Reading Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, has shaken my own soul. I knew the argument that the United States has endured terrible times when racism, poverty, greed and the pursuit of political power have threatened what I think of as our deepest national ideals. But to read about specific examples (the Civil War, the Great Depression), the presidents and the people involved was eye-opening. To see the duplicity of elected leaders, who said one thing and believed another, to see laws enacted with great intentions gutted by even greater greed, to see Americans veer from openness to foreigners to become citizens of an us-first country reminded me of two-steps-forward-one-step-back thinking I hear so much of today. And the question inside me, “Yes, but now what,” grew louder with every chapter. I am so impatient with progress that happens one faltering step at a time -- especially when the two-step, backward stumbles are so stunning.
But now that I have read the last chapter, I see five behaviors Meacham advises:
Enter the arena: “. . . The paying of attention, the expressing of opinion, and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.”
Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everyone on your side already agrees with one another.”
Respect fact and deploy reason: “To reflexively resist one side or the other without weighing the merits of a given issue is all too common -- and all too regrettable.”
Find a critical balance: Theodore Roosevelt said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
And, finally, to keep history in mind: Harry Truman said, “The people have often made mistakes, but given a time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
So, surviving these trying times does not require rocket science, only attention, thought and action, all shaped by compassion, courage and humility. Ah, if only it was that easy.
The Soul of America is worth reading, of course, because it reminds us of our shared history and reveals the sometimes surprising wisdom of our leaders, including this quotation from George W. Bush, who never seemed very wise or eloquent to me. After 9/11, he said that God created a world of “moral design,” and added:
“Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness,
remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds
all who die and all who mourn.”
Next time, The Divine Milieu.
Back to the process at hand -- my personal search for hope. In thirty days -- or more. (See entry for August 1.) I realize now that while my body might adapt to yoga poses in four weeks time, it will probably take longer to wrap my mind around some of the philosophical ideas described by Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu. He was a scientist, and I’m not. But I have always been intrigued by scientists who are people of faith, that their understanding of science -- evolution, for example -- does not hinder or cancel out their faith in God.
Honestly, I don’t know much about de Chardin, who died before I was a year old. I know that during his lifetime, some of his philosophical writing was considered controversial by leaders of the church. Much of his written work was suppressed, and he was ordered not to teach. Then, as sometimes happens, his work is picked up again after his death, reconsidered and now church leaders are inspired by his writing.
So de Chardin was a scientist -- a paleontologist and geologist -- who found no inconsistency between science and spirituality. For de Chardin, the more he understood the world around him, the more deeply he believed not just in God but in the idea that creation is still underway and moving, inevitably, toward Christ. I’d like to believe that, that we and this earth are moving toward ultimate unity, but it sure doesn’t look like that right now.
In The Divine Milieu, he writes about a connection between the human soul and God. “What is most divine in God is that, an an absolute sense, we are nothing apart from him,” he writes, following that with this: “ . . . the general influence and practice of the Church has always been to dignify, ennoble and transfigure in God the duties inherent in one’s station in life, the search for natural truth, and the development of human action.”
Right action, he says, must begin with “good intention,” “the necessary start and foundation of all else . . . . it is the golden key which unlocks our inward personal world to God’s presence.” And one of our chief tasks, as human beings with souls, is to sort the myriad influences that wash over us in waves:
“Through every cleft the world we perceive floods us with its riches -- food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment.”
I am pretty sure that de Chardin is thinking of positive stimuli, but in this moment, I am nearly drowning in negative information about our government, my fellow citizens, our treatment of each other and the “outsiders” who come here in search of safety and food to put on their tables. So, when I read the previous quotation from de Chardin, I see a good description of being overwhelmed. And then he observes that all the stimuli bombarding us (that of course, is my phrase) “will merge into the most intimate life of our soul and either develop it or poison it.”
Is the choice facing my soul between development or poisoning from all these stimuli? What’s surprising to me is that we have a choice at all. Then de Chardin observes that “that the human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. . . . It is we who, through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements.”
Easier said than done, I say. But here’s why it may be so important:
“We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong . . . We serve to complete it even by the humblest work of our hands. That is, ultimately, the meaning and value of our acts.”
So, what do I take away from the past few days of reading de Chardin? That as a believer, it is my job to sort through the influences around me and not allow them to poison my soul but find, maybe among them, a good intention and work toward that end, even in a humble way. Maybe that means helping with voter registration -- a good intention and a positive effort.
But I suspect there is more to it. In my circumstances, I want to engage with people who don’t agree with me (good intention, check; positive action, check) listen to their fears, (positive action, check), think about where those fears come from (positive action, check) and to resist, resist, resist the temptation to judge them, scream that their fears are unfounded and, in the process, contribute to the discord that characterizes Americans these days (not so postive). I don’t think I’m there yet.
Next time, mulling over The Soul of America.
I am still reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America on my 30-day (what was I thinking?) quest to rediscover a sliver of hope connecting my spirit to my country. And I promise to write about that soon, but I just got home from my neighborhood jog and I feel like writing this.
I lost my husband almost six years ago. Just typing that sentence brings tears to my eyes. And I feel a stab almost every day of my life when I remember his intelligence, sense of humor, faith in God and pride in our sons. I have done all the usual things since he passed away. I saw a counselor, talked to friends, spent time with my kids, gained weight, got sick and have made some pretty strong efforts to get healthy again. Part of that last bit has been re-learning how to run. I used to run, years ago, back when there was actually a race called the Cascade Run Off.
But over the years, I gave it up. My husband didn’t. He was a runner the whole time I knew him. He ran in marathons. Got up at 4 a.m. every morning to do yoga, lift weights and swim laps before he’d come home at 6:30 a.m. with a tall, nonfat latte, for his wife, who almost always was still in bed.
Anyway, after he died, I took a class at my gym and got back into running. Actually, it’s jogging. And in my more cynical moments, I think of it as wogging -- walking for a minute between lengthening intervals of running. I am so slow that my sister-in-law has been known to push a baby carriage and still keep pace with me.
Over the years, I’ve found the flattest two blocks in my neighborhood and I run around them repeatedly. My trainer has urged me to run a race, and occasionally, I run around two different city blocks or even the whole distance to the grocery store or library, but mostly it’s those two blocks. I know them well enough now that I don’t need to watch for uneven pavement, so my mind wanders as I take in the trees, the flowers, the puddles, the ice, the for-sale signs and the remodeling projects as I jog by.
And often, I think of my husband, who somehow managed to run even in that last year when he was sick. I remember one day, after eight months of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant that he told his doctor he’d started running again. His medical team was pretty impressed. And I remember his last day, when we weren’t sure that he was still aware of the boys and I sitting with him, that a nurse came into the room and asked if he had been a runner.
Yes, we all said together. And she nodded and said, “I thought as much. His heart is so strong.”
When I am running and thinking of him, I often come across something that makes me stop and pick it up. I have a shelf in my kitchen devoted to him, covered with dry leaves, pine cones, wisps of cedar, ragged pieces of birch bark, blue bird feathers, acorns, even rocks. But this morning, something caught my eye, on a new piece of pavement. I took a moment to take a picture. When I stood up, my heart and spirit rose. And now there’s no way that I’ll ever change my running route again.
Still reading The Divine Mileau and The Soul of America, but I spent yesterday babysitting my oldest granddaughter. It was a different kind of research in my pursuit of hope. She’ll be a year old in September. Her ready smile, her occasional reach for me, her energy and determination, her fearlessness, all call forth and nurture hope in me. She and her parents are the next generations and maybe they can do more than we could. That’s my prayer as I hold her in my arms, breathing in the scent of baby soap and sweat, while she watches the cars go by on her street, or drifts off after finishing a bottle, or clings to me because she’s not quite awake and ready to take on the world.
Those are the moments when I worry that the world we are leaving her may be bleak. And so I pray more. A day spent in her company is a lesson in being present, trying to let go of worries beyond the sharp edge of the coffee table and whether or not the basement door is closed. I must confess that when my mind drifts off to current events, she calls me back quickly. So, today, a brief respite from reading and writing.
I learned this weekend about intertextuality, the idea that reading and studying two or more written texts can further our understanding of each of them. That is, of course, a grossly simplified definition. But, in a way, that is what I am doing here, reading two books and thinking about whether the themes of one shed light on the other. And vice versa. And how they both might help me in my search for hope.
So, this morning I read about Teilhard de Chardin’s understanding of “Christian detachment” and his efforts to reconcile renunciation with active involvement in the world. “He realises that the consummation of the world can be achieved only through a mystical death, a dark night, a renunciation of the whole being,” his friend writes, wondering if this renunciation is “a practical proposition for the whole body of mankind.” Certainly, most of us do not practice the traditional sort of detachment or renunciation -- we live and work and relate to the world every moment of our lives, even when we daydream about withdrawing from it all, even temporarily. But de Chardin seems to have believed that his service of Christ (his acts of renunciation) “had to be reconciled” to participation in the world.
“. . . What matters is that not only the self-denial of the ascetic and the renunciation of the sufferer, but also our positive efforts to achieve natural perfection and to meet human obligations, should lead us to a consciousness of our spiritual growth,” de Chardin’s friend writes.
That’s sort of where I find myself. I don’t believe I have been called to a life of renunciation in the traditional sense -- through asceticism or even suffering. And I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the political divides in my country now. But I am looking for “positive efforts,” opportunities to “meet human obligations.” I do believe that “a consciousness of our spiritual growth” is an element of hope.
Turning to Meacham’s book, I read about “the twin tragedies,” referring to our treatment of slaves and Native Americans, which “shaped us then and ever after.” The truth is that this country, described as the “new Jerusalem” mentioned in the Bible, the “City upon a hill,” never really was “shining.” It turns out Ronald Reagan adlibbed the adjective in modern times, Meacham says. So, from the beginning, we have been a country founded on contradictions, some of them deadly, and I am not sure how we move beyond them.
There was also a fair amount of disagreement about our form of government, whether or not we needed a leader and what sort of power that individual should wield. When I read even the briefest summaries of our national beginnings, I am astounded by the efforts of people to smooth them out and carefully place God or Jesus as the center stone in an elaborate setting. But from the beginning, there was a sense among the founders that the president of the United States should speak for the whole population. And to the extent that he (or she ) does that, then the greater his (or her) presidential power will be.
Thomas Jefferson observed, “This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind: and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one.”
But now, we seem to have a president who talks about representing the whole, but speaks only to his base and chooses his words for their divisive power. What has happened to our wholeness?
OK, now, relax. This is only day two.
So, since last I posted a blog entry at the end of June, I have not been deluged with hope-filled suggestions from my dedicated readers. I hope it is because you are so overcome with energy and successful, meaningful projects that you have not had time to write. But I have been wallowing for weeks in despair. Then a friend recently reminded me of how lucky I have been to have had some good mentors so far in my life.
Years ago, when I was a high school religion teacher, I had a mentor who advised me that when I was faced with a challenge, I should be proactive, be the one to take action and not wait to see what someone else would do to me. Over the years, I’ve dredged up that advice and found, all in all, that it was wise.
Therefore, I have decided to devote three weeks (this is because this morning I resisted the urge to order a guaranteed, three-week, at home yoga course that would give me long, lean arms, a tiny waist that bends without pain and totally toned legs that reach from my armpits to the sacred earth) to recovering some hope. And, because I am someone who loves school, I have decided on two text books.
Starting today, I am reading, at the same time (which is a big deal for memory-challenged me), Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (Random House 2018) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu (Harper & Row, 1960). And, by doing so, I am determined to find hope. I will find hope.
So, Meacham’s book is a historical argument that our country has survived wrestling matches with our worst angels in the past and managed “to keep the national enterprise alive.” Here’s a sample from what I read this morning:
“Our fate is contingent upon which element -- that of hope or that of fear -- emerges triumphant.”
“To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”
Another of my mentors recently mentioned to me the power and solace she’s found in reading The Divine Milieu, the musings of a Jesuit scientist, philosopher and priest born 137 years ago. This particular edition includes an essay from another Jesuit who knew him. His friend writes that de Chardin was, during his lifetime, “misunderstood,” “condemned to silence” and tormented in ways that threatened to overwhelm him. But, then, there’s this:
“In all that he did, as in all that he taught, there was no bitterness nor disillusioned cynicism, nothing but a constant optimism. Far from railing against the pettiness of men or the chaos of the world, he made it a rule never to assume the presence of evil. And when he was unable to deny the evidence of his eyes, he looked not for the damning but for the saving element in what he saw: a mental attitude that surely, if unexpectedly, provides the only road to truth.”
So, there, that’s day one of my self-imposed, at home, three-week enterprise. Here’s hoping it helps me become leaner, stronger, able to move without pain, in the pursuit of (and, eventually,) in the presence of hope. I will keep you posted.