This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Mice and Gods

I WAS INVITED to give a presentation today at the Cambridge Center, which sponsors a monthly lecture for its Organization for Older Students. It's a great group (I've been there before)-- they are very engaged, and ask fearless questions. We had a full house today and the topic was Stories and Their Power. I brought my drum too, though we ran out of time before I could play it. There was a bit of a rush to the stage afetrwards, and so often at this moment people will blurt their truths at me, regardless of the topic, for whatever reason-- and so it happened today. This older woman came up to me and told me that she really enjoyed the program; then she clutched me by my forearm, gave me a searing look, and pronounced, as if this were a central and profound truth in her life now (as indeed it probably is), "But you should know that praying doesn't work. I've given up on praying, it doesn't work."

Her voice rang with conviction. Her words seemed odd, for I had never mentioned prayer, or God, at all during my presentation; but apparently something in me spoke to something in her on a subconcsious level, and communicated that I do in fact pray-- I guess anyone who's read Map would know that, for it is, among other things, a spiritual book, or at least it's meant to be.

My spirituality is a very esoteric and unique thing, as I think all spirituality needs to be on some level; and it's always struck me as odd, that in this day and age, when generally anything goes as far as topics of conversation, and fodder for print and electronic media, and often the more salacious the better-- that we never discuss spirituality. Spirituality in fact is something we hardly ever discuss, publicly or privately. It strikes me as odd because all the larger questions of life-- why we are here, what meaning are we to take from life, what happens to us when we die, is there any rhyme and reason to our existence, where does the source of life come from, etc-- all seem to be mostly spiritual questions, and the answers we provide for ourselves to these questions-- or don't-- inform a huge part of who we are. But as I say, this Cantabridgian crowd has proved fearless in the past, and will pretty much ask anything. Somehow when the woman told me what she told me, it was understood by both of us that I prayed. I didn't take her statement as a challenge to me, or as something that needed a defensive explanation or apologia on my part-- and if pressed to justify this behavior, I really wouldn't know where to begin, or what to say, other than God is the Rain or something. (Which I really do believe.) To me, the wildest religious beliefs don't seem half as outrageous as the existence of, say, giraffes, or the first day of spring in Happy Land. But as I say that wasn't the point. I took her statement to actually be communicating: "I've lost whatever faith I've had because my prayers have gone unanswered, and I feel very troubled and confused by that."

I wanted to tell her that, often, the loss of faith can be a good thing, and can mean we've shed a skin that we don't need anymore, or beliefs that may not be our own, which no longer serve us; and after this we're ready for something more mature and meaty. But instead I told her this story-- since that was the topic of that day, after all-- and I wish I remember where I first heard it or read it, so I could give proper attribution:

There was, one day, a group of cats sitting around in a field, earnestly discussing religion, and their conviction that there was no God. Unbeknownst to them, a hungry tiger was stalking them, thinking what a fine meal they would all make. As he was about to pounce, an angel of God, taking compassion upon the cats, whispered into the tiger's ear. "They're so scrawny," the angel said. "And before you eat them, their sharps claws will scratch your face. They're not worth it." And so the tiger moved on. In the meantime, the cats were continuing their discussion. "Yes," said one of them, "surely there is no God, for if there were, he would have heard our prayers, that it should rain mice today." And as the cats looked skyward and saw nothing, the tiger stalked off through the grass.

I hope she didn't think I was being a wise-ass. I have certainly prayed for certain intentions in my life, and seen them come to pass-- and other times I've prayed for things, and seen them not come to pass. But regardless of the 'result,' I've found that the process itself benefits me-- and the most satisfactory 'result,' and not by any means a consistent result, is to feel at the end of prayer more closely united with the benign power of creation in the universe-- "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower," as the poet Dylan Thomas so beautifully expressed it.

I'm happy to talk about my spirituality with anyone, except perhaps for the Absolutely Certain-- although again, I hardly know where to begin-- or where to leave off. "(If you want to know God)...sell your wisdom and buy bewilderment," as Rumi says. If I had to corral my beliefs, as it were, and align them with something, I would say they feel most comfortable under a tent that is a hybrid smattering of Native American tradition, Quakerism, and old (pre Council of Whitby) Celtic Christianity; though there is certainly much to admire in every tradition. How can anyone-- by which I mean any ONE-- claim to speak with the voice of God, if there is one? And yet, don't we all have a spark of the divine within us?

I like Christianity (in its original form!) because of its radical absurdity-- and how it was even more absurd 2000 years ago-- and yet it seems to me this is the only antidote for the madness of war, and poverty, and starvation, and injustice. There is no problem to which love is not the answer, as the saying goes-- and if we did cultivate a love for one another, a turning of the cheek, a rejection of violence, a thirst for justice, a true forgiveness toward those we deem our enemies, a caring and advocacy for the most marginalized around us-- what a world this could be. Impossible, some people say-- this goes against human nature. Well, certainly we all have some darkness within us-- selfishness, revenge, anger, resentment, prejudice-- but to me the most hopeful thing about humans is that we are always at choice-- we are the only species I know that can make deliberate choices, whether to be informed by the light within us, our better instincts, or the darkness.

I think of the Native Americans (God is in the Rain) who have and had such a deep and profound loving relationship with the beauty of the created world that, after thousands and thousands of years here, the Americas were still more or less as pristine as when they first came here, wonderstruck by beauty and bounty-- and we, after only 450 years, have done our best to turn this land into a seething dump, all in the name of Profit. Who were the savages, and who the enlightened ones? Why did my town's elected officials recently approve the erection of a vast Home Depot on the very edge of Happy Land, with the former's acres and acres of asphalt parking, its sweat-shop goods, its soul-stealing ugliness, its minimum-wage jobs, the massive traffic tie-ups it will inevitably bring, the stink of diesel, the increase in wildlife roadkill and displacement, and the closure of local business (two hardware stores among them) that will inevitably result? "Because it's good for the tax base," they say. Money trumps all in our culture.

There are many people I know who utterly reject religion, and all spirituality with it, as being a bane of mankind, and the cause of so much horror, prejudice, and war over the millennia. I can certainly understand this. But to me that seems like disavowing warmth and cooked food forever, after one's house has inadvertently burned down. People with ill-minded agendas will use whatever is in their power to achieve their ends, religion included.

I'm reading a great book right now. It's called 'Literature from the Axis of Evil,' an (ironic) borrowing of that most unfortunate and polarizing phrase from Bush. It's a sampling of poetry, short stories, and novels from those countries this administration has deeemd 'enemy nations'-- as if all the people in these countries, living their wildly individual and unique lives, could all be painted with one brush! But that's what must happen, according to Joseph Campbell, for one people to make war upon another-- the 'thou' must be turned into an 'other.' It is our natural inclination, provided we have a smattering of what we may call goodness, to realize that we humans are all pretty much the same-- we cry when we are hurt; we want to love, and be loved; we want to provide for ourselves and our families; we bleed when we are shot. Thus, we see all people as basically the same as us-- a 'Thou.' The goal of progranda, and those it serves, is to distort this natural inclination and vilify a people, paint them with one stripe, and demonize them-- usually because the powers that be want their natural resources-- and make them 'other.' Thus before the current war we weren't hearing about Iraq being the ancient Cradle of Civilization, or how half its 35 million citizens were under the age of 15; nor were the media presenting us with the poetry of Iraq, or its music, or its history, or the fears and feelings of its people.

Instead 'they' were deemed 'terrorists,' 'radicals,' 'Islamofascists,' and 'Towelheads;' or Iraq was presented as if it only had one resident, Saddam Huessein. In other words, the Iraqi people were transformed into 'Other.' Therefore we could pray for OUR troops, while almost a million (at last count, by some estimates) Iraqis were killed. Creating, of course, tomorrow's 'terrorists' today. (But the Minutemen who fired at Redcoats from behind the stone walls of Concord and Lexington were terrorists-- to the British. It's all relative, as Einstein pointed out.) One million is certainly, to put it mildly, a sobering number-- it's a genocide. And I find it breathtakingly ironic that Congress is currently debating what to call the slaughter of 1-2 million Armenians a century ago at the hand of the Turks-- when we are perpertrating the same thing right now. Will someone 100 years from now mourn the Iraqi Genocide of 2003 to whenever?

The administration is currently planning an attack upon Iran. It would have happened already, some reports tell us, did they think they had the public support for it. It may still happen, support or not. And I can think of nothing better in light of that, than to close this blog with a few words from Hafez, the most immortal of Iranian/Persian poets:

Though I be old, clasp me one night to thy breast,
And I, when the dawn shall come to awaken me,
With the flush of youth on my cheek from thy bosom will rise


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