A brief mediation on chaos and anarchy

 I have always been attracted to chaos and intrigued by anarchy. Needless to say my parents found this, well, shall we just say distressing, and my friends often found it a bit disquieting. Chaos and anarchy – I just found them interesting and kind of engaging, mostly in an intellectual kind of way, I must admit.

 One of my favorite social work jokes for example goes something like this: what is the oldest profession in the world? … most people will respond prostitution. But the rejoinder is that it is social work. In fact, it is recorded in the Christian Bible! There you will find that it says that in the beginning god created the universe from chaos. … And, who do you think created the chaos? Social workers of course! (that is where you laugh, please.)

Typically we think of chaos as a state of complete disorder and confusion or as behavior that is so unpredictable that it appears to be totally random. But then there is chaos theory in math, with  applications in meteorology, physics, engineering, economics and biology. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, think the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, all of this creates the possibility for long-term prediction impossible in general approaches to statistical analysis and correlation.  Chaos may not be as chaotic as it appears on first blush.

 Anarchy first brings to mind visions of a society without a coherent public government. I prefer to dream of anarchy as efforts to build a productive, creative society that honors the dignity of sentient beings, that deeply respects fairness through radical empathy even while avoiding the use of coercion, violence, force and authority. Quite a dream, yes?

 So, chaos and anarchy. But where does my attraction to them come from?  Well, the other day I was reading James Michner’s book Poland. And right there on page 203 I found this passage: “in 1786 there was an old Polish truism. Anarchy is the salvation of Poland. We have always thrived on chaos.”

 I read that passage an experienced it as a balm to my soul. I felt a soothing resonant connection to my roots.  There indeed is nothing quite like finding home and connection. Chaos and anarchy are deep in my cultural heritage and roots!

 And, what pray tell does this have to do with social justice and respect for human rights? I guess just that it is good to know who you are, where your roots are nurtured, and to respect the diversity of the differing grounds that nourish each of us.

 So, go bloom where you are planted, and celebrate vast diversity of all the flowers that grace this kaleidoscope of our world.

All the faces are mirrors

Long ago in a small, far away village in New Zealand, there was place known as the House of 1000 Mirrors. One day a small, happy little girl learned of this place and decided to visit. When she arrived, she skipped happily up the stairs to the doorway of the house. She looked through the doorway with hope in her heart and gleeful anticipation in her eyes. To her great surprise, she found herself staring at 1000 other happy little girls with their eyes glowing as brightly as hers. She smiled a great smile, and was answered with 1000 great smiles just as warm and friendly. As she left the House, she thought to herself, “This is a most wonderful place. I think that I will come back and visit it very often.” And she did, and each time she was greeted with smiles, and her life was richer and happier for it.

In this same village, another little girl, who was not quite as happy as the first one, decided to visit the house. She slowly climbed the stairs and hung her head low as she looked into the door. When she saw the 1000 sad and unfriendly looking girls staring back at her, she grimaced and snarled at them and was horrified to see 1000 little girls grimacing and snarling back at her. As she left, she thought to herself, “That is a horrible place, and I will never go back there again.” And she did not ever return to that place, but she continued to meet other people who were sad and grimacing where ever she went.

For Shakespeare all the world was a stage. Indeed, and also, all the faces in the world are mirrors.

Keeping the R in Celebrate

When we last looked in on the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene they had just returned to their Cloister after the tempestuous winds of Storm Sandy.

Sandy left the grounds of the cloister were badly battered. Trees had been uprooted and tossed about wildly and wantonly. Tree limbs crashed through windows, and other windows were blow out. The wind and the rain wreaked havoc in the rooms where the windows were broken through.  Outer building were lifted off their foundations and tossed about like so much jetsam and flotsam. The cloisters buildings and grounds were a sad sight to sore eyes for even the most awakened of hearts.

And the good Sisters returned to this, took up their cloths, tools and prayers and began the work of cleaning and restoring their home the cloister to its pristine ascetic aesthetic.  Mother Magdalene organized the Sisters into work teams with rotating captains for each team, following the best in feminist team building principles.

Sister Bryda continued to walk the property looking for artifacts that might have been blown about by the winds, up righting statuary where she could, marking project that needed more heft, flagging areas that were safety hazards.

Sister Visentia moved through the buildings and gathered the  damaged and broken setting it to be repaired by the sisters during the coming cold months.

Sister Septimus collected the damaged documents from the archives, immediately setting to clean and repair them before the dirt and mud could mar them beyond restoration.  Sister Septimus took to her task with a care, persistence and gentleness that even she had never known in herself. She found a deep and abiding sense of peace as she caressed and cleans the ancient documents that found their home in the cloisters library. Ah, the library and its once beautiful stained glass windows.  The windows were now gone, and all that was stained in the library were the books and the papers. And Sister Septimus worked on, collecting, sorting and cleaning.

For days and weeks Sister Septimus worked methodically and meticulously at cleaning and restoring book after book, document after document. And in the evenings during refectory, she asked Mother Magdalene for permission to read “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. Mother Magdalene thought this an odd choice, but Sister Septimus rarely sought to read lay literature. So, Mother Magdalene granted her request, but inquired gently of Sister Septimus about her interest in the book. The right side of Sister Septimus mouth turned ever so slightly in the direction of a smile, and Septimus allowed as how she feels an empathy with Hannah Heath, the book conservator who is the central character in the book. “reading about her dogged determination there, somehow just  helps me to keep going here. I know its fiction, but it just nurtures my heart and my work” said Sister Septimus. And Mother Magdalene smiled and nodded, “indeed” was all she said in return.

And the work continued. One day weeks into the repair and restoration, Mother Magdalene heard Sister Septimus weeping. She went to her at once, and found her holding the original charter of the cloister, written in the hand of their founding collective, signed by the first Mother Magdalene, and subsequently copied in the hand of each of the following Mothers. Sister Septimus silently pointed to the line in the rules of community life, the line that called on the sisters to lead their lives as ‘celibate’ women.  “Oh, mother, what have we done to each other!” she wept.

Mother Magdalene, looked at Sister Septimus with confusion and then began to weep herself as she read the original document herself – for the first time. It was the practice of each new Mother Magdalene to read and recopy the document from the hand of her predecessor; the prior documents were archived and stored for perpetual safe keeping. As Sister Septimus and Mother Magdalene stood weeping and holding the original charter document both of them saw that one of the successor Mother Magdalene’s had miswritten — she left out the ‘r’ and wrote celibate; but the original rule of community life did not challenge the sisters to live their lives as ‘celibate’ women, rather it called on them to CELEBRATE.

Mother Magdalene and Sister Septimus looked each other deeply in the eye, and with their full open hearts they determined and pledged that from this day forward as it was in the beginning, the Cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene would be women who celebrate.

And what does all of this have to do with justice and respect for the dignity of all beings? Only that we are called to openly accept all – to accept everyone (including our selves) – fully into our hearts just as they are, just as we are. It is not the distance of celibacy that marks the path to holiness. It is the open hearted loving embrace of celebration that leads to wholeness, and through celebration of the wholeness of each of us, of all of us, we will walk the path to respect for our dignity and to lives of fairness and justice. So (along with Three Dog Night — the band named for those nights SO cold you needed three dogs in bed with you to keep warm 😉 along with Three Dog Night let your heart and soul sing) … celebrate, celebrate! Dance to the music — of love and life!

Happiness: exuberant, shy or essential

Mostly I post stories in this blog. Stories that I’ve written or revised or that I found here or there and like a lot. Today is a bit different.  Today, I want to share three quotes about exuberance  and happiness with you.

The challenge to you – to each of us – is to reconcile the three quotes.

Have a read … think about it …

From Natalie Goldberg’s Waking up to Happiness. In Shambhala Sun July 2012, p. 26. . . . Happiness is shy. It wants to know you want it. You can’t be greedy. You can’t be numb – or ignorant. The bashful girl of happiness needs your kind attention. They she’ll come forward.

From Living My Life (1931) Emma Goldman. . . .  The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. (p. 56)  A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having. If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of your revolution.

And from that great American Bard, Mark Twain: Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching; and live like it’s heaven on earth.

Happiness may well be the heart of a world where respect for the dignity of all living beings is the foundation of societies of compassion, peace and justice.  Let work together to build a world where the gross national happiness is more carefully measured than is the gross national product!




Albert Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus and Happiness

Homer, the ancient Greek poet, is said to have believed that Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of all mortals. Other traditions describe him as a bit of a scoundrel. And, really, at the root, at the heart of matters, those who are wise and who are seen as scoundrels may not be all that very different.  Indeed, there are any number of stories about Sisyphus and his relationship and interactions with the gods of his day.  A consistent theme of the stories is that Sisyphus was a man who looked the gods squarely in the eyes and spoke his mind even making fun of what he thought were their foibles and short comings. Sisyphus loved life and living, he hated death, and he taunted the gods.  Well, as you can imagine the gods would only have but so much of that from Sisyphus, and indeed one day the gods have had enough, and they condemned Sisyphus to roll a huge round boulder to the top of a mountain.  At just the moment when Sisyphus and the stone reach the summit of the mountain – yep, you can see it coming, the boulder rolls down again. And, Sisyphus is compelled to return to the base of the mountain to undertake his task again and again and again in perpetuity.

Albert Camus’ description of Sisyphus’ struggle and his analysis of the existential (its Camus of course there is existential angst!) meaning of the struggle provide an interesting twist to the myth. Camus observes:

Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched …

Now, I’ve read the myth of Sisyphus dozens of times, of used the myth as an analogy of all kinds of dull repetitive work, but I’ve never felt it like I did as I read Camus’ description! And then he goes on the descript Sisyphus as an absurd hero. An absurd hero whose scorn of the gods, whose hatred of death and Thanatos, whose passion for life won him a penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing – exactly nothing. Now – how many of us have felt like we worked our hearts and souls out, like we worked our butts off and accomplished exactly nothing! Ah, Sisyphus our brother – absurd, yes, but hero?

Well, Camus redirects our focus to the moment after the boulder rolls down from the summit, the moment when Sisyphus turns and begins his own descent down the mountain. In that moment, in those moments Sisyphus stands as EveryMan, as EveryHuman, and walks in consciousness, in awareness of who he and the existential being of his condition. Wretched, but lucid, he thinks and therefore he claims liberation. Camus phrases it, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.” The descent of Sisyphus is marked by exhaustion, frustration, sadness, and by joy. Within the angst of the dark night, of unbearable grief, of Gethsemane, within the soul of tragedy the lucid soul can find the foundation of strength and resilience.

Camus has Edipus cry out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.”

This story is worth telling, worth thinking about – I think – just to get to that quote — “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” The phrase, ‘the nobility of my soul’ resonates for me. The conviction that ‘all is well’ even in the midst of ordeals, even in the midst of Sisyphus’ seemingly hopeless, endless, meaningless struggle – even then and there, all is well. Now that is something. That is a place where the discovery, the claiming of human dignity has depth and resonance and meaning.

And, Camus goes on to highlight that happiness and the absurd are siblings. There is no sun without shadow. There is no day without night. The choice to claim our fate, to say yes to the tasks, the actions we undertake – and to do so with conscious awareness and lucidity – there is the home of freedom and happiness. 

Be well my friends. Rest well and deeply knowing that all is well.