Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Wounded Soul

Some of the challenges I have faced during the last few weeks have made it clear to me that I carry within me a wounded soul.  A wounded soul is a soul that has been disappointed in some fundamental existential way, so that an implicit trust in the universe is no longer possible.  It is not necessarily a paranoia, but a sense of profound disappointment that could re-occur again at any time.  In many ways it is the opposite of naiveté, the confidence that the universe is a safe place and that things are fairly certain to work out.

Feeling this wounded soul moving within myself can be disturbing.  The darkness within me is very easily and quickly cast out on others – they can become characters in my own personal morality play, signifying the disappointments I have encountered.  If I have not received the praise which is my due, I cast darkness upon those whose efforts are lacksidaisical, angry that they have not worked as hard as I have.  If I see others flourish and succeed with apparent ease, I recast these companions in my mind as egoistic and shallow.  The woundedness within lashes outward, blinding me to the reality of these people and their stories, making me deaf to their struggles and their humanity.

But woundedness is subtle, a double-edged sword.  That same woundedness can make me acutely compassionate and sensitive.  It can heighten my skills at listening and connecting, at understanding those very personal stories that the same woundedness can also possibly obscure.

I think by a certain age in life most of us are wounded souls in some aspect, some small and some large.  In some way the world has not met our imagination, our hope, our sense of justice.  This pain is not simple nor is it trivial.  You cannot simply “get over” this kind of wound or “move on.”  It stays with you, grows within you, transforms within you.  It is somehow not foreign or transient but integral.  Rather than being something you can push away, it seems to be something you have to make an accommodation with, perhaps like an ailing dog who hangs dejectedly by your heels every time you come home.

In this productivity and consumption oriented culture, there is no explicit place for the wounded soul and nursing it.  Even a minutes pause is somehow construed as time “lost.”  But how can time be put to productive use when we are lost at even deeper levels, when we are unsure of who we are or what it is we are becoming?  Action without orientation may be worse than no action at all.

What are your stories of woundedness?  What safe spaces do you have where you can share these stories?  Can you love that part of you which is most wounded, least capable of productive work, least capable of social performance?  Is there space for a wounded heart in your life?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Spirit of Life

I think my personal turn towards a more dedicated spiritually seems puzzling to many people in my life.  People who value reason and science see spirituality as linked with superstition, dogma, and irrationality.  People who value practicality see spirituality as a waste of time, perhaps even self-indulgent.

But for me the path I am currently following is logically necessary based upon an understanding of my personal experiences.  What I have observed about my own experience is that there is no external event of any magnitude that of its own force can bring me joy or meaning, unless it is suffused with spirit from the inside.

A delicious meal; a monetary windfall; a major achievement; goals attained; a shower of praise.  Any of these events from my experience can be either fulfilling or empty.  From one point of view each of these items can seem disconnected, small, precarious, isolated, and temporary.  Or from another point of view these same items can seem connected, important, meaningful, and full of grace.  There is no external experience of any sort that reliably brings me happiness or satisfaction of itself.  And at the same time, if my internal disposition is properly aligned, almost any experience can be a source of happiness and satisfaction.  I have found pleasure in doing the dishes and in a simple warm shower.  I have found desolation in the midst of victory, events that to all outer appearances should have been cause for celebration.

In my experience the flower that makes life worth living is rooted from the inside, and grows anew each day.  There is no force or power in the world which can guarantee its renewal; yet its does renew, and its bloom is enhanced by listening to it, cherishing it, by honoring its source.  Sometimes the only path back to happiness is to follow this flower down to its most painful roots, strip away the old bearings, and nourish them with fresh soil.  In all honesty, this flower is a gift from some source outside myself which I cannot control but I can dispose myself to accept the gift if it is offered;  So far as I can see, the source of all happiness is grace and nothing else.  There is no thing on this Earth that can give me pleasure when my soul is ill.

From this perspective, the pursuit of external goals and rewards for their own sake is illogical.  Chasing after what appears to give pleasure is vain; Only pursuing one's own integrity to its fulfillment offers any hope of a lasting reward.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Boredom and Wisdom

For the past 16 days, I have been the parent in charge at home, every day, all day long, with my two elementary age boys.  We did not go on any vacation, having spent our vacation budget on a trip to Atlanta over November.  We were, in a word, stuck at home.  Stuck.  At.  Home.

We did, however, engage in a wide range of activities, both at home and away.  Indoor play spaces, building ginger bread houses, bowling, numerous games of strategy and chance, books, lots of movies.  At the beginning of the holiday I drew up a list of activities for us to do and solicited further suggestions from the boys.  Aside from these excursions, with the cold weather, we were mostly confined inside.  We were lucky enough to score warm-enough weather for two walks.

Nonetheless, we were all faced with a substantial amount of boredom and the frustration that comes with boredom.  Being stuck at home, and maybe not being so good at building a nearby social network, there were only so many things we could think of to do.  At bottom boredom is just no fun, and even a bit stressful.

During this time, I've been thinking over the value of boredom, well, since I've had time for it.  It seemed like I had plenty of time to be bored, but not enough time to take on anything of new of significant size.  I have come to think the value of boredom is quite underestimated for people of any age.

First, great creativity comes out of boredom.  Once you get past the anger and the frustration, what boredom offers is the opportunity to come up with something new.  I've seen my kids invent countless new games, often lasting for hours.  Almost always these new creations come after a period of boredom.  It's as if the emptiness has to form a completeness before something new can come forth.  If we had the TV on all of the time, these games would certainly not emerge.

But perhaps even more important is learning the ability to sit with boredom.  Or fidget with boredom.  But at any rate to deal with boredom and realize that it is not a crisis.  That we are not in any kind of lasting way harmed by the frustration that comes with boredom.

Because once you have learned to live with boredom, you no longer have to fear it.  You no longer have to seek something to fill every waking minute with distraction or entertainment.  You can let things sit.  You can allow things to arise.  Once the frustration and anxiety of your boredom is passed, you may find new voices welling up from within you, voices you had not paid attention to during your previous spate of activity.  You may come to know yourself better.

Living with boredom may be the first step, however small, towards a greater wisdom.  I have come to think so.

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Miracles

Tuesday night I attended a presentation of the Dow Sustainability Fellows, a cohort of faculty, postdocs, and doctoral students at the University of Michigan whose work touches on sustainability in some way.  One of the presentations was by the Director of the University of Michigan Energy Institute Mark Barteau.  He presented a basic overview of energy use across the world and the US, and showed that based on current projections we are headed towards a global increase of 3.6 degree Celsius, even if the world is able to stick to its current greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments.  In addition, he showed us graphs illustrating how drastically the world would need to deviate from its current course to attain a 2 degree Celsius limit.

It was a stark and depressing presentation.  One member of the audience fought with Professor Barteau about whether or not the University of Michigan should install solar panels on all its parking areas, something that would reduce UM's carbon emissions by about 3%.  The argument grew heated and personal, and Professor Barteau shrugged his shoulders as if to say you cannot argue with the facts.

Then I went home and lit candles to celebrate an ancient energy miracle.  One day's worth of oil stayed lit in the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days; if we were able to replicate this miracle at scale - to obtain 8 times as much as energy from a given amount of fossil fuel as we currently do, we just might be able to meet the global 2 degree target.

Why do we light candles every year to celebrate the military victory of one small tribal Middle Eastern sect against another?  I have never found the story of Hanukkah particularly uplifting.  The successful slaughter of my ancestor's enemies has never felt like cause for celebration, even if it were absolutely necessary for their survival.  Shouldn't we be mourning the divisions that rend humanity, mourning the persistence of war in our world?

But I think Hanukkah is about more than a military victory.  The symbolism in the keeping the lights going during a dark time, in persistent light, continues to touch me.  The story of Hanukkah is about another kind of miracle:  It is about persisting in the face of long odds, staying true to the cause most deeply embedded in one's own heart.

Any rational person knows that the miracles do not happen, by definition.  We all know that the miracles in the Bible did not happen.  They are just stories.

Except that if you look over history, you find miracles happening in every era.  The invention of the printing press.  The rise of scientific knowledge.  The Civil Rights movement.

In my own lifetime I have witnessed several miracles happen.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was inconceivable when I was a small child.  As a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall millions of people were liberated to a new era of freedom and democracy (despite the fact that Russians themselves may not have benefited much).

The recent turning of much of America to accept gays and lesbians as full members of society, that was a miracle.  So unexpected and so sudden, like a soul turned over by confession.

We absolutely need an energy miracle, a technology miracle, a policy miracle.  We need miracles that I cannot even imagine at this time.  I don't know if this will happen, and my rational mind thinks that it probably cannot happen.

But there is another part of my mind that thinks in a different way:  If it is at all possible to have an energy miracle, then I must play my part it in.  I must act as if it is possible even if it is not.  That's the only way that miracles happen - if a small group of persistent people continue to believe in the impossible.

That's why I light the Hanukkah candles every year.  Because we need miracles now as much as any time in the past.  We still need to believe in miracles.  We still need miracles to believe in.  We probably always will.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Hollowness of Productivity

I am in the phase of my life where much of how I spend my time and energy revolves around my profession.  I am trying to establish my professional reputation and become secure in my career.  So it makes sense that I spend a lot of time thinking about my productivity and my professional effectiveness.

But I find something hollow about my own - and many others - obsession with productivity.

In almost any professional job - perhaps in any job at all - more work can be done.  The bar can be raised.  Performance can be improved.  Weaknesses can be found and analyzed.

But if the only guide we have to our professional lives is efficiency and productivity, we risk burnout, and perhaps even worse, emptiness or hollowness, where work and productivity become an end in themselves, divorced from their impact on other people or the world.

I think the center of our work should always be rooted in love.  Love for others, love for institutions, love for knowledge, love for something greater than ourselves, outside of ourselves.  If the sole end of our work is our own professional success, then our work will come to seem empty sooner or later.  This is work that has no foundation, no essential justification other than to work another day.  Given how often we are subject to evaluation, we tend to focus on the quality of our work.  But to focus on the meaning of our work, and the impact of our work, the support structures for that are largely lacking.  If I choose focus on the meaning of my work rather than its quantity or quality, it seems to me that I am largely on my own.

But even beyond the meaning of work, there must be a deeper meaning of our lives, to being alive.  As someone who has brushed up against the floor of life through my own experiences with depression, as someone keenly aware for the finiteness of this life, it seems to me an abuse of the gift of life to reduce it to professional success as its primary measure.  This single and precious life is a miracle and a gift.  I want to find some joy in each day, some savoring of the experience of being alive. The relentless focus on productivity and effectiveness works against this need for a deeper connection with the spirit of life.  It is a trap that I often fall into myself - coming home exhausted, bleary eyed, worried about my current project and how its failing to succeed by those dogged objective external measures.

In my day to day work life, I try to find the moments of connection with others, the moments of joy in discovery.  I am seeking to find life in my work, not just score more points against the system.  Again, although this makes sense to me, I feel largely alone in this approach to working life.