What Really Matters

Having a more interesting life, a life that disturbs complacency, a life that pulls us out of the comfortable and thereby demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned or that feels comfortable is what matters most. James Hollis in What Matters Most

In his recent column, Building Better Secularists, New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote that secular writers…”are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it.”

Brook’s list of tasks a secularist would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Religious people inherit their creeds; secularists have to come up with their own convictions,
• Religious people inherit a community with rituals and practices that bind people together; secular people have to create their own communities and come up with their own practices to give them meaning,
• Religious people are directed to drop worldly concerns one day a week or for specified periods of time; Secular people have to create their own times of solitude to reflect on their spirituality, and
• Religious people are motivated by the love of God and their desire to please him; Secularists have to find their own motivation that will bring forth sacrifice and service.

Brooks concluded that secularists place unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves and risk drift and a loss of meaning in their own lives.

Paternalism is a belief system that requires that wisdom, knowledge and creativity come to people from others with greater power and authority. Most people grow up in paternalistic families surrounded by paternalistic clergy, bosses, coaches and teachers whose dictates they conform to. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you to do” is the spoken and unspoken command.

When young adults leave home, the organization often replaces the parent as the paternalistic force in their lives. Conformity is the first rule of organizations and institutions. Sometime around the middle of their lives, they may begin to rebel against such paternalism and enter the scary domain of thinking for themselves where they begin to doubt, question and challenge all those authority figures as they begin the process of becoming a mature person. Such a journey into a life of authenticity is difficult: a courageous and emotional odyssey of exploration to find who we really are—not who someone else tells us to be.

Religion and secularism aside, Brook’s burdens are everyone’s responsibility to ponder in life.

I do not want to mindlessly and without question follow creeds created by other imperfect men long ago; I want my life to be my own learning laboratory. I want to discover and articulate my own purpose for my life and the values I will live true to.

I don’t want to be put into a community by others and inherit its rituals and practices—rules and practices I must follow to be accepted; I need people but I want to choose my own community and seek counsel and fellowship from those who ring true to me.

I don’t want to act spiritual one day a week; I want to live my spirit daily, however imperfectly.

To be motivated by love and the desire to do good works is noble but so many seem to be motivated by fear, guilt, obligation and public appearances. I am motivated by the deep personal engagement I’ve had with myself over four decades pondering these and many other issues and questions of life (I’ve only scratched the surface). The higher emotions that motivate me, the passion that drives me and the aliveness I feel flow from that work as I seek the moral life.

I believe Brook’s burdens are among the lifetime work of an authentic life.

James Hollis: “…to have taken one’s journey through this dark, bigger, luminous, wondrous universe, to have risked being who we really are, is, finally what matters most.”

Please Disturb Us (and the Mall of America drop the charges against demonstration organizers this week)

Shortly before Christmas, organizers of a group protesting the treatment of black men scheduled a demonstration at the local monument to consumption: The Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. The Mall is private property and authorities said no to the request to demonstrate inside. Demonstrators said they would demonstrate there anyway to bring attention to their cause.

Authorities tried to use the threat of force and mass arrests to deter the demonstrators. Sandra Johnson, Bloomington city attorney, threatened charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and even inciting a riot for orchestrating a peaceful demonstration meaningful to everyone. That made matters worse.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered in the mall’s rotunda and sang songs and chanted slogans. Twenty-five people were arrested by police in riot gear.

After the demonstration, the Bloomington city attorney—with an advanced degree in over-reaction–continued to talk tough: “You want to get at the ringleaders,” she said threatening to use social media to identify the leaders so they could be prosecuted. I thought: “Good luck with that.” She also wants to force demonstration leaders to pay for police overtime and the business losses to Mall establishments.

Johnson comes off as a prosecutor who sees life’s choices as either/or, black/white and right/wrong with non-conforming citizens as enemies to demonize and dehumanize and force into compliance instead of seeing life as it is with shades of gray, of both/and thinking and with people as human beings to respect and involve. People who use power to mindlessly force order and conformity scare me far more than demonstrators for justice do.

Sometimes power and force are necessary. Sometimes demonstrators should be arrested and charged—but not as an automatic default response without creative thoughtfulness. In this case, a more creative win/win approach might have worked better, felt better, and built community instead of fragmenting groups. But the either/or of win/lose is always easier than the both/and of win/win.

The status quo of America—how police treat black men is part of the status quo–is not sustainable and trying to return to a romanticized past, as some want to do, is suicidal. Our nation must embrace a wiser, more evolved and inclusive vision for the future if we want a vibrant country for future generations.

A significant percentage of Americans sleepwalk through life. They mindlessly rush through the day unaware of the many serious issues that harm people. While they nap, America declines. The good people who have gone to sleep need to be aggravated and awakened—even if their shopping gets disrupted for an hour or two.

We might not think the treatment of black men by police officers is our issue. Take a moment to read Charles Blow’s painful and powerful piece in the January 12, 2015 New York Times about the shooting and death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio recently. The callous disregard for the humanity of this child and his sister is immoral and is everyone’s responsibility.

We need a perspective on demonstrations and demonstrators that is broader and deeper, wiser and more insightful and more appreciative of those courageous and conscious people who care enough to give of themselves to fight injustice in whatever form it takes: racism, poverty, inequality, civil rights, immigration, or climate change. An assault on human dignity, in whatever form, is an attack on each of us and all should join in and speak up against such actions—not try to silent the voices of justice.

I hope the primary election process for 2015-2016 will be a season of peaceful protests by Americans young and old that awaken our awareness. I hope we understand that justice towers in importance over the demand for rigid and blind order and conformity and the suppression of free speech. I hope that authorities will learn and experiment with new ways to manage demonstrations. I hope people who have gone to sleep will be disturbed enough to wake up and vote for candidates and issues that improve life for all of us, not just a few of us

When demonstrators disturb us and offend our views, we should examine our views.