Objects vs. Collaborators

Many things have been written in the aftermath of the racist chants by Oklahoma University fraternity members.  One of the most thoughtful pieces I have read was written by Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, who teaches at Southern Methodist University.  Critical of the way OU handled the situation, she suggests that the University missed an opportunity to use this incident as a teaching tool.  In her piece, she outlines four “teachable moments” that were missed.

While there are many points in her piece that I think worth thinking about in connection with this incident, what struck me most was a comment she made in discussing one of those teachable moments, a comment that makes an important point that has meaning beyond this particular context.

Describing racism as a “congenital heart condition”, she suggests that children learn lessons of bigotry in many ways, far more apparently benign than explicit racial slurs.  Among other things, she writes that “[y]oung white adults suffer myocardial infarctions of bigotry when their churches either ignore race by erasing it or frame people of color as ‘objects of mission’ rather than collaborators in the Great Commission.”

“Objects of mission” rather than “collaborators in the Great Commission.”  That is the description that really jumped out at me.  It is not just about how we frame people of color, but how we frame any marginalized individual or group we are trying to “help.”

Do we see them merely as object of mission?  Or do we see them as collaborators in the Great Commission  to proclaim God to the world?  Are they objects or subjects?

Asking that question invites us to think about how we are “helping” others.  For example, are we empowering them by treating them with respect and dignity and encouraging their growth?   Are we giving them a say in how they are helped or acting as though we know best?

You can think of other questions I am sure, but I the fundamental distinction between object of mission and collaborators is centrally important.

Does Secular Mindfulness Practice Foster Compassion?

This afternoon at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, I attended a double session titled Heartfulness as Mindfulness: Affectivity and Perspective in Abrahamic and Dharmic Traditions. The presenters spoke from several different faith traditions.

One of the things so refreshing about this panel was precisely that the speakers spoke from within their faith traditions. A large part of the Contemplative Studies movement is secular in its orientation. Practices are borrowed, largely from the Buddhist tradition, but removed from their Buddhist context. They are presented as individual practices for individual goals: to reduce stress, improve health and so forth.

Part of the thrust of the panel was to suggest that contemplative practices from the Buddhist and other traditions are not disconnected from values; they are communal – in the sense of being in the service of loving encounter. The speakers suggested that much is lost in divorcing the practices from their moorings.

I tend to agree. This panel, combined with the comments yesterday of the Dalai Lama, helped me understand my hesitance about the contemplative studies movement. Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather people engage in (secular) mindfulness practice than no practice at all. But I’m uncomfortable about limiting something with such great potential to an atomistic individual-centered activity. And I wonder at how effective practices removed from their context can be in fostering compassion (as opposed to improved memory, productivity, reduced stress, etc.).

[PS: for those who receive my postings by e-mail, sorry if you got an earlier incomplete version of this. I intended to hit “save” and I hit “publish” instead.]

The Dalai Lama on Compassion

This morning’s Keynote at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies featured the Dalai Lama. After some opening remarks, he responded to questions by two panelists about the ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and scientists.

In discussing the value of science, one of the points the Dalai Lama made repeatedly is one he has made before: the need to ground compassion in something other than religion. Starting from the premise that all people desire happiness, he argues that, both because many people are “nonbelievers” and because religious faith sometimes leads to suffering, the way to grow compassion is to help people understand that a more compassionate mind leads to greater well-being, whereas anger and fear are bad for health and happiness. Therein lies the value of science in his view: to demonstrate without resort to religion why compassion is beneficial.

The problem with that approach from the point of view of a Christian is that it treats as the ultimate goal happiness in this life. Although I appreciate the desire to find a language all can speak, for me it is far too small a goal to seek happiness in this life, a life that is only a speck when measured against eternity.

The Dalai Lama addressed those who believe in God by asking a challenging question: If one seriously believes everyone is created by one God (or Allah – or whatever name one gives God), then how can one ever give harm to others? If one truly believes one God created us all, then we are all brothers and sisters, and how can one bring harm to one’s brother or sister?

Rarely does the Dalai Lama say something that I find bordering on insulting, but he did so today. Referencing his conversations with the late Wayne Teasdale, a Christian monk, he said that when Teasdale asked him to explain emptiness, the Dalai Lama declined, expressing concern that hearing about emptiness might adversely affect Teasdale’s faith in God. Immediately thereafter, he talked about another Christian who tried to convince him that God exists. Since Buddhism has no concept of a creator God, he listened with respect, but found the explanation “useless.” The idea that a Buddhist could hear about God without his Buddhist beliefs being shaken but that a Christian’s faith would be brought into doubt by hearing about emptiness was strange to say the least.

Notwithstanding that one comment, as usual I found much in the Dalai Lama’s talk I will ponder.

There is Always A Story

Someone sent me the link to a blog post that contains a simple message, but one we need to be reminded of.

We often judge another based only on what we observe at first glance – how another behaves or what they say in the present situation. Someone is abrupt with us. Someone behaves insensitively. Someone is irritable. Our tendency is to judge (How rude! What a miserable person! etc), to not even wonder what might have caused that behavior. As the blog writer observes

Time and time again I am discovering that if we wait long enough – underneath appearances – there is a story. There is almost always a story. So many times I have judged another’s behavior, reacting from my assumptions, sometimes even feeling a need to point out the error of their ways and then saying things I have later regretted. Yet when I think about the times when I have behaved badly, often when I am exhausted or worried or just being neurotic about something – how grateful I am when someone has the kindness and insight to just step back, be patient, and give me some slack. Meeting negativity with kindness, even if we don’t know the underlying story but just assuming there probably is one…helps everyone. It certainly has the power to melt through my mindless moments every time, and if works for me it probably works for others.

The author relates a couple of specific instances in her post, which is well worth reading in its entirety. But the point is a simple one: Let’s give each other some slack, withholding judgment based on the limited evidence we have. Meet whatever we are presented with love and compassion, assuming that even if we don’t know is, there is a story there.

And our love and compassion might be just what the other person needs.

Anger Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, which I referenced in yesterday’s post, there is a short piece by Sylvia Boorstein which reports something the Dalai Lama said.

Asked once “Do you ever get angry? the Dalai Lama laughed, saying, “Of course! Things happen. They aren’t what you wanted. Anger arises. But it doesn’t have to be a problem.”

A simple but very important point. We can’t stop anger from rising, any more than we can stop other feelings from rising. We have no choice about that.

What we do have a choice about is what to do when anger arises. It is our choice whether to grasp onto that anger and act out of it, or to let it go, responding with wisdom and compassion.

Mindfulness helps tremendously in this. If I am aware of the anger at the moment it arises, I can recognize it for what it is and remind myself that I need not follow it.

Boorstein, commenting on what the Dalai Lama said observes, “the momentary constriction that blurs the mind when anger arises is quickly eased by the wisdom that anger is a normal neuronal reaction to displeasure, and not a mandate for any response other than clarity and kindness.”

We have no choice about what feelings arise. We do have a choice how we respond.

Punishment or Compassion

In today’s first Mass reading, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is determined to destroy the city because of the gravity of the sin of the people there. When God tells Abraham His plan, Abraham challenges him not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.

Scripture scholars and others have written a lot about this passage. Some call it the first instance of intercessory prayer. Some suggest the point is to demonstrate that God always acts justly. Some point out that the purpose of the dialogue was not to change God’s mind but to help Abraham grow in his understanding of God.

Perhaps one point of the passage is to compare our judgment with God’s.

Why doesn’t God go ahead with his plan to punish Sodom and Gomorrah?

God doesn’t actually desire punishment. God’s desire is for reconciliation. God’s desire is to bring all people to God’s self. God is a God of love, not vengeance and destruction.

We don’t always act with the same desire. We have a much greater desire to punish those who have transgressed than does God. (Listen to the words of preachers and others who feel the need to frequently remind people of the wrath of God that will be inflicted upon them.)

Our invitation is to show God’s compassion and love to all who we meet – whatever they have done and whoever they are. To spend less time worrying about who should be punished and why, and more time loving them.

Road Kill

Yesterday morning I drove the 300 mile distance between Chanhassen, MN, where we live, and Appleton, Wisconsin, where Elena goes to school. During the four and a half hour drive, I saw approximately 34 dead animals on the road or side of the road. Several raccoons and some smaller animals, but mostly deer. Thirty-four seemed like a high number for a four and a half hour drive, until I read a statistic from the Humane Society of the United States, that over a million animals are killed every day on our roads and highways.

Road kill. Amimals hit by drivers who were not paying sufficient attention to the road to avoid hitting the animals. Perhaps lost in thought. Perhaps talking on the cell phone. Perhaps caught up in the music on the radio. But not aware enough to avoid hitting something and killing or maiming it. (Doubtless, I overstate: Many times drivers try very hard to avoid hitting a deer on the road and are simply unable to do so.)

As I drove along, the thought that emerged as I passed two young deer lying next to each other on the median, was: we all have road kill. People we affirmatively injure in one way or another or fail to help by our inattentiveness.

Perhaps we are too preoccupied with our own thoughts to notice someone in need. Perhaps so concerned with our own plan and way of doing something that we neglect the contributions of others. Perhaps so impatient with ourselves about something that we respond in a hurtful way to another. You get my drift – and can doubtless spin out plenty more “perhaps”s of your own.

Who are our road kill? And do we leave them on the side of the road for someone else to pick up, or do we do something about it?

Treating Everyone Like I Was in Love With Them

Here is a thought experiment to start your day: What would happen if you treated everyone like you were in love with them?

Derek Tasker has a poem titled I Wonder. I had not heard the poem before someone read it this weekend near the end of the Spiritual Directors International conference.

Here is how Tasker puts the question:

I wonder what would happen if
I treated everyone like I was in love
with them, whether I like them or not
and whether they respond or not and no matter
what they say or do to me and even if I see
things in them which are ugly twisted petty
cruel vain deceitful indifferent, just accept
all that and turn my attention to some small
weak tender hidden part and keep my eyes on
that until it shines like a beam of light
like a bonfire I can warm my hands by and trust
it to burn away all the waste which is not
never was my business to meddle with.

Challenging, to be sure. But also incredibly exciting to wonder what it would be like if that was how we approached each other. To imagine how that might change them….change us…change the world.

Self-Compassion

I’m attending the Spiritual Directors International annual meeting, which has as its theme Cultivating Compassion. I was privileged to offer a workshop last night at the conference, on Growing in Love and Wisdom.

The plenary speaker for the conference is Joyce Rupp, well known for her work as a writer, a spiritual “midwife,” and retreat and conference speaker. I have read many of her books and often material from them in programs I’ve given, so it is wonderful to have the opportunity to hear her in person.

Her focus in yesterday morning’s plenary address (the first of three she will deliver – the second will be this morning) was self-compassion.

Drawing from Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind, Rupp talked about the factors that contribute to our resistance to self-compassion. In her talk she discussed eight. I’ll just mention two (since I need to leave soon to get to this morning’s talk.)

At the top of the list is the fact that we are taught to pur others before ourselves. Christianity’s message is that we give up our lives for another that we give without counting the cost. And there is value in that teaching. But we ignore that we cannot live up to the Christian ideal without taking care of ourselves and we tend not to focus on the fact that even Jesus took tended to himself physically and emotionally – taking time apart fo pray, spending time relaxing in the home of friends, resting, etc.

A second important factor is our fear of price. We fear self-compassion means self-absorption or self-centeredness. But self-compassion is not about self-orientation or self-indulgence. It is about understanding that we are worthy of compassion, that our call is to love others as we love ourselves. (Rupp repeated a friend’s quip, “I’d run a million miles away from a lot of people who love others as they love themselves.)

Other factors she talked about include the mistaken belief that we are already self-compassionate, our feeling that self-compassion is too weak or namby-pamby, a feeling we do not deserve compassion, a dislike of the self, a desire to avoid buried feelings, and the feeling the self-compassion means being too easy on ourself and will keep us from growing.

The truth is the we cannot effectively be compassionate to others if we can not be compassionate toward ourselves. And that can be very challenging. Many people want to help others and find it easier to give than to receive. But we have to learn to receive as well.

Contradiction, Liberation and Compassion

One of the books I’m currently reading is the third volume of Pope Benedict’s series Jesus of Nazareth, this one titled The Infancy Narratives.

Talking about St. Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, in which Simeon prophesies to Mary that “a sword will pierce through your own soul,” the Pope talks about the contradiction of Jesus: that “the theology of glory is inseparably linked with the theology of the cross.”

Jesus is the sign of contradiction. The King of Glory will be crucified. But, Jesus is not the only one who experiences this contradiction. “The contradiction against Jesus is also directed against the mother and it cuts her to the heart. For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces through her soul.” In that, claims the Pope, Mary is for us a model of true compassion: “From Mary we can learn what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the suffering of others as one’s own.”

Pope Benedict contrasts this with the Church Fathers’ characterization of paganism as an insensitivity toward the suffering of others. In contrast to paganism, “the Christian faith holds up the God who suffers with men, ad thereby draws us into his ‘com-passion.” The Mater Dolorosa, the mother whose heart is pierced by a sword, is an iconic image of this fundamental attitude of Christian faith.”

The liberation of Chritianity is not, Pope Benedict reminds us a romantic good feeling. Rather, it is a “liberation from the imprisonment in self-absorption.”