Ways to be and ways not to be—a regular topic here. Last week, I met the most amazing group of people who have this being thing down. On Saturday, I was with Reyna Aburto, a counselor in the presidency responsible for the women in my church. She’s from Nicaragua but has lived in this country for several decades. It’s not that her life here or there has been easy. In this talk, she discusses her daughter’s encounter with depression and her father’s death by suicide. But she was funny and organized, warm and open.
Monday evening was Swami Atmarupananda who spoke for an hour on the Vedanta tradition within the Hindu faith. You can listen to another lecture here and will get some sense of his voice and his lovely hands.
Tuesday was a Dallas Winds concert, and I am often invited to attend with a dear friend. Last week, the highlight was Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which you can hear here with James Earl Jones or here with Henry Fonda or here with Phylicia Rashad. Each a different experience, so please listen to one. So last week, it was Rex Tillerson’s turn. As we went into our seats, the usher followed and asked for our tickets. That has never happened before. I hope I didn’t make too much of a scene as I called out for my friend to get them out. She did, everyone was nice, and on we went. The usher added, “I am just doing my job.” Friends next to us then whispered that Rex Tillerson and his wife Renda were just behind us. “Don’t look now but…” So we did finally look, and there they were, with Secret Service in attendance as well. Afterward, we spoke to them at a reception. He and I were at the University of Texas together, though he was in the Longhorn Band and I was in another one. His wife was also charming. She rode horses in rodeo events for 20 years. We bonded when I offered that I did some barrel racing myself but in a different body than the one I have now. She laughed.
Where are we? Wednesday. In 2017, Allison Stanger, then a professor at Middlebury College, was assaulted by students and outside agitators when she was trying to assist Charles Murray off campus. In this column for the New York Times, she recounts the events but also adds the insights she received. She is a partisan who understands the need for non-partisan communication. Her new book is Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump. It has nothing to do with the current whistleblower but everything to do with the important function of calling out corruption.
So that was my week. I want to add four brief stories that all this excitement brought to mind. First, an explanation. The Swami said he has two favorite verses from the Bible: I am that I am, and Be still and know that I am God. The first is a deep discussion reserved for another day. The second is also a favorite of mine, but today I am considering each of the first four words as its own sentence.
Be. Decades ago, a physician I knew told the story of a woman who lived in her bed, blind, deaf, barely able to move. Her family had called him in to have her declared incompetent. It’s not a pleasant task, usually involving ulterior motives. Sitting down, he took her hand in a doctorly manner. Suddenly, this woman began moving her fingers. Blessedly, this physician had training in tactile fingerspelling, the method in which the deaf and blind communicate. Her motion was not random, but few would have recognized what she was doing. One wonders how often she might have tried and failed. This man learned that she was anything but incompetent, and he spent many hours in her delightful company. One thing puzzled him: How did she spend her time, trapped as she was in her mind? She explained that she gardened. It was at her grandmother’s home where she had spent many happy hours planning, planting, weeding, harvesting. In her mind she went through all those long-remembered tasks. “Is there anything unusual that happens?” he wondered. Her wry reply has stayed with me: “Well, I do hurry winter.” It’s hard to imagine her life, but I take comfort in her ability to be, considering all the freedom I have to move and to speak.
Still. The Swami discussed at length the steps to enlightenment. Beliefnet describes the goal as this Buddhist concept: “Freedom from craving, delusion, and hatred is where true peace lies, and that is the goal of enlightenment.” Except that he didn’t use the word “enlightenment.” He is Hindu, with his branch of attainment called Vedanta. Impermanence is an important ideal, as well as the quieting of self. About three years ago, our two oldest grandsons were having a lively discussion about existence on different (geometric) planes of existence. They dispensed with two dimensions easily enough. “What is one dimensional space?” asked the 9-year-old. I described it as best as I knew how—a place with no heighth or depth, a single dot. The 12-year-old fielded questions about not being able to run or eat or play in such a place. Finally, a bit exasperated, the younger one said, “I’ll just be there and think.” Then came the answer for the ages: “No, you couldn’t even do that. Thinking would require neuronal activity, which is directional motion.” Wow. That’s what the Swami said, too, and his companion allowed that they were brilliant children, which I know I’m not allowed to say. My point in telling him the story was to suggest that now I had some glimmer of what it means to be still, not to brag.
And. New word for the day: syncretism. The response given after the Swami was from a Japanese scholar who practices meditation with Buddhists but also identifies as a Catholic Christian. Syncretism is the practicing of two different belief traditions, or reconciliation. A recently-heard concern involves the practice of yoga in the West as cultural appropriation of a religious Eastern form of worship. Asking Google if that is true yields a surprising set of answers that includes everything from white supremacy to colonialism. Startling. However, a concept called “holy envy” which is part of the late Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl’s guide for religious understanding: “(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; (2) don’t compare your best to their worst; and (3) leave room for “holy envy” by finding elements in other faiths to emulate.” Note that he says “emulate,” not just admire. Having left the Swami’s presence, I knew I needed to be quieter, perhaps even studying meditation more seriously. Dr. Stanger, it happens, believes that interfaith dialogue is the way forward as she herself is a member of her local council. We are commanded, after all, to love God and our neighbors. Neither is easy; both are necessary.
Know. A man serving as a bishop in my congregation years ago would begin his testimony saying he knew, really knew, only two things: His wife loved him. The Church is true. As an aviator, he knew how to fly fighter jets, even in the dark, we learned at other times. He taught students and directed companies. Yet those are the things he chose as central to his being. In the talk by Dr. Stanger, the importance of civility was central. A flyer accompanying the evening was a list by Dr. Scott Crider titled “Overcoming Your Lesser Angels: Ten Ways to Improve Our Culture.” His conclusion notes that it is possible to know what is good without doing it—to ignore what is true “and rejoin one of the ignorant armies clashing by night.” Relishing something better, I think few of us will want to choose that. This brief explanation of Aristotle as used by Dr. Crider might be helpful. The goal of happiness, or eudaimonia, was recently discussed by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, here. This discussion allows for the possibility that our happiness is also the goal of Deity. And so we come full circle. Some weeks, it seems, are simply more full of light than others. A source of thanksgiving indeed.