Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Lemon of Internal Loneliness - Lemonade of Community, Earth, CrossFit

Alone in my own body. 

This is a phrase that I used to use to describe what it felt like inside of me, for most of my life. I don’t know how it will sound out loud, in the spaces where other human beings read their own experiences into the words. For me, this sensation has driven most of my need to connect, to be seen, to be heard. It’s a searing thing sometimes, with a panicky edginess that will not let me rest, sit still. Other times it will only be a dull ache that I hope no one notices while I go about my postures of purpose--thought projects, intellectual achievements, devotion to the divine as I had been shaped to know it/Him/the One. 

The source of most of my ‘not-enough-ness,’ this sense of being alone in my body, has also resulted in the depth and breadth of connections with friends I get to enjoy today. Without it, I would not have striven so hard for distinction amidst my intellectual pursuits, to be emotionally present for the mentors in my life who were drawn to my energies. I would not have persisted into new communities, then been driven further for women to gather in circle, for human beings to learn new ways to be more fully human with one another. In that sense, I have a blessedly overwhelming amount of lemonade for this lemon of an internal loneliness.

I muse here because I’m beginning to wonder if there are others in our civic spheres who feel bereft and alone in their own bodies. Could this emptiness unknown be underneath much of the inhuman-acting-out I see writ large--both extremist Republicans and Democrats? Does an utter refusal of awareness drive our divisions?

Most of the strategies the Westernized over-culture posits for redress of this existential condition have to do with sex of some kind. It could be as minimal as being a sexually desirable woman (for me, in my body), or an overtly macho-man in control and domination (the last gasp of the Patriarch? I wonder…). Or it could be as extensively beyond my ken as having multiple partners in sexual explorations, even co-habitation. (Could there be anything more exhausting or complicated, I wonder in myself? No shame no blame here, just observing my own visceral responses...). So much of our ideological politics has an either/or fulcrum around some body-characteristic...often with categories determined by the linear, categorizing habits of mind that are not holistic, integrative, synthesizing. Regardless, human beings are hincky about bodies, both as sites of ultimate self-expression and focal points of organized shame and moral condemnation(s). As a young woman growing up in small town Ohio, I chose to insure I was alone in my own body. Not only was it safer, but it seemed less complicated. 

Fast forward to today, with decades under my belt now of reclaiming the human body as source and guide in sacred knowing. It was not a conscious choice to focus my scholarship in this way, nor did I ever imagine I would be doing what I’m doing now in my vocational pursuits of seminary teaching and circle-way leadership. I was gifted with a transformative encounter with Something or Someone on November 11, 1993, singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio in a huge choral concert. I was blessed with a mentor and companion who could steward my fledgling (and willfully stubborn) scholarship. The role of music in spiritual transformation, in the arrival of insights along the sacred journey--that became my quest. The gift was realizing the wholly embodied nature of musical experience, the role of the body in receiving insights and staying with Something or Someone long enough to be changed on the inside. Reclaiming the body, I came to realize, undergirded everything driving me toward the sacred...

...which ultimately had to become reclaiming my own body. Note the abstraction in “reclaiming the body”? Divided. Separate from. Dissociated. Hmmm….  An essential shift in this sacred journey became the journey of reclaiming my own body, as fragile, fearful, and shame-ridden as I felt my own form to be. You cannot grow up in a feminine-demonizing, bastardizing-Christianized culture and not get marked by the embodied shaming/guilting of Eve. How does Dar Williams sing it? The story she was not meant to survive? 

Having deflected and distanced myself for decades from any association with Eve’s shaming--it wouldn’t touch me if I took on the masculinized shield, I decided early on--I now see the terrible wounding of both men and women by this energy of demonization, this energy of dissociation or separation. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with it and disempower women consciously or unconsciously, or whether you decry it, deny it, refuse it voice. This energy of aversion, of separation, is internalized within each of us in some fashion. It shows up when men disavow their feelings, so to not get the shit kicked out of them for being weak or ‘too feminine,’ or to prevent losing face in a political debate or divide. It shows up when women achieve as much as men, taking on the masculine in the worlds where it will be the only thing heard or seen. All the while, our world careens out of balance, disconnected from the earth, from the feminine, from the body.

The strange thing that draws these reflections forth with a sense of contrast, with possibility, is that I am no longer alone in my own body today. I find this befuddling in many ways, because it is independent of my sex life. I am blessed with a loving life partner, willing to grow along with me amidst his own quite distinct sacred journeying. We’ve had great sex, bad sex, and everything in between. This being no longer alone in my body is independent of that journey with him, though it now gifts us both, of course.

The pieces that seem related have emerged from disparate but integrating directions. One clearly breathes new life here as our circle-way community was birthed and is evolving now in her own time, blessed by the shared labor with a dear spiritual friend. Another comes in deepening explorations in co-creation with nature, learning the voices and energies of what another friend calls the Plant Nation, the Mineral Kingdom, and more.

A Sacred Mountain Quest in 2019 opened up awareness to invitations and energies I’d never noticed or truly felt before. Another piece comes in a relatively new circle-way community in my life, CrossFit, a community-organizing approach to fitness and health. 

This not being alone in my body anymore suggests a way of being in the world rooted in nature, connected to the Earth in known and unknown ways. It is held by being in right relationship with a larger community that truly hears me, sees me, at regular intervals. Not only hears and sees me, but allows me to be as fragile and potentially shadowy as I may be at times, experiencing and even causing discomfort within which all of us (who are willing) will grow, be transformed. This not being alone in my body breathes again and again as I get to play and move and challenge myself with physical exertion alongside others on the same fitness commitment, discipline.

The emptiness unknown became apparent, began to ease, when a community formed with deep-listening, consciousness-raising practices in which those who show up can be seen and heard, in all light and shadow...when an inarticulate-intuitive connection to the Earth took root in my awakenings...when a community of fitness offered a way to move in concert while prioritizing individual health and fitness.

Body. Awakening Community. Earth. Moving Community. Body. Not resolving our political conflicts. Not ignoring our political divides and the very real pains in any and everyone I know. Body. Willing to awaken in community. Rootedness in the Earth. Becoming fit and healthy so to hear what is all around us.

Enough for today. More than enough. Downright blessing and gratitude. Lemonade (without sugar for me), from this lemon of body loneliness. Perhaps lemon-infused water will be enough, refreshment for a warm day.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Emptiness Unknown

There used to be a deep-belly emptiness in me, though for most of my life, I did not even know I felt empty. This may be because I insured I didn’t feel...or I didn’t feel what I wasn’t supposed to feel...or at least I didn’t feel too much, whatever that meant in my contexts. In the last 5-7 years, however, a fullness I never knew was possible found me, or was released within me, or…something...? Midlife awakening? Surely. Midlife crisis? For a time, yes. But I had been empty without knowing I was empty, and I’m a woman who is assumed to know a lot

So now I’m curious about this emptiness unknown. One, how could I have not known I was empty? What were the assumptions and practices that filled my life but did not fill me? The second reason is probably part of the first, in some way. Now that I can feel this overwhelming fullness, this grounded peaceableness that opens doors for me and holds spaces for me? I want everyone who will listen to know about it. To know about this groundedness, this fullness, this sacred abundance that is simply everywhere, though hidden in plain sight in a consumerist, market-economy environment. It's like having a felt-sense of the best thing EVER but being basically mute, speechless.

I don’t berate myself for not knowing, at least not as much anymore. I’m learning to trust there is a divine order to things, and life expands when I surrender into what is, just as it is, even as I get to learn and offer my part as I may. I also do NOT want to sound preachy or judgmental or presumptuous, because my own journeying need not parallel anyone else’s. I know that. Yet this yearning to share presses into me more and more... How to proceed? A bit of story context, perhaps.

One rendition of this story is rooted in my own family lineages. I was born into a Pennsylvania-Deutsch Brethren/Scottish-British Baptist weave of family, with well-tended material needs and a highly relational extended family enamored with professional success and intellectual achievement. This means I have striven hard for and earned/been granted an establishment life--seminary professor married to an attorney-become-pastor in a mainline denominational church. We are double-income-no-kids dog-lovers with ease of a quiet life we love. The underbelly of this life however is an inordinate devaluing of emotional experience(s), a confinement of the heart within the categories available to the mind. Without shame or blame, the wisdom of the body and the inarticulate movements of the Heart simply do not factor into how my family connects with itself. Instead, it’s information, social-capital connections, books, movies, and achievements. And some of the most internally lonely people I know. There is a deep emptiness about which we never speak. To even allude to it will bring the conceptual violence of intellectual debate and refusals into speech. The shame and fears of unworthiness (or whatever the bindings may be) are simply too great, too intentionally unconscious. Unbearable. So I no longer speak of the emptiness deeply within my family to my family.

Another rendition can come in terms of the rise of the feminine so apparent today, which expressed itself within my own life in the last 5-7 years. ‘Feminine’ was a bad word in my house, for various mostly unconscious reasons. I remember the sneer on my dad’s face when I was in high school, as he distanced himself from something feminine and my mother looked away. The implicit curriculum in my family line was clear: feminine is weak, disdained, avoided. Voice in my family was granted through connection to the father, the brothers, and I maximized that pathway to agency for at least four decades. Blessedly so, I might add--a great gift to me and to my life today. But something began to break open in me, at first gently and then more and more persistently: I was feminine. I am a woman in body and soul. There are different ways to be who I am than I first knew. It took incredible strength to claim this part of me, the body wisdom so deep in me, so disdained in my family line. The pain of coming to voice in this way, audibly and visibly in my family, was extensive. No one in my immediate family or family of origin was interested in my newfound feminine. Particularly as I was enraged and reactive about its silencing, abuse, neglect. For years. I don’t actually blame them. It was no picnic.

Another strand of this storyline could be explored in the cultural heritages within which I live and am perceived in my life and work: whiteness. My curiosity comes in this term last, latest, because admittedly it is the newest framework within which I’m wondering things aloud. I’m not jumping onto the Critical Race Theory trains, nor am I interested in debating systemic racism (or not). I’m not interested in debates, so why would I be interested in those?

But I am interested in this emptiness unknown, and its emergence in me, a white body. So many strands of European cultures divide the mind from the heart, the spirit from the flesh. A dualism entrenched in Holy Scripture, that gives an either/or habit of mind and a longstanding relationship with shame, guilt, judgment (of the other, or fear of judgment in the self). Any deep feeling that would arise in me? Sublimation into the cognitive. Reticence to feel too much, be too much, say too much. A numbness or a deadness that would be perceived an appropriate response for any societal disruption that makes 'those that be' uncomfortable. Do that every day for nearly fifty years, and you’d have an incapacity for feeling, and an inability to connect with basic human instincts of seeing another as yourself, loving another as oneself. No matter heritage, skin, culture, history...to see another person always with the spark of the divine, however muted or dimmed it may seem to me. To realize when I'm not seeing an other in this compassionate light...even with my best intentions. When I'm encapsulated in a largely white environment, I know to not cross the streams, impose too much emotion into the space. Except I'm starting to play with that line, gently...in spaces that feel open to a little more emotional expression, in a setting that's already rife with emotion.

I’m sure there will be other storylines within which this emptiness unknown could be explored, but for now…  As a result of this proclivity in me for deep feeling, I feel deeply and often, such beautifully awesome and sadly lamentable Life. Because of my tenacity to stay present in my body amidst disregard, refusals, and the conceptual violence of my family, I know a fullness, a groundedness, a peaceableness that I never knew was possible. It does not depend upon my immediate family, nor upon my family of origin. It does not require anything from my extended family, nor does it need affirmation from beyond. It has a life of its own, always available to me, when I do not separate from it or isolate myself from it...

There used to be a deep-belly emptiness in me. For most of my life, I did not know I felt empty. And now I want everyone who will listen to know this groundedness, this fullness, this sacred abundance is available to one and all. But how do we begin? How do we let this fullness speak for itself, again and again, inviting us ever inward, outward, IN? I do not know, really.

Consider this Post One of a series then. I invite the fullness to find me in these next days or weeks, and then offer the words it may, in its own time...


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Seeds of Hatred...?

 Do we always know hatred when we see it? Hear it?

I’ve been sitting with this question for several days, digesting all that Howard Thurman describes about fear, deception, and hatred in Jesus and the Disinherited. I’m weary and ready for a little bit of a break before summer term starts. But the question keeps arising…

The intensity of feeling associated with the word hatred suggests that its expression would be obvious. Sneering facial expressions. Loud, aggressive language, directed toward another human being, often in public. Physical violence, like in a hate crime. This is the popularized understanding or expectation of hatred, I think. It’s obvious, visible, violent, and dangerous.

But Thurman’s description doesn’t allow that as the only description of hate. Let’s remember his summary: “The outline is now complete and simple—contacts without fellowship developing hatred and expressing themselves in unsympathetic understanding; and unsympathetic understanding tending to express itself in the exercise of ill will; and ill will, dramatized in a man or woman, becoming hatred walking on the earth.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 68). 

Contacts without fellowship. Developing. Hatred emerges in unseen ways, in other words, from the inside. 

Unsympathetic understanding. Having an understanding that does not allow the feelings of another, the experience of another...is not sympathetic.

Exercise of ill will. A feeling of animosity or anger, disregard of another human being, enacted in action or words spoken.

Ill will dramatized in a human being. These words and/or actions expressed in outward ways in the world.

These lenses on the matter suggest that hatred arises and develops way before the last stage, the outward exercise of ill will by a human being, onto another human being. 

In this sense, then, we don’t always see or hear hatred. It is present, operating, visceral when we are not necessarily aware of it in ourselves.

I found myself reflecting on this recently as I dipped into an online retreat gathering, hosted by two women whom I have appreciated deeply. One has crafted a communal space with her husband for circles of friends to gather in sacred practice--both in physical spaces and online. The other is new to me, but her work has already piqued my curiosity and tugged at my heart strings with an invitation into “structures for reverence” and into deeper listening for a “mystic family calling.” I will percolate with these gifts throughout this week, I’m sure, and I am already thankful to be in the flow of a new invitation with them both...

So imagine my surprise when my body felt the above-named energies of hatred in our Zoom gathering event. I was so stunned it actually took me several hours beyond the event to begin to put words to my experience. The woman doing the primary teaching for the event spoke with such barely hidden rage that I struggled to drop into a prayerful space in which to listen, to receive. My body was pulling back, trying to get distance though I was simply in my own space at home. Part of it was the utter disdain she named for “all the books written on this subject,” with condemnation of all of them for upholding the establishment, the church, modernity. I’ve learned to sense an emotional source of such broad generalizations, I guess, which does not discount the statements but does invite awareness of more than is immediately spoken.

She then delivered a critique against a totalitarian rule by the church (of the time in question) with a matching totalitarian refusal in her to consider not all the church was involved in the totalitarian rule. All churchmen/women of the time were evil, in her view. Claims made about the history of the matter at hand were delivered with little respect for how that knowledge was traditioned, received, digested, considered (by herself or others). Often, a brittle laugh would follow her words. Not an easy laughter. Not a laughter in which a community can share with ease. A laughter that shattered, was brittle, hard inside and outside. My body was seriously uncomfortable nearly the whole time this woman spoke.

Then it dawned on me. This is what hatred feels like…

...though surely this cannot be hatred?

This was an online gathering in which contacts were present, but little to no time was possible for fellowship. Some of the participants knew one another well, others did not know anyone there. The understanding of the historical figure in question and the challenges of the time came across (to me) as unsympathetic. Or at least unsympathetic to anyone but her own voice and view on the matter. 

The gaping wounds inflicted on the human communities of the time--1400’s, to be clear--are horrifying, of course, particularly on the women. The anger, the rage, is understandable. Yet the understanding of the whole period she provided reeked with condemnation, judgment, even (ironically) damnation. Of them. Of the power-perpetrators. Then came repeated expressions of ill will toward all those who had borne this historical figure ill will and injury unto death. When these words were spoken, I knew it was hatred dramatized in a human being today.

So then I got curious about this hatred that is present but unforeseen, unsuspected, in persons who couldn’t possibly be haters. I mean, they’re simply so logical, rational, nice, polite, civil.

A neighbor down the hill from us with whom I’ve had polite chit-chat conversation. Contacts all around him named, but disdain and no sense of fellowship. Understanding? Within his allowances, sympathy, but outside those lines? Unsympathetic understanding. Did I experience ill will in him? He had experienced ill will during the pre-election season, he said, so he mirrored the ill will he had felt back to the neighbors who did not welcome his political solicitations. We had a neighborly conversation which I actually enjoyed, and yet its undercurrents have all the seeds of hatred.

And then, as ever, in the church…? In congregational settings then, today? Fellowship is a prime connector for congregational life. It’s one of the biggest reasons people join and stay connected within an ecclesial community. Contacts with fellowship. Understanding that sympathizes. Intentions to limit or lessen any sense of ill will. Except this seems to extend mostly to those already within the web of relationships known as the Fellowship, my church. Norms are usually well protected (Anyone ever heard “We’ve never done it that way before”?), and contacts beyond the fellowship are not a part of the fellowship. Understanding beyond one’s own--community or expectations within that community--easily becomes unsympathetic to anyone or anything but one’s own perspective. I’ll never forget the ill will expressed in a church leadership meeting, when a vote didn’t appear to be going the way this particular leader needed it to. Seeds of hatred seem ready for sowing, almost with any wind.

And what about within myself then? Where do I have contacts but without fellowship? More and more at my day-job, where we serve our students online and gather via online-technology for meetings. Rarely does the community gather together for fellowship, for communal worship. I have very little sense of fellowship with my faculty colleagues. What understandings do I hold that are ultimately unsympathetic to those whose experience differs from mine, whose choices differ from mine, whose opportunities differ from mine? I could provide a laundry list, particularly including those I find rigid in their expressions of faith, judgmental of others in their own wounded righteousness, insular in their practice out of perceived fidelity to their own. Even naming the laundry list brings the whiff of judgment, does it not? I cannot understand the rigid, the fundamentalist, the Evangelical whose refusals to see human beings beyond 'their categories' of sin and shame wounds so very many of us, for so very long...and I don't care to spend much time there with them. Exhausting, isn't it? So the seeds of hatred can emerge and multiply...in me.

I’m not sure all that I want to invite or express in these musings, except to draw attention in myself and in those I love these seeds that can ripen so immediately within us, or nearly everywhere around me, given the fragmentation of our world, the expanding diversity of our associations with the Internet, social media, the opportunities to know about others while not really knowing others in any fellowship kind of way. I want more and more of us to look for where we have contacts without fellowship, understanding that easily grows unsympathetic, ill will that can rise within us...all before any of us would ever act it out. It's still hatred, right within us.

These words are NOT to condemn this situation, in any of us. It’s all so understandable… Rage is collective grief refused, I’ve learned. The woman I describe above teaches from such raw pain, such urgent rage…Her anger--righteous and justified as it surely is--fires her urgency for new stories, different stories, to take hold in our world today. I share this anger, even this rage. Instead of the worn tropes of patriarchal religions and the horrific burnings of women in the middle ages, we both want a devotion to the feminine and to the Earth sorely lacking today. Instead of refusal and ill will experienced by my neighbor was his need for his world to be as he expected it to be. Congregations today are just as frail and flawed as any human collective has been over time. It’s easy to see contacts without fellowship, unsympathetic understanding and expressions of ill will arise when change happens or loss is regular, repeated, growing. This anger, even rage...this discontent or collective frailty is so very understandable...and I want to say legitimate. I know rage myself, after all.

But does rage legitimate hatred? Does hatred do the rage any good in the end? A familiar pathway at this point is to point out how hatred ravages the hater. In the end, this may well be true, but doesn’t answer the question. Thurman points out the fiery role that hate can play for the self-development of the hater, at least at first. If a woman is coming into her own voice for the first time, I dare say this intensity of feeling, this hatred, can fire her own becoming against systems slated to disregard her, disregard her experience. Hatred, in this instance, is not an unadulterated ‘bad’ thing. It’s a fire of self-becoming. [Ironically, a book I ordered weeks ago arrives just now: Rage Becomes Her: the Power of Women’s Anger...Soraya Chemaly].

Yet hatred for prolonged periods of time, particularly as it becomes directed outward, only seems to create more hatred, more disconnect, more contact without fellowship, unsympathetic understanding, more ill will...round and round and round it goes. Ultimately, hatred doesn’t invite the hater to sit deeply with the gaping wound…the pain experienced… Which I understand, sympathetically. :) Speaking for myself, I’m always afraid the pain will completely undo me. I have good reason to fear this, because at two different times, it almost did. But clearly, since I’m here writing about it, it did not ultimately undo me. Once hatred has worn a woman out, space may open for new approaches, different ways of holding and being held that suggest a different path, even a better way...

I landed in a container strong enough to hold contradictory human experiences, side by side and all night long. And I was loved beyond my anger. I was loved in my anger. I was accepted and welcomed despite my anger. By warrior women and mothering women, by nourishing men and wounded men. All in time that was never determined by me, or by them. And then I began to learn the gentling power of the pain underneath the anger, the collective holding that could dispel the rage I felt…

So I guess I want to ask this woman-teacher, in her raw pain… And anyone who has read this far…

What grief have you not allowed expression? What sadness is driving the anger? Can we begin to learn practices of trusting a container to hold each of us while the pain comes? Can we even let ourselves be held, letting the pain be transformed in us? For our civic settings then too… How do we learn together new containers beyond our current institutions of government-school-church, ones able to hold such volatile energies in streams of trust and fellowship? How do we invite each of us to sit with the pain that is ours, and ours alone, responsible only for our own pain? No blame, no shame, no guilt …?

What is the counsel of hope? Of growth? Of transformation? How do we come to trust that each of us can withstand the pain of our inherited-lineage wounds? That allowing this pain is the only longterm relief to be had? What is the saying? Pain not transformed is simply transmitted… More to the point here, for this particular context, how does a woman in such pain, well-versed in honing it, directing it, relying on it to teach others, come to know it need not be like that inside of her?

I dunno...but I’m listening, learning, wondering… I hope more and more will join me... 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Sincerity, Deception, and Protection...Thurman's Second Teaching

Who knew class with Howard Thurman would be reconvened so soon? The second ‘hound of hell’ he names in his book is deception. I actually stopped taking notes on this one, so I could get to his teachings on hate in the lives of the disinherited. That was the obvious phenomenon to explore in our civic settings today. Then life brought a complex happening into my week in which measured reflection on deception now seems warranted. So here we are… How does deception play in our public spheres today, and what might we learn from its forms and functions toward deepening awareness and more intimate human relationships across difference(s)?

Most of our news media outlets are focused upon deceptions surrounding The Big Lie--the former President’s continued grift-fest that he didn’t lose the election and his authoritarian demands for cultural and governmental power in utter disregard of the Constitution, shaking the pillars of our democracy. True to our broken political process, Liz Cheney--truth-teller and true patriot--may be the first Republican to pay any consequences for the Insurrection on January 6th.

But there are scents and senses of deception that come with marketing in a capitalistic economy, with positive-life-portrayals in social media when life is actually much more complicated than unicorns and rainbows all the time. It’s inordinately difficult to encounter an area of our civic life today that is not rife with deception of some sort.

Let’s begin with “an active hypothetical” then… An educational institution requires an administrative review of its doctoral research practices, to insure the protection and safety of any human subjects to be engaged in such research.  It’s a new process and very few have much clarity of the reach and scope of this new review process. Perfectly normal. All the actors in the evolving drama that unfolds are flawed human beings, doing their best to fulfill the responsibilities required by their roles, some long and established, others brand spankin’ new. Also perfectly normal. A student’s research project comes under review, not simply for protection of human subject ethical considerations, as it turns out, but toward a methodology and method not in alignment with the work or the project. Is that an institutional deception? Over a period of weeks, she becomes the casualty of the new and un-healed administrative process that cannot hear the integrity of her work, nor trust the 20-month journey of leadership and cohort that brought her there. What examples of deception unfolded here, or was it simply misunderstandings and impotence in a damaging process? An impasse forms over a period of several days. The student and cohort leadership finally relent so to move the work along, though now it has been altered and their goodwill has been damaged. The educational institution loses itself a bit more; the student’s effort and learning journey become eclipsed by institutional casualties in the process. 

My questions today: How does deception course through this entire narrative, if it does? Is the relenting to it an inevitable compromise, with little satisfaction for anyone involved? Is it too an act of deception? Do the parties involved live with their integrity intact?


Thurman’s chapter on
deception opens: “Deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong. Through the ages, at all stages of sentient activity, the weak have survived by fooling the strong.” (48) The power of his work here is his placement of the discussion to come in the vice-grip of strong-weak relationships. Nature demonstrates deception between predator and prey. He names several species in nature that use biological means to fool the predators. Children learn deception of their parents early, at least if they want to experiment and explore beyond imposed boundaries, or if they behave to get something as they desire. Women have learned over centuries that deception, or less pejoratively spoken, power that is indirect, is necessary to be heard, sometimes simply to survive. 

Thurman then brings the scriptural wallop into view, specifically with Ezekiel. “When the children of Israel were in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel could not give words of comfort and guidance by direct and overt statement. If he had, he would not have lasted very long...He would have been executed. What did the prophet do? He resorted to a form of deception. ... He used what we would now call “double talk.”” Thurman sketches a pretty familiar scene for someone living in a world in which the strong regularly overpower the weak, sometimes to overwhelming and violent ends.

He recognizes that this question is not merely academic either. It is “profoundly ethical and spiritual, going to the very heart of all human relations. For it raises the issue of honesty, integrity, and the consequences thereof over against duplicity and deception and the attendant consequences.” (48) 


He charts three basic alternatives for the disinherited (which we should probably specify as people of color in our society, or queering folk, or the marginalized in poverty, language, etc. I’m considering it here as those with less standing-voice-recourse in academic settings, so again not me per se, but...). The first alternative is simply to accept the apparent fact that one’s situation (of disempowerment and even danger) being what it is, there is no sensible choice offered. There is no question of honesty because there is no sense of community, what he might call the fellowship identified in yesterday’s piece. Which also means the questions of morality cannot invade here, because the power-relation creates an impossible immorality in human being, personhood. (see yesterday’s post on hatred).

The second alternative is a bit more confusing (at least to me today), as it suggests both positive and negative deception. I’m not quite sure I understand which is which, to be honest. I think negative deception can be described as follows… Those with less power may decide “to juggle the various areas of compromise, on the assumption that the moral quality of compromise operates in an ascending-descending scale.” Not all issues require all-in response, in other words, so some interactions or challenges of lesser significance can become an inevitable “compromise.” It is still a deception from what is true and observable in experiences, but this deception aims to sustain connection over an irreconcilable divergence between strong/weak. Ordinary deception, that which can be regarded as “deliberate strategy,” has no scale to it, it would seem. It’s a clean deception, fooling the strong completely. The more negative deception, the compromise(s), is sliding down a slope of “picking one’s battles” in a losing war. I feel like my hypothetical might be demonstrated in this alternative, an inevitable compromise.

The third alternative therefore startles, and challenges: complete and devastating sincerity, says Thurman. He quotes a letter from Gandhi to a Muriel Lester: “Speak the truth, without fear and without exception, and see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work, so you need not fear man’s scorn. If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, you must make their rejection your strength.” 

Two facets draw my attention and wonder immediately. “...see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work, so you need not fear man’s scorn.” This foundational charge has guided my footsteps through the trials and tribulations of higher theological education for over two decades. Thanks to a coach, an elder in my earlier professional life, I learned the freedom known in my Work when it is held to be quite distinct from my Job. The job is to serve the Work, not vice versa. Ever since, I’ve known to pursue my Sacred Work within the institutional-organizational containers that would serve it, serve me. I’ve learned to see all those whose work is related to my purpose...and, its corollary...to not-see all those whose work is not related to my purpose. Outgrowing containers over the years has been exquisitely painful, but those who will serve the Sacred Work always breathe and grow with me. Those who won’t or can’t? We part ways as amicably as possible. There is an incredible integrity, freedom, even passion that can breathe into the world in such a living understanding, held in communities willing to evolve, grow.

My hypothetical could also feasibly rest here, in this sense of utter sincerity. The relenting of the immediate ‘battle’ is a protective side-step so to move the truthful speaking into a collective channel, the institutional roles/responsibilities slated with resolving internal disputes or learning curves. Time will tell whether the individuals and colleagues will show up as collaborative voices, worthy of the conversation, or whether they will insist upon a power-over process that dehumanizes them and those within their care. But this protective side-step is also an act of not-seeing those who have proven themselves unworthy or irrelevant to the sacred Work at hand. This doctoral student’s project, in this case. Those who have rejected it cannot see or hear it, and their rejection will become a chosen strength in the end. The community has an opportunity to grow, evolve, or to defend and narrow. It is a gift on our part to offer our experience toward growth and evolution. Time will tell what the community decides to choose.

The second facet, however, is where the fire and challenge lie: “If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, you must make their rejection your strength.” And later… “In the presence of an overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense, with the edge taken away from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of their position rests. They are thrown back upon themselves…” The spiritual jujitsu movement required to make a rejection one’s strength is becoming more apparent, but still takes emotional effort and political-communal skill. Sadly, the more practice one gets, at least if held within supportive communities that can see you and hear you into stronger voice, then the better you get at this movement. 

It’s the utter sincerity, to catch the dominant with no defense…? This is what feels too risky and even politically unlikely in my several decades of experience in both church and academy. Institutions bring all previous and collective resources to bear against those perceived as less powerful, or those who have less political-social capital in the system. Whatever Thurman may mean by utter sincerity--and he lived within the currents of higher education while at Boston University, for sure--I cannot but imagine he grew savvy to how to be in God’s work, disregard “man’s scorn”, and live the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. I cannot imagine he intends by these words literal honesty that would disempower someone in the face of those who hold power over someone else’s academic process. In the seduction that it would be the act of integrity for her, for us.

I landed here because the really good question of integrity came up as we have labored in this whole process. Does relenting to a process that has damaged the work bear a fruit of lessened integrity? Does our integrity suffer because we discern to relent in order to do no more harm than has already been done here? Perhaps it is an act of ordinary deception in an institutional culture that is both blind and deaf to the cohort’s relational norms and values? Therefore ‘positive’? Or is this the inevitable compromise in a world where connection is affirmed only when no one is truly satisfied with the outcome? I wonder…

I’ve been thinking about my own doctoral dissertation defense, almost exactly 20 years ago this past month. I knew that my advisor was in support of the project. I knew that I had invited a powerful woman’s voice to help me defend this work that was a bit more creative than the traditional top-down, linear-argument kind of work the practical theology department expected or desired. I planned intentionally to finish before the other departmental colleague returned from sabbatical, as he and my advisor were renown for disagreements, with doctoral students as casualties of the discussion. I also knew that my comprehensives exams had been costly for my advisor to uphold, though he’d never said so directly. This set up a rather more antagonistic departmental interaction for my dissertation defense. Those who’d been talked down before would come with more ammunition to exact their view on my advisor, with me as the potential casualty. Though at the time I was completely insecure about my work, I also didn’t really have a choice but to proceed anyway. So I used the gifts I’d been given, which are primarily intuitive, perceptive and relational.

Knowing that most established professors at my doctoral institution on the East Coast are emotionally insecure, particularly in how their work may or may not actually contribute to the life of the church, I invited every single well-respected ecclesial leader and nationally renown Christian educator to my defense. These were always “open to the public,” so I brought every single feminine-fierce elder I knew into the room with me: Moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly, educators of the year, national curriculum writers, and more--each of whom knew her work was useful to the church. I knew it was going to work when each department member entered the room of the defense, visibly startled, and made some nervous comment before sitting down. Most were men, and were not anticipating having to do their conceptual violence in front of a bunch of well respected church women. I also  insured that the scheduling of the defense was about an hour and fifteen minutes before lunchtime. No one would want it to go overlong that way. And, of course, I prepared my responses to anticipated, expectable questions.

I know in that instance, so long ago, I was utterly sincere. I know I spoke the truth of what I knew of my work at the time, and I could see everyone whose work was related to my purpose. Not my departmental members, who were not intent upon my own contribution, but my advisor and all of the fierce-feminine elders who protected me by simply being present with me. There was no deception, in other words.

Does this hypothetical happening, this week, have deception within it, or is there an utter sincerity accompanied by an advisor and a fierce-feminine elder presence of protection? I hope and pray for the latter. Sincerity within institutional processes is complicated, but so far so good, in my view. Time will tell.

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