All of us or none of us

I have spent the few months considering the connections between people. Discovering that my own growth and development is inextricably linked to my relationships with others was something of a shock.

This wasn’t some nice theory I had read but emerged from very clear life experience, and once I had seen it, I couldn’t help but look back at all that had gone before and recognise the truth. I am who I am today far more because of the web of relationships that have framed my life more than anything else.

The question which has been tugging at me – What if the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth?

The final nail in the coffin of my faith in individualism occurred about a month ago as I listened to Mary Evelyn Tucker describe the ecological state of the world. Alongside her words I had swimming in my mind pictures of Syrian refugees and the dawning recognition that Brexit had actually happened. The ideal of the ‘self-made man’ pulling himself up by his bootstraps is at best joke and at worst a cruel impossibility held up to the poor as a shaming spectre.

As I sat in a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people all signed up for a course in mysticism I found myself toying with the idea that either we are all transformed or none of us will make it. Either we all choose to participate or humanity will kill itself off along with a huge swathe of the current diversity of life.

We are in a new phase of violent protests at South African higher education institutions. My social media feed is filled with anger and outrage on all fronts. Over and over, different groupings believing another group is the source of the problem wanting to get rid of them. And over and over, I can’t help but think that if we don’t find a way which truly makes room for everyone then we are all sunk.

I have no idea where the answer lies. But I hope that this current outflowing of anger is in fact a step forwards. We can’t move forward together if we don’t face into the real pain at the heart of our society.

For now I sit and watch and grieve. I grieve for the ocean of trauma that has flooded this country from generation through generation. I grieve for both the perpetrators and the victims of violence. I grieve for those who sit smugly saying ‘I told you so’.

I don’t know where the answer lies but I am becoming more and more convinced that if we are to find one at all, we will all need the courage to sit with the pain.

Spiritual escapism

Jim Finley has a offers a useful caution against ‘spiritual escapism’. As I pursue my desire to engage in a conscious spiritual path, what is my motivation?

I know as I look back on my own life that there have been periods when I used spirituality as an escape. There have been times when I have justified my neglect of other things on basis of the importance of my spiritual work. At the time, I would have resisted strongly any suggestion that what I was doing was a form of escapism.

I don’t think we should delay the pursuit of things spiritual until our motives are pure. If we do so we will be waiting forever. And sometimes we really do need a ‘port in the storm’.

I think there are some useful things to look out for

  1. Is your journey leading you to face challenges within yourself?
  2. Is your journey leading you into more real relationships with others?
  3. Is your journey leading you to confront your own image of God?
  4. Is your journey leading you to greater engagement with the ordinary things of your life?
  5. Conversely, is the story you tell of your life the same one you would have told a year ago, two years ago, five years ago?

As you consider these questions are you aware of any ‘stuck’ places? Is your current spiritual practice able to help you work with them?

Don’t panic if you realise that actually a good part of commitment to spirituality is escapism. Recognising that it is so is half the battle. Just be as honest as you can with yourself about what it is that you are avoiding, and then begin the process of re-engaging. You may need to find some support!

The gift of spiritual friendship

I went for a walk with a friend yesterday. She and I have know each other for a long time. We first met nearly eighteen years ago. But our friendship dates really back to my return to Cape Town in 2007.

I don’t remember now how it began, but I do recall a conversation on a walk, very similar to the one we took yesterday, where we decided that we would meet regularly for ‘spiritual conversation’.

This particular friendship has been and remains a real treasure. Our social circles do not intersect. This is not a connection that would have thrived if we had not both intentionally committed to it. And yet this friendship is one I treasure deeply.

Not all spiritual friendships endure. Some have a specific season. Some occur by virtue of circumstance.

As I reflect on this particular relationship – almost immediately a parade of others appear in my mind’s eye. A long established close friendship with a fellow Ignatian enthusiast; the friends with whom I shared lunch this same day; my Living School companions; friends I encountered at a book launch a few days ago; etc. etc.

I have been inordinately blessed in my companions on The Way.

Happiness is…

Happiness is understanding chemistry

A Facebook friend posted this meme last week. I confess for a trivial meme it has occupied an inordinate amount of my head space over the last few days.

What struck me most forcibly in the moments after I first saw it was the trajectory of my thoughts. Almost immediately I began ‘Yes, but….’ followed by an litany of sections of chemistry that I feel I should understand better.

For those who haven’t quite registered this – I teach organic chemistry at a very well respected university in South Africa.

My reaction was interesting to me: Whichever way you configure the statistics, few would argue I understand more chemistry than most people (unless you want to take a very small sample size of professional chemists!). But what was immediately foremost in my mind was the areas of understanding that I lack!

Now, the enneagram savvy may recognise a compulsed 5 in operation. (The 5 on the enneagram is the personality who gains a sense security through having knowledge). That may well be true.

But it alerted to me to a much bigger social problem – my compulsion to shore up my security through knowledge doesn’t appear to hurt anyone, but what if I found my security in financial resources? What if I found my security in being able to identify those who don’t belong? What if I found my security in owning firearms? What if I found my security in being found likeable by others? What if I found my security in being seen to be successful?

Suddenly my kneejerk response is far more sinister. I cannot claim a greater morality because my response is apparently less harmful. It is simply the way we are wired.

In unveiling my own compulsion I am both deeply grateful it is relatively neutral (at least as far as I can see), and I see those whose compulsions are necessarily potentially more destructive with far less judgement. It isn’t my path, but the reason it isn’t is not because I am fundamentally a better person, it is just because I am wired to be soothed by a different stimulus.


The path of least resistance

I had the extraordinary experience last week of being Albuquerque for the start of my second year of the Living School. It is hard to be in the presence of Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Jim Finley, Carolyn Metzler, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Jack Jezreel and not come away feeling enriched.

Not only was I on the receiving of these wonderful teachers, but I was surrounded by people who have become friends. People who are searching for something more. People with whom I can speak a common language.

Jim Finley keeps coming back to the idea that we cannot achieve encounter with God through our own efforts. We cannot enter contemplation. We cannot touch ‘unknowing’. Choose your favourite metaphor for the sweet experience which does not leave us the same. All we can do is put ourselves in the path of least resistance.

Much to my surprise I am beginning to discover that my own path of least resistance requires, in part, hanging out with those who are seeking a similar thing. Having conversations that are deeply real and yet words cannot quite get to the essence of what we are trying to communicate.

The spiritual journey is not a solitary one, although the moment of encounter is never shared. I am left in awe of the mystery, deeply grateful for each person who shared my journey last week.