from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cherishing Life and Persons 

As a result of the death of Tom Fox, and the additional news that he may have been tortured, I have in the past day plus done some reflection. I know that as I head to Quaker Meeting for Worship this morning, that process of reflection will continue. Perhaps the content - and the processes - of my reflection will be of little interest to most persons who will encounter them here, but if they can be of benefit to anyone, then the time I take to record and post them is justifiable.

If you are not interested in the subject, feel free to ignore the rest of what I have written here. But if an encounter with the experiences of others might be of benefit, I invite you to continue reading.

Let me begin by explaining something about Quaker Worship. It is rooted in silence and in stillness. We attempt to quiet ourselves mentally, spiritually and physically, so that we allow space and time for the “still, small voice” that can speak to us. We attempt to discern that what arises is not of our own needs and yearnings, but has a purpose in being spoken. The “message” as we call it may be intended for someone we do not personally know. When we hear a message from the silence offered by another, it may not speak to us, but we accept that it may speak powerfully to a third party. We attempt to listen with openness, because perhaps it may touch some place in us that we did not know we had. Part of the wonder and mystery of Meeting for worship is how the messages often build on one another is magnificent ways, so that when a second or a third person gives a message it “speaks to my condition” as I have moved along some unknown spiritual path as a result of previous message(s).

This is preface. So is this. I have just gone on the board of a non-profit Quaker organization in Washington, Dc. William Penn House is a Quaker Seminar and Hospitality Center on East Capitol Street, only a few blocks from the seat of Congress. I am the designee of my Monthly Meeting. I attend my first board session this past week, with representatives from Meetings around the DC metro area. Our clerk is a middle school teacher at Sidwell Friends. And in our business meeting we operate in a fashion not dissimilar from Meeting for Worship -- there is always space and silence between statements, we attempt to listen, we seek discernment and clarity. Perhaps the one difference between ordinary Meeting for Worship and a Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business is that in the latter we attempt to reach a common understanding before moving forward, so that we ensure that our actions are not merely the result of the most forceful and persuasive personality, but represent something different.

Last night there was a gathering at our Meeting House, so that those in need of coming together after the loss of Tom would have a place and support. Today we have postponed having our monthly Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business because we expect that we will have many visitors who may think they are coming to support us but some of whom may need affirmation and support FROM us. I will be at the latter. I did not attend last night, because instead I went to a state championship boys high school basketball game where our boys lost a heartbreaker by one point. I do not need to justify that choice. Tom loved young people and believed in affirming life. That is why he opposed the death penalty, that is why he was willing to die for peace. And when I quietly inquired of some of those in Meeting whose judgment and perception I trust, they all told me to go to the game, unless I needed the support of being in the gathering last night (I did not, perhaps because I did not know Tom as well as others, and because since his kidnapping I had been prepared for this eventuality even as I desperately hoped for a different outcome). I also made the choice as a means of affirming life and persons.

As a teacher I have found that I have my greatest positive impact on students not so much because of the content that I may know or the skill with which I instruct, but because I am perceived as caring about my students as persons. I believe in being subjective in this sense - I think each student -- each person - is subject in themselves, and not to be treated as an object for my particular philosophy or set of goals. I realize my meaning might not be clear to readers, for which I apologize. My aspirations for each of my students is that s/he have the greatest individual opportunity to be her/himself, whatever that self may be. I want each to have the widest opportunity to explore, to find meaning, to determine how to live a life that matters in his/her own terms. I will in class challenge them - intellectually to be sure, but on matters of principle as well. I do the latter not because I wish to change their moral outlook, but so that they will at least occasionally consider the consequences of choices, of actions, of words. I expect that they will challenge me back. That is because in my classroom - and in our encounters in the hall -- education is, as the Quaker writer Parker Palmer notes, a series of relationships. And when I encounter another human being, that relationship for me should recognize the absolute uniqueness of that individual.

Yesterday I attended two state finals. Our girls won their second straight title, and you know about the loss our boys suffered. Both starting point guards were my students. For the young lady, a superb student, this will probably be the end of her competitive athletic career. The young man has several division one offers, including a service academy. He will continue to play. He has often been underrated as a player, and has had to prove himself on the court. He is quiet in the classroom, does not speak much, but has an acute intelligence that when given room offers the listener some penetrating insights and analysis. It has been a delight to watch both develop as persons, and it is important to recognize that for both playing sports has been a part of how they have developed their individuality, developed their confidence. I celebrate that, and affirm it by attending when I can.

I similarly celebrate those students with whom I worked in musical theater. I have come to know some wonderful adolescents whom I had never taught, but who now amaze and inspire me. It is not merely how gifted as musicians and actors they may be, but the quality of spirit, their delight in working with one another. One young lady in particular caught my attention because she missed a cue. Let me explain. We were doing “Seussical” and had planned an abbreviated performance for an auditorium full of elementary school kids. We had one rehearsal in which to practice this shortened version, and in the practice we had omitted a duet in which she participated. In the notes after the performance we told the kids we were putting the duet back in for dramatic continuity. She did not hear those notes because we have a severely disabled young lady in a wheel chair whom we had included in the cast, and our lead was helping her change (the disabled girl has an aide for classes, but that aide is not required to stay for activities and had left). Not knowing that we were going to do the duet, the next day at the performance she was again helping the young lady when she heard the music for her duet. She continued to help her change, and only then came out partway through. Fortunately her partner was skillful in covering her absence, and the little children probably never knew anything was wrong. I was inspired by how she acted.

And I tell this story because it connects, at least in my mind, with the life and work of Tom Fox, who loved young people. He cherished them, as he did all of life. And because he cherished them he was willing to die on their behalf.

“A condition of complete simplicity,
(costing not less than everything)”

The words are from Thomas Stearns Eliot, form “Little Gidding” the last poem in his set The Four Quartets. Quakers are known for their testimonies, their affirmations of basic principles, of which perhaps the best known is the Peace Testimony. Living a life of simplicity is another of our callings, but this is often misunderstood. I am certainly not a Quaker theologian (we do have our share of great thinkers, even if you might not consider them formal theologians, and I would suggest that those interested read the words of John Woolman, George Fox, Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly among others). My understanding of this does not require me to use “thee” and “thou” but to live the intent of the plain speech -- that we do not distinguish in our speech between those we hold close
enough to use the (now obsolete in English) familiar second person rather than the more formal “you.” Here I note that those who continue to use Thee and Thou in addressing God a la the King James Bible miss the point -- those words then become no more than God Talk, rather than indicating that God is as close as our family or our dearest friend, and hence should be addressed in the familiar form -- think of the distinction in other European languages, where the 2nd person familiar is not obsolete.

Words are one form of simplicity. Dress is often another, although we do not have to be so plain as to be able to appear on oatmeal boxes!! I find it far less important to wear the latest ‘designer” or stylish fashions. I see little purpose in that. This is not a major issue. To me a better example of dress with respect to simplicity connects with celebrating life and persons -- under what conditions were my clothes made? Are those who are making them paid decently, having decent working conditions? If not, am I not ignoring their value as individual human beings for the sake of my own comfort o aggrandizement?

This diary is already too long. And if anyone has had the patience to read this much, I commend you. Let me see if the message can be expressed more directly.

I am posting in situations where most who read will have political concerns. And politics inevitably will involve compromise, because we need to come together on a common basis in order to have sufficient numbers to affect government and society. If the way we come together is to demean those who do not join or agree with us, if our only goal is victory regardless of the cost, then I must withhold my approval. The same way I cannot accept that killing Iraqis even as collateral damage is justified because it “saves” American lives here -- the rationale that is better to fight “them” over there rather than at home -- I cannot accept the idea that my ideas or points of view or those with whom I agree are so superior that I can ignore, denigrate, demean them.

Please let me be clear. I want to celebrate life. I want to find something positive with which I can connect. I know as a teacher I am far more effective when I affirm that which is good. It is far easier to bring a classroom under control by speaking quietly, by acknowledging the right behavior than by focusing on that which is wrong. While I do not think that we can sit by quietly at truly wrong actions, I also think we are far more effective when - even as we criticize a particular action - we approach those whose behavior we perhaps find offensive as people capable of recognizing the harm they do and changing their behavior. In Quaker terms this is answering that of God in the other person, even if what they express at that moment is far from “Godly.” It is why we seek commonality -- if the other cares about his children, help him to see how those he views as others may care as deeply for their own children.

Celebrating and cherishing life and persons -- no matter how different from me they may be. Seeking to find something that helps us to connect. Recognizing the absolute uniqueness in every human at the same time as we hold on to our equally absolute interconnectedness. That is why the death of another diminishes me, as John Donne tells us. And that is why I hope for true joy in the lives of all.

Tom Fox in some ways was a remarkable man. In others he was quite ordinary. He had children whom he loved dearly. He had his share of conflicts with others, at work and at Meeting. He was not, as one of his dear friends remarked yesterday, necessarily the most inspiring of speakers. How he lived at the end of his 54 years, during his service as a CPT member, and how he died, can serve as an example not of the extraordinary, but rather as an illustration of the difference an ordinary person can make if she is willing to be present for others, to do the right thing without measuring the cost. Tom would not have us mourn him, even as he would acknowledge our need to mourn, to comfort one another. He would be satisfied - even pleased with a response the cherishes lives and person. He would feel humbled that our response is to contact all of our Congressional representatives and beseech to make the government account for the names and locations of all we hold as a result of the recent conflicts, so that their loved ones can have some certainty. Family should know why someone is being held. Part of Tom’ s work in Iraq was precisely this, helping Iraqis find out about their loved ones. No matter how horribly my father or brother or sister may have acted, am I not entitled to know where they are, and why they are being held? if we cannot grant this simple act of human decency, how can we claim that others “hate our freedoms” when seem to think we do not have to give freedom to others? I do not understand, and Tom did not accept that rationale.

Today I will go to Meeting for Worship. I will “hold in the light” those who felt compelled to take Tom’s life. I do not accept that their action can be justified. But I also believe that no human being has the power by one act -- or even a series of actions - to place themselves totally outside of “redemption”, of being part of the greater human community. The actions may be monstrous, but I also know that many of the actions done ostensibly in my name by my government are also monstrous, and that people may in hurt, anger, or even cold calculation decide that they will not accept being at only one end of such a set of transactions. l I will also “hold in the light” the leaders of this nation who do such misguided and even evil actions. I will do similarly for those with the courage to stand up for what is right. All of this is one way of cherishing life and persons.

And I will try to acknowledge all persons I encounter, not as a means of meeting some need I may have, but as unique and wonderful in themselves. I will try to smile not only with my mouth, but with my eyes, with my “heart.”

Tom pondered about the need of those willing to die for peace. Certainly we need that. I think we need to start with someone more basic, people willing to live for peace. We start by committing ourselves to peace in our every action, our thoughts, and certainly our words. We seek to affirm peace on the part of others. At some point we may encounter what seems to be an impossible choice. We do what we believe to be right, in humility that we may be wrong, and do not stray from the right because of some level of personal cost. In some ways there are things more horrifying than death -- disfigurement, shame, degradation may, depending upon one’s code of values, be far worse than dying in the name of a good cause. I do not seek martyrdom, nor did Tom. I do seek to be a better person, and to be an instrument that helps others to do similarly.

Giovanni di Bernadone died in 1226, having lived only to his mid-40’s. There are words attributed to him, which do not appear in his known writings, that are an appropriate way for me to end this. Whether or not you accept the Christian theology that underlies this expression, I hope you will find meaning and comfort in what we commonly know as the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not 
so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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