Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do people really change?

I hear alot of talk on blogs that centers on trying to figure out how to change people. Its not so much psychobabble as it is about trying to find out how we can get people to open their eyes and see things differently. But its also about trying to figure out how we can get people to make the kind of changes in their lives that will save the planet, reduce consumption, vote for the right person, protest unjust wars and policies, etc.

Today I'm going back to square one and asking whether or not this is possible...do people really change? Those of you who know a bit about my story might find that a strange question coming from me. I was raised mostly in East Texas in a family/community that is extremely right-wing fundamentalist christian. And up until I started openly asking questions in my 20's, I bought it all. So if I'm any example, of course people can change...and alot!

But the question for me is not so much did I change, but did I find what was there in the first place. This might seem like a distinction without a difference to some, but I think its extremely important when we think about how we approach the goal of trying to increase the ranks of people who are willing to stand up and fight for the causes we espouse.

That's because when we want people to change, we tend approach them by giving them information and trying to convince them that the way we see the world is the right way. And that's actually the easy part (even though we know its not easy). Because then people have to commit to changing how they live their lives. We all know behavior change is possible, but its an uphill struggle and most people can't sustain it over the long haul.

The process of how I got from there to here did not happen because someone convinced me to live my life differently. It came, first of all, by noticing that what I believed and what happened in the world did not jibe. In other words, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance. And so I began asking questions.

Just as an example, right after graduating from college, I worked in a residential treatment program for chemically addicted kids. My world view at the time was that I was a christian and, therefore, had a corner on the "love thy neighbor" market. If this was true, I should have been the most effective counselor that agency employed (because the others weren't real christians you know). But that world view turned out to have no connection whatsoever to reality. I was a naive "goody two-shoes" with no training or experience in what these kids had been through or what they needed from me. And pretty much every other staff who worked there was able to connect and be more effective with them than I was. So I began to ask myself, "What difference does it make that I'm a christian?" These other staff, by living out their commitment to the young people in that program, began to help me see that my life was a lie. None of them ever tried to change me or my world view. They just lived out theirs in front of me and I was left with questions.

Molly Ivins (may she rest in peace) describes a similar, and yet more concrete experience of recognizing the lie. She also grew up in East Texas and as a child was told not to drink from the "colored" water fountain because it was dirty. In her innocence, she noticed that the "white" water fountain, due to more usage, was the one that was actually dirty. Thus began her questioning of everything she was taught...starting with racism.

Over the years, there were many other people who had a huge impact on me. But the ones who helped me the most never tried to convince me of anything. They tried to help me find myself and what I believed to be true about the world based on my experience. In the end, my process was not so much one of change, but of discovery. I can't speak to that as the universal experience, but it is mine. And, as Earth, Wind and Fire said, its all there and waiting...written in the stone.



Deep inside your heart for you to keep
lies a spark of light that never sleeps.
The greatest love you've ever known
Yea is written in the stone.

In the stone you'll find the meaning
Why you're not standing tall.
In the stone the light is shining,
forever touching all.
Never, never my darling,
never you'll be alone.
Ever, forever my darling
True love is written in the stone.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Right Brain Nirvana

In a comment to my diary below titled "Questions on good and evil," tampopo provided a link to an amazing video that I wanted to highlight here. The speaker is Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine. After years of studying the brain and its chemistry, she had a stoke, and learned some amazing things from the experience. She recently gave a speech titled "Stroke of Insight" at a TED conference where it is summarized like this:

This is a powerful story of recovery and awareness -- of how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.


(The speech is about 18 minutes. But its well worth the time)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Renewal

Its Easter today and spring came this week - or so says the calendar. I'm not a Christian, so I'm not celebrating Easter. But I do love the messages associated with this time of year... renewal, rebirth, light from darkness.



This last week has felt confusing to me as we observed the fifth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq followed almost immediately by the advent of spring. It felt like the darkest of nights was pressed too close for comfort against the possibilities of a new day. Emotionally I haven't been able to move that fast. And just to underscore the point, we've gotten 5-6 inches of snow where I live in the last two days. Indeed old man winter is fighting to give way to the coming of spring.

For many of us this winter has been a long one. And I'm not just talking about the weather. The worst of it started 7 and a half years ago when the Supreme Court declared George Bush to be president. That was all followed closely by 9/11, Afghanistan, then Iraq. And things have just grown darker since then.

There are times I play with fantasy and wonder what might have happened differently. What if we had a leader that responded to 9/11 as we would have wanted her to? How would we have scripted something different? I know many felt that moment right after the event when, in all the shock and grief, it seemed as if the whole world came together and was ready to help with the healing. But we all know that moment was squandered by those who took us to war and told us to go shopping.

Is renewal still possible after those fatal errors? There are certainly some wounds that will take more than a lifetime to heal. And we need to honor those wounds in our lives and memories with the respect they deserve.

But the capacity of the human spirit is an amazing thing. I was just reminded of that when RUKind posted a link in a comment to Nightprowlkitty's essay Friday about the film Beyond Belief.



Susan Retik and Patti Quigley are two ordinary soccer moms living in the affluent suburbs of Boston until tragedy strikes. Rather than turning inwards, grief compels these women to focus on the country where the terrorists who took their husbands' lives were trained: Afghanistan.

Over the course of two years, as they cope with loss and struggle to raise their families as single mothers, these extraordinary women dedicate themselves to empowering Afghan widows whose lives have been ravaged by decades of war, poverty and oppression - factors they consider to be the root causes of terrorism. As Susan and Patti make the courageous journey from their comfortable neighborhoods to the most desperate Afghan villages, they discover a powerful bond with each other, an unlikely kinship with widows halfway around the world, and a profound way to move beyond tragedy.

From the ruins of the World Trade Center to those of Kabul and back, theirs is a journey of personal strength and international reconciliation, and a testament to the vision that peace can be forged... one woman at a time.


Here again are the words from the trailer:

Beyond tragedy
there is hope.
Beyond hatred
there is compassion.
Beyond our borders
two women discover we are all connected.
Beyond belief.


But it's not "beyond belief." These are two real women who are acting in the real world. They are demonstrating for all of us what the true spirit of renewal can be...even in the wake of terrible tragedy. What if their way of responding was the expected course? This is not outside the bounds of what the human spirit is capable of. Certainly it is the more difficult path. Much easier to feed into hate, revenge and violence (in word and deed). But if we ever needed an example of the folly of that way, we've seen it demonstrated clearly over the last few years.

So today, on this spring day, I want to claim the path of renewal as demonstrated by Susan Retik and Patti Quigley for myself... and someday for my country.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Questions on good and evil













Sometimes I wonder if four people who have so little in common in how they have lived their lives can all be said to be of the same species. And yet, that is what we have here. Four examples of human beings. My question is this...how does that happen? Perhaps, for some of you, this is not an important question. But to me, it might be the biggest of them all. I obviously want to understand how someone becomes like Archbishop Tutu as opposed to Dick Cheney because I want more Tutu's and less Cheney's. If we can begin to understand how that happens, maybe we can start to fix things, at least for the future.

Of course, some would call it fate or the will of God. I don't buy that. The other way of looking at it involves the nature vs nurture debate. As is our normal habit, we tend to see these things as polarities, ie, its either genetics or environment. If it's all genetics, we're back to fate and the whole question is a moot point. But if environment plays a role, then we have something to work with.

I remember when this question hit me full force. I was working part-time in a children's home in Los Angeles. It was a place where they "housed" children who had been abandoned or terribly abused by their parents and then failed in foster placements. There were cottages filled with 4-12 year old children in that situation. It was the toughest work I've ever done. These kids were a mess and it didn't take much to see where many of them were headed. As I looked at them I knew that some of them would be our "evil ones" of the future. And yet, they were in that position through no fault of their own. They were there because all of the adults in their lives had failed them. I was in seminary at the time and wrestling with this was part of what caused me to question my whole understanding of good and evil in the world.

One of the reasons I think this issue is important is because, at times, I fear that we can buy into the meme that those like Cheney and Rice are just evil and therefore dismiss their humanity. I think this is dangerous ground to be walking on. I know its a challenge to find the humanity in people like them, but I have to believe its there. And I agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he says:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?


I doubt there has ever been a more powerful portrayal of the meeting of good and evil than the book and movie "Dead Man Walking" based on the relationships of Sister Helen Prejean with men on death row.



Sister Helen Prejean is trying to tell us that even in the most vile and evil people exists a human being - and she works relentlessly to find it. To me, her story is one of the most profound statements on the human condition that has ever been told.

I don't have the answers to my questions. But I do think that what we consider humane is developed through a process that includes both how we are treated and how we choose to react to that treatment. It involves a calling out of the humane through the process of an interconnecting weave of "meetings" between ourselves and the world around us. I sometimes fear that the whole fabric of that weave is breaking down for far too many. But there is a healing that is available in the reconnecting of that weave. Maybe someday we'll understand more about that process.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Seeing What Isn't There

A few years ago I watched a documentary about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It had a huge impact on me because after watching it, one question hung in the air: How is it that these women could see so clearly what needed to change when most other women had been accepting the status quo for centuries? We have names for these kinds of people...pioneers and prophets.



A few months later I heard a woman speak about leadership. She said something I'd never heard before...that leadership requires seeing what isn't there. I immediately related that idea to the lives of Anthony and Stanton. They had a vision of what the role of women could be that did not yet exist. And they fought with everything they had to make it happen.

I began to wonder what I wasn't seeing yet.

I think the process of figuring that out takes at least two things. First of all, we have to question most of our assumptions about what currently is. As long as we continue to accept how things are, we'll never be able to see how things could be. I hear alot of people say "that's just how its always been." What would have happened if Anthony and Stanton had accepted that? Don't you think they heard the argument that women had always played a supporting role? But they had a different vision...one that they had no basis to believe was possible in the world. And yet they believed it could happen.

Secondly, I think we need to pay a radical kind of attention to ourselves and the world around us. For me, paying attention to myself means listening to that inner wisdom that is available to us all. Just as our body has amazing capacity for healing itself, our inner wisdom has amazing capacities for healing as well...if we'll only listen. I believe that Anthony and Stanton were listening to that voice inside that said they belonged in the world and had something to offer, even when everything around them denied that possibility. I believe their vision and courage came from what they saw in themselves.

Paying attention to the world is what those of us who blog probably do best. Our awareness is sometimes heightened beyond our capacity to absorb. But I think that's because we move so quickly to the need to fix things and then get frustrated with the limited tools we think are available to us. I think the answers are there, if we'll just take the time to pay attention.

I've quoted this poem here before, so please forgive me for being repetitive. It comes from the Northwest Native American tradition and is the response an elder might give to a young person wanting to know what to do when you are lost in the forest.



Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.


The wisdom of this poem goes against the grain of our fear instincts that would have us frantically running around the forest trying to find our way out. But I think there are powerful lessons to be learned from our lostness that might be exactly what we need to find our way home again. If we pay attention, we just might be able to see what isn't there yet.

Friday, March 7, 2008

WTF Hillary??!!

From The Chicago Tribune:

In a Cabinet-style setting, surrounded by retired military leaders, Sen. Hillary Clinton said the public should ask whether Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama has met the criteria needed to become the nation’s commander in chief.

“I think that since we now know Sen. (John) McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that. And I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold,” the New York senator told reporters crowded into an infant’s bedroom-sized hotel conference room in Washington.

“I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she said.

Calling McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee a good friend and a “distinguished man with a great history of service to our country,” Clinton said, “Both of us will be on that stage having crossed that threshold. That is a critical criterion for the next Democratic nominee to deal with.”

...

She said she and McCain had traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan together as she repeated a line that surfaced from the campaign trail. She and McCain “bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign, Clinton said, while “Sen. Obama will bring a speech he gave in 2002,” stating his opposition to the Iraq war as an Illinois state senator.


Does she mean this John McCain:



Or maybe this one:



WTF are you thinking Hillary?!!!! I don't know about you, but I think John McCain would be an absolute disaster as commander in chief and has demonstrated NO capacity in that area. For you to even have implied that he has says to me that either your judgment is severely impaired or that you will say anything to win this nomination. What you said is really beneath you and all of us who hope for some light at the end of this long dark tunnel. I would only ask that you remember what it is that we as Democrats are supposed to be fighting for and which side of that struggle you are supposed to be on.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Be Radical

As many of us try to find ways to change the trajectory of our system both outside and inside the political system, we often run into roadblocks that get in our way of feeling successful. What can we do on a daily basis to create the kind of radical change we're looking for?

I think one of the things that gets in the way of a truly progressive movement is that we keep thinking we have to change everything that's wrong with the world. That usually means we get stuck with having to change what others are doing. Sometimes we can have an impact on that, but its an uphill battle for sure. And when others aren't interested in changing, we feel frustrated. Mohatma Gandhi, on the other hand, challenged us to "be the change we want to see in the world." I believe that's where our power lies...in ourselves.

Another thing that I think gets in our way is that we can feel small and powerless to actually have any impact. We get trapped into feeling like we can’t alter the course of history with our small efforts and then get immobilized to do anything at all. That's why I added another of Gandhi's quotes as my sig line. I need a constant reminder that:

Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.


Finally, I think that we often get impatient. And its understandable why. There are lives in the balance. But if we look at history, we learn that the kind of change that we need now takes time. That’s not a call to complacency, but to sustained efforts with patience. I think that’s what Ruben Alvez was trying to say in this quote about hope:

So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.

This is the secret of discipline. Such disciplined love is what has given saints, revolutionaries, and martyrs the courage to die for the future they envision; they make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.


One of the places on the net that I have enjoyed the most is a site called No Impact Man. Colin Beavan and his family took on the challenge of living for one year having no impact on the environment. Through all this, Colin wrote a daily blog about their experience.

A few months ago he wrote an essay about optimism vs realism that was one of my favorites. Here's a bit of it:

When I was child, and I first heard of war, I was appalled. My mother had taught me hitting was wrong. I categorically understood that people should not hurt each other. Then I grew up and I became realistic. Peace, feeding the hungry, a healthy planet, an end to war, these things just aren’t realistically possible, a mature mind understands. Well, when it comes to these things, I’ve been both an idealistic child and a realistic grownup, and I think I was a better person when I was an idealistic child.

I believe too that every action each of us takes makes a difference. Every time each of us rejects a disposable bag brings the world one step closer to being the kind of place where sea turtles don’t die from eating plastic. Every time each of us sacrifices a car ride brings us the world one step closer to being the kind of place where there is no global warming. Every time one of us tithes our income brings us one step closer to ending world poverty. Every time one of us calls a member of congress brings our representatives one step closer to caring more about voters than campaign contributors.

Perhaps people will think I’m too optimistic. But this is for certain: these things can’t be true if no one takes the chance of believing they’re true. Because if we don’t believe they are true, we won’t act as though they’re true. And if we don’t act as though they’re true, they can’t come true. That’s why realism does little but protect the status quo.

Being optimistic, on the other hand, is the most radical political act there is.


In summary, for all of you who have been waiting with baited breath for NL's prescription on how to make the world a better place, here it is :-)

1. Be the change you want to see
2. Embrace the small things you can do
3. Continue sustained efforts with patience

But most of all, adopt the most radical political attitude there is...optimism.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Reclaiming Awe

One of the many cesspools we'll have to clean up post-Bushco is our language. There are words I find myself avoiding because they have been so tainted with lies and evil that their original meaning has been mutilated. A project like that doesn't rate as high on the priority list as things like ending the war in Iraq, stopping the use of torture, addressing climate change, fixing the economy, and joining with the people of the gulf coast to restore their home. But it is something I hope we can do along the way.

For me, a word that is seriously in need of restoration is "awe." I just hate the fact that every time I hear that word these days, I think of the destruction and death "shock and awe" caused in Iraq. Its such a beautiful word and it was used in the most vile way imaginable. So, my hope is that we will not only end our perpetuation of violence in that country and at least TRY to find a way to make amends for what we have done, but that we will also recognize that our leaders took a concept that should inspire peace and bastardized it as a tool for war.

One of my favorite pieces of literature is Jane Wagner's play "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" that was written for and performed by Lily Tomlin. The premise of the play is that Lily is a bag lady that channels aliens from outer space who are here to explore humanity. These aliens are curious about the concept of "goose bumps" so Lily's character takes them to a play because that's a place she has experienced goose bumps in the past.

On the way to the play, we stopped to look at the stars.
And as usual,
I felt in awe.
And then I felt even deeper in awe at this capacity we have to be
in awe about something.

Then I became even more awestruck
at the thought that I was,
in some small way,
a part of that which I was in awe about.

And this feeling went on
and on
and on...
My space chums got a word for it:
"awe infinitum."

I decided I would set time aside each day to do awe-robics.


To be in awe for me seems to encompass both our magnificence and our humility all at the same time. We are insignificant specks on the one hand. And yet we are a part of a universe that is beautiful and bold beyond our imagination. I think that second part is what we often feel, but fail to articulate. As Lily's character says, "Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was, in some small way, a part of that which I was in awe about."

Here are just a few of the things that inspire awe in me. And remember, we are part of all of this.


From NASA






They will kill me but they will not kill my voice, because it will be the voice of all Afghan women. You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring.
Malalai Joya



Students in Waller County, Texas marching two weeks ago to end their disenfranchisement.




My grandniece Bella's first halloween








My niece Dani

But of course, I am also awe-struck by music. The problem is that there are so many songs that inspire goosebumps, depending on the mood I'm in. But here's one that does it for me, no matter the day, time or situation.