Archive for the 'service' Category


December 23, 2014

I liked reading in today’s Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr about how spirituality involves freely given service.

When such freely given service is confused with coerced service, even if the coerced service is coerced from one capable and willing to give (other) service freely, we end up, I think, with trouble.  Or at least in the realm of the taffy-pull of more mundane human social relation dynamics.

When teachers get in the way

December 5, 2013

A friend of mine took me to the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday, and we saw the exhibit of Sargent watercolors.  The paintings were wonderful.

The exhibit was crowded.  It was difficult to get a position to view a painting from a distance from which one could see the detail, and it was difficult to get a position to read the supporting information on the wall.  The written material I thought was especially helpful, more so than these explanations, pointers, and interpretations often are.

I was standing close to a painting, reading its explication and looking back to it from time to time as I did so.  An older woman walked up and stood herself between myself and the wall.  I waited for her to do what she had come to do and then move so I could resume, or for her to realize she was blocking my view and move in some way so that we could share access.

She didn’t.  She remained there, pulled in the group she was leading, which then blocked even more of my access to what I had been trying to view, and commenced a lecture on the painting.

When I realized she was acting as if I weren’t there, I moved on.  I did not see having even a polite confrontation in a museum.

I looked at some more of the paintings in that room, and when I got to the doorway, I saw a museum guard, so I went up to ask her about whether groups are allowed to displace single viewers.  I explained to her what had happened and she told me she sees it all the time, it bothers her a lot and it is not acceptable behavior from the museum’s point of view, and that the process is to let the Visitors Center know.   I came to find out later that the person leading the group was actually a docent under the museum’s auspices — I had been willing to believe they were an ignorant visitor leading a group she had organized to bring to the museum.

This was not the first time I have found my access to viewing art at the Museum of Fine Arts blocked by the staff.  It happened a year or two ago, I think it was, when I wanted to see the colossal statue of Juno and they were setting up for a lecture in the hall and had closed it off.

In the iteration of the pattern that occurred yesterday, the woman lecturing on art got between me and a source of information provided by someone else.  She was quite self-assured, in her presentation to her group, of her own interpretation of the painting, but she was excluding me from having my experience of the painting.  I was reminded of people I am related to getting between me and spiritual resources, and instead insisting that Art and Culture were the only way to go, that I had to accede, as well, to their controlling my access to what art and culture were available to me, and that I was not part of the preferred  audience.

In the version I experienced yesterday as a grown-up who has found her own way back to what sources she needs, the whole thing was reduced to an annoying but almost silly incident.  I had some distance and detachment and it didn’t feel existential, more like a metaphor to help me process a past, more painful experience.  And when I did mention the incident to the Visitors Center to get some clarification about what the customs of the place are, and they insisted that I fill out a form, I thought later, “Ah, there’s the ‘Complaint Department’ my relatives were always telling me to take my complaints to.”  The kaleidoscope had turned enough to give me closure through a literal enactment on the physical plane.

That night I was fielding my mother’s regularly scheduled phone call, and, as usual, it was all about everybody else, and when I brought up a current consumer fraud issue that is on my plate and not getting resolved quickly enough for my emotional comfort, I got the response of her changing the subject.  We talk about other people’s consumer fraud issues ad nauseum and I am required by her to troubleshoot them and provide referrals, if not outright help.  It does not feel like a healthy role for me to play, and it probably isn’t, but what came to me last night is that if I put aside the issues of unfairness, unequal treatment, and even my own distress, I can make the case that the situation doesn’t work because I don’t actually need her help — the universe gives me another resource and that is the one apt for me.  What I do about being pulled into service on behalf of everybody else, willingly or not, is a separate issue, and clearly, if one looks at my life, a central one.  That will take me longer to sort out.  In the meantime, I will see what today brings.

Performing tasks

January 16, 2013

I think I learned this from Gita, she to whom I go to hear what I don’t wish to hear.  It’s the idea that whatever it is we’re doing, we are doing it for God (or, if you prefer, we can do with the attitude that we are doing it for God).  I associate that idea with tasks that are tedious, difficult, too many in number for the amount of time, etc., but I mostly associate it with tasks deemed lowly in some way.

But today I was caught up in activities that involved technology, finances, and other things that suggest status and significance.  What I actually spent hours doing on the phone and online with these people in the financial sector was really unproductive and unsatisfying, and why it has any better reputation than cleaning bathrooms or shoveling snow, I don’t know — I certainly didn’t find it more satisfying than tasks lower on the totem pole according to our system of values, and it struck me that the people on the other end of my communications, while very nice and trying to be helpful, were being paid more than I think maids and plowers are paid.

It struck me that what we assign value to is pretty arbitrary, and that some of the current claims to an activity’s value are a little like the emperor’s new clothes.

But if the orientation is that whatever task is being done is being done for God, it doesn’t really matter.  That concept is a great leveler.

The level at which effective change occurs

April 18, 2012

After having indulged my emotional reaction to a David Brooks column on the necessary elements for change in the world in a comment at the time it was published, I have had some further thoughts on the subject.

If there’s a level of political infrastructure and a level of social organization people pursue for changing and repairing the world, I think there’s also a level undergirding it all of personal self-awareness of all human beings.  At that level, people can be influenced in a more fundamental way and ideas can permeate the collective unconscious, or whatever we call it, and be available for retrieval to all through their own internal understandings.  I think it’s a slow process but a surer one than many others.

I think I have a part in that process, and I think to maintain myself in a way that allows me to do that I am foreclosed from pursuing other ambitions.  I don’t feel comfortable talking about what it is I think I do and what it takes to do it, beyond noting it takes a whole lot of willingness to serve, but maybe if I could figure out a way to do so without feeling that I was compromising something more important, maybe then I would.  I’ve sometimes thought doing so might help me as much as it might help other people have a more accurate sense of my life, because I think by not talking about it much with others, I undervalue it with myself — I think I underestimate what it takes, for example, in terms of skills, energy, time, etc., and I also probably underestimate how much it means to me, how much I appreciate what I get to do and see, and how satisfying it can be to do and to be part of something like this.  I think it feels a little like trying to stand up in a small boat, though, when there’s a need to be careful not to capsize the vessel for no good reason, when I try to explain what it is I do.  But if I could find a way to talk about it in a way that feels to me appropriate, maybe it would actually help.

When the poet Horace wrote (in Odes, Book III, Ode 24) about the futility and emptiness of laws without the backing of customary social norms, I think he was getting at what others more recently (Lord Moulton) have referred to as “obedience to the unenforceable.”  At some level there needs to be a willingness to cooperate and to do what serves a good greater than personal affiliations and interests for human beings to thrive and reach our potential.  I think that kind of attitude arises out of the mindset and understandings of people who have developed an awareness of themselves, of their emotional reactions, of the motivations and functions of their behaviors.  I see that level of human activity as bedrock, as the equivalent of atoms and molecules being fundamental to the material world.  I don’t doubt that other layers are there that need to be worked on, too, for the repair of the world, be they political structures or social ones, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’m about, that’s not where my skills and opportunity take me.  I think I do have a sense of what I’m about, but I can’t say I’ve found a comfortable way to live that life.


March 7, 2012

Having alluded to having had a sort of spiritual experience back in 2000, I thought I might write about an aspect of it that I haven’t yet understood to my satisfaction.  I wrote that “I found myself connecting with faith, joy, hope,”in my previous post, and that’s true.  I also found myself with a really strong sense of yearning.

My immediate association with the yearning was high school and unrequited romantic love, which was quite an experience at age forty-two.  I felt moved to write a poem, the first one I had written in decades, and it turned out to be about longing and previous loss, about the narrator as an adolescent and about a younger boy named Icarus lying dead on the beach beside her.  In it also figured her burnt hands, an accident, a great love from her past whom she hears singing in the distance behind her.  It started off with a question about how do you capture the emptied heart, and it seems to resolve it by not trying to possess the love of this man in the background but to accept it, to bask in it as being for her but not hers.  She winds up by the end of the poem being able to look at her scarred and misshapen hands and not hide them, as she had, and somehow by accepting his love as for her and but not as generated, in its origin, on her behalf, [“It is just what he does / for a living, his living], her heart has grown full again.

There are three kinds of yearning I’ve read about since I had that experience and wrote that poem that have rung a bell for me in connection with that experience.  One was C.S. Lewis’s sense of yearning in his own spiritual journey, another was something I read in a eastern religious context about yearning and about not confusing the willingness to serve (which does lead to a requiting of that yearning, through union with God, which does not and instead results in a “fall”) with desire to merge with God and experience that love and resolution), and the third was about a yearning for admiration and righteousness, as I recall it from memory from a recent David Brooks column.

So, to me, this all indicates that the yearning is for love, and for a very deep love.  Maybe some people hope that the sum total of the love they receive from others in response to their upright behavior will be the path to that love, while others seek it through an interior experience.  I’m going to speculate that the orientation of pursuing admirable and righteous behavior is a way, and a wonderful way, of keeping a person’s heart open during adverse circumstances.  My own experience of needing to keep my heart open was in the context of creating a family, and I knew after losing a baby, that I needed a child to nurture in order to keep from becoming angry and bitter, which I knew with a great certainty was something to avoid.  So my husband and I adopted children (which was actually something we had planned to do after having a couple through the biological process), and my heart was kept open through that (maybe also broken, but I’d prefer heartbreak to a closed heart).  When the heart is kept open, I think great things are always possible.

This leads me to my latest understanding of my old poem.  That there is, in the context of romantic love, some sort of equivalent to loving a child born to another set of parents, and that somehow I am trying to figure out how to do that, and to do it without lapsing into petty emotions like jealousy and selfishness and whatever emotion “neediness” comes out of.  If I can figure out how to locate that purer strand of love in the midst of romantic love, I think I will find the blessing in the difficulty of the situation in which I found that love, and, paradoxically, come to accept and appreciate the difficult context.

How that experience of love relates to love of the divine and to spiritual merging I am not sure, but I have this nagging and annoying suspicion that it involves learning to love myself better than I do.  I think my sense of what it meant to buy flowers might be an opening to that understanding — when I love someone deeply interpenetrated with me, I love myself, perhaps inadvertently, and that experience allows me to prime the pump and feel what self-love feels like, and from that have that kind of love grow inside of me.  I’m not sure, probably because I’m in the midst of it.  I know I try to love and help other people in a way that probably is unhealthy, that doesn’t come out of a place of strength and deep resource, and I am aware of trying to adjust what I do so that I love people and help as I can but not become drained myself.  My sense is that my struggles with this are related to my difficulties with self-love.  I think for me a huge challenge is how to love myself in the face of loss, to not let difficult outcomes that I can’t control affect my regard for myself.  And I do know that I am a work in progress (although I do have that voice that keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”  We are when I don’t hear it anymore, I think.)

In the meantime I am thankful for having great love in my life, even when I feel frustrated by its context.  I guess I hope that recognizing the blessing in that perceived difficulty, welcoming it, and developing the gift it offers me will lead to a sense of peace that may quiet the yearning, either directly or indirectly.

Telling stories

December 11, 2011

I have spent a lot of time working on unraveling somebody’s stories, including how they construct narratives in order to process the world.  That’s what we do, I think, in this world, take pieces of stuff and form larger pictures.  If we try to make them cohere in a certain way, including with cause and effect, it’s more like our every-day narratives of our lives.  If it’s more like juxtaposed pieces placed near one another, sometimes overlapping, etc., it’s more like what we call collage, a type of art, to our way of thinking.

There is a tendency to use the narrative and our models of narratives more generally to guide our (future) behavior:  where does this storyline seem to be going and how can I influence it? is what seems to be the process many people use.   That stopped working for me a long time ago, and at some point between being practical about it (this just isn’t working) and willingness (although perhaps that willingness was induced through coercion or deceit) to try something else instead, I think I stopped desiring it to.

Which, on the one hand, has led to some interesting experiences, but, on the other hand, is kind of difficult to explain to other people, especially when people say, “Well, now that you have developed these skills, why don’t you apply them in this, that, or the other particular way?”

About those interesting experiences: here’s an example from last week.  I kind of heard at the previous week’s Friday night services that there would be a potluck supper after services the following week.  Maybe because they said that bringing food was voluntary, I forgot all about it.  Thursday night Jordan and I went food shopping, and I happened to buy the makings for coleslaw, which I don’t usually do.  The next day, late in the morning I find myself putting it together, and, even more unusual, throwing in things like cut up apples, walnut pieces, and dried cranberries.  I think I am being a good hausfrau and using up stuff in the cupboard and fridge.  A little later I found myself looking at an email from the congregation, with a view to forwarding it to someone else, and behold, it mentions the potluck (to welcome the LGBTQ community) and I start thinking, “I really should bring something, what should I do?” And then I realize I can bring the coleslaw.

So, it’s kind of nice to have something other than my intellectually accessible memory keeping track of what I need to do, and I’ve gotten more of this support since I got caught up in spiritual pursuits.  But being plugged in doesn’t seem to be something that I can then decide to use for my own purposes, or anyone else’s, just because it looks like it would be neat to couple this sort of support with some particular human agenda or other.  It seems to allow me to see what goes on in my life as pieces of collage, as well as a story unfolding in a particular direction.  But that collage perspective is even less about pointing me towards a particular goal.  In the past, I have figured out what some chapter in my life seems to have been about, only after the fact, in retrospect.  Maybe here, too, I will need to have started doing before I will understand what it is and why.

Empathy, codes, and ego

September 30, 2011

David Brooks is observing that the popular notion of “empathy” doesn’t seem to be a sufficient basis for helpful behavior.  I don’t disagree with a lot of his descriptions of the unhelpful behavior that goes on under the banner of “empathy,” but I think the problem is that (1) this interpretation of empathy is off, (2) a complicating factor is the protruding ego (of the people behaving under the banner), and (3) (real) empathy is a by-product of willingness (to serve), and as such, leads to what some might call moral action, what I would call behavior that serves a greater good.  Finding the answer in codes I think is what we do when we don’t have our own sense of color and artistic sense of how to achieve the effect we want, and so instead use a color-by-number system.

Charitable egos

August 24, 2011

I read David Brooks’s column about “rugged altruists” this morning before I drove back home, but I didn’t have a chance to weigh in with a comment, so I thought maybe I would write something here.

My first thought was about how taking a cut for one’s ego out of the dynamic of helping reminds me of extracting a cut from a financial transaction because it happened to occur in one’s neighborhood or something — it’s a resource that probable could do more good if directed elsewhere than personal profit.

My second reaction is my usual one of wondering to what extent people prefer helping others who live far away from them, in comparison to helping people who live nearby, and why that might be.

Finally, there’s the part I’m not sure I understood:  “It [the virtue of “thanklessness,” if I’m tracing the antecedents correctly] represents a noncontingent commitment to a specific place and purpose.”  It’s in a discussion about why people persist in giving service despite less than positive feedback.  I suppose that same behavior of persistence might occur out of a variety of attitudes.  I am wondering whether sometimes the persistence strand of the behavior is distinct from the original ostensible goal of the behavior — maybe we (initially) try to help in a certain way because we have the idea it will accomplish something positive, but we persist in trying because our willingness to try is a willingness to engage in the process of trying to serve regardless of outcome — rather than a willingness to try to accomplish the goal regardless of outcome.  For me the difference has to do with susceptibility to burn-out — I can persist a lot longer and with more equanimity if I’m engaging in the activity because that’s what serves — just engaging in the activity.  I can still be aware of the the hoped-for outcome, but that outcome becomes of secondary importance to me (not necessarily to the others) — what is primarily important to me is to engage in the process because doing those activities is a way of serving.

But I actually think for me a big piece of the strand of persistence is just stubbornness, and to the extent the stubbornness has a connection to something bigger, it would probably be a connection to a worldview in which engaging in this behavior ought to be helpful.  If my worldview is just my own idiosyncratic worldview, this persistence in the behavior will probably be a cul de sac of sorts, but if my worldview derives from something more profound, maybe the persistence will lead to something, even if it isn’t the outcome I might have had as a goal originally.