Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Broadening Perspectives

I am a believer. I believe that the created universe contains in its very essence a tendency towards development. One might call it something like a life force. The challenge to a “believer” of any stripe is to resist the temptation to be one-sided or superficial. You see, I could easily write about modern understandings of “progress.” Or I could wax poetic about the beauty of flowers or children growing into their magnificent fullness. But if I succumb to the temptation to simplify in either of those directions, then any counter-perspectives can be oversimplified, too.

Let me give an example. The will to survive is one foundational element we consider in trying to understand life. But, does the desire for survival in each element of a hostile or competitive system qualify as a comprehensive ethical foundation for life? And is the potential or actual destruction of one’s “enemies” in the service of survival then automatically justified? Sometimes this particular foundation for human behavior is put like this: “Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you.”

While this “ethic” may make sense and be defensible from some perspectives, it seems to me that human and even biological history provide ample evidence for its ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, failure. Within that framework, all victories remain temporary. And they are always accompanied by a deep fear that sooner or later the same or another enemy will arise. Have you noticed lately how the list of potential enemies keeps growing? Not only must we contend with other human groups, but the climate, the toxic environment, and even the potential breakdown of economies and delivery systems for food and other necessities have been added to our awareness of potentially threatening forces. Seeing other people and even natural forces primarily as enemies tempts us to hunker down into survival mode. Of course, from a narrow perspective, such a position seems to make perfect sense. Still, I have the uneasy feeling that while survivalism appears defensible, it is not necessarily the best approach we have available to us.

To identify what might be a better approach, we cannot just oversimplify in some other direction, like: Don’t worry; be happy; love conquers all” for example. We can, however, look to our available sources of deep wisdom. Both Jesus and Buddha, albeit in somewhat different ways, teach that personal survival is not one of the central values or features of their approach to life. Personal life is always seen in a broader context of meaning. They imply, and we can see from history, that many of our human efforts towards survival can result in massive levels of destruction.

If we study carefully, we see that the spiritual mystics all invite us to broaden our perspectives so that we can see ourselves as participants in a larger reality. Sadly, the temptation to reduce these big ideas back down to a more individualistic perspective never seems to go away. And the anxieties we carry about survival as individuals grease the skids of that regression.

There is nothing I can say, no matter how compelling I believe my argument to be, that will preclude the oversimplification of our sometimes perilous situation. I will, however, continue to make the invitation that people experiment with the features of a broader and more profound view of creation and its potential meaning. The individualistic perspective will certainly remain with us, because it is sometimes valuable and necessary, though it is not always the most useful perspective at our disposal.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I believe that creation carries, in its essence, the potential for continued development. What I hope for, and what I will continue to work towards in this new year is the implementation of a more universal perspective in politics, business, neighborhood relations, and religion. I invite you to join me.

Please add your comments and perspectives.

Happy New Year
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflections on Christmas

The longer I live, the more I come to understand some of the deeper meanings associated with Christmas. At the same time, I also experience a growing sense of astonishment that humanity doesn’t seem to take in and use these meanings. Wherever and whenever I look around, the human situation seems to be increasingly dire. Well, how about that for a merry opening to my reflections on Christmas!

Like most everyone else, I feel the compelling social pressure to be happy, hopeful, encouraging, and festive at this time of year, but I fear that if we restrict ourselves to that set of emotions, we miss a more profound issue. No, I'm not going to talk about all the needy people in the world who need your holiday generosity. Again, there's nothing particularly wrong with holiday generosity, but when we focus too exclusively on it, just like when we focus too much on the positive holiday emotions, we miss the more profound issue.

The more profound issue has to do with our understanding of the meaning of Jesus' life and ministry. I grew up hearing the stories of Christmas in the context of an individualistic culture. While I was taught to have compassion for other individuals in the world, the focus was still on the needs of the individual. I grew up believing that Jesus came to improve the life of individuals, to help those individuals who were less fortunate, to save the souls of individuals, and then to celebrate how fortunate I was to live in a Christian household and community.

But I must challenge the premise of my early learning. Did Jesus really come to “save” a collection of individual souls? Frankly, for most of my life, it has not occurred to me to me that the answer could be anything besides “yes.” Lately, I've been thinking differently. I'm not the first one to think about the meaning of Christmas from a different perspective, but it seems to me that individualism still holds major sway. But what if the individualistic perspective doesn't really get at the deepest layers of meaning? What if Jesus is not the religious “cavalry,” swooping in from “heaven” to save our individual souls? What if the message is more about considering a different set of fundamentals for life and community? What if we are “saved” collectively instead of individually?

What difference might that radically different perspective make?

First of all, it would remove guilt as the primary motivation for good works. Guilt focuses on the morality of the individual. It does nothing to affect fundamental change. Guilt happens in the interplay between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While guilt might pry some of the wealth away from the haves and distribute it to the have-nots, it does nothing to transform the hierarchy of the relationship. If nothing else, Jesus challenged the notion that some people and groups actually “deserve” to have more than others. He challenged the notion that God has blessed the rich and powerful, leaving the disenfranchised out in the cold. Furthermore, the earliest manifestations of “Christian” community challenged the idea that individuals had to protect themselves by amassing wealth and power!

Parenthetically, one could argue that this early community was “socialist” in structure, but that would be missing the point once again. All of our economic systems still focus on how much “stuff” is owned, whether by the individual or the group is irrelevant! That early Christian community came together, not around a different way to own stuff, but because they had learned (presumably through Jesus) a different way of relating. It was the quality of the relationships in the community that provided security, not their collective wealth.

Christmas is known to be the season of giving. But we still live in a culture that values individualistic hoarding most highly for the rest of the year. Jesus' message tells us that wealth does not create trust. In fact, wealth seems to create more fear that someone else (of course, someone who is less deserving) will take what the wealthy possess. And the kind of giving we see at Christmas doesn't really change anything at all if it does not change the system that insists on wealth and poverty as a primary measure of success.

The Christmas call to “Peace on Earth” does not mean that the poor should stay in their places and not be too disruptive. Peace is a matter of quality of relationship, not the suppression of human need. It seems to me that Chief Seattle spoke more in keeping with the message of Jesus than many American Christian churches when he said that whatever we do to the web of life (in which we all participate) we do to ourselves.

What if the Christmas message actually proclaims the web of life (not simply a collection of individuals) as the focus of salvation? If we come to believe that, maybe real transformation is possible.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Friday, December 17, 2010

There are Journeys, and then There are Journeys

Hardly a story told does not involve a journey – religious stories, fairy tales, songs, poems, novels, and many non-fictional topics. All of these may recount human (or animal) experiences of getting from “here” to “there.” Here and there can, of course, be metaphorical, emotional, physiological, psychological, or geographic. The decision to embark and the degree to which the experience turns out to be unpredictable are significant elements in many stories.

Perhaps these journeys intrigue us because our personal stories and journeys also involve elements of decision and unpredictability. Sometimes people refer to the decisions facing them as “no-brainers,” implying that the correct choice should be obvious to anyone. In my experience, relatively few of life's decisions exhibit enough clarity that the answers become at all obvious. Typically, the “no-brainer” evaluation is made by one person about another person's decision. Again, in my experience, one person is seldom, if ever, qualified to decide for someone else. The obvious exception to that statement is in the relationship between a parent and a young child, though that should be a very short-lived arrangement. I offered some perspective (hardly comprehensive) on decision-making in last week's post.

For the sake of this discussion, let me distinguish between two very different kinds of journey. The first focuses on achieving a particular end. While the specific path might not be determined precisely, the journey is about getting to the destination as quickly as possible. The second kind of journey is more about direction than destination. Its objective is to make your next move in a particular direction from where you presently find yourself. But you do not know where you will end up, nor can you know precisely what your next direction will or even can be.

It has been my observation that many life journeys end up being severely restricted when we evaluate them only in terms of reaching the destination. How many times do people say, “When I get through this, then I'll be fine – I will have arrived.” In most of life's real journeys, the promise of reaching a destination seldom delivers the expected sense of completion. We realize that the journey continues. There always seems to be another hill to climb, another test to pass. “Maybe next time...” we say.

What, then, does it look like if we plan our journeys based on direction and experience, rather than on reaching the destination? Well, for starters, it takes a lot of pressure off of us. Destinations imply success or failure – we reach them or we don't. Journeys based on chosen directions invite us to experience and learn as we go. Perhaps I've said in other places that “Life can be lived experimentally, inviting us to learn along the way, rather than as a series of tests to determine our absolute value as human beings.

Here's a small example: I'm finishing this blog post on Friday morning, not Wednesday morning as usual. If Wednesday was my destination, then I failed. If, however, I realize that this week has presented me with some interesting detours, then Friday morning is simply Friday morning, not proof of failure. I will still aim for posting again next Wednesday, but when it actually gets done, and what I will choose to write about, will be determined by many factors, most of which haven't happened yet.

The best I can do is prepare myself to be a learner. I will try to pass some of that learning along next week.

By the way, those of you who read Community of Promise will find that the Promised Land in my story is not a destination, it is a matter of quality of community, and it happens all along the journey.

Blessings on Your Journey,
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Do I Want to Do? Reflections on Freedom of Choice

A couple of years ago, I began wrestling with a personal question that on the surface looked simple, but in practice turned out to be more challenging than I could have imagined. What do I really want to be doing with my time and life? Not a new question by any measure, it has been approached by many for millenia in the realms of philosophy, theology, psychology, politics, and neurobiology (to name just a few).

While I could write from any of those perspectives, I prefer a perspective that cuts through all of them: the question of whether my choices come from within me or from some external source. Let me explain. My areas of formal study have been theology and counseling psychology. They both deal with whether a person's “locus of control” (meaning the ability to make self-directed choices) should be internal or external. The way many people approach religion, a divine being exists outside of them with the power to intercede into life at will. As religious texts tell the story, this being has established a certain set of “correct” choices to life's problems. The main issue in such a framework is then about one's level of obedience to this divine one. The options and right behaviors are determined from without and humans are tested based on their choices. Rewards and punishments follow.

Families and cultures usually function in the same way as that image of the divine (including the part about rewards and punishments). Individuals learn that certain professions, values, opportunities for entertainment, and laws (written and unwritten) are acceptable. Only some of the questions have “correct” answers, but people feel enormous pressure to choose from the prescribed list of options.

Psychotherapists often encourage their clients to develop what is called an internal locus of control, meaning that at least they can make their own choices (within the acceptable options, of course).

As I began to wrestle with what I might want to do next in my life, though I possess a pretty potent internal locus of control, I had a difficult time identifying options that were not the standard ones for someone of my education, profession, and experience. I had to get on the other side of questions like, “What am I good at?” “What are ministers “supposed to do?” and even, “What do I enjoy doing?”

Those tend to be relatively superficial questions that bypass identity, integrity, and personal authority. In our language, the pronoun, “I”, usually refers to the ego – a necessary but rather superficial part of myself. The “I” in my present question is more like Carl Jung's identification of The Self – a deep and broad practically divine understanding of identity that hold all the other parts of who I am together in a coherent whole person. In Christian terms, Paul the Apostle wrote in a letter that the Living Christ, who lives within him, motivated his best actions. Jung claimed that Paul's Living Christ, and the psychologically observed Self were different descriptions of the same reality.

So, it is in response to the leading of my Self that I ask what I want to do. To be truly free, I must be responsible both for identifying my options and for making my choices from them.

It was quite a surprise to me when I discovered fiction writing. (That activity had never been among my identified options.) But I have concluded that I must write, not because someone else tells me to, but because at least for now, it is the most honest expression of who I (my Self) am.

I have written one novel, Community of Promise. (Click here for more info) I am presently working on a second one. Stay tuned.

I'd be interested to know who you are choosing to be in the world?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise: The Untold Story of Moses

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Consensus in Community

I live in what is called an “Intentional Community.” This community holds a broadly defined commitment to ecological awareness and practice, healthy community, and ongoing education (by and for us). One of the factors that makes this community experience both wonderful and difficult is that we attempt to make our decisions by means of a process called “Consensus.” The phrase, “come to consensus” is familiar in our culture, but it is usually thought to mean “come to agreement.” That is not really what it means, however.

In his book, Consensus through Conversation, Larry Dressler defines consensus in this way: “Consensus has been achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: 'I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.'” Clearly, consensus is quite different from simple agreement. And it is certainly different from “majority rules” decision-making.

Let me write about consensus by identifying some of what it is not.

Consensus is not a decision; it is a process that is based on deep mutual respect for the participants and for the group. Getting to the “best decision” is not the same as getting the outcome I want. “The best decision” becomes more possible when more people participate in it, when every perspective is considered (and that may include the environment, other non-human living beings, and the health and well-being of the group beyond individual desires), and when the process generates deeper learning among all the participants. As an individual who participates in this process, I need to recognize that the combined wisdom and perspectives of the group add up to something greater than my own. At the same time, the perspective I bring is vital to the process because it is just as unique as any other.

Consensus is not a debate; it is a respectful consideration of varying values, perspectives, and needs. And there is no such thing as “winning” in the consensus process. The closest thing to winning is when the community comes to a decision that all the participants can commit to.

Consensus is not compromise. Compromise is finding a middle ground between two existing positions. Another way to say it is that “compromise is getting the best deal you can as an individual.” In consensus, the primary focus is not on the individual's desire, but on the well-being of all, including the individual. The consensus process encourages creativity that does not stay on the axis between two opposing positions. Brand new solutions can emerge that address all needs in a broader way.

Finally, Consensus is not perfect. It takes time, it requires participants to leave room in their minds for growth, learning, and new ideas. When it works well, though, it helps both individuals and communities to become healthier.

It seems worth it for me. And, wouldn't it be interesting if our political discourse had more of the consensus process in it?

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise