Wednesday, June 6, 2012

To the Stars and Back - Our Quest for Connection / Part 7 of 7

If I am to authentically hang on to my pluralism, if I want to be true to my belief that we should each be allowed our beliefs, I must allow you to believe what you want, even if you want me to believe something else. I must remember that it is what we do with our beliefs that makes a difference in the world. In some important way, it doesn’t really matter what we believe, whether in G!d or in stardust, or in fairies. We all come from the same place, we all came into being on this planet. We have the same carbon and hydrogen atoms in each of us as in the stars and the crust of the Earth. We all are born and we all die. What does matter is what we do and what we say. Our words and our actions have impact. And there will be points on which we will never agree, for if you kill me, it is because it is OK with you, but if I kill you, it surely will only be OK with me.

And so, let us look to the Big Picture and to the details. Let us see the world through an ecological lens – the lens of relationships among organisms and their environment.[1] Let us figure out how to be Zusya, how to be ourselves. Let us ask ourselves: Who am I? What are my gifts? What is unique about me? What is universal? What is my relationship to my environment? How am I separate? How am I connected?

When I look up at the stars, I know that I am small. I know that the same stars shine above the heads of 7 million other people. I know that the Universe goes on and on and on for such a great time and distance that it feels infinite even if it is not. I know that we were both born. I know that we both will die. I know that you and I are more similar than we are different. I know that I want to choose, each and every day, to hold love in my heart and not hate. I know that the world is good.

[1] Lappe, p. 15.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

To the Stars and Back - Our Quest for Connection / Part 6 of 7

Another aspect of our connectedness is that we share with each other our need for each other. We can try to live “off the grid,” but it is not really in our genes to do so. Like those ants, we are social creatures. To live totally independently of all other human beings is not how we are programmed, and it takes a yeomen effort to make it happen. Just going to live in the woods isn’t truly getting away from others, not if we take even the smallest item with us or at any point in our seclusion need something we cannot find in the woods around us, for surely someone else helped to make the item. And if we make an item ourselves, did we learn to do so totally by ourselves, or are we bringing learning with us, learning that came from another member of our species?

Parker Palmer speaks of the need “to hold solitude and community together as true paradox…Solitude … means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people—it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community … means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people—it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”[1] Going out into the woods to live alone may be about deep listening, but it may also be about the solitude that is about the absence of people. It is a way to try to create stringent boundaries between ourselves and all other people. To set ourselves apart.

We all have and we all need boundaries. Our skin is our first boundary. Andrea Jones, in her essay about skin, begins with disconnection: “skin is the membrane that distinguishes self from world. Inside its margins: you. Beyond its flexy surface: everything else.” But, she ends with connection: “Skin differentiates but does not isolate…[it] does not hold the universe at bay. Instead it marks the seam that joins your existence to everything else.”[2] Or, in the words of Francis Moore Lappe, “Separateness is…the illusion…Mutually created and every changing – that is the reality.”[3] The reality of solitude that is connection to ourselves and community that is the awareness of connection to others – these are the details and the Big Picture, or perhaps the Big Picture and the details, or, most likely, both.

In the same way that our skin both separates us and connects us, religion is also a paradox of connection and disconnection. It helps us to connect to those who share a similar spiritual pathway, but it can disconnect us from those who are different – to the point that we may wage war on each other. So, too, our language, our culture, our foods, and our neighborhoods, both connect us and disconnect us. But one of the amazing gifts of being human is that we can learn new languages, we can open our minds to differences in cultures, we can try new foods, and we can travel out of our neighborhoods. So, too, can we reach across the boundaries of faith. Some of the most powerful moments of prayer I have experienced have been with people of different faith traditions, at the moments when together in letting go, we have touched a deep common well of strength and courage and connection.

Places such as religious institutions, have skin, too, usually known as walls. I went to a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary. At the Academy for Jewish Religion, we share our common connection to Judaism, but we practice our religion in many ways, and as we study together and struggle to find ways to gather in prayer that will meet all of our needs, we name and acknowledge that fact. And yet, when we leave this learning environment and go out to serve in the world, there are limits to the ways in which we can be pluralistic. In our synagogues and other institutions, we build a community, we make decisions, for we can’t do everything, and our decisions determine who we are. Our communities have boundaries that define who and what they are and how they do things. They have a skin that distinguishes them from the rest of the world. The question becomes, does an institution or a community use its skin to isolate itself, or to join itself to all that is around it?

[1] Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, 2009, Wiley and Sons, p. 55.
[2] Jones, Andrea, “Identity’s Edge,” Orion Magazine, January-February, 2007.
[3] Lappe, Francis Moore, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, Nation Books, 2011, p. 16.

To the Stars and Back - Our Quest for Connection / Part 5 of 7

For each one of us, our vision or Big Picture is personal and unique, based on our individual life circumstances and our sense of who we are as a human being. And yet, for all of us, our universal realities intersect. We are all human beings, and like other organisms, we need food, water, air, and a place to lay our bodies down to sleep – even if that place is the street. A baby who is not sufficiently held and cared for – even if it has enough food and water – may fail to develop and gain weight due to a syndrome known as “failure to thrive.” Unlike most other creatures, in order to thrive, we human beings need some sense of love, hope, meaning, and trust. How these terms translate into a metalanguage that can be understood by all humans, I do not know. And just because we need love, hope, meaning, and trust, does not mean that we get them, just as we all do not get a livable home and enough to eat. But we are not ants and we are not maple trees and we are not fungi. We are human beings, with minds and with emotions, and our needs include those not easily translatable from language to language. And yet, like the ants and the maple trees and the fungi, we all share the Earth on which we live. Even as we fly off into space, we cannot get away from our connection to the planet upon which we evolved. It is home. It is our home. It is home for all of us, all 7 billion of us.

An important aspect of scientific research is the need to be objective. I have a friend who is studying science in a way that acknowledges the limits of our ability to do so. We can try to be objective. We can try really hard, and with some things, such as our concrete measurements, we can succeed. But we are governed not only by “seeing is believing,” but also by “believing is seeing.” Behind every measurement lie our beliefs. Behind every measurement is the decision of which measurement to take, and that decision – like all of our other decisions – is a very personal one, impacted by our own personal story of who we are and how we have gotten to this point in life. It is impacted by our family and our community, by our culture, our religion or lack there of, our race, our genes, our birthplace – physical, economic, and social. And, I would posit, our decisions are impacted by our ability or lack of ability to trust the unknown/Unknown and the unknowable/Unknowable.

Life events change us, and can change how we see the world. Trauma – a radical change in our immediate world – tends to change us. We want to keep ourselves safe. Sometimes we do it through anger, sometimes through escape into tightly knit communities, sometimes by embracing peace and serenity. We make choices. We make decisions. We make decisions about what to believe and what to do. And then, our decisions have impact.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

To the Stars and Back - Our Quest for Connection / Part 4 of 7

Related to whether or not to engage with others and with the world is the matter of how we engage. Part of a Talmudic sequence of stories related to seeking forgiveness offers some options. “When a certain person injured Rabbi Zera, [Rabbi Zera] would repeatedly pass before him and invite himself into his presence, so that the injurer would come and appease him.” Moshe Halbertal identifies Rabbi Zera’s graceful entrance into the presence of one who had injured him as an action worthy of emulation that created the conditions in which it was possible for the injurer to approach him and ask for forgiveness in a way in which no one was humiliated.[1]

In the story that follows, Rav, on the day before Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, at the eleventh hour for seeking forgiveness, goes to see a butcher who had slighted him. Rav’s colleague expresses concern that Rav is going to kill the butcher, and, in fact, the butcher rejects Rav’s presence, a supernatural event occurs, and the butcher dies. Halbertal points out that Rav’s strident intrusion when the clock is ticking for forgiveness is an act of aggression, influenced more, perhaps, by Rav’s need to be forgiven, than the butcher’s need to forgive. Rav got stuck in the details and forgot to see the Big Picture. He chose to engage, but with anger and aggression rather than humility and grace.

Let us ask ourselves, “Do I approach others with humility and love or do I approach with hurt, aggression, and anger?” The answer, as these stories show, makes all the difference in the world. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, teaches that, “While it is true that anger brings extra energy…[w]e cannot be sure whether its result will be positive or negative. This is because anger eclipses the best part of our brain: its rationality. So the energy of anger is almost always unreliable. It can cause an immense amount of destructive, unfortunate behavior.”[2] Gyatso posits that anger and hatred are always harmful, they are our real enemies, and we should find ways to cherish and develop passion and love. Holding a vision or a sense of our place in a bigger picture can help us to open our hearts and minds and souls, to be less afraid and less angry, and to feel more love and compassion. As we go through our days, it can be helpful to know how to hold our hand at arm’s length before us and, as we gaze at our hand, be able to shift our focus from the hand to the room beyond and back again, and to know when the focus is best on the hand, and when it is best on the view beyond to the Big Picture.

[1] “At the Threshold of Forgiveness: A Study of Law and Narrative in the Talmud,” by Moshe Halbertal, Jewish Review of Books, No. 7, Fall 2011.
[2]Compassion and the Individual,” by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet,