Monday, November 29, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 27, 2021 - Submission and Relenting

We have a complicated relationship with the idea of submission. We sometimes take great pride in our lack of willingness to submit to the ideas, advice, or demands of others. Our independent streak is a wonderful tool, if used judiciously, however.

To be honest, I had a tendency to feel the same way about the concept of submission. That is, until I spent a little bit of time in a Sufi monastery. There I learned the word Islam means submission. Specifically, submission to God. The concept isn’t as clear cut as you’d imagine.

Submission can just as easily be viewed as a demand to do as you’re told. But that’s too simple. The closer I looked, the more I realized that “submitting oneself to God” is a poetic way of saying that we should use what we learn from spiritual texts to live our lives in the spirit of good relationships with our neighbors. 

Though many will disagree with that interpretation of what I have gleaned of God’s purpose for us through my exposure to various spiritual texts, time and time again, spiritual literature, including the Bible, is focused almost entirely on how we behave toward one another. The Bible isn’t about God so much as it is about us. 

It’s probably fair to say that “submission to God” is another way of saying “submission to God’s intent for us.” Whether one believes in God or not, it’s pretty clear that the objective purpose of world scripture is aimed at how to end cycles of violence, resentment, fear and envy of our neighbor. It encourages us to look deeper at the world and take note of what our inner divine spark tells us. 

What might it mean to submit under these circumstances? 

To me, it means relenting to good advice. It means taking time to deeply consider the implications of my actions in the world. To be humble about the harms I may have caused, just in the process of being human. But also to take stock and expand upon the good I do as well.

Submitting means to say, “I am through trying things my way. My way has not gotten me very far. And so I commit to looking at the ways of God as described by various men and women through the pages of world scripture.” 

In a sense, it’s giving up. And the ego is triggered by that. It resists, because we then must admit we don’t know everything. 

What’s interesting to me is that there’s a freedom in this. Submitting ourselves to something else instinctively feels as though we are confining ourselves, even imprisoning ourselves to the rules and mastery of someone else. However, I’m certain that’s a false premise. Especially if we consider ourselves to be extensions of the Divine Source, we are in actuality submitting to our own deeper selves; the part within us through which our connection to Source is made.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit metaphysical, but these things are not concrete. They are general ideas meant to get our heads out of the way of the work of our hearts. Tricks of understanding, perhaps divine in origin, that sublimate the parts of our brain which are constantly analyzing, rationalizing, and limiting its understanding to only that to which it has been directly exposed. 

Crucial to consider are your dreams and aspirations. Who are you deep down? In your dreams, what are you doing? What are you accomplishing? To what are you driven yet resist? Is there a dream job out there for you which you are afraid of pursuing? A particular lifestyle that you feel is natural to you but hasn’t yet occurred for one reason or another? Is the version of you that you present to the world an honest one?

What makes you think that these concerns aren’t part of submission? Because it isn’t just about following guidelines of behavior. It’s about listening to the voice inside you with honesty. What is it honestly saying? You were designed for a purpose. Are you heeding it?

Now that the world has changed so drastically, and that those changes are not finished quite yet, what will you make of this time? You can look all around you and see people who have decided to change their life because of this moment. They’ve started new businesses, they’ve gone back to school, they’ve retired early because they realize they just didn’t need it anymore. They stopped working extra jobs that only pay for childcare and instead spend time with their children.

In the social justice world everything is on its head now as well. LGBT rights, women’s rights, minority rights, indigenous rights, every aspect of our society has been flipped over to check the expiration date. We’ve been doing a deep dive on our behavior and have found it lacking. Enormous systemic change is at hand. 

What does this all mean? I think it means that this moment now is perfect to consider if the person who you really are is the same as the one you’ve been telling yourself you are.

Submission to God is the same thing as submission to your inner self. Because that’s where your divine spark is guiding you. Listen to it. Heed it. Relent To it. Submit to the truth of you. If there is a God, that’s what It most wants for us. For us to live in the space of joy that only self discovery can bring. To listen deeply to our heart for the answers about how to engage with the world, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and leave this world a better place than we found it. 

I can submit to that. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 20, 2021 - Remember We Are on Indigenous Land

Throughout human history, groups of people have conquered others in order to take their land. In the process, humans have done all sorts of unthinkable and unspeakable acts. There is virtually no conquering society in history who isn’t guilty of these crimes. 

And what do we do about these regrettable histories? What do we do now as we learn more about the atrocities our ancestors committed? How do we apply the things we learn through our exploration of spirituality and religion to not only cope with the present moment but rise above the shame of our ancestors, now that we know things might have been done differently?

As we proceed through Native American Heritage Month, we are invited to notice that there is beauty in Native American traditions. And there is also horror and atrocity in their own history perpetrated against one another. Native Americans are not without their own blood on their hands.

We have a romanticized idea about Native American culture on this land. But the truth is more interesting. More complex. Less innocent, more valuable.

It is not the job of the present age to erase history any more than it is to whitewash over it. It is the job of the present age to face it with resignation, submission, and respect.

First and foremost, I have a respect for the Native American relationship with the earth. I have a respect for the notion that we are caretakers of the earth, rather than its owners. That we don’t have things, we have obligations. We have an obligation to the earth. And to one another.

At this time on the wheel of the year, we honor the harvest. Thanksgiving is upon us. And with it, our old romanticized notions of the relationships between the pilgrims and those who first inhabited this land, the famous meal they shared, and the friendships they created.

Of course, this history is only partially true. We know that now. And we tell ourselves little fibs to get around our lack of ease with shame. But we have to remember that this shame is not ours. Not specifically. And not in the way we fear. 

We hear tales of cancel culture and of the rewriting of history and political correctness and we throw our hands up because we don’t know how to engage these topics. And because we often find distasteful the ways that their advocates proclaim them. 

There is a purpose here, though. There’s an opportunity here. Especially in this time of Thanksgiving and gratitude we have an opportunity to be grateful for those who seek to know the truth about our ancestors and those whom they conquered. And why. 

We are not revealed to be villains in this process. Only perpetuating mistruths of our history is villainous now, not the uncovering of it. Not the facing of it. There is honor there.

The Navajo have a peacemaking ceremony and legal process called hozhooji naat’aanii. It begins with an opening prayer to summon the aid of the supernatural in the process of reconciliation. The prayer also prepares the parties for the process. It acknowledges the existence of a disharmony that shall be mended. It uses Navajo values and tribal law as the basis to talk things out. 

Retired Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, Robert Yazzie, explains that “The western law way is to punish you so that you don’t repeat the behavior. But the Navajo way is to focus on the individual. You separate the action from the person.”

What can we take from this about how to move forward in our world? How might we recognize the spiritual and philosophical other in ways that foster genuine reconciliation and friendship based on mutual respect?

Our way of doing things, sadly, has shown disrespect for the proper balance of the world. But we need not continue it. We need only to look at our own stated traditions and values and principles to see that there are more loving ways of moving forward.

It begins with a recognition of actual history, and the validation of the harms caused. It does not mean taking responsibility for the causing of historic harm so much as it is about taking responsibility for what we do next about it. 

The Navajo peacemaking process asks the question and states: ‘Why did this act happen in the first place? There is a reason why it happened. Let’s focus on the root of it.’ The purpose of the process is to restore dignity and worthiness. What might be learned from that when scratching our heads in dismay about what to do next?

We have reached a point in our civilization where questions like this are in the forefront of our minds. We’ve begun to share our stories with one another. And in the process, we have discovered things we might have rather not known.

But there can be grace in how we proceed. There is an opportunity to display courage and fortitude while maintaining our dignity. It is through the process of listening to other people. Not only listening, but truly hearing.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday. November 13, 2021 - Be Nice To the People That People Aren’t Nice To

Like many of us, there have been times when I found it difficult to engage with other people. Even now, and even being the generally gregarious type of person that I am, I have moments of profound shyness. So much so, that I would consider myself to be uncomfortable in public settings far more often than I am comfortable. I would consider myself more willing than wanting of attention. 

Which makes it all the more noticeable when someone spots that in me and moves to put me at ease. It’s not only kindness, but awareness. Awareness of their environment and of the comfort of those present.

One might consider that to be a Cancerian quality. As a Cancer myself, I’m aware of that categorical trait. And I do my best to exhibit it. I’m sure there are other astrological signs that are known for this. But what if we were to adopt it on purpose regardless of our sign or tendency?

I have a neighbor across the street who is easy to spot as one who feels more comfortable being by themselves. Or is that just my assumption? Do I look at people who appear to be shy and let myself off the hook by assuming they prefer it that way?

I’ve also known people who talk a good game about wanting to be alone, but I deeply suspect otherwise. They give off clues and hints that they are justifying their loneliness as a preference, when really it’s just an inner belief that loneliness is their lot in life. And that they might as well get used to it. 

I choose to ignore it. When I see my neighbor across the street sitting by herself in front of her house, I wave to her and smile. That’s the only time I have ever seen her smile. 

There’s another woman whom I don’t know at all but lives in a house which I pass by frequently. She always looks so sad sitting out there by herself. At some point she and I caught eyes and so I smiled at her. Her face absolutely lit up. She had the largest, most beautiful smile. And now we smile at each other at least 2 to 3 times a week when there’s nice weather. I love it. 

This takes next to no effort, but I feel like it makes a difference. I can say in all honesty that it makes a difference in my life. I look forward to seeing these women and smiling at them for no reason other than friendliness. 

Too often we make assumptions about other people. With so little information to go on, we fill in the gaps with whatever helps us justify our lack of involvement or care. But what harm could it do to be friendly for no reason?

An interesting scientific sidebar is the fact that the act of smiling literally tricks your brain into believing its happy. It releases dopamine and serotonin just from the muscular act of forming a smile. 

To me, this means that when I make someone else smile, I am literally increasing dopamine and serotonin in their own brains, not just from smiling at them, but in triggering their own smile. To say nothing of the extra brain juices I get also for my own smiling activity as well as the satisfaction of making someone else feel the same. 

This present time in our human history is rife with reasons to frown. The extra stressors we have in our daily lives right now make it difficult to remember these simple ideas and put them to work in our lives. 

But if we take the time to attempt to be friendly to those for whom friendliness from others might very well be a rare occurrence, how much might that impact the other parts of our lives which we may think have no connection? Is there something to be said for just being nice as an antidote to so much else that’s wrong with the world?

Any bumper sticker’s worth of advice would say yes. And yet how often do we actually do it?

You may forget these words tomorrow. So be it. But today, make an effort. Even if it’s only one day’s worth. We have to do a little something every day in order to get through this. Let this be what you do today. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 6, 2021 - From a Distance


The subject of forgiveness has always been a fascinating one to me. Not surprisingly, my opinions about it have sometimes been at odds with established ways of thinking about it. 

For instance, I absolutely deny the usefulness of ideas like “forgive and forget.“ What good is forgetting if there’s something to be learned? And we often learn quite a bit in the moments of experiencing something for which our forgiveness might later be requested. Drama is often in need of forgiveness. But never forgetting. 

Mainstream religious thought contends that we will not receive forgiveness until we ask for it. However, I believe it’s more about perceiving than receiving. We don’t perceive forgiveness until we hear ourselves ask for it. In my belief, since according to tradition God knows our hearts and actions long before we ever commit them, we are pre-forgiven for our actions. But even the term pre-forgiven isn’t quite right because if we are so deeply understood by God, then how could we ever truly be held in a place of unforgiveness in the first place? 

I think forgiveness is a human action. From God's perspective it’s just pure understanding. If we had pure understanding of ourselves and others, I think we would approach those who trespass against us much differently. I think in encouraging the tradition of asking for forgiveness, however, God is in actuality encouraging us to forgive ourselves, and then make better choices thereafter. The reason we are encourage not to judge others, is because once we get out of the habit of it, we start to see the humanity we have in common. 

It brings to mind the recent trend of books and movies over the past two decades that fill in the backstories of some of our more famous literary and cinematic villains. I think of Gregory Maguire’s book series Wicked and its sequels, which fill in the blanks of just how Frank L. Baum’s infamous Wicked Witch of the West character gained her wickedness. We can see ourselves in her shoes and wonder whether or not we might have made the same choices if we were in her place. 

Likewise, the recent Maleficent films, starring Angelina Jolie, take a very empathetic stance on the villainous character from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It’s hard not to love her. 

Are these stories coming to the forefront in our society because we are starting to become sophisticated enough to realize that human behavior isn’t quite so black and white? The marketplace does not dictate our desires so much as they’re responding to the statistics of what we’re consuming. If we are seeing more film and television and books that give the human angle to what makes a criminal, it’s because they know that’s what we’re looking for. What overall effect on our judicial system, or educational system, or even our healthcare systems might be the end result of it? 

Does understanding what makes someone behave in a negative way make it easier for us to forgive them? Does it make it easier for us to figure out what the right and loving solution is rather than simply arresting them and locking them up because we think the problem is too big to solve? 

But on the practical, every day level, we need forgiveness in our lives. Even if we can’t be in a direct relationship with someone any longer because we are still vulnerable to their harm, we can still forgive people from a distance. Even if they haven’t asked for it. We can remind ourselves that only hurt people hurt people. And the size of their own hurt is usually proportional to the size of the harm they cause. Feel for them. In all likelihood, it is far worse to be in their shoes than yours. 

Can one truly have empathy for someone who has harmed us? That is what the masters teach us, after all. Why might they teach it? It can’t be that it’s impossible, or unadvisable. Christianity, as well as other faiths, teach us to love our enemy. Why might they do that? Is there value in this?

I have enough faith to believe that there must be some value to the action of forgiving others. I have enough faith to believe that loving my enemy is very likely good advice. Which means that it must be that forgiveness and safety can occur simultaneously. Forgiveness cannot mean continuing to subject ourselves to harm on purpose. That’s the forgetting part of ‘forgive and forget.’ Don’t forget. Stay safe. Forgive from a distance.

You don’t even have to tell them that you’ve forgiven them. In fact, it even comes across a little arrogant if offered without having been asked for. But it’s just as well. Because forgiveness given without having been asked for is purely for yourself. It is to end the cycle of inner anger and resentment that poisons our hearts and brains. It corrupts the delicate balance of our body and our brain chemistry. Even the microbiome of our gut is deeply impacted by our stress levels. And that can impact all manner of systems including in your immunity. Go easy on yourself. 

Forgiveness does not mean relieving someone of their accountability or responsibility for their actions. Our job is to make sure that our judicial system is fair and works to rehabilitate people rather than just lock them up and throw away the key. Retribution is an easy road out but a rough trail to walk back on. We will always pay a price for the miscarriage of justice.

As soon as our culture really learns to incorporate a model of empathy and forgiveness into its approach of those who have caused harm, we will continue to cause it. We will continue to perpetuate old cycles of violence and retribution. It doesn’t need to be this way. 

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with you.