On Being Blog
Early this morning, the BBC World Service rebroadcast this CBC documentary about the uniquely American religion of Spiritualism. Lily Dale, a small town in southwestern New York state, was founded by a socially progressive group of Spiritualists in 1879 and is the epicenter for its practitioners.
Wondering what is a Spiritualist? Here’s the town’s definition:
One who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility. Some, but not all, Spiritualists are Mediums and/or Healers. Spiritualists endeavor to find the truth in all things and to live their lives in accordance therewith.
To expand on that definition, Spiritualists believe in a divine power and the afterlife. The dead can be contacted through mediums, individuals given the gift of channeling and contacting these spirits. These spirits are in a state of evolution, and by contacting them, embodied people can gain greater understanding about moral and ethical issues.
If you’ve got 30 minutes, Frank Falk’s doc is worth a listen.
“The main creed that I like to refer to when I think of Vedanta is as Swami Vivekananda said: ‘If you’re a Christian, be a good Christian. If you’re a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you’re a Hindu, be a good Hindu.’”
This is the comment of 17 year-old Akhil, a young man interviewed as part of a new study released by the Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. The study is the first report from an ambitious project reaching across cultures, languages, and traditions to understand how today’s global youth experience and think about their spiritual growth. Focused on advancing the scientific study of this area of human development, the guiding philosophy of the endeavor is that good science is the key to good practice in fostering the formation and growth of spiritual identity.
I attended a presentation of the study results this week, and walked away with increased curiosity about how young people around the world are shaping their spiritual sense of self and the overall importance of that dimension in their lives. The exploratory findings in the report include data from focus groups, interviews, and surveys with youth ages 12–25 across 17 countries from Cameroon to Syria to the United States. Some intriguing points include:
- When asked “what does it mean to be spiritual?,” the most common response among youth in all countries was a belief in God. In Cameroon, 4 percent responded that they don’t know or don’t think there is a spiritual dimension to life compared to 28 percent in Australia and 10 percent in the U.S.
- Thirty-four percent of youth surveyed indicated they are both religious and spiritual. In focus groups, they talked about the relationships between these two ideas, but their descriptions revealed little consensus. “Spirituality is the search for answers and religion provides the answers” (15-year old female from the UK). “You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual, but you have to be spiritual to be religious” (15-year old Canadian male). In Thailand, this question was not included in the survey because there is no distinction between the two words in the language or culture.
- In response to the question “What makes spiritual development easier or harder?” the top response for making it easier was spending time outside or in nature (87%) while the top response for making it harder was experiencing grief, pain, or loss (44%).
- Youth surveyed most often nurture spiritual development alone or by helping others. Top-rated activities include reading books, praying or meditating by oneself, and regularly helping people who are in need. Across all countries, family was the most common source of support for young people in their spiritual growth, followed by friends.
A panel of international advisors followed the presentation, providing additional context to the findings. Lori Noguchi of the Chinese-based Badi Foundation commented that there is a remarkable desire among youth in China to explore questions of spirituality when given the opportunity. In Chinese education, there is a strong moral component, but it is often scripted and doesn’t match with young people’s reality — and that creates a crisis for many around spiritual development.
Kelly Dean Schwartz, a Canadian social psychologist, remarked that areas of spiritual development that need much more attention include the role of doubt in adolescent spirituality, the role of arts, media, and technology, and the role of sexuality. He oversaw a focus group of Canadian youth for the study. When he stopped filming the group and tried to take their discussion to a deeper level, that’s when participants opened up more and expressed a connection between sexuality and spiritual development in their lives.
A program on this topic is on our long list. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please share.
This past weekend, I kept mulling over the content of our recent show, “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness” — especially what Michael McCullough said about how easily parents forgive their children.
I forgive my seven-year-old son every day. … Because he’s an active, inquisitive seven-year-old who sometimes accidentally elbows me in the mouth when we’re cuddling and sometimes puts Crayons on the walls. And yet it seems demeaning to call it forgiveness. … It’s just what you do with your children. You know, you accept their limitations and you move on.
As a father of two toddlers, the thing that amazes me is not how easily parents forgive their children, but how easily children forgive their parents. Every parent I know has had moments of utter exasperation and impatience with their kids that they later regretted. But when our children are little, they have an extraordinary capacity to forgive our mistakes. Krista once wrote about a Hebrew proverb that says “just before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells her everything — all the secrets of God and the universe. Then he kisses her on the forehead, and she begins to forget it all.” So it seems that, though our children will forget it by adolescence, they are apparently born knowing the secret of forgiveness.
The poet Robyn Sarah sums it up perfectly for me in her poem Nursery, 11:00 p.m. The speaker of the poem describes coming to the end of a day when she’s been a terrible parent, wishing she could apologize for how she behaved, standing over her children as they sleep in their cribs. She likens the forgiving sound of their breathing to a shawl being knitted in the darkness.
How warm it is, I think,
how much softer
than my deserving.
At the end of each day (or often during), my spouse Shelley and I often talk about articles, blogs, and photographs we’ve read and viewed during work. Her reading anchors me to the world outside of the news and journalism business. In my circles so many times, the news is cited at you — ‘Did you read the article about the Ugandan man in the Times?’ ‘Wasn’t that report on breast cancer on CNN…’ and so on — serving as fodder for a potential story we might cover.
This is as it should be, in some respects, but sometimes I feel like the larger point is lost — relating to others, to people and their joys and their sorrows. On Friday, while we were driving, Shelley told me this story about Eugene Allen and his wife:
They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.
“Imagine,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said.
On Monday Helene had a doctor’s appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.
“I woke up and my wife didn’t,” he said later.
Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.
The lady whom he married 65 years ago will be buried today.
The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.
Well, we looked at each other, found ourselves choked up, eyes welling and reaching for each other’s hand, and our two boys in the back seat wondering why their mommy and daddy were sad. Through this story, we truly understood the power of this election and its impact on our sons’ generation. But, as importantly, they’ll know how their parents understood each other more deeply and more personally — all through several paragraphs of a single news story.
(photo: Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)
Marie Howe's new book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, is an amazing addition to our vocabulary of love and hate, forgiveness and revenge. As the poet Tom Sleigh says, "Her language is always deeply rooted in the social world, and it never turns away from the most difficult moral problems." In this book, her poems about the war within us between light and shadow, vision and violence, are sometimes terrifying, often funny, and always illuminating.
After the Movie
My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.
that's love. You can love someone, then come to a day
when you're forced to think "it's him or me"
think "me" and kill him.
I say, Then it's not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.
I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the murderous
I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?
We're walking along West 16th Street—a clear unclouded night—and I hear
repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say to
Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at someone
you want to eat and not eat them.
Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.
Meister Eckhart says that as long as we love any image we are doomed to live
Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can't drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I've just bought—
again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.
What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he's saying is "You are too strict. You are a nun."
Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things of
me even if he's not thinking them?
Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,
we both know the winter has only begun.
(Poem reprinted with permission of the author.)