~ from cats, dogs and nature to the flowering of body, mind and spirit ~

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Politics, History, and Soul Recovery

What does soul recovery have to do with politics and history? A tremendous amount during our current election year when all of us are concerned about not only the candidates and the process, but also about citizen reactions and over-reactions to what is before us. Where is our dignity, integrity, and compassion? Where is our intelligence? Where is the shadow? Our hearts and minds need to work in tandem toward good for everyone, that’s part of what nourishes and lifts up our souls. But we cannot force the soul to be as we wish. Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul says: 
“Soul is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and to control. We can cultivate, tend, enjoy, and participate in the things of the soul, but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.”
Our ego generally drives our political views, unless we consciously invite soul to participate in the continued development of our country. We live in a democratic republic, not in a “pure” or “direct” democracy (or it’s not intended to be one), because originally safeguards were established by the Founding Fathers so that we wouldn’t become either a “mobocracy” or be taken over by tyranny. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evolve our country and government; everything changes, that’s the nature of living. Plus, those who set up our original government could not foresee how the world has changed, and they were limited to their past and to their own cultural context. However, we need to be as consciously aware as possible to not let ourselves venture into the extremes, which is where we seem to be headed.
That said, when we look at our two-hundred-plus governmental history, we can see the pendulum swing back and forth between conservative and liberal control, indicating that, frustrating as it can be at times, dire as it can appear during certain periods, our system does appear to be working so that no single entity completely takes over our country. But we still have to remain cautious and alert and participate in the process; we need to engage in civil conversation and the process using our hearts and our minds, passion and pragmatism.
One thing I’ve been trying hard to do these past six months is read across the spectrum of liberal and conservative publications; I can’t expand my heart, mind, and, yes, my soul without a greater understanding about views different than mine. I asked conservative friends and family for recommendations on writers who share their views, but few responded. Left on my own, Google has been helpful in pointing me toward publications; for instance, universities often share lists on this topic. The Wall Street Journal is usually listed as a conservative publication, especially in its editorial section, so I read that one daily. However, in a recent New York magazine (not on a list, but probably liberal) article by Andrew Sullivan titled “Democracies end when they are too democratic”, the author provides an interesting summary of perspectives on democracy influenced by Plato’s Republic and reflections upon the establishment of American government. Within this framework, Sullivan provides his interpretation of the perfect national storm that has led to the rise of Trump. It’s a fascinating piece and one I highly recommend (the complete article can be read online).
The soul traverses both worldly and spiritual realms, allowing us to journey toward wholeness. Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, says: 
“To some extent, care of the soul asks us to open our hearts wider than they have ever been before, softening the judging and moralism that may have characterized our attitudes and behavior for years. Moralism is one of the most effective shields against the soul, protecting [deflecting] us from its intricacy. There is nothing more revealing, and maybe nothing more healing, than to reconsider our moralistic attitudes and find how much soul has been hidden behind its doors. People seem to be afraid that if they reflect on their moral principles they might lose their ethical sensitivity altogether. But that is a defensive approach to morality. As we deal with the soul’s complexity, morality can deepen and drop its simplicity, becoming at the same time both more demanding and more flexible.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Looking for an emotional antidote to a recent book I read, the perfect palliative publication was waiting for me. I love synchronicity!
The book needing mitigation was Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern. Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent book. It was definitely a worthwhile pursuit toward understanding its topic, and I highly recommend it. There is a lengthy cogent review of the book at the New York Times, but what I appreciated the most was how Stern didn’t focus exclusively upon religion per se. Rather, she delved into the psychology as well; she wanted to understand “how people who claim to be motivated by religious principles come to kill innocent people in the service of ideas.” For instance, she looked at the aspects of alienation, humiliation, demographics, history, and territory. Stern addressed how these particularities contribute to transforming people into religious militants (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim). Nevertheless, when I finished reading, I felt compelled to find a pick-me-up. I needed to wash off the despair and angst provoked by the book.
One of the many books on my end table was Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. I had discovered this one via the blog Brain Pickings, but had not yet started reading. HOPE. It’s easy to see why my hand reached for this one, and I wasn’t disappointed. Solnit writes that: 
“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities [terrorism, war, inequality, rampant capitalism, climate change, etc.]. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.” 
Solnit provides an exceptional long view of movements in history, many we might have overlooked or forgotten if we keep our eyes locked into tunnel vision. She’s an activist and hope, for her, holds a different perspective than it might for you or me. Solnit states: 
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. … It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” 
Yes, her book was exactly what I needed. It is a slim volume that reminds and refreshes and returns me to calm, but with an added spark of, yes, hope.
Maria Popova provides a beautiful essay about Hope in the Dark utilizing more inspirational quotes; I encourage you to explore her offerings. She has been a wonderful resource for me to dive into a wide variety of works!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Trusting the Discourse

In winter, we trust that spring will follow.
I find myself having to trust that my current discourse, whether face-to-face or through writing, is necessary. As I delve into culture, religion, politics, and family genealogy, it feels like I’ve fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. I meant this exploration to be short-lived, a way to become more at ease during my transition to the Ozarks of Missouri where I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole. I expected that I could then quickly switch back to working on my novel, a work-in-progress that is about three-fourths complete. Instead, my inquiry process expands and contracts like a fire-breathing dragon, though, granted, this shouldn’t have been a surprise since the local community and our larger American society as a whole is, in fact, the result of complex people, alive as well as dead. 
History reaches forward as well as backward, and each moment of the present investigation compels me to seek an explanation, an origin, but one that never truly manifests as solid. The fear and anger of the American people is full-spectrum, derived from past disappointment and future expectation, compounded by myriad perceptions of how our lives should be — locally as well as globally. This, too, is part of the fieldwork and analysis applicable to all of us; I am within the spiral of events, yet also a witness to them.

Thus, what began as a form of personal therapy has developed into a desire for greater knowledge and, hopefully, deeper wisdom. I have to trust that there is a purpose to my seemingly endless research, encompassing both my inner and outer work, taking up vast amounts of time, and that it will ultimately benefit others as well as myself. And I have to trust that when I eventually return to working on my novel, that it will be enriched as well — perhaps its characters will be more alive and multi-faceted than they would have been without my detour into the quagmire of the American political and religious systems.

I end with Walt Whitman on "How Literature Bolsters Democracy" … certainly something to aspire to when writing! 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Closing the Gap

Continuing my journey into understanding our American political differences in ideals and philosophy, I started reading Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer, and quickly became an advocate for the tension-holding process of civil conversation described within the book. 
The escalated ugliness revealed through our current election season process has been confusing and overwhelming, a point at which, in the past, I usually found myself completely withdrawing from. This year, though, I have become deeply curious about the “why” and "how" of politics, which has led me to learn more than ever before about my country through our formative documents, the founding fathers, presidents, parties, and political process, the psychology of diversity, and so much more. 
Our peopled government has never seemed more at odds and unwieldy, yet we must — every single one of us as citizens — find a way to support the Great American Experiment. It seems to me that this broader conversation begins at home, with friends and family, at the dinner table and in community. This isn’t easy for me — as an extreme introvert and pacifist, I tend to avoid conflict — but it does feel absolutely vital so that  we may continue growing our country toward greater dignity, compassion, and unity.
One divisive comment I’ve noticed that often halts continuing conversation is when one person speaks of “democracy” and the other states that we are a “republic.” Curious about this, since my high school years of social studies are many decades gone, I googled. Keeping in mind the context in which the Founding Fathers (see my earlier post on this group of diverse men) formed the United States of America, the definitions I found seemed simple and I agree with Parker Palmer’s comment that we are both: “we are a representative democracy set in the context of a constitutional republic.” The terms and their intention do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Parker Palmer acknowledges that “our differences may be deep” — as we are seeing in this year’s election primaries — but points out that this is nothing new (only 39 of 55 delegates signed the Constitution in 1787). What is new to my generation is how many Americans are behaving without respect, dignity, decency or compassion — and trying to call it “honesty.” Palmer says that if American democracy fails, it won’t be from external forces, rather “it will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it.” Fear of “the Other” is rampant right now and destroying our ability to discuss the issues we disagree upon; we cannot suppress necessary conversation, we can’t dig in our heels (or walk away) and refuse to talk. I know it’s tempting — I’m an expert at walking away from conflict and volatile relationships. But here, now, there is more at stake than my own personal comfort zone. Palmer speaks of “creative conflict” and his book clearly shows ways to engage respectfully with those whose opinions strongly differ from ours.
I’ve been watching debates on both sides of the political spectrum and, yes, the issues are major. Are they going to disappear just because we get angry and call people names, be vulgar, incite violence, or turn our backs? I doubt it. I lean toward the Democratic party myself, but I certainly appreciated the comments made recently by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan: “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults … Our political discourse did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way” (“Wall Street Journal,” March 24, 2016).
During a recent family political discussion, where we all did a fairly good job of remaining calm, we kept returning to common ground, finding the core elements that we could agree upon. In those core moments, we could remind each other that the conflicting issues are how we address and resolve our concerns, rarely the deep issues themselves like how to keep people safe, employed, and fed. We could pause, break bread together, and then return to the table. Politicians in DC used to do that; they used to have their families there and members of opposite parties would attend social functions more freely and openly together — participating in community. 
Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy was written in 2011 and released in paperback with a new Introduction in 2014 (this is the copy I have); I was struck by the following paragraph — from a chapter on citizen heartbreak (when your heart breaks, does it break open or shatter apart — how we handle heartbreak is reflected through our subsequent behavior), pain, cynicism, and anger erupting in destructive behaviors that are symptomatic masks — in light of our current political schism: 
“There are exceptions, of course. Some of the cynicism, anger, and hatred we hear is scripted and strategic. For example, manipulating our ancient fear of ‘otherness’ is a time-tested method to gain power … if you have a public megaphone. Well-known media personalities—and too many political candidates and officeholders—exploit a market that will yield returns as long as fear haunts the human heart, a profitable enterprise in relation to their own financial or political fortunes but one that can bankrupt the commonwealth.”
This book is a gem that I wish everyone would read. What’s most remarkable about Palmer’s book is that, rather than be depressing, it is uplifting because the author returns again and again to ways in which we can bring about change through compassion, respect, and conversation. The dynamics of difference involved in our political system means that the pendulum swings back and forth from one election to another, but we don’t have to let it become a wrecking ball if we attend to the checks and balances provided initially by our Founding Fathers and allow them to grow in context with changing times and cultures.
I will end with these wise words by Parker Palmer (in a chapter where he is writing about seeing our own history as clearly as we can, rather than through rose-colored glasses):
“If we remain clear about the gap between America’s aspiration and its reality, [the Declaration of Independence] can continue to energize movement toward our goal. But when we imagine or pretend that it describes America’s reality, the [document] becomes an enemy of its own aspiration.” 
“In every generation, we must try again to close the gap between our reality and our aspirations.”

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