Saturday, February 22, 2020

Lenten Goal: Choosing Words More Sparingly and Wisely

I've always been interested in politics. I minored in political science in college. But I've never fit into either major political party. And it's becoming increasingly easy for me to disengage from political discourse, because I find I have less and less in common with either the Republicans or the Democrats, or with those who vote for them, as time goes on.

What's in the best interests of the neediest and most vulnerable members of our society? That's what guides me. I don't care about identity groups, or being woke, or what it's going to cost to provide quality healthcare and education for everyone. I just want human beings to find it in their hearts to do what's best for other human beings, without regard to what they look like or where they come from. Therefore, I prefer to align not with a political party, but with what's humane. If you want to know where I stand, combine Catholic social teaching with the Quakers' Peace Testimony and the Anabaptists' two-kingdoms theology that aligns them with the peaceable kingdom of Christ.

That got me thinking of how much time I waste trying to assert my case on social media. My Facebook feed is daily filled with people and pages shouting their (often contradictory) opinions at me. And for what? So that whoever yells the loudest wins?

Rather than engaging each other in thoughtful discourse, the relative anonymity of social media makes it all too easy to shout down our opponents with toxic and hateful rhetoric from the safety of an echo chamber, such that we imagine not people with heartfelt wants and needs on the other end of the debate, but enemies to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, the ruling class engages its propagandists in the media to get people to either ignore or demonize people and policies that could set us on a better course, with the result that most voters never even consider the big picture and end up voting people into office that pose no threat to the status quo.

My voice makes no difference in this environment. I'm shouting into the wind. Since most people seem more interested in being right than in transcending party and doing what's right, I've come to the conclusion that there's really no point in even engaging with our political system. Nothing I do or say will ever change it.

But more than that, I've realized that I'm falling prey to the same desire to be heard that all the other squabblers on social media are. There's something to be said for not showing up to every argument you're invited to. My energies are best spent elsewhere.

Why now? Because election season is heating up, and I'm already seeing the tide turning against the candidates I'd consider voting for. But also because we're on the cusp of the Lenten season, and our family has been having discussions about what we're "giving up" for Lent. I'm the only practicing Catholic in our house, but my wife and kiddo have been very supportive and plan to make a sacrifice of some kind along with me in the days leading up to Easter.

The thing is, Lent isn't supposed to be a time for self-improvement. However, I do think it's as good a time as any to reflect on the things that make us spin our wheels, that hold us back, that make us suffer. Christians are expected to pick up their cross and follow Christ daily, even when that means bearing our often weighty sufferings. But the kind of suffering I'm talking about is self-inflicted and altogether avoidable. It's the suffering that comes from thinking that we need to be heard -- and, more specifically, the belief that we always need to be right. We suffer when our ego tells us not only that we need to be heard above the din of daily life, but also that we need to shout down all those people who we believe have it wrong while we have it all figured out.

So in a sense, giving up the need to be heard is a way for me to focus on making a better attempt to love my neighbors and my enemies. Instead of being heard, I can focus more intently on listening -- something that's in short supply in our world, I think. Therefore, I think a social-media diet is in order. I might still post random thoughts and family pictures, but no engaging in pointless and toxic debates regarding topics I have no control over in the first place.

Moreover, I've been drawn recently toward engaging in more active listening to what the spiritual masters have to say to us. I'm just about finished setting up a meditation chapel in our attic where I can sit in silence and either read or contemplate -- and the reading will usually take the form of scripture, Marian devotionals, and the Tao Te Ching. If I can even carve out half an hour for a miniature silent retreat each day, I'll take it.

I crave silence. The world is too noisy for me. In fact, the thing I miss the most about the days I attended Quaker meeting was the enveloping quiet. There's no minister and no service -- just a group of people sitting in reverent silence. If the Spirit moves someone to speak, that person rises to address the congregation and then sits back down. No debate ensues, as congregants are encouraged not to react but to reflect.

And I can't tell you what a difference that makes. In our instant-gratification, soundbite-driven world, we've become conditioned to offer our opinion the instant someone else is done speaking. We're so focused on getting our viewpoint out there, in fact, that we usually aren't even listening to the person speaking: We're too busy preparing our response. The dynamics of the Quaker meeting short-circuit that process.

I can recall plenty of times when I felt the instantaneous urge to reply to what someone else said in a Quaker meeting. Instead, being compelled to sit with someone else's words lets you explore them more deeply. You might think about what caused a person to say what he or she said. You might contemplate that person's point of view a little more fully than you otherwise would have. You might still disagree, but in the silence, you at least might come to appreciate a differing opinion. That silence is liberating and transforming in how it grabs our reactive impulses and forces them to sit down, shut up, and listen for a change.

Even taking a short 10-second pause before we speak in everyday conversation, as suggested by Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, can help us speak more mindfully and listen more deeply, rather than simply react and speak only to be heard.

I've always wanted to take part in a silent retreat. I envy the monks and nuns who have taken a lifelong vow of silence. Silence is beautiful. Silence is golden. "Silence is the language of God," says Rumi -- "all else is poor translation."

It was the contemplative mystics that drew me back to my Catholic roots -- the ones who embraced the holiness of silence and solitude, like Thomas Merton and John of the Cross. These are the Christian world's equivalent of Zen masters and Taoist sages who tie the greatness of all the world's traditions together. Teresa of Avila, my favorite saint, speaks to my spirit when she writes:

To journey into the interior world within
Love must already be awakened.

For love to awaken in us,
Let go, let be, be silent.

Be still in gentle peace.
Be aware of opposites.
Learn mindfulness and forgetfulness.

By going within, we locate the still, small voice. By going within, we understand the meaning of "Be still and know that I am God."

Alas, I live in a world where I need to speak to my wife and kiddo, correct my dogs, and communicate electronically with my clients. The best I can probably do is carve out one day of silence a week. I've been meaning to do just that for a while. As part of my goal of engaging less and listening more, I may just use the occasion of Lent to get into the habit. If I need to use notepads and bodily gestures, I think I can make that work for at least one day a week. The dogs will just have to listen to my wife and kiddo. We'll see how it goes.

Other than that, I have two books lined up for daily reading and reflection during Lent: A Lenten Journey With Mother Mary, and Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional. I'm particularly looking forward to the latter. After all, Ash Wednesday -- the beginning of the Lenten journey-- is the one day of the year when the church reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

More thoughts to come, perhaps, as Lent unfolds. Or perhaps I'll retain blogging silence for 40 days. We'll see. If you observe the season, may your Lenten observances prove fruitful.

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