Sunday, December 11, 2011

the power and perils of visions

Lately I’ve noticed that some books which used to move and inspire me now feel foreign to me. This includes Isaac Penington’s warm and lyrical writings about life in the Spirit of God and Daniel Berrigan’s apocalyptic and lyrical writings about peace and justice and the lack thereof. I find that I have a similarly mixed reaction to some of the songs, speeches and articles sent to me by a friend who is passionately involved in the Occupy movement. I don’t mostly disagree with them. I believe, like Penington, in the reality and central importance of the inward encounter with God; I believe, like Berrigan, that our continual warmaking is a sin against the creation and the creator; I believe, like my Occupying friend, that we need to stop widening the gap between rich and poor, need a new economics, politics and culture that will focus on cooperation and sustainability rather than endless debt-fueled competitive growth. And on some level I am glad that people are talking vigorously and articulately about these things. On another level I feel remote or even wary.

It isn’t that I’m hopeless or unable to engage. Henri Nowen and Wendell Berry, still speak to my condition fully and clearly, and there is no sense of foreignness there. It’s taken me a little while to figure out what makes the difference. Lately I seem uncomfortable with sweeping words that focus on the Vision Splendid, whether the vision is of ecstatic union with God or of the sane and peaceable society, or on the Miserific Vision, whether of the soul bereft of God or the dystopian society. I still respond to writing that starts from the small scale, the particular experience of trying to care for certain persons and a certain place, and that returns to the questions of how to do this work well, though it may go on in between to speak of societal or universal truth.

I think I have some good reasons for this preference. I also think there is a danger in it.

For one thing, sometimes the Vision Splendid seems to encourage its followers to split the world into people who follow the Vision and are good, and people who don’t and aren’t. I find this annoying and worrisome but not too much of an obstacle since it isn’t generally one of my temptations.

For another, I have been disappointed (as probably most people have) by some people who had the Word and the Vision, who conveyed a vivid sense of the presence and power of God, or a passionate and hopeful cry for justice. I was moved and attracted by their messages, disappointed when I got close enough to them to see that the message didn’t seem to have penetrated very far into their daily lives. I’m in no position to judge them. I have sometimes been proud of my inspired emotions or my inspiring words, about God or about other people, even as I went on making choices that distanced me from God and made life harder for other people. I’ve been ashamed of this and tried to avoid repeating it.

I’ve tried, then, to focus more fully on being, not sensitive, moved, moving, inspired, but useful, capable, attentive, helpful. Mostly this has been good and grounding for me. But it is also capable of distortion. I can avoid or disengage from helpful renderings of the vision because of my earlier disappointments, I can get caught up in the minutiae of my daily work and forget why I am doing it. I can get busy enough, outwardly or inwardly, so that much of my daily worship time is spent lurching between to-do lists and daydreams and duty-prayers. I can feel satisfied with the progress I’ve made in a small area and then feel overwhelmed when I am reminded of the larger dangers in which I, as an American or a human, am caught up. That doesn’t help.

As usual, it isn’t either-or. I need to work well--for the work’s sake, for its importance and the pleasure I take in doing it, not to prove myself. I need to listen to my neighbors--for their sake, not to show how sympathetic I am. I need to stop my distractions and be open to God, not proud or ashamed of myself, just present. And all these things, rightly done, complete and enrich each other.

I need, also, to give thanks for and pay heed to the right and inspired words that I hear and read, whether or not they appear to me to be grounded in lives that match them. I need to speak the truth when it is given to me, and also to live by it as well as I can and acknowledge the times when I fail. I think this attempt and this acknowledgement is important both for my sake and for others’; I know too many people who are deeply hurt by or dismissive of the religion that has given me challenge and comfort and guidance and an opening into God, and I know in some cases, surmise in others, that this is because the people who spoke the words that I found life-giving lived in ways that made all their words seem suspect*. I think the same thing happens, not just with religion, but with particular causes and values that matter to me.

I need, when it’s possible, to spend time with people who speak practically, not stagily, of the joy of God and the hope for justice and the hard slogging that moves us toward these things and the grace that sometimes picks us up and moves us closer when we can’t slog any more. I miss my Quaker Meeting for this, but I do find other openings into this kind of fellowship, and I mean to hold onto them. And I am reminded that this fellowship isn’t limited by time and space. I am reading Thomas Kelly again with some discomfort (having to do with my distracted ways, not with doubts of him) and much hope.

I’d like to hear from you about what books or practices or fellowships or experiences help you to find balance, or to live your words, or to hold onto what’s good in others’ words and lives without getting too distracted by the rest.

*--I didn’t want to take up any more room in that paragraph, but I wanted to make it clear that I am not wishing that everyone would join my religion; only that they wouldn’t see it as worthless or destructive.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dark things and bright things

I wrote this post a few days ago when I felt anxious and discouraged. Writing it helped to clear my mind. Looking back at my blog later, I saw that I’ve written about a similar question in the late fall of each year. I am posting this anyway, because it seems to me that each year I see the issues a little more deeply or clearly.

At this time of year when the darkness grows and I am tired with the season’s work and I am more often inside where I can hear the news, I struggle with periods of inner heaviness and darkness. I am trying not to wallow in this, and not to hide from it. If I look at it clearly I may be able to understand and learn from it. I may also be able to use it as a starting point for empathy and prayer for others who struggle with the same weight, sometimes in acuter forms.

Always I am aware of what a wise Friend from my Meeting calls dark things and bright things. At home there is the richness of the harvest, the beauty of the woods and streams, the good work and caring and delight of the people among whom I live and work. There is also blight and mildew, mercury-laden fish, hurting adults and lost children whom we can’t always figure out how to help. In the wider world the stories of love, courage and renewal are balanced against the stories of violence, greed, ecological degradation. And in myself...well, there’s plenty of the light and the dark there too. The reality I have to deal with doesn’t change all that much. What does change is the pattern it makes in my mind, the way I put it all together.

There are days when it’s easy for me to see the pattern as a curse, to see the hours and days of hard work that I or others spoil with a few minutes of carelessness, the energy and devotion that we pour into deeply flawed causes, the uggsome motives that mix themselves into what we mean as good and generous acts. Occasionally this pattern comes to me as an overt thought about how the world works. Usually it sneaks in through feelings of anxiety and discouragement, a voice just too quiet to hear whispering at the edge of my brain that I might as well not try because I’ll mess it up again, and that I have to try because otherwise it will be my fault when everything goes wrong.

I’m learning to stop myself early in this despondent state, turn the volume up and listen to what’s being said. It’s helpful to realize that the two messages are countervailing, so whatever I do won’t satisfy that voice, so I might as well not waste energy trying to appease it. I’ve also found it helpful to name that voice. So far I’ve found two names that seem true to me, and that give me some power over it.

One name is the common one for the trouble I have: anxiety, which comes from angustia, narrowness. What I see when I’m anxious is generally not false in itself—the world’s problems and my faults are real. But they’re a narrow slice of what is real. Taken by themselves, they don’t rightly depict the truth.

The other name comes from Calvin Miller’s book The Singer. He interprets parts of the Christ story differently than I do, but I find his naming of the devil very helpful. He calls him the World Hater. This name reminds me that the hopeless voice isn’t personal to me, isn’t there because of something or other that I did wrong, wouldn’t go away if I somehow made myself Good; it is simply there, always, hating. This name also reminds me of the story that I do believe, which says that evil is real and sometimes appears to triumph, but that it is not the deepest reality, and it does not prevail in the end.

I believe this story, but it is difficult for me to explain what I mean by it. I’m not able to own some of the explanations that I hear given.

I know people who say that evil is illusory and that we should refrain from paying attention to it and thereby feeding it; that we should believe that God, or the universe, is good and wills well to us, and that we are good and deserving of all good things; and that if we believe wholeheartedly in this goodness we will receive all that we desire. At least that’s what I think they’re saying. For some of them this story seems to bring hope, purpose, joy. I’m glad for that. Parts of it are very close to what I believe. But I can’t base my life on this story.

I believe that evil is real, and that sometimes we need to pay attention to it and work against it. Sometimes it’s a matter of intentions. I know that I harbor the wish to hurt people and the wish to lie as well as the desires for love and truth. If I avoid looking at the harmful wishes they’re more likely to sabotage my loving and my working. Sometimes it’s a matter of consequences. If I ignore economic injustice, violence, environmental degradation, I am apt to live in a way that contributes to all of these things, more in laziness than in malice.

Tied to this is my belief that I should not, in fact, get everything I want. Occasionally what I think I want is destructive. Often it’s unnecessary and comes at the expense of real needs, my own or others’. I don’t think rigid self-denial is a helpful response. I think that self-restraint, and gratitude for what I already have, is helpful...Perhaps I can and should have what I want at the deepest level. When I look steadily into my surface cravings, not getting carried away with them and not denying their existence, I can see a deep and legitimate desire underlying them, which I understand as the desire for union, for love and work, for God. Fritz Kunkel put it better than I can: “..the deepest and most central need of the human being...[is] to face reality, to be as human as possible, and that means going through time, through change, through death, keeping nothing, not even our life, giving everything, even our own will, being poor in spirit, being one with the universe, with our darkest enemy, and with God. That is what we wish for most whether we know it or not.” That I believe. If I stay focused on that I think everything else I need will be added to it, if not everything else I crave.

I also know people who say that evil is real now, but in the future it will be overcome. Some of them see this happening progressively, through evolution or social enlightenment. Some see it happening by way of reversal, with evil growing in power but being overthrown by God in the end. Some of them seem to find hope, purpose and courage in these stories. I am glad for them, but I can’t base my life on either of these stories. One of them may be true. Or not. I don’t know. I do know that the light shines in the darkness, and I feel sure—not curious or hopeful, as I am about the final-victory-of-goodness story, but sure—that it will keep shining. I think that’s enough.

In the meantime I am helped by people who have clearly named the darkness and the light. In the dark times I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lines of struggle:

“O, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there...”

and also of struggle past:

“That night, that year

Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

And of promise:

“And though the last lights off the black West went,

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Or I read Dag Hammarskjold, or Elizabeth Goudge, or Wendell Berry, or the Bible. They lift me out of my narrowness to see the darkness and the light, and to see all the other people also pinned in the loneliness and fear that I so easily think of as mine alone. I hope and I work to be another companion to people in the dark place, another witness to the wholeness and the goodness of the truth.

And then the times of grace return. When that happens I don’t need words to hold onto. I don’t struggle to define my condition or the state of the world. I simply rest in the grace that holds me, and I delight in the light in the yellow hickory leaves, the sound of the brook running high again, the varied and satisfying work I have found, the gift of the presence of my other and brother and of the people who come through our lives. I don’t have to think of reasons to keep working or caring; both come naturally. I am thankful for this. During the dark times I remind myself that grace comes back, and during the graced times I don’t need to fear the return of the dark times; they will come, but I am slowly, steadily building a strength and clarity that keeps me on track until grace comes again.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

when I say I am a Christian, I mean...

I’ve been mulling over Friend Peter Bishop’s blog post on returning from Kenya, describing the difference between his experience of Christianity there and here, and his struggle with the latter. In the comments to that post he wrote: “I am grateful for the privilege of worshiping with Christian Quakers...But every so often I just want to say to them all, "Would you please go and talk to each other and reach an agreement on what you mean by 'Christian'? Come back and tell me when you've decided, and then I'll tell you whether I think I can be one."

I laughed, but I stopped to think about it too. I don’t feel it’s my place to define what Christianity is in any global way; I am weary with the disputes this occasions. On the other hand, I think I do need to know, and to be able to articulate, what I mean when I say that I am a Christian.

When I say I am Christian I mean that I have encountered God, God who made us, God beyond us in light undimmed by our darkness, God who suffers and dies in and with us and who offers healing and redemption, God who challenges and inspires; and that I have come to know that God is at the root of all of us, that we are inseparable from one another and from God; and that I am trying to live in accordance with this truth, with God’s help. This attempt is the work of a lifetime. Most basically, it requires faithfulness (keeping an inner quiet in which I can hear God, and living obedient to what I hear), solidarity (remembering that we are members one of another, living in a way that helps and does not hinder my brothers and sisters, not trying self-righteously to separate myself from them, praying for them), and integrity (being honest, consistent and whole, so that I am able to enter into relationship with God and with others). In this sense, when I say that I am Christian I am naming the root and center of my life.

There are at least two difficulties with this statement. One is that I so often fail (sometimes willfully) to actually live in accordance with what I have known. Perhaps it would be truer to say that I mean to be a Christian.

The other difficulty is that when I say “I am a Christian” some people hear this, not as a statement of relationship with God, but as a way of differentiating myself from other God-followers. What I’ve said above is, for me, the heart of Christianity, but I think it’s not (or not mostly) exclusively Christian; I can imagine that someone else might sum up a somewhat similar encounter with God, and a somewhat similar set of commitments, by saying “I am a Jew (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist....)”. I don’t believe that God is found only in one human tradition. But as a human, finite and particular, I need to be rooted and grounded in a particular tradition.

I was born into the Christian tradition—into a family and a series of worship communities grounded in the Bible and the stories that follow from it. My mother always made time for worship with me and with my brother; she had the Bible in her bones, and she passed that on to us. So it was Christian stories, songs, prayers that first encouraged me to listen for God, and that gave me words and images to describe and embody my encounters with God. When I encountered the God who suffers with us, the name I had for that face of God was Christ, and the stories of the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus were clearly related to what I had experienced. When I became conscious of the longing for God that longing gave life to, and was given shape by, the words “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Likewise the basic commitments arising from the encounter with God answered to words I already knew---“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”; “Pray without ceasing”; “Be not afraid”; “We are members one of another”; “Render unto no man evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” ; “Thou shalt not profit from thy neighbor’s blood”; “As you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me”; “Do not listen to the Word only, and so deceive yourselves; do what it says”; and so on.

I have also read holy writings from other traditions, and shared prayer and discussion and work with members of different faith communities, and I have found wisdom and help and good company there. But there I feel free to take whatever parts are clear and helpful to me and let the rest go. When I encounter Bible passages that trouble me I feel more need to remember them and wrestle with them. Sometimes I discover that I’m uncomfortable because I’m being asked to do something that I agree I should do, but I don’t really want to. Sometimes a passage doesn’t make sense to me because I haven’t grown into it yet. (Certain of Paul’s writings about grace, and the impossibility of being saved by our own righteousness, used to strike me as a cop-out, an excuse for not doing justice and practicing mercy; after repeated experience of the ways in which I fall short as I strive for justice and mercy, those passages strike me as helpful and true.) Sometimes I figure that a particular passage isn’t relevant to me now(like the regulations concerning mildew) or that I don’t need to understand it (like the predictions about the end of the world.) Sometimes what I read just seems wrong to me, and I have to sit with that.

This increased sense of accountability to and for Christianity is more evident and difficult when it comes to the historical and current Christian community. I am aware of great evil, and also a lot of petty malfeasance, that has been wrought in the name of Christianity. This doesn’t make me reconsider being Christian. So far as I can see, every name of God and every good cause (love, justice, freedom, even mercy...) has been used to justify harm-doing. But I do feel responsible for the harm-doing in my own tradition, just as I do for the harm-doing of my own country.

I also feel a close and warm sense of pride in the good that is done in the name of my religion, and a sort of family feeling toward the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who have spoken truth, lived in solidarity, kept open to God, in Christ’s name. That is blessedly unproblematic. I am still trying to figure out how to deal with the other side.

At least I know how not to deal with it. In some circles I am strongly tempted to say what amounts to, “I am not one of those Christians; I am one of a much wiser, kinder and more responsible set of Christians.” That is both unhelpful and false. Unhelpful, for obvious reasons. False, because we are members one of another—at root all living creatures are, of course; but it may be true in a more particular sense of all members of a particular tradition. False, also, because I have done and said many things by which I would not like Christianity to be judged. My anxiety, my armor of apology, my self-preoccupation, are real, but they are not caused by my attempts to be Christian. They also don’t fully define me. And the people I am tempted to define as “those Christians” also have reserves of the courage, lovingkindness, integrity, justice of which I know myself to be capable, although, like me, they do not always use them. Indeed, some of them act bravely and lovingly in areas where I still flinch away.

I think, however, that it is appropriate, and sometimes necessary, to say to my co-religionists, if there is sufficient relationship so that I think I can be heard constructively, “Please don’t say this/do this in the name of our God. Please stop, pray, think again. I think this is doing harm.” And when people seem to have a very negative take on Christianity, to say ‘Yes, we have done harm, but there is more to us than what you have seen.”

And, of course, I need myself to strive to live in a way that does not make others less open to the good things that are in my tradition; and to confess when my actions betray or fall short of what I claim to believe.

Sorry that this is long and rambling. I am still trying to understand better. Writing helps. If any of you have gotten all the way to the end of this and feel inclined to say what you mean when you claim membership in a particular faith tradition, or what you hear when someone says “I am Christian”, or anything else that comes to mind, I think that would help too.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

members one of another

I’ve been listening with dismay to the radio and internet coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death and of the response in this country. It’s brought me up sharply against the harder side of a conviction that I normally find comforting.

“Conviction’ may not be a strong enough word. As strongly as I can know anything, I know that we are members one of another; that we are not separate or separable from one another; that we are one in God. That knowledge comforts me when I feel lonely or ineffectual, or when I grieve for people I have lost. It pushes me to reexamine ways of living that appear on the surface to make life easier for me while making it harder for other people (overconsuming; relying on other people to do work I don’t want to do or think about; telling face-saving lies...) This can be uncomfortable, but I know what to do about it. But there’s another and harder implication of our membership in one another. I have known it before, but I tend to avoid thinking about it.

A friend of mine sent on a passage from a writer who criticized certain Christians for responding to bin Laden’s death with regret and with comments about our all being sinners. That writer agreed that we all do harm, but argued that to say only that in cases where someone has done great evil is to equalize all wrongdoing and so minimize the importance of evil. No, I thought, that’s not so; evil matters, but weighing the evil I do against that done by someone else is basically meaningless, because we are not separate. Just as our courage, love, integrity are not ours alone, are from God, flow between us in ways seen and unseen, so also our cowardice, our hate, our falsehood come from one root and pass between us openly and hiddenly. And it seems to me that to deny this connection is to consent to a lie, to make an opening for hate, to strengthen evil.

For some reason it’s relatively easy for me to acknowledge this about people whom my people have declared public enemies. It’s harder for me to acknowledge this about my people when they seem to be arrogant or hateful.

And if this is true, if the light and the darkness pass between us, not only on the surface where we can trace them but somewhere in our depths, then I am responsible to the whole for my apparently small and private choices between truth and falsehood, fearfulness and courage, hate and love. I think perhaps if I truly remembered this I would come much closer to prayer without ceasing.

I know that I need to remember and to pray. I resist this. I need to work on it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Learning to be brave

I have always wished to be brave, and known ruefully that I am not. I can do things that look brave to some people: I am not particularly afraid of strangers, public speaking, heartfelt disagreements, or life without a salary or retirement plan. But in the handful of situations when I’ve actually thought I was in physical danger--interpersonal, canine or automotive--I’ve panicked; said and done things that confused and prolonged the conflict; tried to run away from the dog; shut my eyes after slamming the brakes. So there is a large and sometimes painful gap between the real and fictional heroes about whom I read, and with whom I identify, and my real life. I know it’s not just a matter of things looking better in books. I’ve seen my mother face down a snarling dog (while gripping my arm behind her so I couldn’t bolt and get chewed on), and talk down a person who was threatening. I have seen a few other real live people stand still and strong and clear in frightening situations. I’m tempted to tell myself that they were just born that way and I wasn’t, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I have groused and grieved about this for a good long time. It’s just in the last couple of months that I’ve started to grope my way toward a solution.

I set out to work on my other recurring problem, which is carelessness: lost objects, tasks partially completed and then forgotten. I have told myself dutifully that I need to be more responsible. I have agreed with myself but haven’t felt particularly eager to be responsible, to be a real grown-up. When I sat down with my journal to figure things out, I realized that I don’t want to deal with the mess in the back of the closet or look back at tasks I may not have finished, because I don’t like to admit having made the mess or forgotten the task in the first place. In fact, I feel almost afraid of admitting these things.

Aha, I told myself. This is your chance to practice being brave.

It helped. I wanted to be brave much more actively and passionately than I wanted to be responsible. As I cleared out the messes and dealt with the back-work I could feel myself regaining the energy that I had spent avoiding thinking about them. I still have work to do (!), but now I am much more apt to catch myself as I first flinch away from noticing a problem. I hope that next time a really frightening situation comes along I will have more mental energy and better habits and I will be able to stand firm.

I think of this process now when I hear fellow Quakers (I’m sure others do it too, but it’s mostly Quakers I hear) talking about the heroic struggles Friends undertook in the past and wondering why we aren’t doing something more together today. I’ve been part of groups earnestly listening for a call to greater things. I look around my neighborhood, I listen to news from around the world, and great things seem called for. But I wonder if there aren’t small and obvious things that we--personally, maybe even collectively--are willfully overlooking, and if dealing with those things might not give us the strength and integrity for the next steps.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

marketing meanness, and possible alternatives

I’m trying to figure out whether I can be of any meaningful help to students at our local high school who are being bullied. The problem is still new to me. I didn’t go to high school; my friends were of all different ages, and the same-age ones I did have were part of a fairly small group of people who were mostly aware and unashamed of being different in a variety of ways.

I have been aware of particular instances of bullying among the students we’ve tried to help. I hadn’t really understood how systemic and how damaging bullying gets until two months ago, when I overheard a hall monitor trying to get a student to go back to her classroom. The student, on the verge of tears, said she couldn’t; a fellow student had started a rumor about her, it had spread, people gave her looks and said filthy things about her, she couldn’t take it any longer, if she hit anyone else or left the building on he own she’d be in serious trouble, and she couldn’t call her mother to pick her up early, because her mother was already in trouble at work for having left early to pick her daughter up on other days.

After that I kept hearing stories. A student said it is just miserable being a girl in high school; you can be mocked for not having sex, but if you do have sex you’re branded a slut and discussed explicitly and endlessly. A grandmother told how her granddaughter gets off the bus every day and sprints for the bathroom because she doesn’t dare to use the bathroom at the school. An administrator said that kids arrive at school fighting mad because of obscene or insulting messages about them that their classmates have spread electronically.

I don’t think our district is unusually rough. Earlier this year a student group from a very affluent high school visited. Some of them spoke of being upset by the verbal and physical humiliations they often saw other students being put through. Others said no, there was no bullying problem at their school; the only kids who were picked on were those who deserved it. Deserved it how? I asked. Well, they were obnoxious, they were weird, they didn’t even try to fit in. But those same students said that in any case they’d never intervene on behalf of a person who was being picked on, because if they did they’d ‘get the target put on them’.

I started researching online, at the library, by picking the brains of my friends. I met with some school administrators and started talking about how I and others from the community might be able to support their anti-bullying measures. And I started to notice that the bullying problem was symptomatic of other issues pretty deeply embedded in our culture.

I read that bullies were likely to be substantially more popular--often among adults as well as fellow students--than other kids. This seemed very bizarre to me at first. Then I read Susan Linn’s rather chilling book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, which describes how advertising messages are designed to convince young people that they aren’t smart, sexy, popular, happy, worthy, but that they could be if they bought the right stuff. Apparently a lot of kids are convinced; in the things I’ve read a lot of people talk about bullying others or being bullied because they don’t have the right stuff. And I just finished reading Generation MySpace by Candice Kelsey, which talks (among other things) about how the lines between friendship and marketing get blurred as advertisers pay popular people to promote their products to friends, and as kids learn to market themselves electronically in order to get a large enough friend list to show that they’re not hopelessly uncool. A large part of this ‘marketing’ seems to involve looking sexy, having cool-looking friends and not being associated with anyone unattractive or unusual.

The really sad part is that both advertising and the electronic culture sell themselves as solutions to the wish for power, for community, and for self-worth, all of which they actually undermine. One advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids explains that “Kids respond well to products that allow them to make their own choices and give them a sense of control. That is because kids have very little control over their own lives...Candy can help satisfy the child’s unmet desire for control in a number of ways.” The same kid of arguments are made for cigarettes, video games, and other not terribly empowering things. Young teenagers in Generation MySpace explain that “Getting comments from friends and strangers makes me feel like I really matter..I feel so validated, like someone thinks I’m good enough to be friended...”

So what, besides the constant distraction of marketing, gives people the idea that they don’t matter? that they don’t have meaningful choices? that they’re not valid? that no one would want to befriend them? This doesn’t seem to be a problem only for a few kids with difficult families or biochemical imbalances. In fact, another advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids noted that “What used to be trusted, reliable and consistent sources of support and direction (education, government, religion...) are now objects of a great deal of cynicism and rejection. So what’s left to hold onto? In each human being there is a basic capital of trust,respect, and love which needs to be invested in something or somebody... Could brands take over the role that religions and philosophical movements used to own?”

I suppose they might, if we let them, if we don’t provide a meaningful alternative. Back when I was in my early teens I joined a church meeting about youth religious education. I was the only teenager there. Various adults talked about how the religious ed. program had to be made snappier so that it could compete with video games. I said that I really wasn’t looking for a video game-type experience, that I wanted a chance to work in-depth with some tough issues--including coming-of-age questions and social justice--and maybe to get out and do some kind of community service work. They said how nice it was for me to come and participate, and they went back to talking abut how to make sessions more amusing. Now that I’ve more or less grown up I still find myself in meetings where other adults say that kids just are constantly wired and distracted, there’s nothing to be done about it, and we have to figure out how to package community service, character education, basic education, etc. excitingly enough so that they can compete for a little piece of mind space.

I don’t think it has to be this way. The Generation MySpace author writes about taking students for weeklong camping trips without their electronics; she says they seem to relate to each other more constructively while they’re away, and that as they drive back into civilization and get into the billboard zone they groan and say they don’t want to have to deal with all that stuff. We’ve heard similar responses from some people who’ve spent time here working and walking and singing and praying and being unplugged. There is still a basic hunger for the created world, for silence, for shared work, for real (not virtual) community, for meaning. And as people work and pray together they still can start to let their prejudices down and know each other as people. This isn't an experience that can be packaged and sold. I don't always know how to invite people in as effectively as I would like to. But it seems to me essential that we keep offering an alternative for people who are ready to try it.

I would like to hear from any of you who are working on parts of this problem. I’d be grateful for stories, resources, clarifying questions, parts of the truth that I may still be missing.