We the People
Who lives in the world?
This past week has been interesting. It was full of the stuff of life. I celebrated the birthday of a dear friend who has long been gone – Gregory Hines. I attended the funeral of a friend’s father. I struggled with some of my deepest doubts. I was there when a friend was experiencing deep pain. I found myself encouraged in some creative endeavors. As I write this, it is only Tuesday. Life can be a full, overwhelming, and inspiring mess.
The past few weeks I’ve been working out some of my thinking around what might be behind all of this. I’ve mentioned my pursuit of what’s commonly referred to as the Christian faith – more specifically a relationship with the person of Jesus (the Christ). I’ve been asking questions and trying to put words to the idea of a world that exists but is unseen, call it the Kingdom of Heaven. In this world, the most formative agent is a spirit, God, who is the ultimate creator, from whom all goodness flows, and who’s being is love. The way into this world has been proposed to be through following a person. The person of Jesus.
In last week’s note I briefly shared what I thought the people in this world might end up being like. This week I think I’m going to try to flush this out. As with all these notes, I quickly admit that I am thinking this through. I am a work in progress. I, as much as anyone else, have things that I haven’t thought about, or may have arrived at incorrectly. I ask that you call me out on these things. I’m curious to hear and see what you may be hearing and seeing as I open these ideas and attempt to discuss them. In the act of sharing, maybe both our perspectives may receive greater clarity.
So, here we go.
In our current world there are all kinds of people. There are a multitude of cultures – although practically, less today than there have been over time. Cultures have differing expressions of life in the forms of languages, foods, fashions, musics, dances, and more. The way each particular people, from each particular time and place, interact with each other and the world around them says something about what they believe is important, good, and right. These values are in turn embedded in their expressions. The people of the culture reinforce these values through the practice of these expressions. By doing so, the culture and the values inherent in it, are supported and continued across generations.
I teach a workshop on Oral Traditions. In this workshop I give the example of how many parents get angry at their teenage children for listening to different music than they did. I use this example to highlight the deep connection we make with forms of expression that we feel express “our culture” or better yet, what we value. A change in aesthetic, let alone content, can signal a break in the continuity of those values. Hence parents get angry at their children for listening to different music.
But what would happen if there was only one set of parents for the entire world – an unending source of love and protection? What if the world was filled with people relating to one another as siblings – a transparent and intimate community? What if there was one older sibling that could be trusted as a guide through life? This is one conception that seems to resonate with me. Coming from a Lebanese background, the language of family is deeply engrained and so the conception of God as father, Jesus Christ as older brother, and people as siblings makes me equally inspired and heart broken. Inspired because, at least in my little corner of the world, I’ve experience some of what the goodness of that could be like – and when it’s good it is really good. Heart broken because, at different times, I’ve experienced and witnessed what happens with the exact same conception when things are not good. When it’s not good, it can be really bad. Things turn bad when love does not flow through the relationships, let alone when outright evil is flowing through them.
What if we were to take the inspiring side of this vision to the next logical question. If it is possible to experience goodness for a moment, would it be possible to experience it more often? What would it be like if we were to experience it more often – or better yet, be the ones to catalyze it? What kind of people would we have to be if we were to catalyze such a thing?
People are interesting to observe. Spending a lot of time in New York City, and traveling around the world, I’ve done my fair share of people watching. Being a teacher of an embodied kinesthetic practice, I’ve witnessed a multitude of persons work through their stuff, just to get their feet to do a thing or two in tap dancing. The variety of persons is immense. While homogeny is often proposed as a way towards goodness – and I may have slipped into that language by asking “what if everyone…?” in my last note – the deeper questions are what are we homogenizing? And what exactly is the process we are dealing with?
I’m going to try to think through the process first, then the question of what.
People are in a continual state of change. All the inner parts of a person and environmental elements we experience bear down on our lives on a daily basis. The kind of process I’m thinking about happens on a daily basis. The fundamental unit of measurement when accounting for this change is an individual person. We would measure the kind of person they are becoming. The point of variation that we would look at is a singular choice. We would alter a singular choice, or area of choice, and see the variation in trajectory of formation. Choices are what guide our journey of change. Put differently, choices are what determine who we become. It should be noted here that choices can, but don’t always, dictate what happens. There is quite a bit of life that may be beyond our control. Although many try, for various reasons, to control their environment, including controlling other people, so as to dictate what happens. No, choices are meant to be what we can do to determine who we become. Do we become anxious under stress, or excited? Do we cultivate a spirit of generosity or one of greed? Do we make choices that reinforce our wants and desires, or choices that reinforce an experience of content in our lives? These are descriptions of outcomes that we can do what we can to arrive at through our choices. These are not only choices of action, but also choices about what thoughts we entertain and feed, as they too eventually lead to action.
In the course that I developed for the project What We Leave Behind, the first step we took as a learning community was an attempt to understand our individual relationships to choice. What choices do we make without any thought? What choices get a little attention? What choices are pondered for days or weeks before being acted upon? This spectrum of varied attention to different choices is good and natural. We all make choices everyday that are along this spectrum. Some are mindless in that they happen almost automatically. Others are arduous. Many more are in between. We are continually formed by these choices. We are becoming particular kinds of people on account of these choices. The work here becomes identifying the choices that most deeply affect the kinds of people we may become and making sure that they are the ones that are continually being addressed and supported. To ask a more community-minded question, what if the kind of people we encountered in this world were ones who were invested and deeply engaged in this process of formation for themselves, and supportive of the process in others?
The idea of formation will quickly bring the question of endings to the forefront. Who are we being formed into? What kind of person do we want to be formed into? If we indeed get to choose, the question of the best choice can quickly come into focus. Here I go straight to a vision of the kind of people who exist in the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus in the book of Matthew (Chapter 5).
What if, regardless of lineage, personality, or environmental considerations, the people in this world that we are envisioning were not willing to hurt one another? What if they weren’t willing to use one another? What if the love that permeated their being was so complete that they genuinely wished the good of their enemies – not just their friends? These are thick questions. They can bring a lot of stuff with them. All the stuff they bring is important to consider. They are questions one can sit with, work through, and chew on for some time. They are important enough to engage with in that way. As we do, maybe we can begin to imagine such a world. Maybe we can begin to connect some dots between the world we currently experience, the one we hope to be in, and the process it might take to get there. Maybe we can begin test out some different choices. Maybe we can become the kind of person for whom the Kingdom of Heaven is a lived reality, and not just a nice idea, or figment of our imagination.