Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Compassion for Those We Envy

Icarus flies too close to the sun.

This post marks the eighth anniversary of beginning this blog. Thanks for reading!

You may know that the story of how I come to have a book is sometimes as important to me as the book itself. Cindy is part of our extended family, and every Christmas she gives me a few books that are appropriate to my interests. Given her limited resources, she finds them in bargain book shops, gently used or seemingly unread, slightly damaged or simply unwanted.

This year she gave me Thoughts on Virtue: Thoughts and Reflections from History’s Great Thinkers, Philip Larkin Collected Poems, Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (whose cover boasts a handsome, hunky Icarus in midair), and the Dalai Lama’s An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. The latter’s only wound seems to have been water damage that made the book’s jacket stick to the first pages.

The Dalai Lama is a favorite of mine, so that’s the book I’ve been reading. As is his wont, his teachings begin almost too simply before delving deep into the murky waters of human nature, though he might argue with such a phrase suggesting essence or identity that is unchanging.

Soon I came across a description of contemplation that answers many of its critics:

We must know how to pace ourselves down to the snail’s pace of profound contemplation while also ensuring that we do not forget our neighbor’s problem or that of the fish swimming in polluted oceans many thousands of miles away. [p54]

In this simple way, he reminds us that, though focus is a gift of a meditative way of life, it is always held in context with the bigger picture of a neighbor’s need or our environment’s plight. His “snail’s pace” made me think of a snail I wrote of in the introduction to the third section of my book of prayers, Coming Out to God:

A snail stretched its full length in a strenuous assault, climbing the tall picture window. Inside, those of us on retreat discussed our vision of the future church. A sadness had slipped into some hearts, as often happens the final day of a retreat. The common purpose, camaraderie, and caring intimacy that are experienced at such gatherings inevitably lead one to wonder, Why can’t it always be like this? Our visions of hope for the church painfully reminded us of our place—or lack thereof—in the present church, intensifying our letdown. Yes, we were on the downhill side of our mountaintop experience. Yet the slowly ascending snail, apparently unintimidated by the long vertical climb, offered hope for progress.  [p119]

When reading a sacred text, many of us know that meditating on a line or phrase or thought that disturbs us may be as helpful as reflecting on one that is pleasing. And so I soon found my “disturbing” text in the Dalai Lama’s elaboration of compassion:

It is not difficult for us to develop sympathy for a child in the hospital or an acquaintance mourning the death of a spouse. We must start to consider how to keep our hearts open toward those we would normally envy, those who enjoy fine lifestyles and wealth. [p105]

For me, that’s a tough one! The Psalmist had no qualms complaining to God:

For I was envious of the arrogant;
            I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
            their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
            they are not plagued like other people. …
Therefore the people turn and praise them,
            and find no fault in them. …
Such are the wicked;
            always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
            and washed my hands in innocence.
 [Psalm 73:3-5, 10, 12-13  NRSV]

Anyone who knows me knows also that I can’t exactly claim that I have always “kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” But still, without impugning them as “evil,” why do professional athletes and performers, celebrities and CEOs live so well, while “do-gooders” scrape by?

Funny thing is, when I started writing this post, parenthetically referring to the depiction of a beautiful and handsome Icarus in the sky on the cover of Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, I hadn’t yet thought that this could be an illustration of keeping “our hearts open toward those we would normally envy.” The myth of Icarus is that he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings that held him in flight. Many of those we envy “fly too close to the sun.”

“How the mighty have fallen,” cried David in a psalm of lament at the opening of 2 Samuel upon hearing of the killings of Saul and his son Jonathan. David had earlier resisted killing Saul when he found him sleeping, despite the humiliation, threats and attacks he had endured from him. The “ideal” king showed compassion.

Even for those who don’t suffer such a comeuppance as Icarus or Saul, the Dalai Lama believes we must hold open our compassion for all who share the human condition:

There is a certain irrationality in responding to injustice or harm with hostility. Our hatred has no physical effect on our enemies; it does not harm them. Rather, it is we who suffer the ill consequences of such overwhelming bitterness. [p111]

Remembering both the mighty and meek suffer may hold our hearts open for our sake if not for theirs.

Thanks to Toby Schmidt, cover designer of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, which features the image of Icarus used above.

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Godly Boredom

Sun through clouds, Atlanta. -crg

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Superbowl Sunday from frenzied Superbowl host Atlanta which currently looks like, in the words of a city planner neighbor, a city under occupation: roadblocks and street closings, helicopters buzzing the skies, small planes carrying banners, big planes carrying visitors, sirens screaming at all hours, a heavy and active police and security and first responder presence. 

In this context of hyperactivity, Book Review Editor Pamela Paul’s column, “Let Children Get Bored Again,” in this morning’s New York Times speaks all the more loudly and clearly: “Boredom is useful. It’s good for you.” Explaining the potential for constructiveness and resourcefulness in “empty” time, she says, “Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.”

Asserting “Life isn’t meant to be an endless parade of amusements,” she questions “the teacher’s job to entertain as well as educate.”

Christian spirituality author Henri Nouwen critiqued “entertainment” by breaking down the word entertain, which means “to keep between”—in other words, to keep us betwixt and between in constant tension about what happens next.

Ms. Paul reminisces about the days when children were “left unattended with nothing but bookshelves and tree branches, and later, bad afternoon television.” She quotes Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, “There is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.”

“It’s when you are bored that stories set in,” she declares. “Checking out groceries at the supermarket, I invented narratives around people’s purchases.”

This reminded me of how I filled the empty spaces as a ticket taker and usher at a movie theater when I was in college. I thought one of my first books would be Views from a Ticket Taker.

It also made me think of a digression in my 2010 book, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life:

Saturday was a mixed blessing growing up. No school, but I loved school, or at least I loved the structure it gave my day. My dad worked on Saturday, unfortunately. My mom would get up very early to fix his breakfast before work, then return to bed for a little while. …

I remember bouncing with my brother and sister and mom on her bed Saturday mornings, before or after breakfast, and we would sit and visit and enjoy a little time together with nothing to do but laugh and talk and dream. A whole empty day stretched out before us, a day of housecleaning and laundry and reading books (never magazines: early it was instilled in me by my mother that if I had time to read, I should be reading a book) and watching television.

My sister and years later, my brother, would drive Mom to the store to do the weekly grocery shopping, if my father had not done so the night before. (Strangely, my mother never learned to drive.) And I would be left alone, a time I also loved, but also a lonely time when I wished my friends from school were closer. Going to a parochial school meant fellow students were dispersed throughout my then-known universe, the 500 square miles of Los Angeles. …

Saturday was my longest day, a day whose structure I had more freedom to shape than any other day of the week, making me feel sorry for those children today whose free time is overly scheduled by ambitious or well-intentioned parents. Small wonder that my life now consists of a succession of “Saturdays,” having chosen to be a writer. It is a life blessed by more freedom than the lives of others, though it is also fraught with fear, having no imposed structure but my own, and having no assured income, especially when writing something like this book, entirely on speculation. Yet it does stretch my days, it does stretch my life. And it offers me sanctuary to “stand under” (as Camus wrote of it), if not to wholly understand. [pp 12-15]

Reflecting on all this today, I think how boredom may become a sacred time and place, a fertile sanctuary for creativity and dreams, a godly opportunity.

Perhaps it was Godly boredom that led to the Big Bang and the evolution of life and to you and to me.

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog:
Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.