"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Shocking Goof

As a first-year doctoral student, I’ve had a few slip-ups. I recognize that to succeed in the path I’m on—becoming a scholar—I have to push myself and be pushed. This compulsion to be excellent creates pressure. Some of which is probably unreasonable pressure, me being too hard on myself.

And no matter how much (admittedly) unfair pressure I put on myself to be perfect/awesome/successful, I’m going to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes are inevitable. Being able to both take them seriously and lightly is important to me—seriously considering what can be learned from them, while laughing at myself where appropriate. I’m good at making jokes, responses seems to indicate. I mean, my responses. I laugh at my jokes, so therefore I’m good at making jokes. That was a joke. Sort of.

But I’m also “good” at taking myself too seriously, which can cause myself (and others) unneeded stress. So I’m kind of relieved that my most recent and current favorite doctoral “goof” was an amusing mistake, the kind that makes me cringe, but then laugh… as opposed to cringe, followed by weeping in my closet with a bottle of red wine.

I recently received my grade and professor’s commentary on a paper I submitted in December. The grade and review were solid; nothing to complain about. And, as is customary and invaluable, I received some critique/pushback/suggestions to help me continue to improve as a student and scholar.

My paper was about Thomas Merton, a Catholic (Trappist) monk and writer known for his insights on spirituality and contemplation, his social activism, his poetry, and—the focus of my paper—his interest in comparative spirituality, especially dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions like Taoism and, most notably, Zen Buddhism. Merton was a genuine student of the East, eager to receive spiritual wisdom and have his own Christian faith enhanced and deepened by the encounter with the religious "other." He is an exemplar, a fabulous guide for how to "do" this kind of dialogue well.

Many know of Merton’s life and work, but not as many know of his death. Actually, there are some conspiracy theories surrounding his death, the mainstream explanation being commonly held in suspicion.

Merton eventually went to Asia and traveled about, seeking dialogue with the monks of these other traditions. He had spoken at an interfaith conference in Thailand, exhorting monks toward spiritual renewal: “I believe that our renewal consists precisely in deepening this understanding and this grasp of that which is most real. And I believe that by openness to…these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have.” (from The Asian Journal, 342)

Later that night, it is reported, he was electrocuted by an electric fan while stepping out of his bathtub.

That’s the commonly-held view at least, though as I said, other theories abound. Now, one could insensitively make an awful pun here about Merton’s shocking death. His shocking death. Though one would certainly not want to make such a pun in an academic, doctoral-level paper. That would be ridiculous.

I have since decided it would have been worse to have intentionally made such a pun. So, that’s something. At least I can claim lack of intentionality due to not poor but obviously not exquisite editing, something which, should I seek to publish my paper (or some form of it), would certainly be caught by an editor. You don’t always catch your own mistakes, right? I was genuinely shocked by the manner in which he died! So I used the adjective “shocking” without thinking that I could have said surprising, disturbing, horrific, ghastly, stupefying (or even no adjective to let the awful reality of the situation speak for itself without help from me) and been simultaneously more creative and less offensive.

But intentionally making this pun…that seems like it would have been more problematic. I’d have some serious concerns about me if I were that professor. Graciously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he assumed it to be accidental. I don’t know if he laughed or just groaned. I haven’t talked to him yet. I hope he laughed.

Since I’ve started the doctoral program at the GTU, I’ve made a few mistakes. I’ve been unaware of an impending deadline and had to scramble. I've formatted documents wrongly. I've been inarticulate and incoherent in verbally making a point in class. I've pronounced “papacy” like “tap” rather than “tape." I've lost objectivity in a paper when making an argument because I’ve predetermined how I want the results to come out and so done injustice to significant historical figures. All bad or silly things to grow and learn from.

And now a new one to add to the list, a new lesson learned: make sure you avoid puns in scholarly work. Puns are a bad idea. Had this pun not been in the conclusion of my paper (thank God!), I might have lost my professor at the outset of his read, losing any chance of having my paper taken seriously. Maybe not. But lesson learned. Don’t make puns in papers.

But, it’s pretty funny, right? Merton’s “shocking death”? I mean, it’s not funny that he died that way, just that I chose to…(trails off with unintelligible mumbling)…

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Deconstruct the Delivery System

My downstairs neighbors seem noisy. But I have a suspicion that they aren’t really all that noisy. The problem may be the design of the building that simply amplifies their very normal amount of noise. We’re likely noisy too. I know Clara’s noisy.

I’ve become a true California driver. Californians really do drive differently than PacNW folk. There’s less room for timidity as a driver here; you decide to change lanes, and you do it boldly, and people make way for you, because that’s just how it works. When I was in the northwest for Christmas break, I made a few people angry with my aggressive driving; they acted offended that I’d “invaded their space.” But I was just doing what I’d been conditioned to do after several months in the bay area.

People at Safeway seem to have constant troubles with my sandwich and coffee orders from the deli and the in-store Starbucks, respectively. They do not seem to listen well, either making me incessantly repeat myself or just botching the order. It’s possible these people are incapable of a better job performance, but I doubt it; I suspect the problem is not in them, but in their training. The problem may not be the individuals, who are probably really nice people with a variety of talents and competencies; the store itself may not be setting them up for success, perhaps not due to cold indifference toward their quality of customer service but, rather, due to lack of resources.

We recently had a doctor’s appointment for Clara (routine) at a clinic we’d been to before. We were on a tight schedule as I had to get to class that evening, and were really counting on our appointment starting when it was supposed to, or at least shortly thereafter. We had to wait an hour for our last appointment. Whatever, that happens, I guess. But we arrived extra early this time and specifically asked about their level of busyness. We were told by a well-meaning receptionist that it would be “soon.” It wasn’t soon. Later, a different receptionist reassured us we’d be right in. Someone went to check on our appointment, and seemingly forgot about us. We finally clarified to the staff that we would have to cancel and reschedule (not happily, as this appointment concerned the well-being of our daughter), and we were told we’d “be right up,” that the assistant was “coming to get us now” to take us to the doctor. A minute later, yet another receptionist told us it would be 15-20 minutes longer. So we left. I was annoyed at the inaccuracy of all these time assessments, especially because we so specifically made a point to be aware of this. I was annoyed at the staff, the messengers. But I don’t think it was really their fault; perhaps they’ve been trained to placate in this manner and told this is good customer service. Perhaps they are understaffed and underfunded. (Perhaps we shouldn’t have so tightly scheduled our day, but then again, there weren’t many other available times, indicative of another dimension of this problem)

I present these four anecdotes because I believe they share something in common: they are all problems that seemingly lie in structures, not individuals. I’m helping teach a class on contemplative social justice this term in which one of our goals is to uncover the ways in which many of the problems we encounter do not lie in the personalities of specific individuals but in the nature of systems and structures of which we are a part.

This could be a workplace, classroom, church, committee, or a city. Or could be a broader, more normative pattern of “rules” like a church culture, or an –ism, like racism, sexism, etc. You can probably think of other examples of this kind of phenomenon.

The problem in a system could be the people in it; get rid of the people, replace them with new ones, and problem solved. But perhaps you’ve been a part of an organization where the boss/pastor/leader who everybody thought was the cause of all ills is removed, and yet, the problem endures. Often times a culture or normal pattern of operation is so established that even after a specific individual has left the system, the dysfunction remains.

Thinking more "structurally" about the world has increased my sensitivity to the way this kind of thing happens...to the way systems function and are capable of both great good and great harm. For example, how often do we deal with problems with some kind of an action that amounts to putting a band-aid on a wound rather than taking the necessary steps to actually expedite the healing of the wound? There may be a place for isolated actions that don’t necessarily in themselves effect systemic change (e.g., maybe you think abortion is a bad practice and so you speak boldly and publicly against it); but in some cases real change might only come about if the system itself is fixed (e.g., what social/economic/cultural conditions lead people to consider abortion in the first place)?

Maybe on a more basic level, thinking structurally is challenging me to be much more gracious and forgiving. Sure, people are, to an extent, responsible for their actions and should be held accountable; but often times it’s really not simply their fault. It’s not just that the individuals are flawed; they exist in a flawed structure that shapes and influences the way they act. Forces beyond them, surrounding them, and preceding them are at work; the problem often lies in these forces, not just in the individuals.

And so I've begun to ask myself and hope to continue to do so the next time someone gets under my skin, or someone is marginalized or treated poorly, or the next time I feel restricted, oppressed, pinched, constrained, bound: does the problem lie in a specific individual (it might), or is the problem systemic?

There are many forces at work, and things aren’t usually black and white. Maybe it is that person’s fault at Safeway for messing up my order again. But maybe the problem goes way beyond them (and as Joann has pointed out, sometimes people operating in a bad system know it's bad but work hard to be "good cogs"). I may not know who to blame or what to do in response. But at the very least, people who "wrong me" deserve some grace, some understanding.

I think it's easy to villainize people, to objectify an individual person as "the problem" and place full blame on them. I often do this in the moment, when I'm annoyed or "thwarted" in some way. But often the problem is much bigger than any one individual. Again, people deserve a little grace.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Call Me "Da"

Watching now-eight-month-old Clara develop has brought joy and awe. More specifically, watching her discover. It’s not just about height and weight or common developmental milestones. It’s Clara’s own experience of discovering something new about herself, about others, about the world.

I’m relatively weak on child development and psychology and hope to take a course at UC Berkeley in the next couple of years to enhance my understanding of child (and adult) development, in connection with my research interests in the area of Christian Spirituality. So I’m a little sheepish about speaking too firmly of Clara’s self-awareness and potentially misinterpreting what’s happening to and in her. But I don’t think it takes a comprehensive knowledge of the matter to discern her journey of discovery.

I mention this because last night, while holding her on my lap, Clara looked me in the eye, gently brushed my nose with her right hand, and said “Da.”

Now that I’ve reconstructed my heart into one unified whole after gathering its shattered remains last night, scattered about the living room due to explosion from an incapacity to contain the sweetness of that moment, I feel I can think clearly enough to reflect on this tender experience.

I am deeply involved in Clara’s life but also a spectator, observing a steady stream of basic discoveries. I recall her discovery of the P-sound, which sounds more like farting and is continuously funny, because, I’m twelve years old. The discovery that we still exist even when she can’t see us (object permanence). The discovery of new preferred foods, some initially met with reticence but eventually embraced and enjoyed. The discovery of her toes. The discovery of laughter and the way such laughter has evolved and multiplied. 

The discovery of my face and glasses (and that these glasses can be removed). The discovery that she can be interested in two objects at once but not look at them at the same time if placed in opposite directions, causing much back and forth turning of the head. And the discovery that I, the one with the deeper voice, the one who doesn’t produce milk, the one with grab-able chest hair, the one who sings “Clara, Clara was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine...” to her when I change her diaper, the one who has been second-most present with her in her eight months out of the womb…the discovery that I am “Da” (for my old English students, “Da” is short for “Daddy”).

I find Clara’s journey of discovery not only beautiful in itself but also a reminder and a challenge. A reminder that I too, despite being an adult, am still on my own journey of discovery, the character of which obviously looks different from my daughter’s; and a challenge to be open to such discovery and not become closed or static but, rather, perpetually open and exploring.

Discovery—and its implication that I’ve not yet fully arrived or mastered all—is a constant in my life. I discover new foods. New stretches. New routes. New personality quirks, some fun and some harmful. New theologians and perspectives. New people. New questions. New answers. New likes, new dislikes. New longings, preferences, desires. New fears (or new understanding of old fears). New doubts, and new hopes. Like Clara, I continue to discover what it means to be specifically me, Matt, and what it means to be more generally a human person in community with people, with creation.

A theological suspicion I have: God enjoys our human process of discovery. I suspect that God, who I don't wish to simply anthropomorphize yet who I believe to be deeply personal, responsive to and affected by humankind, is pleased with the journey of self-discovery of the human community, at least where such discovery is good and beautiful or where it leads to the bringing of goodness and beauty to where these are lacking.

I don’t think human ignorance is our primary predicament, an evil to be overcome; I think the human journey of discovery is the way God wants it, probably the best way. A journey perhaps not best understood as one from perfection to sin to salvation, as it’s often been framed, but rather, from child to adult, from seed to fruitful tree, from seeing partially to seeing more and more fully. I suspect my experience of Clara's discovery, to some extent, echoes God's experience of creation.

Clara has already discovered much but will discover more; “Da” will soon be superseded by “Dada” and “good morning” and “get the hell out of my room, I hate you.” But for now, I will savor “Da” and this particular moment in our shared journey.