Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Loving Our Own Reflection

"Mirror Pool"
 - in a desert canyon -

I’ve been following the strident rhetoric in the recent congressional standoff over heath care in the United States. It strikes me that, what is going on in Washington DC may indeed be quite representative of the state of the larger culture.

I am reminded of something sociologist Robert Bellah wrote some 30 years ago in his book, Habits of the Heart.  At the time, Bellah observed that our society was well on the way to becoming a collective of “rugged individualists” as opposed to a “nation,” a community of people who devote themselves for the welfare of the common good. Some thirty years later I fear that Bellah was quite prophetic and I wonder if we have come to the place where we are now a “collective of rugged individuals” rather than a civilized nation.

As the name implies, a “rugged individualist” is primarily concerned about his/her own self-gratification. The life-agenda of the individualist is personal gain, winning the argument, beating down an opponent, achieving personal success and comfort at any cost. Yet, if we look at the record of history we quickly discover that any society that ever devolved into a collective of rugged individualists always unraveled and faded away.  It makes me wonder if we may also be on that slippery slope heading toward the dead end of cultural extinction. 

The interesting thing about a society of “rugged individualists” is that on the surface,  it might look like we are community of people who care for each other’s “good.”  After all, it’s not as if individuals go off somewhere to live alone in some mountain hermitage, most people hang out with lots of other “like-minded” people. But if we scratch beneath the surface we may find that we sometimes associate with others for some very selfish reasons. An “individual” may “associate” with others because they believe the “other” might be able to help them meet their own personal agenda.   This can happen in the halls of congress, in a church, a neighborhood, in a family, even in a relationship with a friend or a spouse.

As I reflect upon it, I wonder how many people in today’s society have fallen into the trap of fooling themselves into thinking that, because they associate with others they are in relationships with them, when in fact they may only be in a relationship with themselves, with their own ego?

I am reminded of something the monk and author, Thomas Merton, once said:

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love
be perfectly themselves,
the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.
If in loving them we do not love what they are,
but only their potential likeness to ourselves,
then we do not love them.
We only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

This reminds of the ageless “Myth of Narcissus,” and the deep insight it provides into a flaw of our human nature. Narcissus gazed into a reflecting pool and saw the image of a beautiful, strong young man. He fooled himself into thinking he was seeing someone else; but he was really only seeing himself- and he fell in love with what he saw, in love with his own reflection.

In today’s society, so deeply plagued by “rugged individualism,” we would all do well to guard against falling into the trap of “Narcissism” – fooling ourselves into thinking we love others when in fact we only love ourselves.

Lots of so-called “relationships” have conditional clauses attached to them: “I will love you and will be in relationship with you if you think and feel and act or look the way I want you to think and act.”  Often times this means, I will be in relationship with you as long as you are a “copy” of me. As I look at the state of our contemporary culture I wonder if The Myth of Narcissus prevails perhaps more often than we might imagine?

The Dalai Lama once wisely observed:

Remember that the best relationship is one in which
your love for each other
exceeds your need for each other.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Speak the Truth in Love

"A Hot Summer Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It's always pretty hot in the summertime out here in the desert where we live; but over this past week we have been breaking all the records. An “extreme heat warning" has been issued and afternoon temperatures have reached (and even exceeded) 120 degrees. These extremely hot desert temperatures coupled with gusty winds have set up the perfect storm for roaring blazes up in the mountains overlooking our valley and in regions throughout Southern California.

Living in California has helped me to to understand that firefighters here never actually try to “put out” the blazing fires that regularly sweep through the mountain forests; rather they work to “contain” them, to control their spread. Sometimes they even have to start smaller fires along the periphery to combat the main blaze. 

I have also learned that these mountain blazes aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing here; rather they are understood to be a necessary part of the natural pattern - without these “cleansing” fires, the forests would become wild and chaotic and new life could not emerge.

I have always said that the world of nature is a great teacher, forest fires burning in the  desert mountains are no exception. They teach me a lot about the value of looking at life and sometimes “allowing it to burn.” This past week as the temperatures scorched the desert valleys and fires blazed in the mountains, I reflected on the nature and value of “conflict” in our lives and on a spiritual journey.

It seems to be that lots of people nowadays are “figuratively” living under an “extreme heat warning” as the simmering flames of conflict have often erupted into full-blown blazes. So many of us seem to be extremely divided by politics, ideology, race, religion and ethnicity. I have heard several reports about “one-time” friends and even some families who now avoid one another because they just don’t want to get into heated political arguments.

Like many people, I have always been someone who was afraid of conflict and I would avoid it all costs. In fact I spent way more time and energy than I should have putting out fires whenever they erupted - an argument at a meeting, a disagreement with a friend, an acquaintance, a parishioner. As I think about it, I avoided conflict because I wanted others to “like” me and I thought that engaging in a conflict would diminish my chances of being liked.

I now think that maybe I would have done better to let the fires burn and to manage them. Instead of avoiding conflict I probably should have embraced it and allowed new life to emerge from it all.  If I did that I may have found that more people would have “loved” me.

Several years ago, the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about what he referred to as “pseudo-community” in human relationships. He specifically described how groups often “pretend” they are getting along with one another in order to avoid the pain of conflict:

The essential dynamic of pseudo-community is conflict avoidance.
Group members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid disagreement.
People, wanting to be loving, 
withhold the truth about how they really feel in order to avoid a confrontation.
The group may appear to be functioning smoothly
but individuality, intimacy and honesty are crushed.

Dr. Peck suggested that it’s only when people can trust one another enough to be able to honestly disagree that authentic community can emerge.

Lots of people believe that conflict is a sign that a relationship is deteriorating; however, if the flames of conflict are managed properly, the opposite can be true. Conflict can be symptomatic of a new relationship emerging – a relationship where there is enough trust to allow for disagreement. A therapist friend of mine suggested that embracing and managing conflict is like “mining gold beneath the burning lava.”

In one of his epistles, St Paul advises:

Speak the truth in love

I think this is excellent advice. We grow spiritually when we are in healthy relationships with others and relationships grow and develop when “inevitable” conflict is welcomed and managed. Whenever we speak our truth, even when the truth hurts, if we speak it in a spirit of love and respect, love will grow.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Spirituality of Human Contact

"Side by Side"
- on a wilderness trail -

Prompted by Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times warned: “Don’t buy groceries from a robot.” The article went on to talk about the growing trend toward increasing automation not only in grocery stores but in most arenas in which we might conduct business everyday, in malls, at a gas station, even at restaurants and coffee shops.

Beside shopping online, many of us now use the "self-checkout" counter at a store, thus eliminating the need for cashiers and nowadays there are a growing number of restaurants where you can order a meal using a computer at your table and then pick up your food from a “personalized cubby” located inside the restaurant without ever having to talk to a waiter or waitress.

The Times article suggested that our ever-decreasing contact with other human beings can have serious repercussions for our well-being.

As I think about my own everyday routine, I look forward to interacting with the always-friendly cashiers at “Trader Joes” and with the “baristas” at our local Starbucks who know me by name and even know what I usually order before I even ask for it. I would very much miss this kind of contact if it all became automated and I had to deal with robots instead.

There are many people who think of themselves as “individuals” separated and apart from other human beings; but the truth is that we are all dynamically interconnected and so when we have “contact” with other people (not just machines or computers) we are, in fact, in touch with the very core of what it means to be human. We need this kind of human contact for our spiritual and emotional health and welfare.

I am reminded of something the Dalai Lama (who is a scientist) once said:

There is a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields
suggesting that even from the most rigorous scientific perspective
we are all connected.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

I am also reminded of a wise observation once made by Benedictine monk and teacher, David Steindl-rast:

We are born as individuals and we become persons, laboriously so.
We become persons through our relationships with others.
Interrelationship is what defines you as a person.

When I talk with the cashier at the market or order a meal from a waiter at a restaurant,  I foster my sense of interdependence and I feel more fully human. In fact, I become more and more a “person.”

So, I think it may be good advice to heed that warning in the New York Times article: "Don’t buy groceries from a robot.”