a little something extra

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sabbath 23

In this chapter, titled "Be Still and Know," Muller brings up more of his direct experience with Bread for the Journey, the organization he founded. It's refreshing to read something so grounded in the real-world work he does, but at some points he still launches out into magical thinking.

He continues advocating for sabbath rest as a key component of good decision-making and a source of wisdom to undergird one's plans. His examples branch out to a larger description of how Bread for the Journey begins evaluating a community not by assessing its needs, but by assessing its strengths, many of which may be hidden or seem at first glance to be irrelevant to the needs at hand. I smiled at Muller's acknowledgment that "If people are alive, they will have unmet needs." In the face of that truth, the assessment of needs becomes a Sisyphean task of limited utility, doesn't it?

I also smiled at the place earlier in the chapter where Muller wrote about the "deep, crippling loneliness" that afflicted a single mother who was later borne up and supported by a network of other single parents who helped each other with the mundane tasks of family life, but also offered crucial if unspoken recognition and support to one another.

Smiling at someone's loneliness may seem cruel on the surface, but I don't mean it that way. I smiled because I think everybody suffers from loneliness sometimes, and that that loneliness undergirds many of our more intractable social ills. (See, Tripp, that phrase is still resonating in my memory -- I'll have to bring that "where do they come from?" question back to you soon!)

I think loneliness drives us to materialism when we try to fill the empty spaces in our lives with toys and gadgets, with "security," or just to distract ourselves with the stimulation of new stuff.

I think loneliness drives us to many addictions (this is not to discount the biological and social components that contribute to addiction) -- we use food, or sex, or pharmaceuticals, or alcohol to self-medicate our loneliness or to find an instant community we can feel part of. During my last couple of years of undergrad, I often ate in the smoking area of the student center (those were the days...) although I wasn't a smoker myself. But lots of the other arts students were, so that was where "my people" tended to be found.

Muller comes to this idea of self-medicating by another route, when in this chapter he notes that many programs or proposed solutions to social ills are flung out in a desperate attempt just to make the symptoms go away. It is hard to suffer ourselves; it is hard to witness others' suffering; so we try anything and everything to get rid of the suffering. Muller suggests in this chapter that we waste a lot of energy and other resources in this frantic approach. He believes we would do better if we sat with the problem a bit longer, listened to the people experiencing the problem a bit more, and kept our minds attentive to the solutions (which he seems to believe will be more effective) that arise in or after a time of reflection.

I'll go part way down this road with Muller. There are problems we can afford to wait for solutions to, and there are crises that we can't. If a person is starving, I can't afford to wait -- I have to feed them now, not meditate on how to establish an organic garden for them. But as was famously pointed out in the fishing parable, feeding a person is a temporary solution. We need to be smart about where we apply tourniquets, and where we engage in serious long-term rehabilitative therapy. (Okay. I'm going to stop beating that metaphor to death now.)

Perhaps the idea I'm groping towards is that we must do what we can do now to alleviate suffering, to preserve Nature, to nurture each other, etc. -- but that doing what we can do now does not let us off the hook for good. Perhaps palliative care, or the respite that comes after the starving person has been fed, just buys us the time to meditate and listen for deeper, more permanent solutions. They are two parts of the same process, and we must devote ourselves to both.

This chapter's exercise extended the "let go and let God" practice from the last exercise, inviting the experimenter to return to his/her problem of choice after a night's sleep and see what new ideas or feelings may have grown in that space during the night. Certainly, I can understand how a night's sleep untroubled by the worry du jour would boost one's courage and creativity, whether or not there's any divine influence!

The question of divine influence has resounded more strongly for me in this second reading of the book than it did the first time. My hackles come up any time that Muller gets too Organized-Religion-Godly in his language. Mostly because I think that non-believers should get to rest too.

Links to Tripp's and Cristopher's posts.


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