For so many Christians, "O Come, Emmanuel" was sung from choral sanctuaries and blasted from organ pipes at the back of the church this past weekend on the first Sunday of Advent. I’m going to guess that very few services featured such a stirring pairing of piano and cello.
On Being Blog
as vast as canyons
hard as suffering, these stones
stand strong, mute, nameless
Along the borders of my summer run two shadows from the valley of death: New York's National September 11 Memorial (which I saw in June) and Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (which I visited in September). As I watched news coverage of the moving roll call of the dead on 9/11, I couldn't help but recall how the rabbi reads names at every Jewish service in observance of Yahrzeit, on the first anniversary of the death of a congregant's relative. At the end of the list, our Reform rabbi always mentions those who have no relatives to pray for them. The haiku above is inspired by these two memorials and the losses they represent.
Ellen Girardeau Kempler is a poet, arts and travel writer, workshop leader, and marketing consultant. She regularly posts Ship's Log entries about writing, reading, travel, creativity, community, and finding balance in life.
Ali Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle-Families Forum receive a Common Ground Award in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Search for Common Ground)
"When you have no hope that it will ever change, do you follow a big news story less closely?"
The NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) asked this question a couple of weeks ago on Twitter. It's a good one.
I think he's pointing at a truth many of us are remiss to admit to ourselves — and each other. Somehow we can build up a mental callous to certain news events like the ongoing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. When we're doing our job properly, we feel we can create an opening, a sliver of space that allows you, our listeners and readers, to move past the headlines of despair and hopelessness by presenting you with personal stories that create a human connection and, in the case of this week's show, an emotional connection — as witnessed in Krista's exchange with Swanny:
Your interview with Ali & Robi is so valuable! I wish every American listened. And I love you for it.
@YoSwanny Thank you. That photo of them on our site is on my desktop. They give me courage - so do you.
Listen to Robi and Ali's story. Share their story with others. Talk about it with your family and friends.
Andrew Solomon (perhaps you remember our show The Soul in Depression"?) is making similar connections too. In his new book, Far from the Tree, he explores stories of identity and love in difference as experienced through family in his most recent work, :
Watch this video showcasing the love between parents and children grounded in the grit of experience.
It's a powerful set of testimonials that'll make you forget the video is a trailer for a book, which I'm now reading with zeal.
Love the analogy from Minna Bromberg (@minnabromberg)! This is representative of the overwhelming response to last week's show on vulnerability and shame with Brené Brown. As is typical, people who listened to the show bring their own insights and wisdom to the subject — like this one from Dan Phillips (@dannyboy), a sustainable design consultant based in London:
Leaning in to our vulnerabilities takes not only our own strength but the kindness of others and wider society.
We were also received, as Krista tweeted, "an important critique of my conversation with Brene Brown" from Davina Allen (@_dee_minor). She reminds us that there are many perspectives we need to consider when discussing shame, especially when it concerns race:
"People of color in the United States have been contending with these kinds of messages for literally hundreds of years now. Shame is absolutely nothing new to the experience of a person of color in the United States. On quite the opposite hand, resisting the ongoing onslaught of overt and covert messages designed to shame people of color is merely a normal part of our daily existence."
Ms. Allen continues:
"White people often have an inordinate amount of difficulty in being able to be vulnerable and honest with people of color when having conversations about racism. I believe this is so because they simply do not know how to effectively handle and confront the guilt and shame that they experience when they are forced to confront white privilege, to accept their complicity in benefiting from that privilege, and to accept that society is as unjust and painful for people of color as they say it is."
"It is exactly as you said — the inability to handle the guilt and shame of white privilege, to accept that my own complicity in benefiting from that privilege, to accept that society is as unjust and as painful for people of color as they say it is. I would add that, for me, it is also the fear of losing the benefit or status of white privilege. What would happen to me without this shield of protection?"
I encourage all of you to read Ms. Allen's full comment and the conversation thread that resulted. It's a fruitful dialogue worth engaging in.
In the same vein, Jonathan Tran has written an article for The Christian Century (@Christiancent) I highly recommend reading. It contains some heavy-duty theology and historical references, but as Krista says:
A fascinating, important piece on black theology claiming and enlivening church tradition in a new way.
Moving forward, we're in the throes of our December/January show production, which includes an interview with Andy Revkin about the "knowosphere" — converging wisdom from the 20th-century French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and 21st-century science journalism:
Wrapping my mind around this: "Matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen." ~Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
And yesterday Krista had a 90-minute conversation with Seth Godin on the new entrepreneurial paradigm taking shape today:
"We are all artists now." ~Seth Godin. Godin and Heschel hanging out together in my head via overlapping production. Intense... and fun.
And what better way to conclude this column that with these sage words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from a 1972 NBC interview:
"...remember that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence."
I also received some insightful responses to last week's request about ways of giving thanks. I'll share some of the responses next week.
I love every sensory aspect of Christmas. I love the sights and the smells, but most of all I love the rich and textured sounds. In short, I love Christmas music.
More than any other holiday, my Christmas season is hemmed in and held together by music. Music is a common thread woven through all the little holiday rituals, traditions, and memories that I share with my family and friends. Beautiful music. Nostalgic music. Radio music. Nature's music. Muzak music. The music of Christmas is everywhere, and I love it all, but nothing quite so much as the season's sacred music.
There aren't quite words to describe the warm and inviting glow of a church sanctuary illumined by candlelight on Christmas Eve night, and the peace that washes over me when friends and strangers gather and sing the sweet strains of these well worn hymns. These simple songs bridge the chasm of time and space, and help me to be present to the miracle of Christ's birth.
In an uncertain world, they stand for me as guideposts, pointing me always towards the certainty of hope. The exuberant and joyous African American Spiritual, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is no exception to this rule. This carol is at the top of my list, because it so beautifully captures the joy of this season.
Though its precise origins are unknown, many believe this spiritual was discovered shortly after the Civil War, and popularized in the early- to mid-twentieth century. It has been a song of hope rising from the valleys of southern plantations, and issuing forth from the deep heart of Appalachian Mountain trails. It has been a gospel song enjoyed round cozy family pianos, by church choirs, and sung from main stages of grand concert halls. Peter, Paul, and Mary once adapted its lyrics and utilized this song as a civil rights hymn. It has been covered by an eclectic group of musicians ranging from Mahalia Jackson to Dolly Parton. In short, this is a carol that has seen a rich history.
Needless to say, I was delighted when two veteran artists, Margaret Becker and Jennifer Knapp, included it in their 2012 collection, The Hymns of Christmas, and gave it the royal musical treatment. For their collaboration, Margaret and Jennifer took ten Christmas classics and infused them with heavenly harmonies and their signature guitar work.
Encountering their arrangements is a bit like running into a dear old friend wearing a brand new dress, every bit as gorgeous as you had remembered and then some. From the looks of their sampler video, Jennifer and Margaret were busy weaving friendship alongside their harmonies. For anyone who needs a delightful burst of Christmas cheer, do yourself a favor and give this album a listen. You can start with, "Go Tell it on the Mountain."
Photo of choir by Flickr/Duncan Harris, CC BY 2.0
Marcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She's convinced that she does her best theology when she slows down, settles in with good friends and a glass of mulled wine, and lets the twin sounds of laughter and harmony permeate her household.
Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.
In light of Krista's conversation on how to hold civil conversations when it comes to the discussion of equal marriage, here's a short poem written in Newark airport a few weeks ago following a brief encounter with a former colleague:
r e t u r n i n g s
I see her, former colleague
in the baggage area of a
Oh hi, she says,
looking awkwardly towards the
Then she decides.
I hear you’re gay now, she says.
are you still a Christian?
Oh how will we tell this story?
She, to her friends, with
sadness, curiosity and prayers
for reorientation and returning.
Me, to mine, with sadness,
anger and prayers for
refocusing the lenses and returning.
And the anger was all mine.
And that question
was all about her.
Should we not just dance instead,
I should have said,
together turn a little waltz in
the chorus of our own bodies
while we wait and wait and wait for something better
than the empty carousel of this question.
How will we tell this story?
How will I tell this story?
With practicings of little ballroom dances
while we wait, confidently,
for what is most important to be returned.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, originally from Cork, now lives in Belfast where he works in poetry, theology, mediation, and dialogue projects. He neglects his website on a regular basis and has recently published a book of poetry Readings from the Book of Exile.
"I just want to love God."
~Piscene Patel, Life of Pi
A boy, the son of a zookeeper, grows up in picturesque Pondicherry, India. He is bright and inquisitive and unusually attuned to the world around him. He is, by place of birth, a Hindu, and a devout one. He discovers Christianity ("Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ"), and then finds the religion of Allah, especially its profound witness to the practice of daily prayer, to be life-giving.
His parents are perplexed. ("If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all," warns the boy's rationalist father). His older brother, as older brothers are sometimes wont to do, sneers, scorns, and mocks the young boy's earnest faith.
The boy, Piscene Molitar Patel, named by an uncle after a famous Parisian swimming pool, is patient with his critics and resolved to love God and the world and everything — everything — in it. As a teenager, a shipwreck and a harrowing ordeal in a lifeboat sharpen rather than diminish or extinguish his religious sensibilities. He emerges with a story, he says, that "will make you believe in God."
It is tempting to dismiss Life of Pi as a parable of the postmodern quest for “spiritual fulfillment” without the messiness of doctrinal commitment, to see Pi as a cipher for what each of us is encouraged to be: a discriminating consumer of religious experience — trying on this or that belief or practice, picking and choosing what “works” for us, discarding or ignoring the rest.
I understand the temptation.
But I also think there's something more or something else at work in the life of Pi. During his 227 days at sea, the necessities of survival (killing sea creatures with his bare hands and wolfing them down ravenously, animal-like) merge with his emerging sense of his own insignificance. After witnessing a spectacular display of thunder and lightning, Pi says (in the book, but not in the movie):
“For the first time I noticed — as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next — that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant . . . My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.”
With its echoes of the book of Job and the Psalms, this is not the sentiment of the contemporary seeker-shopper of religious goods and services. It is not the familiar narcissism of much of middle-class Christianity, nor is it the well-meaning but hollow piety of the “God-never-gives-us-more-than-we-can-handle” school of thought.
And after calculating his odds of outliving his lifeboat companion, a 450 lb. Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, Pi says: “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.” This, too, reveals not the sunny optimism of religious individualism (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”) but a clear-eyed embrace of a fundamental truth of existence: we are going to die.
When Pi makes peace with this truth he gets on with the business of living which, in his case, immerses him in the material exigencies of his plight: paying attention to the weather, monitoring his food supply, training his carnivorous companion. But it also means attending to the glorious beauty around him: inky-black skies swimming with stars, whales elegantly breaking the water's luminous surface, a school of dolphins moving synchronously as if in a dance of pure joy.
And at journey's end, when the middle aged Pi, who has been narrating the story all along, tells an aspiring novelist that he regrets not being able to thank Richard Parker and tell him that he loved him, we see the young Pi Patel again, who was attentive to beauty, full of wonder and a desire for the holy, who only wanted to love God and the world, and who might have — as a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim — found a kindred companion in a contemporary poet's own clear-eyed assessment of the truth of our finitude:
It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
Mary Oliver, “Mindful”
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication at the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Perhaps you remember "The Soul in Depression"? It's a show we produced many years ago that remains one of our most popular and enduring productions. One of the voices featured was Andrew Solomon, who wrote The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, an encyclopedic work that won a National Book Award in 2001.
After nearly ten years of research and interviews, Mr. Solomon has produced another tome worthy of attention — this time exploring the theme of identity and difference as experienced through family. This trailer for his new book Far from the Tree is really well-done. To be able to witness the love between these people and their moving personal stories grounded in the grit of experience makes you forget this is a promotional video for a book, which I’m now reading with zeal. Look for a review in the coming weeks.
"Hope is a function of struggle."
Winter is now upon us in the Midwest. The temperature is dipping into the single digits and the winds are gusting steadily. On this Thanksgiving weekend here in the States, these beginning lines from Walter Rauschenbusch's gorgeous family prayer, now more than a century old, call us to pay attention and be grateful:
For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty...
This has me wondering about others' ways of giving thanks.
Do you have a special prayer or ritual? Drop me a line at tgilliss@onbeing.
"We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts."
In June, we converted our static HTML website to Drupal. Technical jargon aside, one of the positive outcomes of all this work was liberating Thich Nhat Hanh's dharma talk from its RealAudio shackles. As Krista noted:
Sink into this. Thich Nhat Hanh morning dharma talk on mindfulness / anger / the child within. Thx @trentgilliss.
Due to the long holiday weekend, this week's recap is a bit abbreviated. Contact us any way you like: contact us on our website, share your suggestions and critiques on Facebook or Twitter (@beingtweets).
Brené Brown is an assistant professor of Social Work Research at the University of Houston. She’s the author of several books, including The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. Millions of people have viewed her talk at a TEDxHouston and her later talk on the main stage at TED. On November 1, 2012, Krista Tippett interviewed her from the studios of APM in St. Paul, Minnesota while Dr. Brown was in the studios of public radio station KUHF in Houston, Texas.
We time-shift tweeted these gems from our 90-minute conversation, which we’re compiling here in case you don't use Twitter, or just plain missed it. Make sure to follow us at @BeingTweets or listen to the produced podcast.
Photo by cmorran123/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0
“Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders.”
One of my early illusions about good leaders is that they are strong, impenetrable, and unaffected by any failings (their own and those of others). But Stanford researchers, Becky Schaumberg and Dr. Francis Flynn, suggest that there is some merit to having a guilt instinct or response, especially if you want to be a leader. There is a difference between "guilt" and "shame." Though both are responses to a blunder, the difference is in the responses to the error. Those who feel shame shrink away from the error, those who feel guilt feel a responsibility to others and are perceived as leaders. This distinction the authors make between guilt and shame is one that Brené Brown makes in her research as well.
In one experiment, researchers surveyed guilt proneness, shame proneness, and extraversion, among other characteristics. They found that "guilt-prone members of the group seemed to the rest of the group to be making more of an effort than others to ensure everyone’s voice was being heard, to lead the discussion, and generally to take charge." Does this mean that people who feel more guilt feel more obligation to the wellness of others? How would this serve a leader in a large corporate setting?
It may serve leaders in any setting who recognize their human obligations and connections to others, especially their charges. It seems to be a sensible response when others do not live up to expectations. You may want someone to feel guilt when they don't meet goals. Guilt even has a place for workers, too. Dr. Flynn and Ms. Schaumberg also found that guilt in the workplace is very good for the employers, in fact, "guilt-proneness motivates employees to work hard on their tasks, perform well in their jobs, and feel committed to their employer."