Bright lights and shadows
I sometimes wonder if seeing in the light isn’t harder for us than seeing in the dark. This season’s political circus and refugee crises make it difficult to turn from the chronic glare to the dimmer refuges. Our gridlocked calendars only make it worse. We are like deer in the headlights — those trained on us, and those we train on ourselves.
At the moment, my Lenten practice involves stripping down my schedule. Reducing my list of lunches, volunteer meetings, charitable dinners — the extras that accumulate around my hours of actual work — is far more difficult than I’d expected.
The sheer volume of activity has forced me to ask myself a hard question: What was I thinking, when I said yes to more than I could manage?
Ah. Isn’t that the question?
Do I surround my hours of precious attention to the point of near blindness because life is ironically easier that way? I get a double dose of “feel good”: approval AND reinforcement that the norms and motivations and judgments I rely on in the course of each day are the best ones. I can put on my blinders and press “go.”
Busyness is bewitching, but blinding. Before we know it, we are as rigid and incapable of God’s surprises as were the Pharisees.
Several weeks ago, I assigned my students a challenge: interview someone at the social service sites where they do volunteer work. It was an exercise in listening, in getting below the surface, in seeing with new eyes. Most of them dove into the project with enthusiasm, good questions, and skilled logistics.
One student would have none of it. First, she told me that couldn’t find anyone to interview. She was stuck in a role that permitted little interaction with the program’s homeless clients, she said. She fretted that she’d chosen the “wrong” place to do her service work. She threatened to shift her agency placement mid-stream. On and on this went. As she grumbled, I dimly recalled that this student was juggling an unusually heavy load of internships, and often arrived in class a few minutes late.
One day a week or so into the assignment, she arrived at class, full of verve. She told me she’d met an inspiring woman who served in the soup kitchen food line with her.
“I was completely blown away,” she told me. “I’d assumed she was homeless, that she was just doing this to stay warm for a few more hours each morning. But she’s not. She’s a highly educated woman from Argentina. Her family relocated here because of her husband’s job. She’s just volunteering.”
She was clearly incredulous, and happier than I’d seen her in weeks. Some light had been turned on inside. I was relieved. Class began and no more was said, until the following week. Again, she voiced complaints that she wasn’t going to be able to find anyone to interview.
“But you already have,” I replied, baffled.
She looked at me quizzically.
“The woman you spoke to last week.”
“But she’s not homeless!” she blurted out, the whining tone back. All eyes were on her; we all wondered how, or whether, she would finally see past her own blindness.
“Didn’t you have your assumptions challenged?” I asked her. “Didn’t you learn something new — at the very least, about yourself?”
She was silent, abashed, for a moment, at a loss as to how to proceed. Truth had walked right up to her, as Richard Rohr so nicely puts it, disguised as her life, and she hadn’t been able to see it.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s famous dictum about the tragic human gap between being and doing is on target here. If prayer and contemplation ground us in the reality and mystery of being, with all of its surprises, relentless performance turns us into creatures in the grip of a few calcified ideas.
Business, medicine, social services, are all geared to the metrics of performance and efficiency. Law firms now bill on 15-minute intervals. The bright light of focused achievement and profit is “all.” Do we really believe that this is a good thing?
The problem with busyness is that we not only grow rigid, we grow careless, sloppy, and worst of all, unimaginative. In seeing what we think of as the obvious, we fail to see our own shadows.
Most topically, in this campaign season, we fail to see those before us whom we have put into tidy categories: homeless, “illegals,” at-risk kids. Instead of dimming the lights and listening, we pick up the volume, yelling at authority figures — teachers, competing politicians, each other — about the unresolved “problems.”
The story of the blind man whose sight Jesus healed is one of the best stories I know about the ubiquity of our blindness.
The man’s new sight caused brain freeze and worse in the circle of the powerful and knowledgeable. (How many New Testament stories repeat this meme?) “Salvation,” in the form of healing, was second-guessed, mocked, threatened, and demeaned. In the final coup de grace, the Pharisees told the blind man that he could not have been healed because he was born in sin.
Sure, if I erase a lunch date to walk in the park or sit in contemplative prayer, I run the risk of fading from social relevance. I may even conclude that some of my bustle wasn’t that important. But here’s the thing: If I turn off the laptop and lose my cell phone for a few hours a day, I may see the shadows, and hear the sound that life makes when someone is truly listening.