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In Praise of Ego

The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
Thomas Moore

I have heard it said that the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead would awaken every morning, and exuberantly exclaim, “Thank God I am Margaret Mead!” That is certainly an eye-opener, and at first blush sounds unpleasantly self-centered. It is also an incredibly difficult thing to say. Try it yourself: “Thank God I am …” I’ll bet your name stuck in your throat. I know mine did. Although it appears as though Ms. Mead is egotistically crowing at the dawn, I think that there is a wonderful sense in which her affirmation can be seen as a grateful recognition that she has been given existence as a unique individual who has the potential to be a blessing to herself and to the world.

In the Prologue to Demian, Herman Hesse writes a moving tribute to the precious reality of each and every individual:

“Each human being represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature … the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as he [or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”

I find two ideas in this quote inspiring. The first is that each of us is an experiment on the part of nature in the creation of the human. Each of us is a variation on the theme of humanity, a variation that has never existed before and will never show up again. It is as though nature says, “Ok, John or Sally or Peter, here is your particular slice of humanity. Now let’s see what you can do with it.” We do not make our choices and create a self with impunity, however. The world will either be better off or worse off, if only by a trifle, simply because you and I have passed through it. Will we leave a few small ripples of kindness behind us, or more distrust and fear? This is a question, I think, that is worth asking every day, as a step toward being the man I want to be.

The second idea that inspires me is the notion that my perception of the world here and now is actually creating a world that exists only in this moment, and only through me. This is reminiscent of the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Have you ever looked at a sunset, say, and realized that this particular sunset is for you alone and no one else? No one is seeing it from your place in the world, from your angle, with your thoughts and feelings. Think of it: everything you see right here and right now–and in every moment of your life– is the creation of your perceptions. An irreducible world comes into being with your birth, flowers with your every step, and vanishes at your death. We truly are co-creators with the Divine, and I imagine with Alice Walker that our Divine Collaborator must get exasperated with us when we don’t treasure our creative power. We have the opportunity to revel in the beauty that it is our privilege and perhaps responsibility to create and enjoy. In the Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And when we piss God off this way, She just plunks another field of purple flowers in our path, just to see if this time we will co-create it with Her, or remain wrapped in our complacent slumber.

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Two Dreamers: Martin and Willy

Martin

Willie

Plato clearly saw that the material realm is a sluggish and recalcitrant collaborator with Soul in the creation of a world–personal and social–that is truly good and beautiful.  Even though we live in a messy, confusing, inconsistent world, however, we are blessed with the power to dream, and to shape the world, partially at least, into the image of our dreams.  The dreams we dream spring from, and express, the depth of our humanity and our vitality..  So I wonder: do my dreams approximate those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or those of Willy Loman?   I know what I like to say, but I must ask myself how I live, for it is only in the living of life that my true values manifest themselves.  Joseph Campbell once said that we live in one world and babble about another.

Further, it seems that the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity, the dream of aiding the human family to align with each other and with the transcendental source, however it is understood.  For our dreams–those we imagine and those we live–are the stuff of which our social systems are made. The need for structure and order in those systems molds them into powerful institutions that quickly become rigid bureaucracies.

Perhaps our inner values and outer behavior are strange amalgams of King’s dreams of love, and Loman’s dreams of social prestige and material success.  It seems that our major institutions share this central dissonance in that they offer the great promise of lofty dreams, but deliver the tawdry disillusionment of the salesman’s silk stockings.  Education promises learning, but many teachers deliver dry, rote memorization; medicine promises health, while doctors often deliver cold technique; the justice system promises equal justice for all, yet the courts deliver racial and economic discrimination; religion promises God’s love and forgiveness, while ministers with patriarchal authority deliver sin and Hellfire, building funds and empty ritual.   Martin dreams, and Willy delivers.

These observations are tragic in the classical Aristotelian sense: greatness brought to ruin by a tragic flaw.  The magnificent dream of America–liberty and justice for all–is corrupted by “The American Dream” which becomes more materialistic with each passing year.  American institutions and America herself embody incredible promise and disillusioning heartbreak.  The great voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, puts it this way: “Who am I? You know me, Dream of my dreams. I am America.  I am America seeking the stars.  America—Hoping, praying, fighting, dreaming, knowing there are stains on the beauty of my democracy. I want to be clean.”

In the light of the above, it is tempting to give up on our society and her institutions.  To say “To Hell with it; be dirty if you want.” How simple it would be to heed Voltaire’s advice, and with Candide, to cultivate our own gardens.  But to relinquish the dream of a better tomorrow and to sink into complacency might be the truest tragedy.  It would mean that we had stopped reaching for the stars.  No, with Langston Hughes, I want to be clean.  I want America to be clean.  I want our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms, prisons and churches to be clean.

The truth that transformation starts with me is so obvious and so often stated that it borders on cliche.  Be that as it may,  It seems clear that if I value my integrity, I can only ask the world to be as compassionate as i am, as non-punishing as I am, as non-judgmental as I am.  To ask more of others than I ask of myself seems self-indulgent and hypocritical.   What good does it do to rail against the Willy Lomans of the world and to ignore the Willy Loman in myself?  Willy will fight me, will sabotage me, just as he does the institutions of the world.  I must ultimately see Willy for what he is: a self-created  and powerful part of myself.

The quality of my character contributes to the character of the whole.  Just as a beach is composed of countless grains of sand, so every act of every individual contributes to the spirit of all. While most of us will not be called to the center stage of the human drama, we each alter the world, infinitesimally but truly, by each kind or harsh word, each creative or destructive gesture as they unfold in small and seemingly insignificant moments.  It has been said that the world will be a shade kinder or a shade more harsh simply because you and I have passed through it.  That, to me, is an awesome responsibility.  And if we are called to a wider social arena, let us hope that we can remember our belief in the power of love as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

As Plato says at the beginning of this post, we live in a world that is inherently and perhaps eternally imperfect.  Dr. King was not perfect, and neither is any human being.  I like to think that the current population of the world is simply at a relatively early stage in the evolution of humanity.  Wonders await us–if we can survive our childhood. But for now, Willy is with us, in our hearts and in the world, and he must be dealt with.  I believe, however, that it is not helpful to see Willy–the materialistic imperfections of self and world–as an enemy in a war. The Buddha’s teaching that only love turns away anger is an ancient truth that Dr. King not only believed, but lived.  Attack engenders defense and retaliation.  Judgment is by its very nature divisive.  So I must bring the Philistine in me, the materialist in me, the coward in me, and yes, the racist in me, to light, and once there, to acknowledge him with compassion and understanding.  For if the Buddha is correct, it is from the ground of love that transformation can begin. Plato suggests that the most powerful teaching is not through words but through actions.  The teacher simply points to, and lives, the light. The Martin in me (and I believe he is in all of us, dormant in some, quickened in others) needs to reassure and guide the darker parts of myself toward the light.  Like everyone, Willy needs reassurance and guidance, and only then might he quiet down, might he entertain the possibility of more humane dreams, and discover the resources to live with kindness and grace.

And so, like Sisyphus, we trudge up the hill of personal and social transformation.  Each day of our lives offers us new challenges that invite further growth.  Life is a wonderful friend, for it never leaves us alone, always ready to throw another curve ball to disrupt our complacency. We often encounter Willy Loman along the way.  Our personal lives as well as our social institutions can be profoundly disheartening, but the challenges and imperfections we encounter give energy and direction to the unfolding of beauty, much as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon.  Martin invites us on a journey toward a more just and loving world, a world that shines like a pearl. Willy supplies the sand, the grist to soften our hard edges.

St. Francis: Before and After

While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life.  There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving.  In front of the main Basilica we see this:

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and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:

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The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure.  Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom.  Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.

After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi.  Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy.  Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit.  Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.

Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not.  Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down.  There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake.  Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death.  But that is another story.

For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing.  Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers.  He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature.  Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years.  It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano.  His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture.  Is there anywhere else you would rather be?

A New Friend

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Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968) is a new discovery for me, but he is one of Italy’s most famous poets.  His most popular poem is especially significant today as we witness a solar eclipse here in Europe.  It is also a poignant evocation for me of the passing of life in a wondrous blink of the eye:

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor del terra

trafitto da un raggio di sole

ed e subito sera

Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth

pierced by a ray of sun

and suddenly it is evening

Pilgrimage to Assisi

francis

Today Carolyn and I leave for Rome and then Assisi.  We will continue to study Italian, and I will be sharing some insights into the religious and political milieu of the 13th century with a lovely group of pilgrims.  My intention is simply to keep my mind as alert as possible, and my heart as open as possible.  I want to remember an insight of Dawna Markova: “What you love reveals its loveliness.”

St. Francis was clearly a remarkable human being.  Remarkable in his absolute commitment to live his beliefs, his wholehearted embrace of suffering humanity, and in his unstinting love of Nature.  He was a human being in that his path was not one of unremitting sweetness and light. His relationship with his father was turbulent, his experience in war was traumatic, he felt the burden of leadership as onerous, and finally a vast number of his followers could not be faithful to his vision.    Karen Armstrong says that the magnificent basilica that houses his body in Assisi was actually the final and perhaps greatest betrayal of his life.  Even the famous Peace Prayer attributed to him was not written until the 19th century by an anonymous author.

I plan to write a series of essays while in Italy to unpack these varying eddies in the the life of Francis, and to reflect on their relevance to life in the 21st century.  I am sure Francis would echo the sentiment expressed in “his” famous prayer:  May we all be instruments of Divine Peace.

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A Lived Life

Lotus

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”   This is perhaps the most famous statement Socrates ever made.  One day many years ago, as I was teaching this section of Plato’s dialogues, it occurred to me in a flash that the opposite was also true: The unlived life is not worth examining.  I went on to share this thought with my students: so many people spend their time on earth worrying about life after death and adjusting their beliefs and behaviors to accommodate this worry.  But the far more important and relevant question, it seems to me, is “is there life before death?”

For our morning reading this month, Carolyn and I are enjoying a lovely book by Dawna Markova entitled “I will not die an unlived life.”  This woman expresses her hard won wisdom with a beauty that flows deeply into the soul.  She shares an inspiring vision of living an undivided life with love and passion and grace.

In our reading this morning, Dawna told a story I found fascinating.  She and her husband had been invited to India to visit with the Dalai Lama.  Upon arriving, she was told to ignore the beggars and this she did, closing her heart as she made her way to Dharamsala.  As she entered her guest house, she realized her body had become tight and protected and her heart felt small.  She was then told that the Dalai Lama was ill and could not see her, and that she would have to settle with an audience with a Rinpoche.  Disappointed and depressed, she walked out into a grey world,  and immediately met a small beggar girl who had clearly suffered from leprosy.  Dawna’s heart melted as she scooped the girl into her arms and sang to her a song of love.  Dawna continues:

“This little brown child, whose name I will never know, broke my heart so wide open that it could have contained the whole world.  From her I learned that passion is a river. … It creates the desire to reach, to pass on to the world what you love.  And through that opening, the world passes into you.”  That little girl became one of Dawna’s inner advisors: “and each reminds me that even in the moments when I feel the most helpless to ’do’ or fix or help, I can still, always, love in simple and ultimate ways.  I can let in, let be, or be with, opening and experiencing what life brings to me.”

Her words alone shine a light on what it means to live life.  A further thought occurs to me, however.  Dawna had traveled halfway around the world to meet with a justly famous spiritual teacher who became unavailable. Then on a dusty road she met a small brown angel who became one of her  greatest teachers.  We never know where, or in what form, grace is waiting for us.  I want to remember to pay attention, and to trust that every door that closes is moving me toward another unexpected blessing-in-disguise.