A day of gratitude dawns, with a new phrase that has some energy for me: a life with many containers, or a multi-container life.
Before I dive in, first, an orienting observation...particularly as it’s been a while since I’ve written here. (In the biz I’m in, we would call this paragraph a methodological moment. You can skip it if you’re not into such moments.) When these musings welled up in me several months ago now, toward reconsidering citizenship, it was quite clear to me that the writing space here was to name, honor, reflect-publically (sometimes even theologically) on what was rising in me, a writer who perhaps could give voice and words to my experience that perhaps is less uncommon than it feels to me. I was seeking companionable readers, friends, and have been blessed with them, some known, many unknown. So this is not a space for a top-down, ‘expert’s view’ of this topic,: how we ought to reconsider citizenship here in the States. Not interested in ‘shoulds’ or ‘ought to’s’ here, for me. This has been for me a heart-space, a feeling space, a way to share the undercurrents or erupting emotions that get little measured press in our civic spaces today. Which is not to say there are not, of course, erupting emotions. One could argue that is all we see in our public spaces today--usually the negative, reactive, and incendiary emotions at that. What bleeds, leads. We are primed for the anger or fear that instigates the ‘click’ that pays the advertising bills, that creates more anger and fear.
In some contrast, I wanted this space to be for deep feeling to have a voice, but more a tender curiosity, a grief-stricken-hopefulness, a vulnerability of the human condition that is willing to profess uncertainty without fear, sadness without anger, anger without rage, love without assurance from without… Living at the intersections as I do of higher (theological) education, church/faith communities, family, marriage, friendship, circle, fitness, and online ‘communities’, I see few places for this kind of methodological intention, this kind of reflective, curious, heart-oriented listening-space. (End of methodological moment…)
How many ‘containers’ do you pour your life into, find your own life in? The instigation here arises because so much of our outer/civic discourse seems to focus and polarize our ‘containers’, to force us to choose fewer and fewer containers of belonging, identity, and significance if we are to be authentic, or live with integrity. Like being a specialist in your container-life makes you smarter, more intellectual, more of an expert, more virtuous, or live with more integrity. This is a boomer-generation kind of question around “who are you?” or “what do you do?” It’s assuming an identity, even an intersection of identities, or a profession. But is that really accurate anymore, or even helpful? Particularly in politics or citizenship?
I remember getting some backlash about this dynamic in my clinical education days. One of the supervisors on my examination ‘board’ asked with great exasperation “When are you going to choose what you will do here? What professional path do you need to choose?” She assumed a need to choose, where I did not. She held authority on the Board, but not over the whole examination, thank heavens. She was very impatient with my sense of connection to the church, the academy, the clinical-education world (CPE), and the broader communities in which I could serve. I remember being befuddled by her question. Why narrow or choose if the pathway didn’t require you to...yet? More and more of us, even in vocational terms, are many many things today. What might our lives be like if the invitation to passion and an abundant life was a multiple-container life?
Perhaps a bit of definition will help, at this stage. In my line of work and vocation, container describes the “organizational universe encompassing all aspects of how a group lives: time, physical space, money, relational agreements, food and ritual” (Mary Pierce Brosmer, Women Writing for (a) Change, p. 182). Words with similar meaning or intention could be eco-system, home, or womb. As Brosmer continues, a container is “anything that maintains the delicate balance between open space and boundaries and [that] allows life to emerge...”
Most of us could use this term ‘container’ to talk about the primary private and public relationships-communities within which we understand our lives: family (of origin then extended), perhaps eventually marriage or partnership or union, school, church/faith-community, city/town, county, state, country, continent, (eventually? planet?). Note that the first terms are ‘groups’ by which human beings organize into pairs, tribes, small groups, larger communities, etc. They are ‘organizational universes’ that encompass the governance of time (who’s always late in your family? :)), physical space (who’s the tidy one, and who is not?), money (how is that organized in your primary partnership, then family?), relational agreements (how often do you play together? Work together? Visit with extended family? Communicate? etc.), food (how does you primary unit make food choices? Out to eat? Sugar? Alcohol? Regular mealtimes or catch as catch can?), and ritual (what daily or weekly or monthly or yearly ‘customs’ do you observe in your ‘groups’?)... The later terms move into religious traditional or geographical reference, though they still have human-being complements or governance structures. Well, not continents or planet, really. Attempts at consortiums and alliances wax and wane, as we know.
In much of American life (North or South, for that matter), various sports could be considered ‘containers’ as well, with participatory teams (groups with aspects similar to above) but then also hybrid participatory/fan associations, like fans of favorite teams who create a culture around being a fan of that team. Browns’ fans come to mind, of course. Or Boston Red Sox. Some sports have time-specific seasons for their ‘organizational universe’--fall sports, spring sports, decided by school schedules--while others go year-round, building a more consistent community of participation and fan-dom (often parents, with the younger ages). In this zone, a gym could be a container, of a sort. CrossFit, for instance. It’s both a fitness community and a gym, with its own relational agreements, norms of practice, time, space, money, even food recommendations.
So in our public lives, like it or not, we are all immersed in multiple containers of family (of some kind), broader community, and city/county/state/country. The more active of us, or the more professionally mobile of us, can be immersed in even more numerous containers. Rarely will we think of the containers that 'hold' our lives as a collective, unless it is within the private/public dichotomy, or the individualist frame of reference. How do my relationships serve my growing identity(ies)? can be a regular question, for instance. Or how do you tend your marriage amidst the demands of family, work, church, etc.? These are the questions that are familiar. But how do we tend the containers in our lives, individually and collectively? We rarely see the whole organizational universe, with overlapping circles or containers, let alone ask ourselves how can we best tend the whole? We look to institutional leaders or organizational science experts to inform our leaders who are to care for the institution. If we saw the multiple containers that make our lives rich and nourishing, how might we ask questions or breathe into what it means to be healthy and human within them? All of us? We are co-creating our worlds right now, after all. And what might our shared life become if it were an intention, a goal, to honor how we belong to multiple communities at once, even receive nourishment and instruction from multiple communities...even traditions...even political parties...at once?
The scholarly biz I’m in has developed words for this within religious traditional discourse--multiple religious belonging, double-belonging, religious hybridity, and more. This is probably not the place to begin, however, because it’s already fraught ground. These terms accurately describe more and more deeply faithful, spiritual people today, though it’s clearly important to develop nuance. For instance, some traditions can nourish/inform together better than others, like Buddhist and Jewish streams of traditions. There’s very little conflictual history between those traditions, in deep contrast to Jewish and Christian histories of such pain, suffering, the Shoah/Holocaust. There are Jewish Christians, called Messianic Jews, but they travel quite tender, sensitive terrain in public spheres. These 'multiple' terms can unnerve and even threaten the more conservative religious or traditional practitioners today, seeing this ‘multiple’ as a diffusion or watering down of rich traditional resources that should require higher boundaries and traditional-definitions. So maybe these kinds of terms aren't going to be helpful...
But in our refusal to open our hands or hearts, to be already who we are right now, what are we missing? In the protection of the sacred we already know, we protect/defend/grasp, what are we missing seeing about what it means to be human, that we cannot know without this one in front of us?
Such deep gratitude arises in me today to receive gifts of connection from multiple directions, near and far, each so distinct, and all so interwoven. I used to be afraid of not being seen, or not being connected, yet it is all deep within, all around me, around us all. There is such abundance, available and desiring us to surrender in (that’s for you, Quanita, learning as I am 😆). It’s deeply moving, poignant, humbling, beautiful. I know...I know...It’s easy to hunker down, especially given the shitshow that our world seems to be today. It’s easy to see only the ‘containers’ that we’ve found meaning in for years, staying grounded only in those and no others. For ‘safety,’ which doesn’t keep us safe at all. It’s easy to try to stay in the container that freed us from the previous containers that confined us so. This is my most recent learning, actually. Just because one container freed you from a previous one that was too small, it doesn’t mean that container will remain supple and welcoming enough to be your only or primary container.
What if one of the marks of deep human integrity was to be acquainted with and fluent in multiple containers, those close into your family of origin, and those further afield? What if one of the marks of deepest integrity was being acquainted with and increasingly fluent in ‘containers’ that from the outside appear to be irreconcilable opposites, impossible to love and be committed to both or all, but shaping your experience of unforeseen mysteries? What would our shared life become if we allowed each person we meet to be simply a part of a container we don’t know well yet, a part of another organizational universe that we allow to shape us, guide us, even encompass us, to know more fully what it means to be human?
It requires surrender, yes, a wisdom way of knowing assurance first from deep within first...but this is beckoned over and over again by the incredible, beautiful, and stunning mystery of each human being. Look for her, and you will see her in strength and beauty. Look for him, and he will speak to you in tenderness and humility. Amidst so much fear and anger, I can say with deep conviction: there are just as many invitations to live a life of deepening trust in one another, in multiple containers, as there are in our propensity to refuse or choose only one…
So we get to choose...a choiceless choice, if you ask me. For how much longer can we ignore the stunning mysteries and possibilities in our fellow human beings, not to mention all sentients that surround us on our gloriously small-humongous whirling planet?