Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A common revolution?

Lately I’ve been reading things recommended by friends who are Tea Party enthusiasts and other friends who are more on the Green Party end. Sometimes I am dismayed or exasperated by the vehemence with which each side excoriates the other. Sometimes I’m able to let go of that and notice the similarities between them. Both say that our political and economic system is deeply flawed, that ordinary people aren’t well served by it and feel powerless to change it. Both sides call people to revolution, to a radical change initiated at the grassroots level. There are some real and important disagreements between sides, and I don’t mean to minimize these. Taxation, financial and environmental regulation, immigration, war and other issues of public policy, are hugely important. But they are only part of the picture. Real reform or revolution will also require us to live differently each day; to be a different kind of people. I think that most of us, liberal and conservative, don’t yet live as though we were citizens of the society we envision; the free and just society, the beloved community, the Kingdom of God. I think many of us might be able to agree on some important qualities of such citizens, and to work together to help each other gain these qualities. If we did this wholeheartedly and patiently, we might become more grounded, more powerful, more humble, and less willing to caricature or dismiss one another.

Here are a few practices with which I think we might begin. I’d like to hear how they sound to you, and what you would add, subtract or change.

Gain competence. Do more for ourselves and our neighbors.
I and some of my liberal friends deplore the excessive power of corporations. Tighter government regulations might help. But so long as we depend on a complex, far-flung and incomprehensible global market to provide all our basic needs, we will be powerless. Learning to grow food, build and repair housing, fix machinery, make music, tell stories, listen to and counsel one another is the root of real independence.
Some of my conservative friends deplore the impersonal and disempowering nature of government assistance to people in need. I share some of these concerns. I think institutional help is better then no help, and some needs may need to be met on the public level; but people and faith communities could do a lot more to take care of each other. What if we took responsibility for knowing the people in our neighborhoods and churches well enough so that we could provide each other with practical assistance? What if we took time to find out where there are communities with fewer resources that might need our help?

Consume less. Waste less.
This practice is essential to the practice above. If we are going to take responsibility for supplying our own needs, we’ll need to know the difference between needs and wants. If we are going to have enough to share, we’ll need to stop hoarding more than we need. If we expect this finite planet to produce enough resources to provide for everyone, we’ll have to stop taking more than our share.

Break free of addictions.
We can’t do any of this work well if we believe that we’re dependent on drugs, or electronic entertainment, or the good opinion and praise of the people around us, or...

Slow down.
When we do things in haste, out of fear and the desperate urge to Do Something, what I do usually doesn’t help and may actually make things worse. I just proved this to myself again yesterday morning, when I woke up to find that the predicted light frost had instead been a hard freeze; I rushed outside to sprinkle my plants with water before the sun hit their leaves, though it was still below freezing. Some of the plants I didn’t sprinkle look unhappy; most of the plants I sprinkled are dead. It’s easy to see how this works on the physical level. I think when we rush in to help people before taking time to really understand their needs, gifts and stories we may do just as much damage, though it’s harder to quantify.

Listen to the Others.
Whoever the Others may be for us, and however frustrating we find them, they’re part of the Kingdom too, and we have to learn to live with them. I’m easily tempted to dismiss or disparage groups of people (rich folks, meaning those significantly richer than me; wearers of makeup; supporters of harsh anti-immigration policies...), but usually when I get to know people who arte part of these groups I find that they have something to teach me. And there’s not much chance of my teaching them anything while I’m inwardly belittling them.

Listen to God. Obey what we hear.

This is the root. If I actually did this faithfully and well I probably wouldn’t need a long list of other principles. When I do this I am taken out of my fears, obsessions, greeds, self-contradictions, and set in the way that I should go. When I do this I know myself to be one with all the people whom I admire and love and resent and despair of, and also one with the One who bears, sustains and transforms our pettiness and grief. When we do this we are already in the Kingdom.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

what sacrifice?

Turnoff Week(see my last post) went well for me and also for the farm. We had local families, with little kids and grandparents and everyone else in between, in for nature walks four evenings a week, and the weather was good for finding wildflowers and salamanders and hearing frogs. A youth group from out of state also spent several days and nights with us. We got some good work done together and had some interesting conversations. The adults and youth spoke of how they’d ‘sacrificed’ their break to come live and work with us; they also praised us for ‘sacrificing’ our lives by living simply and being available to our neighbors. Both statements made me somewhat uncomfortable. After they left I began looking into that discomfort, and realized that it was closely tied to my own struggle against self-righteousness and self-indulgence and for wholeness.

I started to reach clarity as I was bicycling back from town with a carrier full of groceries. By any serious bicyclist’s standards it’s a very short trip--six or seven miles each way--but I am an intermittent cyclist, and occasionally felt stretched on the way home. I caught myself mentally grumbling about having to do most of the uphills once my carrier was full and I was tired, humming the theme from “Chariots of Fire” on particularly steep bits, congratulating myself on being disciplined, resenting being disciplined, and thinking about what I wanted to do to indulge myself when I got back. I realized that this was quite ridiculous. I also felt empathy for our recent guests. Working with our hands, eating at meals instead of living on snacks, taking time for silence and for meaningful conversations instead of being plugged into electronics--all of these things seem basic, normal and non-strenuous to me, just as the ride back from town seems to my brother who cycles much longer distances. But beginning to practice any basic, sensible alternative to consumptive convenience feels uncomfortable. And it’s easy to compensate for that discomfort by exaggerating it and claiming it as a sacrifice or a proof of my own goodness.

The truth is, though, that bicycling to town was my choice, made for many reasons. Bicycling gives me a chance to notice the flowers in people’s yards and the birds in the trees, to stop and talk to neighbors, to step back from my usual routine and clear my mind, to strengthen my muscles. It does also slightly reduce my carbon emissions; but since I have to live with the results of climate change, I can hardly claim this as a disinterested or altruistic motive. The same thing goes for keeping Turnoff Week. I can think of it as a duty, a case of good citizenship or good example-setting; but basically I observed it for the sake of my own health and balance and for the health and balance of the community, and the two are closely connected.

If I remembered this I wouldn’t fall into self-indulgence or self-righteousness, which arise from a false separation between a sense of duty and a sense of pleasure, both too narrowly defined. I want to move beyond these and work for wholeness in myself, solidarity with my neighbors, unity with God, for my sake and everyone else’s.

This isn’t a sacrifice. This isn’t always easy either; then, nothing is. In John Holt’s writings I encountered a Spanish proverb that sticks with me as I keep trying to live as if the Truth was true. “Take what you want, says God; take it, and pay for it.”