It’s December and winter time at the Chautauqua Institution. And the Quaker House has entered its season of hibernation. The porches are enclosed with canvas drapes protecting chairs and bicycles, the water pipes are drained, wall air conditioners stored inside, perishables removed, furniture covered in sheets, WIFI disconnected and stand by power turned off. The newly planted front yard of native ground cover plants, replacing a gravel lawn, are mulched and bedded down to survive the snowy climate of Chautauqua’s western NY accumulation of plus 200 annual inches of snow.
It’s not a hibernation like bears or groundhogs whose metabolism – heart beats, breathing, temperature and energy consumption – all slow down but do not cease. By winters end they may have lost a quarter of their body weight but for bears the young are born and nurse while the mother slumbers. But the Quaker House is more like a Wood Frog. During hibernation the frog’s heart actually stops beating and 35 to 45 percent of its body becomes frozen. Wood frogs actually go through a freeze thaw several times during the winter. In the Spring, the frogs thaw and begin the cycle of life all over again.
The Quaker House is frozen now with no breathes or bodies, still and serenely quiet, cold to the bone. Like the Wood Frog, it awaits the year’s Spring and the advent of a new season at Chautauqua. While the Steering committee envisions new programs and personnel, the house is looking at improvements and maintenance for the upcoming season. A new patio is in the works for outdoor gathering and hospitality along with the steady diet of carpentry, painting and improvements that are the blessings of being a homeowner.
Hibernation is one of many of nature’s tools for coping with the extremes of environmental change. For us humans, life is coping for sure but it is also transformational, where we become greater than where we started – at the intersection of Chautauqua Institution and the Quaker Faith, we have found a source of the living water. We invite others to this place.
Friday afternoon, a few people lingered after storytelling, and Kathy Slattery (our house manager) offered leftover Italian ices. We chose between orange and raspberry-lemon. Then we sat on the steps and savored the melting tang on our tongues, rough concrete beneath our bare feet, talking . . . Richard Rohr, The Hunger Games, lacrosse, dance therapy. Summer. The dying days of August, when everybody’s almost but not quite too hot.
These were the final, sweet, sticky moments of Quaker House’s first Chautauqua season.
It’s hard to think about resilience in times like that one, and resilience was the theme of our week. We heard from photojournalist Lynsey Addario, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, author Diana Butler Bass . . . compelling stories of people and groups enduring trauma and well-researched suggestions for how we, too, can persevere through stress and tragedies. But I couldn’t help puzzling over the gap between the lectures and the idyllic surroundings. And I found I had more questions than answers.
Is resilience a trait of the individual or a trait of a whole community? Is enduring difficulties alone a quality we want to study and embody? Or is there another model, in which we use what we have to strengthen everyone? In other words, are we following Daniel Boone, who deliberately moved away from population centers to “conquer the wilderness” on his own? Or are we emulating Jahmal Cole, whose nonprofit, My Block, My Hood, My City, encourages resilience in teenagers of color by “building a more interconnected Chicago”?
And what is the difference in resilience between those who experience unexpected trauma, or circumstantial hardships they cannot escape, and those who repeatedly choose to enter situations of violence or poverty or famine or epidemic in order to walk alongside the humans living and surviving there?
Does resilience imply stability? Or does resilience imply agility?
Or is it the case, as one man suggested at storytelling Friday afternoon, that “there’s no such thing as resilience; the word you’re looking for is a verb. Adapt.”
I don’t have clarity. I do know that in the cold of winter, when the days are short and the sun mostly hidden, I’ll lean on the memory of Italian ices and laughter with three strangers on the steps of Quaker House. And I’ll remember what Oscar Mmbali, pastor of Belize Friends Church, said as our speaker at this week’s Wednesday brown bag: “To share what you have is to keep hope alive.”
To share what you have is to keep hope alive. That, I think, is resilience—in every sense.
If there’s ever a time to delve into brain and soul, the time is now.
This week at Chautauqua, the institutional theme was “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.” The interfaith lectures centered on the human soul. We talked about the extraordinary power of the human brain, its capacity for both good and evil (and what does that mean?), the brain’s reaction to story, the reported soul experiences of those who have come near death, and trauma passed down through generations. We also heard gut-wrenching stories (and isn’t it funny that we talk about responding to stories in our gut?) about the treatment of humans with mental illness. Tuesday morning speaker Norman Ornstein told us, “My adult son had no understanding that he suffered from a mental illness. He resisted treatment because he believed he was having a religious experience. The legal system gave us no recourse, and as my wife says, ‘He died with his civil liberties intact.’”
Eighteen months of societal chaos and collective isolation has left many, perhaps the majority of us, with brain sickness or soul sickness, and really, how do we know which is which? Where does deep, empathetic sadness and anger end and clinical depression begin? When does trauma need prayer and when mental health care? Perhaps the answer is “both, and,” but I’m not content to leave it at that. The obvious intellectual answer is not so obvious when we’re in the midst of it.
Our Wednesday brown bag speaker at Quaker House, Emily Savin, talked on “A Quaker Perspective on Neurodiversity.” She reminded us that early Quakers said we were not waiting for the coming of Jesus,
that we have with us always the Inner Christ, that we are perfectly and exquisitely made for the building of the kingdom of God on earth, if only we work together, if only every person lives into who they’ve been created to be—including those of us with autism or ADHD or dyslexia—and we all need support to live into our full selves. She reminded us that mourning doves build notoriously messy nests, but rather than change the nature of the nests themselves, they look for structures in which to build that will support their messiness, preserving the nests and the eggs alike.
What support do you need right now?
This was the final question I asked the group at Friday storytelling: what has helped your brain and your soul during the last eighteen months?
Being able to stay home and safe.
Conversations with friends.
Long walks in nature.
Helping other people.
Making decisions together with a spouse.
Art and music.
Our Monday morning speaker, Angus Fletcher, told us that the human brain is the strongest force there is, with the ability to save the world and the ability to destroy it. If that’s true—and I believe it is—than let’s take care of our own brains and souls, and each other’s.
During worship Sunday morning, I watched a carpenter ant crawling across the cover of a hymnal. It started in one corner, made its way to the next, then turned ninety degrees rather than crawl right off the top. At the next corner, it turned again, then again at the next. In this way, the ant proceeded to circumnavigate the hymnal cover seven or eight times before deciding to cross diagonally. But that didn’t lead to a solution, either. There was no escape from the hymnal cover, short of stepping off what must have seemed like a veritable cliff, as tall as the ant’s body.
So began Chautauqua’s week on economics. We heard from economists, podcasters, and public policy influencers. We heard that the economy’s actually working really well right now—for everybody except poor people (that is, according to every metric except unemployment and homelessness). We heard that purpose-driven companies also make more profits and that people can be influenced by their theology to vote against their own self-interest.
But we didn’t hear anything that really broke the standard paradigm. The same arguments, the same metrics, the same tension between radicalism and incrementalism . . . and a lot of dodging of difficult questions that didn’t fit neatly within a given speaker’s assertions. Sister Joan Chittister demanded we consider the question, “What is your spirituality of money?” And yet, that’s not really an economic question. It’s a personal finance and philanthropy question. Economics seems to exist in a non-human, theoretical space. It may be the sum of individual monetary transactions, but it’s also one of those systemic things with its own movements and momentum.
Each Friday, Quaker House has storytelling, and I share several stories on the theme of the week. One story I told this week was of Lizzie Magee, the creator of the game that became “Monopoly.” (She was not a Quaker, contrary to rumor.) Her original game, “The Landlord’s Game,” included two versions of the rules. It could be played competitively, winner-takes-all, or it could be played cooperatively, with all wealth gained benefitting all players. Eventually, the game idea was stolen by a man called Charles Darrow, slightly modified, sold to Parker Bros., and published with only one set of rules, the set that assumed a winner-takes-all model. Magee’s original intention of showing an alternative model was lost.
I don’t think Friends have a collective economic testimony. We have testimonies of integrity, equality, and stewardship, and these might influence our individual economic decisions. But we have not yet come to clarity on how to approach systemic economics.
This week at Chautauqua, though it’s been genuinely fascinating, has felt like the moment when the carpenter ant tried crossing the hymnal diagonally. At least it’s something different than wandering in circles . . . but it’s still not a pathway to an actual solution.
by Emily Provance, Friend in Residence “I was trying to make a vase,” the woman said, “but the clay wanted to be a cream pitcher. It had a lip around it, no matter what I did. So now I have a cream pitcher. And it’s beautiful.”
The next night, well after dark, I found myself in the ceramics studio, watching a Homeboy make a cereal bowl. “Hey, turn on ‘Unchained Melody,’ like in Ghost.”
With some fumbling, somebody pulled it up on a cell phone.
“Nah, it’s too quiet. Turn it up.”
“Put the phone in a pot,” I said. “It’ll be louder.”
I need your love . . . I need your love . . . God speed your love . . . to meeeeee . . . (Imagine here a roomful of off-key singers.)
Our theme this week was “empathy.” I had no idea it would involve so much sculpting. Chautauqua includes a number of arts programs, drawing from an extraordinarily accomplished international student population: opera, dance, theater, instrumental music, writing, visual arts. The students don’t mix with everyone else as much as you might think, but this week, I found myself invited to the art studios, where I met a few dozen visual artists (painters, sculptors, weavers, multimedia artists), of every race and gender, ages eighteen to sixty-two. Their work seems to happen when the sun goes down: art about identity, history, equity, immigration, stories, people, nature. Every artist has a private studio, but they move freely in and out between them, learning and talking and playing and laughing. That night, me too, along with the homeboys.
The homeboys, of Homeboy Industries, are formerly incarcerated gang members who now work for the largest gang recovery organization in the United States. Two of them spent the week at Quaker House. Homeboy Industries has a jobs program, mental health services, addiction services, a high school, a GED program, tattoo removal, and a whole lot more. Their personal stories are powerful and not mine to share, but what I loved most was hearing them talk about their work. “It’s all about relationships.” I heard that maybe a thousand times. “Love is at the center of everything. We learn how to trust. Humor is healing.”
And, more specifically: “We don’t fire nobody. Somebody has a behavior that’s a problem, we ask, ‘What’s that behavior communicating?’ If somebody tests positive for drugs, we say, ‘Hey, there’s something going on in your life that is causing that behavior. We got a program to help you figure that out. Your job will still be here waiting when you get back.’”
If somebody declines the help, they can walk away. “But we’ve learned,” the homeboys told me, “it’s not if they come back, it’s when they come back. Because now they know there can be another way. If they don’t die and they’re not in prison, they’ll come back to us. They know they can be loved.”
Our Tuesday morning speaker, Frans de Waal, talked about empathy in primates. He showed us a video of a famous experiment in which two Capuchin monkeys are in cages side by side. They are each asked to do a simple task—retrieve a rock—and for doing so are given food rewards, either cucumbers or grapes. If both capuchins get cucumbers, they’re both fine. If both Capuchins get grapes, they’re both fine. But if one gets a cucumber and the other gets a grape, the Capuchin with the cucumber pitches a fit. How come the other guy gets super-yummy grapes? The Capuchin will eventually throw the cucumber, refusing to accept an inferior reward.
De Waal suggests this is evidence of empathy, but to me, it’s not empathy until you do the same experiment with chimpanzees—because, in the case of chimpanzees, the
animal with the superior reward will also protest the inequity. He’ll refuse the grape unless his neighbor gets one, too. That fits the definition of empathy: understanding another’s feelings and sharing them.
“I was trying to make a vase,” the woman said, “but the clay wanted to be a cream pitcher.” I heard this story at Quaker House from a woman dropping by. It felt like it captured the theme of the week. Rather than demand a vase, she listened to the clay on her wheel. If it wanted to be a cream pitcher, well . . . a pitcher can be beautiful, too.
I’ll finish with a quote from one of this week’s morning worship liturgies: “Who needs you to listen deeply to them today? Who do you need to listen to you?”
In the weekly Quaker House brown bag discussion, our speaker, Callid Keefe-Perry, talked about the similarities between Quaker worship and improvisational comedy theory. In one of those moments of perfect synchronicity, Callid’s internet connection dropped out repeatedly, leaving the rest of us to slide in and out of improvisational discussion. Callid offered an idea; he vanished from the Zoom connection; we took turns sharing our own related spiritual experiences. Callid reappeared to speak more, and off we went through the cycle again.
It was the perfect example of “yes, and,” which is a famous comedy improv principle: if your partner establishes a new idea in a scene, you don’t stop the scene, negate what’s been said, and argue over the circumstances. Instead, you affirm what’s already happened and then add to it, no matter what it might be, therefore building the scene and moving forward, rather than freezing.
The day after this discussion, a woman appeared at the door of Quaker House with tears in her eyes, and she told me how deeply the discussion had touched her. God made something beautiful from a potentially awkward situation, and we as a group embodied that by practicing “yes, and.”
This was a funny week, and maybe not in the way it was meant to be when Chautauqua’s leadership chose “comedy” as our theme. I expected a lot of laughter and heard relatively little. Even in settings where we all expected humor—lectures from comedians, a comedic improvisational play—our laughter was restrained or absent. At one event, there was so little audible response that I was certain the entire audience had been bored, but I later heard several people describe it as “excellent.” Are we just in some kind of shock, collectively? Has the state of the world made us slightly numb? Have we been so isolated that we’re now un-trained in communal laughter? The state of the world seems too serious for comedy, even though we know that humor’s a spiritual and social tool to build resilience and interpersonal connections.
I’ve been wondering what happens next. The threat of Covid-19’s not over, and we’re trying to live in a world of divided societies, racism, economic crises, and climate destruction. Can we face the coming months with “yes, and”? Can we ground ourselves faithfully and walk forward steadily, knowing who we are and who we’re called to be, so that rapidly changing circumstances don’t stop us in our tracks? Can we affirm that the world is how it is (not approve of it, just acknowledge it), and make the “yes, and” about how the Holy Spirit will call us to respond?
Chautauqua Institution is a place of dialogue. Planning how to “yes, and” through the fall and winter is a conversation I would love to have.
In front of Quaker House, there are two trees. One has green leaves, and the other has red. I don’t know enough about horticulture to explain this. There’s also a squirrel—I call her Friend Squirrel—who delights in leaping between them. Sometimes, when I’m working on the balcony, she comes along to practice her acrobatics. I could never do what she does . . . but then, I’m not a squirrel.
The week’s theme at Chautauqua has been “Navigating Our Divides.” Funny how nobody’s defined what that means. First, “divides” could refer to a lot of things, and indeed, every speaker interpreted this differently. And second, what do we mean by “navigating” our divides? Do we mean working together? Repairing harm done? Co-existing without offending? Convincing the other party that they’re wrong? Do we hope that our side will win? Are we seeking a way forward for everyone equally?
Our divides go back a long, long time. Sunday night was “Christmas in July,” an old Chautauqua tradition. (There seem to be a great many Chautauqua traditions.) We read from the Christmas story and sang Christmas hymns, but beforehand, Bishop Gene Robinson explained a bit about the origins of the Christmas story. Why is it different in Matthew and in Luke?
Well, said Robinson, the book of Matthew was written for the Jews. It was important to show, in keeping with the sacred texts, that the Messiah had come and was a divine king, and so Matthew wrote about kings bowing down to Him. Matthew traced His genealogy back to King David. Matthew was invested in the story of Jesus as royal.
But the book of Luke was written for the Gentiles. It was important to show, because the Gentiles were often coming from poor backgrounds, that a great leader had come and was human and humble, and so Luke wrote about shepherds bowing down to him. Luke told about a stable and a manger. Luke was invested in the story of Jesus as relatable.
Today, we say that Jesus was both, and that very paradox is treasured. But if Jesus were born in 2021, I think the two stories would become conflicting narratives. One-or-the-other, and we’d be convinced of which was right based mostly on who we followed on Twitter. How much we would lose by not understanding that two opposing viewpoints can both be true and holy!
All week long, I’ve been frustrated, wanting one of our speakers, any speaker, to tell us what we are supposed to do to “navigate our divides.” But we never got any straightforward solutions. Speaker Amanda Ripley said that high conflict (in which we get stuck and entrenched in opposing viewpoints) is bad, but good conflict (in which we disagree in dialogue) is necessary. Katherine Cramer said we must listen intensely and patiently to understand those we oppose, but Eddie S. Glaude said that we must act aggressively to fight for what is right. Eboo Patel said Christianity is at the heart of our country, but so are Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam.
A highlight of my week came mid-morning Friday, when we gathered a small group here at Quaker House for coffee and tea. We had put out invitations to the staffs of all the other denominational houses. We want to make friends here. We want to be in community.
At the end of our hour together, one visitor suggested that we join hands, going around the circle to each offer a blessing for Quaker House. We did. The House was well and truly blessed, with prayers for peace and calm and comfort for all who enter here—but also for courage to do difficult things.
Royal-relatable. Listen-act. Christianity-Islam. Comfort-courage. At the end of this week, I don’t believe I have all the answers about navigating divides. But I do think I’ll take a cue from Friend Squirrel. There are two trees, one red and one green. Neither is leaving. Both have truth. Before I can do anything else, I have to learn how to leap between them.
The official theme of the week was “Trust, Society, and Democracy.” I heard a lot about society and a lot about democracy but very, very little about trust. The only explicit addressing of this topic was the week’s first speaker, Richard Edelman. He established the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has published a report on worldwide trust every year since 2000. Guess what the report says this year?
We don’t trust very much right now.
Trust is down in every sector. Both media and government are perceived as unethical and incompetent. NGOs are still perceived as ethical—but not as competent. The only sector perceived as ethical and competent both is business. Talk about society flipping upside down.
The Edelman Trust Barometer doesn’t give advice, just survey data. Nevertheless, it’s pretty telling. We trust our government leaders less than we did a year ago. Same for religious leaders, journalists, people in our local communities, our employers, and even scientists.
What are we supposed to do about this? Also, given the very real environment of false information, deliberate deception, and violations of integrity, is lack of trust a problem or a sensible response to our circumstances?
Sara Niccoli, our speaker for the Quaker brown bag lunch this week, suggested a possible solution to a lack of trust: we can try to create a system we trust, a democracy that will serve us, upon which we can rely. But—and this is my interpretation, not Niccoli’s words—that seems to imply that one way out of the current trustless system is to ensure that we never find ourselves in positions where we are genuinely vulnerable. If I can build a system that shelters me from the impact of your actions, then what you do or say doesn’t matter. I’m safe anyway.
I don’t see how that works. As I talked about last week, the future is reliant upon the actions of the entire worldwide community. We are all in this together, like it or not. Systems designed to protect us from each other can only get in the way of holding each other tight. We’re going to have to address the situation of mutual trust.
But again—the week’s conversations and lectures at Chautauqua shied away from that. Instead, we talked about patterns in society: reparative journalism, cancel culture, societal fracturing through social media. Even the interfaith lectures didn’t really address mutual trust; they went, instead, with the theme of “the ethical foundations of a fully functional society.”
I kind of understand the hesitancy. Trust is a really hard topic. To rebuild trust after genuine harm—and we are absolutely experiencing genuine historical and ongoing harm—requires mutual commitment, empathy, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. The very idea feels almost absurd. It’s certainly beyond our human capacity—which is why we need to be calling on God.
The best glimpse of a first step happened Friday afternoon. About a hundred people traversed monsoon-like rain to attend a free performance of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, a documentary theatre piece about the aftermath of the 1992 verdict following the beating of Rodney King. This one-woman play is constructed entirely of monologues drawn from real people’s real words. Smith, the playwright, interviewed everyone from Maxine Waters to Rodney King’s aunt to jury members to gang leaders to a wealthy white real estate agent to a Korean grocer, and in the play, a single actor embodies each of these humans one by one.
After the performance was a brief Q&A, and one man asked, “How do you play all these roles? How do you step into the shoes of so many different kinds of people?”
Actor Regan Sims replied, “Well, Anna Deavere Smith is very wise in what she says about this. She says it has to be without judgment, just believing that these people are real human beings, that what they say and the feelings they’re expressing are genuine. Whatever someone says about their own experience, even if—even if—you just have to trust them.”
Space architecture. Science Fiction. Digital religion. Genetic engineering. Every speaker we heard this week agreed on one thing about the future: whatever it’ll be, we’re all in it together, and that is not necessarily a good thing.
The week’s theme was set up surprisingly well by Ted Chiang, who spent nearly an hour defining the differences between science fiction and fantasy, when most of us listening couldn’t figure out why. We couldn’t have known that the distinction between science and magic, between egalitarian and individualistic, between an impersonal universe and a personal universe, would be so extraordinarily relevant to the rest of the week.
Science fiction, he said, studies what happens when a new technology becomes ubiquitous: what effect does this have on the whole of society? Science fiction leaves humanity in a different place from where it started. It does not follow the hero’s journey, because the story is not about a hero, it’s about an impersonal universe that is not conscious and values nothing. It reminds us that we are not special.
But fantasy, he said in contrast, spins a tale of an individual or set of individuals with powers. These few are, for some reason, special; they are chosen by a personal universe that has some consciousness and respects individuality. Fantasy often follows the hero’s journey because it is about a hero. It reminds us that we are special.
So continued the entire arc of this week, with persistent reminders that we matter quite a lot and, at the same time, we matter not at all. The future will unfold as the cumulative result of countless individual decisions, so many that it will be impossible for any one person to alter the momentum–and yet, this wave of time we’re riding is guided by the actions we all take. We’re in this together, like it or not.
When we look at climate change or Christian nationalism or racism, this word “community,” which Friends call a testimony, becomes bigger, because now we’re talking about the future of all we’ve known, and how the story ends will depend upon the whole of humanity. Another speaker on Monday, Katharine Rhodes Henderson, admonished us to hold each other tight. That, she said, was the only way we had a hope of getting through this. But what does it mean to hold each other tight? Hold who tight? How, exactly?
Gretchen Castle, who served as our brown bag speaker on Wednesday at Quaker House, talked about the globalization of religion, particularly in the Covid era, when suddenly it became nearly as easy to worship with someone many countries away as it was to worship with one’s own local community. In some ways, this is a glorious thing. We can cross many boundaries we couldn’t before: national boundaries, language boundaries, theological boundaries, cultural boundaries. We can hold each other tight from quite far away. But resonant from that conversation, too, was something that a participant said: it’s a little too easy, with the whole world to choose from, to find someone who doesn’t bother me, someone with whom I already agree. But is that the same as loving my neighbor? If I am not longer obliged to form relationships with my immediate local community, am I finding ways to skip over the tough questions? Am I forming a safe bubble while claiming to reach across boundaries? Which are the boundaries that really matter? What does it mean to hold each other tight?
On Thursday, we heard from Ariel Ekblaw, who leads a lab at MIT with the mission of building the space technologies of the future. She and her colleagues are actively creating and testing prototypes for self-assembling space pods, musical instruments that play only in weightlessness, holodecks, radiation filters, and more. What I loved most about her presentation was the way in which she talked about assembling her team. “No one wants to live in a place designed only by engineers. So we work with artists, musicians, ethicists, communications experts…we want to inspire people by telling stories of the future extremely well.” In other words, they are building a community, a real one, where each person uses their own gifts for a united purpose.
Someone asked the obvious question: why spend money on space travel when people are starving? But of course, there was an answer to that too. “It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Not to mention the ways in which our science will contribute, must contribute, to a better life on Earth. As we design radiation filters and biodomes and more efficient carbon dioxide processors, we are well aware that the work we do many eventually mitigate the effects of climate change on this planet.” This felt to me like a group of people conscious of their role in a global community
I worshiped Friday evening with the Chautauqua Hebrew Congregation. Again, I found myself witnessing a people, in this case a people who have known themselves as a people for many thousands of years. On one level, I didn’t understand the Hebrew prayers. On another level, I understood them viscerally, as a ritual that connects this people across all time, many centuries into the past and more centuries into the future. At the beginning of the service, the rabbi said, “You will notice security parked in the parking lot. This is not because there is a particular problem…it is just what most of us do now, to make sure there will not be a problem.”
What does it mean to hold each other tight?
On Thursday in morning worship, Zina Jacque told us the story of Tamar, who (righteously, in the context of the story) tricked Jacob into impregnating her and, by doing so, became a part of the lineage of Jesus. Jacque said, “All Tamar wanted was a son, and she birthed an entire religion.” This scared me. To think that one act, and a precarious one at that, could mean the existence, or not, of all Christianity. What implications does that have for my life?
But on Friday, Jacque told us of Esther, who saved the Jews from the wicked Haman. Her uncle Mordecai said to her, “If you keep silent in such a time of this, the Jews will still be saved, but you…will be destroyed.” In other words, God could find another way—but even so, intervening was Esther’s responsibility. She could have said no, but she became her fullest self by saying yes to God’s call.
Call to what? To step into her place in her community. Hold each other tight. Whatever the future will be, it will be the future of the whole global community.
Certain types of communication can cross a lot of boundaries. For example, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, which came to Chautauqua Thursday night. Everybody turned out, from infants to elderly, and everybody danced in their seats. In fact, one woman, who looked about eighty-five, refused to sit down for the first song after intermission, jitterbugging merrily “Little Brown Jug.” One babe in arms, just old enough to support her own head, sat in her mommy’s lap and pointed at the orchestra, mouth agape, as big band worked its magic on yet another generation.
But not every moment of the week represented the best of humanity. The institution focused on the theme of China, and we heard about China’s one-child policy, about the relationship between China and climate change, about religion in China, about government censorship, and about the gap between the Chinese government and its surprisingly diverse people. I expected to spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which Chinese people differed from me, but in fact, the various speakers and discussions suggested no such thing. I got the feeling that the “average” citizen in China, if there is such a thing, isn’t really all that different from the “average” citizen of the United States.
Most of the speakers this week were either academic experts or writers of some kind, but one was a diplomatic advisor who’d served in various iterations of the U.S. government. More than anyone else all week long, he felt very different from me. Although he didn’t, in his speech, specifically articulate the assumptions from which he was operating, I had the sense that they were drastically different from my own, to the extent that if we sat in a room together, I’m not sure we could communicate successfully. Even if we both spoke with integrity, I suspect our underlying world views would get in the way.
This reminded me of a gathering I attended in the Chabad house. Tuesday morning, a small group assembled to talk about ethics. Many of us weren’t Jewish. At one point, the woman next to me could not contain herself and started to protest a (relatively minor) point that the rabbi had made. In a specific example to do with finding lost money, the rabbi said it was ethical to keep it, and the woman sharing my couch was certain this wasn’t right. The truth was, I agreed with her, but I could also see that in the context of our discussion, her sense of right and wrong (or mine) was genuinely irrelevant. We weren’t discussing ethics. We were discussing Talmudic ethics. Of course, to the rabbi, “Talmudic ethics” would have been a redundant phrase, and so he didn’t say this. Nevertheless, that was the basis of our entire discussion.
Our underlying assumptions were just different. We could have an interesting discussion about Talmudic thought—and we did, and I enjoyed it thoroughly–but we could not come to a final, unanimous conclusion about what to do, ethically, regarding a specific situation. I’m glad we didn’t need to.
Which brings me back to our political/diplomatic speaker. Friends talk a lot about a testimony of integrity, but all that really means is acting and speaking in accord with what we know to be right. This speaker was doing that, but he was also coming from the point of view that the United States must maintain the number one position in political, economic, and military power in the world, and from that fundamental assumption came every other action and thought. So basic was this truth, in his mind, that it didn’t even need articulating. And this man represents me as part of my government…but his way of thinking does not represent me at all.
How do we communicate with, and about, our governments when their ways of thinking may be alien to our own? What does it mean to act from integrity in such situations?
Week three of this season is on “Trust, Society, and Democracy.” I look forward to digging into these questions further. In the meantime, I’ll keep wandering the grounds, meeting new people, and entering conversations, because if nothing else, we’ll never find our way to unity if we don’t keep on communicating.