There is peace in mornings

There is peace in mornings.

I hail from a small town in Northern Vermont where I grew up in a house surrounded by woods with no neighbors closer than a quarter mile away, so I value my moments of silence and solitude. However, I live in New York City, smack dab in the muddled area between Gramercy and Murray Hill in an area affectionately referred to as “Curry Hill”, an allusion to the myriad Indian restaurants squeezed into the three blocks on Lexington Avenue, so those moments are rarer than the comment, “Boy, I just wish there were more tourists stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.” I’m slightly chagrined to admit that I often get very irritated walking on the street. People walk slowly, often stopping without regard for the people around them. Couples, lost in love, walk two abreast widely, ignoring the fact that the area between the wall and the subway railing is such that Israel Kamakawiwo’ole would’ve been obliged to walk sideways. And don’t even get me started on oversized strollers. Even in times when I am not in a particular rush or on my way to a specific destination, I find myself angered by other people inconveniencing me. I avoid places and times in the city where I can expect to see the sidewalks clogged, and relish those incredibly rare moments when I can have that stretch of pavement to myself. Luckily for me, I have been an obscenely early riser (5:37 on weekdays, 6:00 or so on weekends, without an alarm clock) since I was an infant, and there are a few blessed hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings after the final “Last-callers” have found their ways home and before bagel or brunch crowds have begun to stir wherein that bliss can be found. Other than the occasional taxi (and I do mean occasional), the streets are more or less empty and silent, and I obviously feel none of the irascibility or impatience that I do in times of heavier traffic. However, no matter how many times I walk in those early mornings, renewing my qì, there will still be congested sidewalks by 11:00, and should I venture out at that time, I will feel a level of testiness that will not be lessened by that walk I took that morning. This is human nature, the embodiment (and in-body-ment) of your mind asking the world, “What have you done for me lately?”

My girlfriend, whom I love dearly, has a complaint to which I think many people can relate. She finds it cathartic to vent about her day, whereas I rarely feel the need or desire to open up at all about my day. This is not, as I think significant others think it is, an attempt to hide feelings or events from her, rather, it is an unconscious process of avoiding allowing the things into my cognizance that would introduce stress, anxiety, or sadness. It’s something that one hears from the New-Age-y types all of the time: “I just don’t let in the bad”, or “I only let in the good thoughts”.   It’s the emotional equivalent of only going out my house on early weekend mornings, and never going during the rush hours. The problem is, we have places to go, and times that we have to be there.

The irony, of course, is that the positivity-junkies will spout and embrace thinkings of Taoism developed by Laozi, and have the yin-yang tattooed on their ankle or as a bumper sticker on their Pries. In essence, however, Laozi’s teachings fundamentally oppose this idea of denying the bad while embracing the good. He would (and did) argue that bad and good are not only related, they are complimentary forces—two sides of the same coin. Just as one cannot explain the concept of light or green to a person who has been blind their whole life, or the concept of hot/cold to someone who had spent their entire life in a climate-controlled room with a steady temperature, one cannot truly feel joy or happiness if one rejects hurt and sadness.

One of the most basic tenets of Quakerism, as we know, is the idea of being honest and truthful in all of our dealings and conduct. The allegorical histories that are most often pointed to are the early Friends refusing to take oaths in courtrooms or other formal settings, as it implied that one was not truthful always. If one follows this ideal, and is always honest, then there needn’t be special affirmations of truthfulness for certain settings. The problem is that these examples fail to demonstrate the situations in which Quakers (and all people) are dishonest most—and that is with ourselves.

I have been to protests and demonstrations where Friends encourage the very noble ideals of “turn the other cheek” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” because they seem to us to be very high-minded and moral principles to which one should aspire. However, the implication (rightly or wrongly) seems to be that someone espousing another idea is low-minded or immoral (take, for example, the violent ideas of drone strikes in southwest Asia or the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan). The problem is that we are quick to dismiss other contrasting ideas (such as “minimized violence”—a wholly alien idea to most friends—to quell great bloodshed) as fundamentally flawed without considering the fact that they, like nearly all ideas, have at least some basis in reason or principle. We refrain from discussing, truly having a conversation (which comes from the Latin for to turn around), with these people, which further diminishes their standing and that of their opinions. It seems to imply that their failing to embrace a pacifist or Quakerly stance arises from a lack of understanding, moral fortitude, or awareness. We bemoan the fact that “they” won’t truly consider our stances on moral issues, while we fail to truly understand theirs—chalking it up to under-education or moral cowardice (cite the fact that pacifist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are held up as standards and seen as more morally fibrous than their contemporaries working toward the same end). As Quakers, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people to create a large enough group to confront the ills that we see in the world. When trying to find the mindset that should be taken, we often turn to the architects of our faith or to the Bible to apply those ideas to current situations. While this is admirable, it is not only deceitful to ourselves, but it is against the philosophy of the Light residing in all of us. It is not being honest with ourselves that we have the power to evaluate morality and ethics and to consider that not only is the Light residing in us, the people outside on the lawn with the signs and banners, but it also resides in the man or woman inside pushing the button to launch a drone strike, and in the president ordering it. We have to be honest with ourselves in that the ideas of Fox, Penn, and others are basic frames and starting points for us to make our own evaluations, but that they are men, like us, replete with flaws, biases, and blindnesses. Too often, we quasi-deify them, raising them above the level of ourselves as something to aspire to, which is diametrically opposed to the fundamental idea of Quakerism. Their ideas were their own understandings of their time within their social norms and the knowledge of their era, and have only limited application here and now. To fail to understand that minimizes the greatness of the Spirit inside of you and is a way of offering ourselves solace after our frustrations or failures in pursuit of our ideals. The world seems to be constantly working against what we work for, as evidenced by the evening news and newspaper headlines, and it’s easier to view shortcomings as a result of the world en masse, rather than a lack of trust in ourselves.

The German word for that very familiar feeling to Quakers of discouragement of how the world is compared to our ideal is weltschmerz, or “world-pain”. However, if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would call it something more like Unzulänglichkeitschmerz, or “inadequacy-pain”. We are, as individuals, inadequate to shape or change the world as a whole, and that is a frustrating thought—it’s much easier to blame the way of the world than the infinitesimally small part that we each play in it.  This is likely why so many people believe the old wives tale that humans only use 10% of their brain, a “fact” that has be summarily and repeatedly proven incorrect.  It’s a comforting thought that we have untapped physical potential, not that we are currently using everything at our disposal.

Recently, George Fox University applied for a religious exemption so that it could choose to refuse housing to a transgender student. The outcry was immediate, forceful, and expected. Like Tea Partiers claiming the words and ideas of the Founding Fathers (from the 18th century) in reference to today’s society, Quakers claimed that George Fox would be outraged. Besides the fact that that is obviously an unverifiable claim, it is fallacious in nature for a reason best explained by novelist Michael Crichton in Sphere:

“For example, you take a famous scientist from our past—Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, even Isaac Newton. Show him an ordinary Sony color-television set and he’d run screaming, claiming it was witchcraft. He wouldn’t understand it at all.

“‘But the point,’ Ted said, ‘is that you couldn’t explain it to him, either. At least not easily. Isaac Newton wouldn’t be able to understand TV without first studying our physics for a couple of years. He’d have to learn all the underlying concepts: electromagnetism, waves, particle physics. These would all be new ideas to him, a new conception of nature. In the meantime, the TV would be magic as far as he was concerned. But to us it’s ordinary. It’s TV.’

“…Norman noticed the energy with which they threw themselves into this discussion, pushing aside the tragedy so recently witnessed. They’re intellectuals, he thought, and their characteristic defense is intellectualization. Talk. Ideas. Abstractions. Concepts. It was a way of getting distance from the feelings of sadness and fear and being trapped.”

George Fox’s ideas can be applied, with modification and understanding, to current issues, but the man himself cannot.  He is a product of his era.

The natural response to Unzulänglichkeitschmerz is to go intellectual—discuss ideas and concepts rather than true differences and solutions. We are quick to find impasses because they allow us to talk and pontificate, rather than confront and work to understand others. We retreat to our meetings and protests, content to say that we are doing what we can, and that it is a long, hard, process. It is a long, hard, process, made all the more so by an unwillingness to really work to listen to and understand others. To recognize the Light that is in them. Consider how strongly you hold your morals—how far you are willing to go for them, then realize that the people protesting outside of abortion clinics, or the Hobby Lobby family, pro-Fracking advocates, or even Klansmen and anti-LGBTQ protesters hold their morals (misguided as you may view them) as strongly and as long as you have. Realize that they, like we, are humans with the same Light, abilities, and worth as we have, George Fox has, and the person blocking my way with the gargantuan stroller has. The congressmen and congresswomen in Washington have such opposite views, yet both sides truly hold that they are doing what is best for the country and their constituents. Do not mistake a difference in opinion or approach for a difference in objective or purpose. Rather than retreat to our comfortable surroundings, amid like-minded people to discuss intellectualities on which we hold largely the same opinions, it is so much more worthwhile to try to truly understand those who we feel are against us.

Consider the human brain—the most complex and sophisticated structure in nature, and the greatest creation in our known universe. It is smaller than the brains of many other animals; it does not have more cells, or more energy supply than they do. What makes our brains the most powerful on Earth is the connections—the synapses—that connect each nerve cell to as many as 10,000 others. The connections, especially across completely different parts of our brains, make them so powerful, and society works the same way. Without those connections between structures that perform different functions and have different ambitions, without yangs for our yins, we would simply be food-shelter-reproduction beings without our humanity. Without our Quakerism. Without our qì.

Yes, there is lovely peace in the mornings, but only because there is overpowering din in midday.


κατέχέτέσ

MMXIV

On The Importance of Questions

I was thinking about Wikipedia the other day, when the founder was interviewed in an episode of Stephen Fry In America, a BBC production wherein the actor travels to all fifty states searching for the true American identity. It is irrefutable that the internet has altered the destiny of humanity—both for the better and for the worse—by sharing information worldwide and making real-time conversation and coordination across continents not only possible, but simple. Information on any topic, at any time, is now at our fingertips; and Wikipedia embodies that idea more than any other. It is the single greatest accumulation of knowledge compiled in the history of mankind, our own modern day Library at Alexandria.

            I remember being in Middle School in the early 2000’s, when Wikipedia was still in its relative infancy, and our teachers were constantly warning against using its entries for information. They pointed out that it was unmoderated, and that any user could post any information that they wanted to. The scheme of Wikipedia—one in which users, on a volunteer basis, would check new entries, require proper citation of verified sources, and remove unvetted information—seemed so pie-in-the-sky idealistic that it bordered on ludicrous. I remember even NPR didn’t believe that the system would work, and so posted fallacious but plausible facts on a handful of entries under different usernames to see which would stick. As I recall, none remained on there for more than 10 minutes. As a teacher now, I still will not allow my students to cite information from Wikipedia for their essays, but it does provide good background reading for them when beginning their research into a topic. Furthermore, the references cited at the bottom of the article give them a good starting point for their cited sources.

            People often call this time that we live in the “Information Age”, the “Digital Age”, or the “Internet Era”, but I think it is in fact a “Virtual Era”. Information has always been a stalwart feature of humanity, and the Internet of now is not what it was when the term was coined in the 1990’s. Today’s generation grows up feeling that a friend across the country or across the globe is virtually equivalent to one next door. “Hand Lifts”, a new plastic surgery that is gaining popularity in cosmopolitan metropolises, minimize flaws in the hand for newly engaged women to post flattering pictures of their rings on social networking sites. People spend more and more of their time in virtual worlds than in real ones, and so that is where they are putting their self-improvement efforts. “Likes”, “Views”, and “Favorites” have become the new social currency, displacing the actuals of person-to-person interactions (wherein you could View and do your Favorite things with people you actually Like). Our zeitgeist, even in face-to-face conversation, has become a mélange of hashtags (formerly known as the pound sign), LOL’s, OMG’s, and “verbing” of words that should be nouns (ex. “Google it”, “Instagram It”, and “Facebook him/her”). Even when people do things now, they are more concerned with how the pictures from it will look and how they’ll be tagged than how much fun they have (i.e. it has become a case wherein people care more how the pictures of their vacation will be received by others than by themselves).

            All of this is rather inane grousing by me—people have been bemoaning the death of the traditional conversation for years, and regardless of one’s personal beliefs about it, it’s just the way it is. Indeed, the observation of the irony that Social Networking has indeed formed an antisocial society is so trite that it borders on cliché. However, I was struck by something the other day when I was in my corner bar watching the Brasil-Chile match in the World Cup, and that is the death of the Trivia Conversation. As a nerd, this has always been my favorite conversation—one wherein a question is posed, either implicitly or directly, and the group sits, thinks, and derives an answer. Whether or not the group arrives at the correct answer is usually inconsequential to me; rather, it is the exercise in deduction and rhetoric that I enjoy. Now, though, a question is posed, and one person (or, more often several people race) pulls out his or her phone to look up the answer. Questions that begin “I wonder…” used to be followed by “hmmm”s, but now are answered with tap-tap-tap “It was…”. One such conversation was happening during that World Cup match, when the pair of forty-somethings next to us was debating what the furthest the US team has ever gotten in the tournament. They debated from memory for a while, talking about teams that they remembered from throughout their lives. While I typically try not to be an eavesdropper, as it is rude to both the eavesdroppees and the people I am with, I found myself listening to them using memory to approach the question. When one of them got up to go to the bathroom, a fellow patron of my age leaned over and told the remaining one the answer, unsolicited. The person nodded and politely said thank you, and when his companion came back, he was still gung-ho about debating the topic, but it was no longer moot (I would share the answer with you, but that would be counter-objective; suffice to say it is likely longer ago than you are thinking).

            This year marked the first year that we really saw the new Common Core implemented in our public Schools. This program has the purpose of making students think more critically, and use questioning and reasoning tactics to answer questions rather than factual recall or straight information analysis/comprehension. The Core definitely has flaws, and rightfully worries teachers because they are changing their methods and approaches while being held to the same evaluations, but the purpose is lofty and the goals more correct. We want to make a nation of learners—skeptical and curious thinkers—and we should. The Common Core is one step toward making that a focus, and assuming we tweak it as needed, it should do just that.

            As a Quaker, I was lucky to be raised in a family (immediate, extended, and in Meeting) that valued the conversation as a deductive device. We often had debates over origins of phrases and practices such as the origination of the word “hoosegow” for prison (it’s not as old as I thought) and the word “Scuttlebutt” (which was, as I thought, of mariner origin). We listened each week to NPR shows like “Car Talk”, “Wait…Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, “Says You!” and Will Shortz’s Sunday Puzzle on “Weekend Edition”, wherein the process of reaching answers was always as important (or more so) as the answers themselves. While correct answers are important and have their place, the practice of thinking about, applying prior and related knowledge to, and hypothesizing solutions and explanations is the crux of being human, and of being Quakers.

            Unfortunately, even Quakers have fallen prey to this trend of offering decisive answers to questions that deserve thought and contemplation. We apply archaic thinking and writings to modern problems without question and then criticize (rightly) Strict Constructionist conservative Justices for doing the same. We offer a Meeting for Worship, wherein one is expected to commune with God and fellows and search for the light, then we tell people where that light is (and, more troublingly, where it isn’t). My mother likes to tell a story about a time in her life when she was having a great deal of trouble, and she went to my grandfather, and told him, “I’ve been praying and praying, asking God, but I still just don’t know what to do.” He responded, “Well, has thee been listening?” (Yes, I know grammatically it should be “thou”, but this is how the story has been relayed to me). Too often, I think even Friends represent that old Fran Lebowitz quote: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” When the Peace Testimony was written, or when George Fox or William Penn were opining on violence or warfare, they couldn’t comprehend of a more-or-less Kingdom-less world, or of a Hitler, Assad, or Milosevic, Boko Haram or al Qaeda, a Rwanda or Armenia. The Testimony says that violence will not be undertaken “for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the Kingdoms of this World”, but what about violence against mass genocide? Such evil on such a large, efficient scale was incomprehensible to the authors, and so their writings and ideas must be adapted and applied. I find myself torn often with the teachings I was raised with about nonviolence and turning the other cheek and the teachings from History class about genocides and military intervention. I cannot fathom a person saying intervention against Hitler was wrong, but I have been told by Friends when I discuss this internal schism that if I were truly a Quaker, it would not be a question—that I have failed to understand the light. This is an incredibly deflating thing to hear, not because I really care about another’s opinion, but because it makes me think that that person has misunderstood the purpose of Quakerism (which I understand as the individual role in a collective search for the light), and it is in those moments of judgment of others that I do feel like a “bad Quaker”. I’m not saying that there is or is not room in Quakerism for the idea of justified violence, but I do know there should be room for contemplation, true contemplation, on that topic and the others we are so quick to dismiss as already answered. So whether you’re in Meeting or in a pub, at school or at dinner, when questions are posed, try to eschew the dogma or the urge to immediately search a reference (either literally or metaphorically) and take some time to reasonably and logically approach the question as if it were a brand new one. It is only in this way that we can hope to divine our purpose and continue a search for the light.


 

κατέχέτέσ

MMXIV