Immersed in middle class American life, I am the mother of a teenage son and daughter, and I live in a medium sized town outside of Philadelphia. If that conjures images of navigating complex social media relationships, painful negotiating sessions around cash, google calendar debacles, and a lot of driving to orthodontist appointments and after school activities, then those images would be accurate for a good part of the time. There are also more relaxed times of playing cards or cooking together, staying up late with the kids and sleeping in the next day, and times when we go on hikes and have great conversations about life.
Like most of my neighbors and friends I learn about world events through the mainstream media, websites, and Facebook groups I follow. My work for a Faith-Based Social Services agency also shapes my thinking in that we work with refugees, disaster survivors, and people in crisis on a daily basis.
These are some things that reflect that American middle class living: Neighbors and friends caring about their families and doing their best by them. People trying to be healthier by cleansing, counting calories, avoiding gluten, and exercising intensely. Depression, anxiety and fatigue about finances, relationships and jobs. In general life is kind of stressful and moves at a pretty fast pace. Take one look at a family’s schedule and hear what a kid’s school day is like, or ask most people what it’s like to work in corporate America or a large nonprofit agency and those stories yield a truth we don’t have to read about but that we know, that there’s high rates of depression, anxiety, ADD, obesity.
Sometimes we stop in the whirlwind and ask ourselves that important question we learned doing 4th grade story problems, “does the answer make sense?” All the while being confronted with headlines about war, children getting sick and dying, the impact of industrial agriculture, institutional racism, the quality of our streams and rivers, refugees, climate change. And so despite this busy life, these challenges still matter to many of us, and we want to “do something,” but to make a real impact seems way out of reach. To assuage our conscience and make a difference, pay it forward, give back, help the "less fortunate"…we recycle, we plant trees on Earth Day, we hold fundraisers and send the money to places like Flint Michigan. We help.
Dreamers like Pope Francis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Vandana Shiva, Carl Jung, the wisest among us, tell us this truth, that we will only truly solve problems in ourselves and our world if we see humanity and all of creation even, as part of one self…if we see ourselves as sharing destinies with our brothers and sisters, bees, coneflowers, plankton, blue whales. What follows is that if we have some cognizance of the depth of our inter-connection with each other and the natural world, then action to extend beyond our own selves will come naturally, unforced, and it will be easy.
I fully buy into this premise, because I can grasp it. First, it is based on our desire to know ourselves, to see the divine in our own self, to know our own flame. And then also it follows that if we can see ourselves beyond the flesh that covers our bones, that naturally, we will care for the other whether that be person, place or thing. Then theoretically, If I already know I am capable for caring for myself, if I can expand my own concept of my own self, then I will have the capacity to care for that too.
What is exceptionally difficult though, is how exactly we are supposed to see ourselves as the other? Especially for us Westerners, we see things pretty distinctly as me, and not me. At best, “me” might include our extended families, some neighbors and friends. So how do I expand “me,” especially on a day when I am trying understand my company’s new health care plan, remember my college savings account password, make dinner, and pick up my daughter from play practice on time.
How to I get from “being me” to being “my watershed (the Wissahickon),” or “being people who have life experiences that I cannot relate to who live next to me.” Here in middle class life as a mom, even when I want to, I don’t have a lot of time to think about how I get from here to there. How do we get from tremendously divided voices on race, food production, refugees, chronic flooding, toxically polluted water and more, to greater peacefulness in our world and towns and homes.
What do we do with the inspiration we are gifted from these great teachers like Rumi and Jesus? Remembering that most of us are still on the grid, that many of us send our kids to public school, that many of us are running from place to place after work each evening, remembering that tomorrow at lunch I need to get an oil change.
Well, I know one thing our Western ego is exceptionally good at is self- reflection. We are capable of honestly reflecting on the question, does the answer make sense. Are my daily activities actually making the quality of life better for me and my family. Is my work really improving the lives of those that I am striving to help; are the widgets I make material treasures, or not? The good news is that the simple act of considering some simple and seemingly self- serving practices, may very well actually also result in a broader, wider, more expansive idea about who “I” actually am. Here are some things to experiment with…
For consideration by Westerners who want to live a little more gracefully, and who are open to changing the world:
Can you be curious when you feel really strongly about something? Did you happen to catch the Superbowl 50 Halftime show? Beyonce’s Formation generated a lot of passion. Are you defensive, proud, outraged? How do you feel about people who have passionately different opinions than you? Is there the possibility of being curious about the differences?
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein
In a culture where productivity, efficiency, progress, and outcomes are among its highest values, being still kind of presents itself as counter-productive. How can one produce and advance if one is not doing anything? But when we can turn inside ourselves in stillness, we paradoxically start being able to stretch our concept of what “me” is. It is not necessary to sit in lotus posture and meditate. There’s a hundred ways to cultivate stillness, all you have to do is use your Western superpower of strategizing to work it in to your day. Pause for a few breaths to acknowledge what your senses are experiencing each time before you turn on your car. Recognize the fresh start of a new day when you take a shower in the morning. Rest in the vivid aliveness you feel after an intense workout. There’s an alchemy in silence that I appreciate even if I do not understand it.
“No more words. In the name of this place we drink in with our breathing, stay quiet like a flower.
So the nightbirds will start singing.” Rumi, Night and Sleep
If not, suspend for a little bit of time the notion that you’ve got it all figured out. I read somewhere to consider the truth that every single person we meet knows something that we do not. In my work I am lucky to meet people from all over the world on a daily basis. If that’s not your experience, try striking up a conversation with someone from a different part of town at the next school fundraiser or waiting to check out at the grocery store. Believe that there might be delightful manifestations of the human spirit that we might not be able to imagine on our own. Seek out people different than you, and find what brings them joy. Maybe there’s some take homes to learn from them.
Every once in a while sit still in nature, go for a hike, learn how to identify the native plants where you live, walk your dog, sit on the boardwalk and look at the ocean. Get your kids outside as much as possible. Garden. Know your watershed like you know your zip code. I don’t think the transformative power of the land and the value of strengthening our connection to it can be overstated.
Find something that gets you lost in the present moment, but that doesn’t involve getting wrapped up in the drama of a story on a screen as told by television, a video game, or the Facebook newsfeed. Get wrapped up by teaching yourself a new hobby, by doing handwork like knitting, by practicing archery. Enjoy art, listen to music. It’s amazing how much you’ll start to like your own company.
Before long, we may begin to find that we know our own more expanded selves a little better, and without guilt or shame or obligation, we might find that as the day to day grind starts to become lighter, we are also accidentally and seemingly naturally “helping” without even thinking about it.
Maybe things like walking home, eating local foods, and spending Friday nights around the picnic table in the backyard will start to become routine. Maybe we’ll start to find that we know when the stinging nettles are good for picking and when the stream is at its highest. Maybe we’ll ask more questions and have friends who have different ages and accents than we do. Maybe we’ll have different kinds of discussions at borough hall when we are talking about property values and economic development, and water that is safe for drinking. Maybe we’ll choose to live where we can get by with one car, and maybe we’ll start reading labels and start making decisions about where we get our coffee and chocolate from based on what we know about the farmer who grew it, and maybe we’ll even make our to do list shorter.
“You see, idealism detached from action is just a dream. But idealism allied with pragmatism, with rolling up your sleeves and making the world bend a bit, is very exciting. It's very real. It's very strong” - Bono
Jeremiah 31:33 “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts.”
“We may know who we are or we may not. We may be Muslims, Jews or Christians but until our hearts become the mold for every heart we will see only our differences.” - Rumi
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness
which is untouched by sin and by illusion,
a point of pure truth,
a point or spark which belongs entirely to God …
from which God disposes of our lives,
which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind
or the brutalities of our own will …
This little point of nothingness is,
His name written in us …
It is like a pure diamond,
blazing with the invisible light of heaven.
It is in everybody, and if we could see it,
we would see these billions of points of light
coming together in the face and blaze of a sun
that would make all the darkness
and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander