Suffering – What It Takes, What It Gives

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Image – NY Times
 “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then the entire world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”         ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1973

The couch’s middle cushion dipped as I settled into it at Quaker Meeting. It was the first Sunday of the month, so I anticipated just ten minutes of silence before we’d be directed into worship-sharing. This practice is much like silent meeting for worship, except that the leader poses queries, or questions, for participants to respond to. Out of the quiet, we speak from our own experience, listen deeply and lovingly without commenting, and allow silence between sharings. That day, the worship-sharing leader invited us to respond to any or all of the following queries:

  • How and when do we differentiate between alleviating suffering of others and/or empowering them to find their own way?
  • Is being present or bearing witness enough?
  • What is your experience with suffering? What has it taken from you and what has it given you?

I closed my eyes, resumed my centering breaths, and focused on suffering. As typically happens when I ponder such themes, my thoughts bounced like kernels in a popcorn popper. I quieted them as others spoke, nearly every message resonating. I nodded as someone talked of the importance of being present to those who are suffering, and another suggested we can’t take others’ suffering away. One spoke of awareness that her lifestyle, even as simple as she tries to keep it, contributes to the suffering of other people. More sharing rang true to my own experience: there are ways to give physical help that will ease the suffering of others; our thoughts also affect suffering; recognition of suffering among other species; and the burden of thinking we’re responsible for others’ suffering.

I thought of my own experience with suffering, reflecting on the premature deaths of my father, stepfather, and several close friends. I thought back to other losses, times of uncertainty about my work, and feelings of failure. Those memories led me to explore the questions about what suffering has taken from me and what it has given me. I breathed in, cleared my throat, and spoke of how suffering crumbled my naiveté and eroded my trust that everything would be okay. And once I became aware that my choices about where I live, how I spend, and what I eat often bring suffering to other people, species, and the planet, I couldn’t return to denying my privilege or my complicity.

And there have been gifts. My own hardships, plus awareness of others’ distress, have fostered compassion. When compassion arises, I can open myself to Spirit and to what it is I’m to do. I strive to eliminate the goal of doing “enough.” I know I can never do enough, that I can’t bring an end to the suffering I witness. Instead, I seek clarity about what it is I can bring to a situanorwegian-angel-abstract-digital-art-fractal-circletion or a person and then endeavor to be faithful to that, rather than to an outcome.

As I shared these thoughts, I recognized that these experiences of adversity create a circle—when I act with compassion, I enter into others’ suffering, which in turn fosters compassion. I’m grateful for that, even though many days I wish this cycle didn’t work this way.

But it seems to be the way it is. And it’s why I value my spiritual community, because none of us can do this alone.

 

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Doing Hope

This October, I once again became a Chicago Cubs fan. I like to think I’d always been one, starting in childhood in Chicago when I’d listen to Cubs games on the radio. After my family moved to Southern Illinois, my dad and I still cheered for the Cubs, watched their games on TV, read the sports pages, and every year hoped for a chance at the World Series—or at least a few wins.

bosse-fieldIn my mid-twenties, my dad died. By then I was living in Southern Indiana and occasionally went to minor league Evansville Triplets games at Bosse Field (third oldest ballpark after Wrigley Field and Fenway Park). A few years later, newly married, I moved to Seattle. Without my Cubs-cheering dad and so many miles from my birthplace, I turned my fading baseball interest to the Seattle Mariners. That eventually disappeared as I became disillusioned with professional sports’ shift from, well, sport to entertainment.

At dawn on an April morning this year, my husband and I helped move our son and daughter-in-law from Washington, DC to Chicago. We loaded their possessions into a rented truck and their compact car and took turns driving on the 700-mile trip. We pulled into their north side neighborhood around 8 pm. Once again I had family in Cubs territory.

winThroughout the spring, I noted the return of my hope about the Cubs – this might be the year, the first time since 1908, that they’d go to the World Series. My interest, and hope, grew all summer and into the fall, the playoffs, and finally the World Series. Call me a fair-weather fan, but the Cubs’ historic win restored my appreciation for baseball and my loyalty to my hometown team.

A World Series title for Chicago wasn’t the only thing I hoped for this fall. I had similar feelings about the 2016 election – hope for a more progressive agenda, hope for the first woman president, hope for a shift in Congress. Sadly, shockingly, by the time I went to bed on November 8, the only shift that seemed likely was toward environmental destruction, health care dismantling, violations of human rights, and military escalation. As the reality that my country had elected Donald Trump began to sink in, distress replaced hope. Right on its heels was the question, “What am I to do?”

work-that-reconnects-pngThis wasn’t the first time I’d felt despair or had questions about my role. I’d sat with anguish about climate change for months, and finally registered for a workshop created by Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology. Two of her students were offering “The Work That Reconnects,” November 11-12. The timing couldn’t have been better.

hopeTo prepare for the workshop, I’d started reading one of Macy’s books, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. The “mess” I was focused on was climate change, but the book’s introduction made it clear that Active Hope can apply to any situation.

The word hope has two different meanings. The first involves hopefulness, where our preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen. If we require this kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our response gets blocked in areas where we don’t rate our chances too high.

Kind of like how I’d come to think about the Cubs, and, I have to admit, efforts to save the planet. For some time, my hope—in both cases—fluctuated based on how I rated the chances of “winning.” Macy describes the second meaning of hope as about desire—knowing what we hope for or would like to happen—and becoming an active participant in bringing about those desires.

Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have… Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.

During the workshop, we sang, we grieved, we raged, sang some more, and listened. One of the most transformative exercises for me was sitting in a circle for the Truth Mandala. The leader presented symbolic objects that we could take turns holding: a stone to express fear, dry leaves to represent sorrow, a stick for our anger, and an empty bowl to symbolize our hunger for what’s missing—our emptiness. And where was hope? The leader explained that the very ground of the mandala is hope.

I gripped the stick and spoke of my love for the power and beauty of words and my anger about ways they’re being misused to foster hate and distrust. Then I lifted the heavy rock and acknowledged my fear of speaking truth to power, of being misunderstood, of unwittingly hurting others, or of being perceived as naïve.

After each of us spoke, the rest of the group acknowledged us with the words, “We hear you.” At the end, the leader honored the truth each of us shared and pointed out that each object in the mandala was like a coin with two sides: the courage to speak our fear is evidence of trust; our sorrow is for those things we deeply care for; the anger springs from passion for justice; and to be empty means there’s space to be filled.

By the end of the day, I felt clarity about my question of what I’m to do. Rather than weighing my chances and proceeding only when I feel hopeful—like I did with the Cubs—now, my intention is to DO hope by listening and writing my truth. I don’t know yet what form that will take, but I intend for my words to come from a place of love, grounded in what my Quaker faith has shown me: there is something of the Light in everyone. No exceptions. And every time I feel afraid that I’ll be misunderstood, or viewed as gullible, I’ll remind myself that the other side of that coin is trust; that my anger springs from my passion for justice; my tears come from deep love; and my emptiness offers space for my words.

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Nudged

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Now that I’ve let my nursing license expire, and I’m finishing up two major writing projects (BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community and my memoir, Hiking Naked), I’ve been reflecting on what I’m being led to next. I yearn for the kind of certainty I felt forty years ago when I sensed a clear calling (though I didn’t use that term at the time) to enter nursing school. Or the flash of insight I experienced at a writing workshop over fifteen years ago.

In October of 2000, instead of attending the annual fall public health conference as I usually did, I enrolled in a weeklong writing course by Tom Mullen at Pendle Hill Quaker Center. Tom was a former Quaker pastor and former Dean of Earlham School of Religion (ESR). He was the inspiration behind the ESR Ministry of Writing Program, as he himself was a writer who ministered through the written word. That’s what Tom did for me during that workshop and as he critiqued my writing.

During a group discussion about how to fit writing into our lives, I realized that a number of my nursing consultation contracts would be completed by the end of the year. I saw an opening then to try a new schedule. Why not fit consulting work around writing instead of the other way around?   I announced to my fifteen workshop classmates that in January 2001 I would start a new job—writer. Ever since then, I’ve treated writing as my work, or at least part of my work, and have made time for it nearly every weekday.

languageSo far, though, such clarity about future work has been elusive. As so often happens when I acknowledge my seeking and uncertainty, I learned about a book that intrigued me—A Language for the Inward Landscape by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr. Both authors had studied old Quaker journals in which early Friends described their inward states and their experience of faithful life. They talked of how some of the words and phrases these journalers used were “both puzzling and full of implication” and provided a rich vocabulary to describe those experiences. Taber was especially drawn to the range and complexity of Quaker spirituality conveyed in these writings and called it “a language for the inward landscape.” A couple of years after Taber died, Drayton agreed to delve into Taber’s “the Language” materials and ultimately wrote this book drawing on Taber’s notes and his own study and understanding.

I’m part of the book’s audience of modern seekers who continue to wrestle with putting our spiritual experiences into words, and this book—a combination of history, biography, and dictionary—has broadened my vocabulary to describe my inward journey. Though I don’t feel a clear leading about my next steps, I’ve had some inklings, or wonderings, about what might call to me. A Language for the Inward Landscape offers a term that describes how I feel guided right now:

Nudge – “… though it is mostly synonymous with ‘leading,’ nudge lays emphasis upon the often very small and tentative beginnings of some spiritual development. A nudge is gentle, and often doesn’t convey its ultimate meaning clearly; meaning may unfold as the path unfolds.”

Quaker Charlotte Lyman Fardelmann identified some key signs of authenticity of a nudge:

  • it leads to love and light
  • it comes with clarity, or grows in clarity as it is lived with
  • it resonates with deep desires
  • it leads into service to others
  • it requires rest
  • it leads to more love and joy.

My nudges are definitely small and tentative right now, with the strongest urge being to conserve my energy to complete the projects I’m involved in; there’s still plenty to do to bring my two books into the world. But thanks to A Language for the Inward Landscape, I draw strength and hope from the wisdom of others that my path will unfold.

Afterthought #53 Clarity by Committee

candlesThe clearness committee is one process Quakers have developed to help people discern when, or even if, Spirit is leading them. It’s like going to your favorite aunt when you’re trying to make a decision. She nods slightly as you weigh pros and cons; she responds to your wonderings with gentle questions that unlock the answers inside you.

Quaker “aunts” and “uncles” have sat with me several times as I’ve sought clarity about decisions regarding moves, work, and schooling. We’d meet together just as we do in Quaker worship. After about fifteen minutes of sinking into the silence, the clearness committee convenor would ask me to explain the decision I was seeking clarity about. The committee members would ask evoking questions, questions that only I could know the answers to. These “listening hearts” set aside personal opinions and listened deeply to my responses, supporting me to hear inward guidance.

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about my friend Jon Watts when he organized the largest clearness committee in the history of Quakerism to seek clarity about his work. Like me, Jon strives to “make decisions in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, can’t arrive at just through reasoning.” A year later, I reported the results of Jon’s discernment in Afterthought #23 and announced the launch of his new work, a YouTube video series called QuakerSpeak.

And now, three years into this ministry, Jon is again exploring Quaker clearness committees with this recent QuakerSpeak video. If you’re curious about this process of spiritual discernment, this segment offers descriptions from a variety of Friends about how clearness committees work.

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.