Reforming What Was Deformed
October 5, 2022
Notes from the Edge
A Note from Parker
Growing up in white, middle-class, middle America, I learned some “rules of etiquette” early on. My parents made it clear to us kids that breaking these rules would carry penalties, ranging from “No dessert tonight!” to “No hanging out with friends after school next week!” Some of those rules still make sense to me; e.g., “Don’t chew with your mouth open!” But others have become seriously dysfunctional; e.g., “No talking about religion or politics at the dinner table or in polite company!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter as I listen to people say, “I’m really worried about the decline of our democracy, but I feel powerless to do anything about it.” My response is simple: “Well, all of us have other folks within easy reach. We could talk about our fears and hopes with family, friends, and neighbors—and that might make a difference with people we care about who’ve fallen prey to toxic brews of religion and politics.”
Why, I’ve wondered, do so many people get the “deer in the headlights” look when I suggest that option? Has the rule many of us learned at home rendered us powerless to even try to make a difference among the people who are easily within our reach?
This month, Carrie and I explore an idea that might allow us to take a next step. Suppose we were to understand that talking about “religion” does not have to mean talking about doctrine, and talking about “politics” does not have to mean talking about partisan issues. Suppose we were to understand that “religion” is one way people find meaning and purpose in life, and “politics” is one way we wrestle with questions about the right uses of power.
Where might we go with each other if we began with questions like, “What's the primary source of meaning in your life?” or "What kinds of 'power over' are you willing to accept, and what kinds do you refuse to accept?” Thoughtfully pursued, with careful listening, questions like these could take us beneath the stormy surface of religion and politics to the quiet depths where most of us live.
Shouldn’t conversations of that sort be close to the heart of the various forms of “life together”? If weather, sports, and the price of gas are the only topics we can explore with each other, what does that say about the quality of our relationships? Most folks have more meaningful matters on their minds—we hope this podcast will encourage you to pursue them with people close to you.
A Note from Carrie
I really appreciated our podcast conversation this week. With an onslaught of grievous rulings from a packed and activist ultra-conservative court, I'm wrestling with how to hold outrage and grief with in creative tension with hope, love and daily action. In our podcast we revisit a Buddhist story about how we hold suffering. Here's the story in a nutshell:
Once an unhappy young apprentice came to an old master and told the master that he was deeply sad and asked for a solution. The old master instructed the unhappy young apprentice to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it. Then he asked “How does it taste?” “Terrible!” spat the young apprentice. The master nodded and asked the young apprentice to take another handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to a nearby lake and the apprentice swirled his handful of salt into the lake. The older master said, “now drink from the lake.” The apprentice cupped his hands and drank. Again, the old master asked, “How does it taste?” “Good!” said the apprentice. The master then asked, “Do you taste the salt?” and the apprentice smiled and said, “No.” The master sat beside the troubled young apprentice and took his hands. “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same. But the amount we taste depends on the container we put it into. So when you are in pain, the wisest thing to do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”
In our podcast we explore how to acknowledge the "salt" we are feeling and holding that salt with a wider sense of things, to not get stuck but find where there is still possibility for conversation and agency. We can argue endlessly about religious or political specifics (the virgin birth. or former presidents under criminal investigation), but what might happen or shift if we step away from debates like that and begin telling one another deeper stories about what gives life meaning and how power has been rightly used or abused in our own experience? The salt is the same, but they way we are holding it allows for a wider possibility.
It is possible to hold outrage and the power of transformative grace and love at the same time, but it is not always easy. I invite you to join Parker and me as we explore the complexity of staying in conversation, effecting positive change in daily and personal ways.