“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life."
~ Steve Jobs
The last blog I wrote on uncertainty failed to mention the greatest uncertainty of all -- Death. Death makes life possible. And one day we will take our final breath. But that is not such a bad thing. Without death, we would be overrun with every living thing that inhabits the planet. Given our burgeoning human population we might already be at the point of too much life.
When we consider death, which we rarely do, it has us realize that life is finite. We are not going to live forever. And yet this realization, as Albert Camus noted, makes the living of life that much sweeter. So -- let's get on with the living. Dying is the easy part. It happens in a moment. Life is happening in every moment.
Now ... and now ... and now ... and there again. Life is happening!!
In every action we take and in every breath we take we are getting on with living life or getting on with dying.
With the pandemic, the importance of life and living life to the fullest has come into sharp focus. Being confined is a pretty good lens through which it is easy to see what is important. Trust me, I know. I was confined for 26 weekends. It has one savor not just freedom but the living of life. Confinement is a slow death.
In a weird way the pandemic has something to teach us about how to live. Nothing is going back to "normal" and it shouldn't. Normal was, in many ways dysfunctional. The pause is time to take a breather. A full breath. Not a breath like we'd been taking; drowning in our own mucus. Namely, all the stuff we've been tolerating in our lives that just doesn't work anymore.
We could be on the cusp of a new reality if we are ready to give birth to it. That would require not going back to dysfunctional as usual. It could mean embracing a new paradigm. A shift in thinking that profoundly reorders priorities.
As we consider our own confinement during the pandemic here are a few queries:
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
~ Hellen Keller
The upending of our lives by the pandemic has pointed starkly to the fact that life is uncertain and that underlying everything is that we don't know what is going to happen next.
Of course this was true before the pandemic and it will be true after the pandemic, but at least we had the illusion of continuity. There was not the blatent insecurity we are confronted with now.
As human beings it is true that we lack control over our circumstances. Anything can happen at any time from natural disaster to a personal health crisis. We don't have control. And all the trappings of civilization are a crude attempt at control. I can't wave a wand and make the coronavirus go away, but the unique super power we all possess is that we have language. And language gives us some choice in the matter of who we constitute ourselves to BE.
To loosely quote Werner Ehrhardt "there is what happens and then there is the interpretation that gets added." The power lies within the noticing of the language we are using -- what are we adding or put another way "what gets added automatically as a function of the linguistic soup we are immersed in."
Which allows me to segue quite nicely into Quaker Silence. Oddly, speaking and not speaking are powerfully tied. In silence we have the unique opportunity to notice.
It is possible to go from being the observer to the observed.
STOP ... WAIT ... LISTEN ... RINSE ... REPEAT ...
Can you separate the observation of what is happening from the meaning you add to it? Just that little observational practice gets us a little distance from all the judgments and assessments about what is and gives us a place to stand where we can actually generate a little creativity, flexibility and power. (and by power I don't mean force -- I'm talking about the power that comes from being able to think beyond language boxes)
Queries on Uncertainty
I choose creativity, invention, and flexibility in these times -- and you?
I'm a Quaker and I also consider myself a Christian. I realize Quakerism is a big tent and that might not land for some, but there is a story inside the crucifixion that I think is universal.
It is the story of forgiveness.
Before Jesus gave up his spirit he uttered these words:
"When they came to the place called Golgotha, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right and the other on His left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up His garments by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers sneered at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”…
~ Luke 23:34
Can you imagine the scene? Could you place yourself there and still through all the suffering have the capacity for forgiveness?
There are many mysteries inside of the death and resurrection story, but this one ... this act of forgiveness is powerful.
What does forgiveness give us access to that we would be otherwise cut off from? I can think of a few. Maybe readers can imagine others.
I can think of many stories of people "done wrong" who held on to anger for years and it hollowed them out. Dr. Bernie Siegal, a cancer doctor, the author of Love, Medicine, & Miracles shared many stories of patients who activated their healing powers through the power of forgiveness.
This Easter I invite all of us to consider the following queries:
I am writing this on Saturday. The tomb is still closed. Love is coming. Let us roll away the stone on Sunday and find forgiveness in our hearts.
With each spring the peepers make their song
Slowly as the evenings warm their voices rise
Signaling spring and the vibrancy of life around us.
We lost a song this spring -- Gene's song.
His note will climb with the others but rise upward to the heavens
We notice it missing, but shall always remember the sound.
A note that clings to us as we remain separated.
A song that reminds of community and solidarity.
A signal clear and piercing amid the noise.
I shall always hear your song amid the evening song of the peepers
You can continue to sing to me -- I will listen.
At the end of WWII the US fought a cold war. After 9/11 we fought a terrorist war. As a nation we have been fighting other human beings since the inception of our country.
With the advent of COVID-19 we have a new kind of "enemy." One that is both invisible and everywhere at once. To even call it an enemy is kind of stupid. Viruses, bacteria, and all manner of micro-organisms are part of the normal course of life on earth. We need to understand them and deal with them. Spending 1.7 trillion on nuclear weapons will get us no closer to that goal. And likewise bullets, mortar rounds, and hand grenades are just as useless.
What it does point to is the way we have been using our national resources. Something like 55% of national budget has gone to military expenditures and only 18% to health care. Of that 18% much of it goes to pay private insurers which is massively wasteful as it has insurance profit built into the cost of care. Other western industrialized nations cover their citizens for about a third of what the US spends and no one is left out.
The pandemic has revealed a massive flaw in how we approach health care. The up side is that now we are aware of the flaw -- and we have an opportunity to correct it.
Our new legislative priority, the world we seek, in the post viral pandemic era can really be summed up with one word: PREVENTION.
We have the capacity to prevent war with a robust and well staffed state department -- we need to build that department and have its focus be on peace promotion and cooperation.
We have the capacity to prevent illness with a National Health Service that is properly staffed, funded and supplied to meet the challenges of a 350 million person multinational jet set world.
The days when a virus jumps species and lands in a human population and stays in some remote village is over. The reality is that humans are all disease vectors and the world we built guarantees the spread of disease.
It is time to take our heads out of the sand and deal with reality. The time for ideologies and personalities is over.
A National Health Service is no longer an entitlement program or a give-a-way to the needy but an essential service that cuts across all lines of race, class and ethnicity. WHY? Because it does not matter if you drive a Tesla and live in the Hollywood Hills at some point a barista is going to serve you coffee who earns 8 bucks and hour and lives in working class neighborhood.
If they get sick -- you get sick too.
If they get sick -- your stock portfolio crashes.
We are all in this together ... and the sooner we realize this and put structures in place to ensure we are all taken care of the better off we will be.
On Tues, Mar 10th I felt the first inkling that something was not quite right with my neck. I shrugged it off. "It'll sort itself out, it always does -- if not I'll visit a friend who is a chiropractor."
For the vast majority of my life, my body has been invincible. I've fallen out of trees, off roofs, had horseback riding accidents and so many other situations -- and like that kids toy that you punch and it pops right up -- that was me. Shake it off ... stand up ... get on with it.
But this time was different.
The following morning came the muscle spasms, the rash, the burning pain, stiffness, headaches and a lethargy that made made me feel like a zombie for the last 10 days. Yup, I got shingles. Or more accurately, I got a wake up call that I can't burn the candle at both ends and expect my body to have the kind of resiliency to stay healthy. I don't have to use 16 hours of every 24 engaged in some kind of work.
Here is the reality: there will never be and end to my "lists" and there will be no day when magically I can declare "I did it all, its done."
The sad reality is that over the years I've turned into something of a work-a-holic. I keep a kind of religious observance of the work ethic. My shrine is my man cave. The relics are the tools. In the US, this way of being is not only raised up as some paragon of good citizenship (the hard working American lionized by the WPA), but approved of and lauded as "industrious." We are a nation of work-a-holics.
I never learned how to rest.
[sarcastically] I must congratulate myself on the timing of this illness. It powerfully aligned with COVID-19, the shutting down of Powell House and my other work obligations. It was like pressing pause on a video -- and just like that everything came to a grinding halt. One day I was laying concrete and the next I was lying in bed. Inert and motionless like a block of cement (if you lie still your skin doesn't burn as much).
Shingles does have a way of focusing the mind. When all you have is pain, the only thing you can focus on is pain. Pain becomes a COP swearing at you and ordering you around --- "HALT, DON'T DO THAT, OR THAT, AND DON'T DO THAT EITHER!" . If you don't listen to the pain messages the shingles pain cop will place you under arrest.
Since illness is an "acceptable form of idleness" I decided to use the time to reflect. Here's what has bubbled up:
And there is one last important piece of this message -- since I am the author of my story, I get to say how true it is, how good a fit it is for me, how well it is serving me --- and I get the choice to revise it any time I darn well please!
Given this POV -- context is decisive.
As we begin to consider the FCNL Legislative Priorities I offer this quote from the prophet Isaiah:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
— Isaiah 2:3–4
On Saturday Outreach, Peace and Justice Committee of Old Chatham Quakers screened the film "The Nuns, The Priests, and the Bombs." It is prescient that we chose to show this film now because the US military just approved low yield nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead.
The move to low yield nuclear weapons is actually a move away from the nuclear posture that the US has held since the cold war. Namely, the insane principle of "mutually assured destruction." With low yield nukes (nuclear weapons with about 1/3 the yield of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) the rationale is that they are usable. That their destructive power can be contained and their use is limitable.
THEY ARE NOT LIMITABLE and THEY CAN NOT BE CONTAINED.
They can't be contained because you can't contain nuclear fallout. They are not limitable because you can't prevent escalation (even if these genies of destruction are used against non-nuclear powers like Iran there is no guarantee that allies of these countries will not use their nuclear weapons to either avenge their friends or immediately retaliate if their interests in the region feel threatened.)
The inescapable truth is that the power and security these weapons promise --- is -- illusory. Not real. We learned very quickly that our atomic security was fake when the Soviet Union entered the atomic age in 1949. These doomsday machines have and will continue to make us more and more insecure for three simple reasons:
As we hold these concerns, we ought also to be thinking about is how as people and as nations we can share a reality of peace and security and what prerequisites need to be put in place for that to happen.
Some queries on nuclear weapons:
Schism -- a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.
Binding -- the action of fastening or holding together.
Before I sat in meeting this Sunday I took the time to prepare my mind with a query: "What, Great Sprit, would you have me look at today?"
For a long time the burning question of how to deal with schisms, splits and differences of opinion has been on my mind; especially inside of the very intimate relationships we hold dear. Siblings. Married couples. Old friends. Dealing with this question is at the very root of peace in our lives but also central to how we generate peace in the world.
We see schisms and splits all around us these days. They seem very deep, but hopefully these chasms will never again be as wide as they once were when the country came to civil war. And no institution seems to be immune from schisms. Not politics. Not families. Not friends. Not even Quakers.
One one occasion a very volatile Quaker, Elias Hicks even went so far as to call for the murder of an Orthodox Quaker who refused to acknowledge that the Bible might not be the only source of truth. A split over what has become the idea of continuing revelation.
Two people I know are dealing with big splits in their family life. People are hurt and no one is talking. Being vulnerable seems very dangerous. The wounds are still open and raw. No one wants salt rubbed in them.
So how do we come together?
One way is to simply suspend knowing. I am reminded of that quote by Mark Twain: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
How many times have we been absolutely certain of something only later to discover we had it all wrong. We jumped to judgment. We misunderstood the facts. We made assumptions that turned out to be wrong.
One thing I've always appreciated about Quaker process is waiting. It wasn't always that way. I can recall in my first clearness committee there were long and uncomfortable silences where someone said something or listened to something I'd said and really just allowed it to sink in -- choosing instead to hold it instead of reacting to it. That's a good thing, I think.
Which brings up the idea of binding. In the old days, when a person was injured they'd "bind up the wound" so that it would "knit itself back together." In listening without talking. In hearing without judging we might find ways of binding what has been rent apart.
As I listen to the impeachment trial now going on in the US Senate, I can hear many un-listened to complaints that have now become a pus filled boil. We must start the work of healing and step back from the precipice we are upon. The words of Lincoln's second inaugural address come to mind: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
There is work to be done. Let us get to it.
Queries on Schisms and Binding:
I was sitting in Meeting this past Sunday and was holding my own children in the light as well as my friends kids and two thoughts simultaneously popped into my head:
I sat, centered down and asked for guidance. Here is what came.
I'd read this story about quantum physics. This thing about quantum physics that a photon can somehow be two places at once. Something about parallel universes being created. That seemed kind of unbelievable to me, but the more I think about it the more it seems possible. There are many things that happen at the same time and make no sense. I love my cat, but she drives me nuts. It's gonna take a shrink to figure that one out, but I digress.
When I look at my 20 year old daughter I can't help but see her 2 year old self. In fact, there were many times when I was really upset with her that that 2 year old self of hers kept her love alive in my heart. Even when I see her now, I know that two year old is still in there. Every once and a while it sneaks out and plays with Papa.
And this is what is at the heart of these two passages. We don't change. I mean, yes, we grow up and have to do grown up stuff like doing the dishes, paying the bills, stacking wood, opening the mail, shoveling snow and 100 other really boring things, but inside there is the 2 year old.
I saw it when I saw my daughter. Her kid self has the ability to pop out. I'm 30 years older than she is and it is harder for me to connect with my kid self -- but I know its still in there.
The verse from 1 Corinthians doesn't say we should abandon entirely childish things. in fact, I'd argue that the world would be a much better place if we stayed in touch with some of the qualities that make us more human. How would the quality of your life and the world change if we were more connected to:
Phoenix and I are visiting Wandsworth Meeting in London. As we spent time with Michael Mears, the creator of This Evil Thing, the one man play about conscientious objection during WWI he brought to Old Chatham, we discussed the many ways of being FOR peace.
This particular quote from our conversations -- "Not everybody will sit in the road holding a Quaker Meeting while Arms Dealers meet in a convention center." -- speaks to me. There are lots of ways to be for peace and no one knows exactly which way will inspire another to "take off their sword."
The raising of human consciousness starts with sharing. Sharing our deeply held leadings. Sharing our experience. Allowing ourselves to be moved by the light of God in others and the frailty and vulnerability of ourselves. In sharing our weakness it becomes a strength.
I was invited to share my peace witness with the Wandsworth Meeting in a meeting for learning afterwards and as is often the case with me I never know quite what to share. I wonder if it is the "right thing to share" or if the part of my Quaker journey is the the "most moving" or "most compelling." I've always tried to not prepare, but rather be led by spirit in these matters. And after my talk David Amos, a member, stood, held his hands together and spoke so humbly. He said "you moved me" and began to cry.
It was a moment of clarity for me. I'd always known that the peace action I'd taken was the right thing for me do do, but I'd often wondered about what effect my peace witness might have on others. Would it shed light on peace? Would it inspire?
The work of peace is must never be considered done. It is an ever expanding piece of art and exploration. A verb that weaves and moves with the times. What speaks to one generation may not speak to another. To keep vigilance with peace work is to remain engaged with it. A static peace witness is a dead peace witness. A cold and soulless event that has moved from a verb to a noun.
He/she had a "peace witness." It was active. It was alive. And then it became a thing.
Queries on peace and the many ways of being Quakerly
The images below are from a note from Hank, an American from Illinois, who lives now as an expat in the UK and is a member of the Wandsworth Meeting.
He shared his own war tax resistance story with me and even at the age of 80 was still working through his experience; what his witness was like for him. I sent him one of my stories from when I was jailed.
His note illustrates perfectly how sharing our own light can be so helpful to others who might need to hear the experience of others.
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