given qualities of a human: the tree shook angrily in the violent wind).

It is not so much that the words used in the practical sense world are different from those used in works of fiction or poetry; it is more the degree of imaginative vibrations that both the writer/speaker intend and the reader/listener receive. One of the more simple ways of clarifying these vibrations is to invoke the distinction between the connotative and the denotative use and meaning of words.

Denotative language conveys the language of practical sense, in which words are generally agreed to have their literal meaning. On the other hand, connotative meanings are mined through reflections on the multiple layers of meaning to a word or a phrase, and especially to a figure of speech (metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia (words making the sound of nature). And when our emotions are aroused, regardless of whether that arousal is positive or negative, happy or sad, comfortable or anguished, (or all of the many variants on both of these emotional poles) then we are less consciously controlling and manipulating our words, and our expressions.

Stripped of all (or as much as is feasible) emotional content, lawyers are expected to refrain from expressions overlaid with emotional content. Witnesses may, on occasion, repeat the emotional experience as part of their evidence, but the tone of the room is clinical, as far as the judge and the professionals can provide such “professionalism”.

Similarly, operating rooms, pathology laboratories, police reports and criminal investigations, the anecdotal reporting of statistical evidence...they are all vacuumed of evidence of emotional freight in the words and the sentences used  by their authors.

On the other hand, in the worlds of the classroom, (at all levels of learning) the counselling/coaching room, the reflections on spiritual matters, and the informal conversations of all of the professionals whose work fences “out” the emotions, the affect is not only useful but essential. Children, adolescents, and most adults are either unfamiliar or unprepared to distinguish their language of practical sense from the language of their affect. Some writers even posit that the only true reality is subjective, elevating the human response above the empirical and the objective. If teachers are unaware of the “feeling” component of their lessons, (presentations, lectures, simulations) both their own and the emotional impact on their students, they are failing both themselves and their students. Those emotions need not emerge as part of the overt experience; however, they will never be extracted from the human experience, regardless of the venue.

There is, too, another important implication of this tension between the subjective (emotional, affective) and the objective (empirical, factual, denotative). Women are generally much more comfortable with the flow between the two while men fight any disclosure, or even any admission of feelings, as expressions of weakness. And that canyon separating the genders has and will continue to fuel divisions, conflicts, divorces, and even broken lives.  Both genders while having what is known as a common language with which to meet and greet and get to know each other, also have significant cultural and even philosophical differences in their selection and deployment of words, images and their most intimate experiences.

In the public arena, of course, these distinctions between the subjective and the objective are rarely honoured, and the language cocktail to which we are subjected increasingly contains toxic words, name-calling, venom rising to libel, and manipulation of our emotions for the purpose of seducing our purchasing decisions, including our voting behaviours, and our religious affiliations. The history books are filled with memorable quotes that epitomize a person, event, or even a period of a world whose voracious appetite for sound bytes is limitless. Some of the more memorable include:

“Tear down that wall Mr. Gorbachev!” (President Reagan speaking in Berlin)

“Would you buy a used car from this man?” (beside a giant visage of Richard Nixon,  on billboards sponsored by the John F. Kennedy campaign)

“Just watch me!” (Pierre Trudeau, when asked how far he would go to stop the FLQ in Quebec)

“Corporate welfare bums!” (NDP leader David Lewis, in opposition to corporate hand-outs)

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (President John F. Kennedy)

However, a different picture is painted of the  body politic, through nuanced discourse that runs in “paragraphs” as Obama is persistently accused of using. And, then there are the wordsmiths like E.J. Pratt, whose line “he seemed to know the harbour, so leisurely he swam” from his poem about Sharks, or his “No! By the Rood, I will not join your ballet!” the last line in his poem “Truant”.And there is T.S. Eliot’s “in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo” as he describes the hollowness of their lives.

And of course, there are the memorable lines from earlier English and American verse:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” (Shakespeare)

“Two paths diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost)

“For oft in vacant or in pensive mood, I dance with the daffodils” (Woodsworth)

“All experience in an arch through which gleams the untold fields” (Tennyson)

“Happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain” (Thomas Hardy)

“I learned to love by hating” (Irving Layton)

“When he knew that only drowning men could see him, he said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them” (Leonard Cohen)

And the clarity and the integrity of such utterances have to be held in graphic relief beside the contemporary attempts at rendering “black as white” and “white as black” in the American political discourse: Voters must have the right to weigh in on the next Supreme Court appointment, so the decision must be left until after the November 2016 election (Denying and then avoiding having to reconcile such blithering with the facts that voters already elected President Obama, and his appointment is merely the result of his doing his job.) Or the more contemptible “Liar” and “crooked” and the demeaning of the characters of his opponents by the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican party....such reductionisms so insult not only the political culture, and the nation of the United States, but also call into question the relevance of the nation’s engagement in geopolitics should the trump-maniac win the election.

Language does indeed matter, not only in the courtroom, and the classroom, the sanctuary and the political stump! And one of the ironies of this political season is that the worst model of masculinity to ever run for the presidency could and likely will guarantee the election of the first female president, whose likeability ratings are nearly as low as his, but for very different reasons.

Clearly, the public’s capacity to discern when they are being duped remains in question: some seening through the fog of deceit and seduction, while others gobbling the deceptions and the raised “finger” of contempt as if it were transports filled with fast food.