Turn Into Love | by Brooke Summers-Perry

 Love, 12"x16" acrylic on canvas board

Love, 12"x16" acrylic on canvas board

While reflecting on this past Sunday’s Ordinary Life presentation, I was inspired to go back to my study of the Cloud Unknowing. I was introduced to the 14th century document by a family friend and later by the sisters at the Cenacle Retreat House. It had a profound impact on my healing. It is a story that, as Bill put it this week, “...seeks our attention and is one of union, wholeness, and healing.” At the bottom of this posting, for reference and further study, I lifted part of the text from my Ordinary Life presentation on August 31, 2014.

The Cloud of Unknowing was very appealing to me probably at the time I was introduced to it because I really wanted to relinquish all human authority over the image of and thoughts about God. I wanted to release all “authority on God,” including my own. I wished to let go of the thread I grasped at an early age. Through my studies and my intense intent on spiritual formation, the more I let go of the thread, the more I let go of everyone else’s visions. The more I released my own, the more I felt that I was no longer gripping a tiny thread, but that I felt a gentle woven tapestry lightly cradling me. A veil too thin for me to see, soft yet strong enough to suspend me in more questions than answers. I began to prefer questions.

I recently discovered many Khalil Gibran poems on the poemhunter.com website. One of my favorites is The Song of the Soul. Reading it made me think of The Cloud of Unknowing. 

In the depth of my soul there is
A wordless song - a song that lives
In the seed of my heart. 
It refuses to melt with ink on
Parchment; it engulfs my affection
In a transparent cloak and flows, 
But not upon my lips. 

How can I sigh it? I fear it may
Mingle with earthly ether; 
To whom shall I sing it? It dwells
In the house of my soul, in fear of
Harsh ears. 

When I look into my inner eyes
I see the shadow of its shadow; 
When I touch my fingertips
I feel its vibrations. 

The deeds of my hands heed its
Presence as a lake must reflect
The glittering stars; my tears
Reveal it, as bright drops of dew
Reveal the secret of a withering rose. 

It is a song composed by contemplation, 
And published by silence, 
And shunned by clamor, 
And folded by truth, 
And repeated by dreams, 
And understood by love, 
And hidden by awakening, 
And sung by the soul. 

It is the song of love; 
What Cain or Esau could sing it? 

It is more fragrant than jasmine; 
What voice could enslave it? 

It is heartbound, as a virgin's secret; 
What string could quiver it? 

Who dares unite the roar of the sea
And the singing of the nightingale? 
Who dares compare the shrieking tempest
To the sigh of an infant? 
Who dares speak aloud the words
Intended for the heart to speak? 
What human dares sing in voice
The song of God? 

Khalil Gibran

A few years ago, while I was working on building a spiritual community, I shared the story of my journey and I used the term Sacred Mystery as a name for God. Afterwards, someone approached me and reflected back to me how I struggled to talk of God’s presence and influence in my story. He suggested that I consider using the term Love as a name.

This week, that memory, the Gibran poem, and The Cloud of Unknowing swirled together as stories seeking my attention, bringing with them a sense of union, wholeness, and healing. 

As I considered it being “my turn” to post something on the blog, I was a bit frozen with the other story, one of separation, comparing, competing. This showed up in the form of “Who do I think I am, offering my uneducated, simple-minded insights on a platform with Bill and Holly for Pete’s sake?” “What do I possibly have to offer that is of any use outside my own private journal?” You can see how these patterns of thought surely separate, compare, and compete. So I turned back to Love, to healing, wholeness, and union. I turned back to the notes I made in class Sunday. I released the grip of the thoughts and allowed the questions to take me back to the other story seeking me.

If I translate God as Love, and I also translate sin, using the Spanish word, sin, without, without love, then I translate accepting Jesus as my Lord and savior this way, Love is my love and savior. Love is always saving us from living without love.

What if I continue to tell the story to myself this way,
I am love, son of the the living love and so are you.
The stories told that seek me, seek union, wholeness, and healing are stories of love.

The birth story reads like this to me then, Mary, mother of love, birthed love from love. One courageous enough to love without separating, comparing, and competing. One who loves without ceasing. One to call love and dares us to call ourselves love to accept love as our calling. 

A calling to union.
A calling to wholeness.
A calling to healing.
To make our lives stories of love.

And whenever we find ourselves full of “without love,” then all we need do is

Turn in to
Love.
Turn into
Love.

Our given name

What calls us
What we are called
That which weaves us together
Which holds us
Which holds us all
Regardless of the words we choose
Regardless of the stories we tell
Regardless of the versions we believe.

This story comforts me. It brings me ease, peace, and

At one with love.

Even now, I resist the urge to seek a human authority to validate this story that brings me greater capacity for love. 

This doubt pulls me away from the story of union, wholeness, and healing.

I am reminded to
Turn again into
Love.

Grace in and peace out,
Love

 


Cloud of Unknowing excerpts from my talk on August 31, 2014

(The full transcript and video can be accessed here)
http://summers-perry.com/spiritualspark-asif/2014/08/cloud-of-unknowing

All material in this document that is quoted and not cited are quotations from Carmen Acevedo Butcher's translation of The Cloud of Unknowing.

“The mind is always distorting, reframing, 'clouding' what we can see."

"In an attempt to achieve union, I must leave all the things I can think, to love the thing I cannot think."

Context

The cloud was written by an anonymous author. While we do not know his name, he is known to be a fourteenth century English mystic, theologian and spiritual friend. It is considered a work of mystical genius. He took the framework of his philosophy from Dionysius the Areopagite, and his psychology from Richard of St. Victor. Yet it is not considered a copy of either but a new element in medieval literature. 

Influences

He was most likely influenced by Gregory of Nyssa who insisted that God cannot be grasped by the mind and by the sixth century Syrian Monk, Pseudo-Dionysius who contends that the abandonment of the understanding is required to enter the final stage of mystical contemplation in favor of the will and affectivity. God is even beyond personhood, he uses the phrase “not sonship, or fatherhood”, labels, relations, even genders becomes irrelevant. In his system we see a three fold analogy “sensible, intelligible, and mystical”, the first two affirm God and are kataphatic, using “properties of creatures” to describe and understand Him. The third, mystical, is apophatic, denying that 

any human way of naming or describing can be validly applied to God. God transcends nature and the human mind. In this way, entering the darkness above the mind “ascends to the creator himself”.

The author offers a practical technique for moving beyond illumination to union. The chapters read like spiral teaching where topics are covered in different depth with the same point coming back around later with a different warning or a deeper meaning. The chapters alternate, irregularly, through instruction, warnings, encouragements, description of the benefits of the effort, and various insights. 

Historical Context

When this was written, in the fourteenth century, there was crop failure and famine, and the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population. During that time there were social upheavals. There were power struggles between and among various levels of church and state. In both church and state, it seemed everything was for sale.

I think that the time period that this was written, in the midst of misuse of power in religion, politics, separation and exclusion through use of literal interpretations of scripture, we have body of work that seeks to challenge us, in our time, to connect with a unifying, all encompassing, love that transcends human constructs. 

Maio Tsan writes, in his book, Just Use This Mind , “I had the opportunity to see firsthand the differences between Eastern and Western Cultures, and I was able to perceive their respective shortcomings. In the process, I observed that many religious groups hold so tightly to their traditions that their attempts to spread a spiritual message end up creating more discrimination and biases than do the efforts of non-religious groups. This situation not only thwarts the original intent of their traditions, but it also contributed to the emergence of wars and conflicts that have burdened humanity. And, ultimately, it casts doubt on the very purpose of religion.”

“All our experiences are the reflection of our mind’s functioning.” 

“Human beings hypnotize themselves unconsciously: Every habitually created thought deepens our own belief. It solidifies the same door, the same experiences, the same relationships and the same issues, so that we live in a state of amnesia, a dream-like illusion.”

Maio Tsan also states, “Life is the most profound learning experience, but we can only remove the obstructions and create a better, more fulfilling life when the right doors are open.”

“All human beings attempt to make the world conform to their ideas, but at the same time we depend on our faulty ideas and limited experience to handle the problems in our lives. Because our attachment to these ideas causes confusion in a dualistic existence, most of us lead lives that are busy, chaotic, and unsatisfying.”

“To move from this chaos toward freedom, the first thing we have to do is correct how we think and get rid of our attachment to our old, erroneous ideas.”
(all above quotes from Maio Tsan)

The author of  The Cloud is telling us that it is time to wake up and that we do this by unknowing this consciousness. We let go of our story, our habits, our thoughts, our visions, we put it all under the cloud of unknowing. This is how we wake up.

Who is willing to attempt to love sacred mystery unconditionally, to attempt to be still in union? Only someone who is willing and able to let go of their humanness and its judging, comparing, knowing, analyzing, strategizing, feeling, wanting, belonging, believing, expecting, hoping, and even longing.

The message I deemed from the study of the cloud was that anyone that is ready and pulled into darkness and is capable of trying on a regular basis will begin to feel a shift, one that cannot be expressed in words or even art. It is a matter purely of the heart. It is a presence that floats formless above each moment and surrounds each interaction.

Contemplative Practice

Group meditation on love –lead the group on the fullness and inexplicable nature of love.

Think of a time when you felt the most fullness of love. First seek to really experience the fullness of love and do not let my words interfere with your experience. Let your mind and body relax into the sensations that are brought up by recalling this fullness. Focus as little as you can on your thoughts about the experience and let your body recall the sensations. Write down a description of this group of sensations on your paper. Recall the sensation again and see if your description was adequate. There is a reason we describe divine love in metaphor, words are not enough. Our intellect and creativity are not enough to comprehend the source of this love either.

Content

“Whenever we hear or read about something that our body’s superficial senses cannot describe to us in any way, we can be sure that this thing is spiritual and not physical.”

As we move into the work of the Cloud of Unknowing we begin to attempt to deepen into oneness with the sacred that none of these words will be able to describe. It is as if we can only build a relationship by removing all building blocks. We are not equipped to comprehend this. It is by doing, thinking, and feeling nothing that we are able to be with everything and everywhere.

“It sounds so simple but it can only be done through the grace given by the One who knows us best and loves us most.”

“To see God fully as himself cannot happen through knowing, only through loving.”

The author suggests that our human intellect, no matter how powerful and our creativity, no matter how extraordinary, are not capable of comprehending the nature of God.

The worst of our imaginings can portray a violent and punishing God. 

Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Even our best of imagination, creativity, divinely inspired art cannot portray Sacred Mystery accurately. We are not capable of perceiving that measure of beauty, compassion, love,………… I can’t even begin to use words here to make my point.

Energy follows attention. The only true choice we have is what we pay attention to. Even when we manage to pull our attention into the present moment, we focus on information that is subject to our filters. In the practice the author suggests, we allow that energy to flow as much as possible back into the source.

“Time is made for man and not man for time. Moments are the most indivisible and most pure and at the same time infinite. Why waste a single one not attempting to achieve Union?”

This strikes me as a challenge not only to dedicate more time to centering, but also to become more mindful of the moments that make up everyday situations, in our ordinary lives. As simply as Jim Carrey described at the Maharishi University commencement speech, “all that will ever be is what’s happening here, in the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.” He urges the graduates to be present to this choice and choose love.

I think that he’s describing and suggesting living a contemplative life. When the author of the cloud talks about the importance of ceasing “doing” in favor of “being” he compares the work of Mary and the work of Martha as an illustration for how we may contribute to Sacred Mystery through love.

A New Language | by Holly Lewis Hudley

We are in the midst of an ideological paradigm shift. I’m talking Copernican-the-earth-rotates-around-the-sun type of thing.

We have hundreds of religious and mythological narratives that give us scaffolding around which to talk about things we can’t see and don’t understand but desperately need to prescribe meaning too. Then, in the 16th century, a scientific revolution began, and “Scientist” was accepted as a term in the 1800’s. The shift we are in points to us marrying science and religion (or more aptly, mysticism and metaphor) in a way that does not diminish either. 

I’m also in the midst of a personal paradigm shift. It’s been blooming for some time, but actually stepping into it now feels urgent and inevitable.  My language no longer suffices, but since I am trapped in a body with an ego and want to see if you relate, I’ll try.

I. Brokenness

I read Bill’s sermon from two weeks ago. I love that our great teachers are pushing us ever forward into the spaces where we need to stretch and grow. I’m trying to lay a new understanding over an old narrative. The line upon which I marinated was about our brokenness. Bill wrote, “It is when we can recognize our inner brokenness and have acceptance and compassion for that, that we can begin to see and address the brokenness that exists in the world around us.” I had a knee jerk response to a singular word: broken. It recalls in me the old teaching that I am broken, sinful, fundamentally wrong somehow and cannot be made whole without salvation through Christ Jesus. It’s a teaching I resist. I took it literally when I was a child.  

I remember being at summer camp in Arkansas more than 30 years ago on a hot August night. The whole lot of us had just come from the mini pilgrimage to Vesper Point - a gathering place that overlooked the Ouachita River amidst a bucolic landscape marked by a wooden cross with a fresh coat of white paint. We descended in silence, instructed to think and pray about the 20 something year old’s testimonial about how he came to Christ after some drunken party night in which he woke up with no clothes in the middle of the intramural soccer field. Once in our cabin, we were invited to accept Jesus as our lord and savior, to do this privately with one of our counselors as a witness. They waited outside on the porch. Eleven year old girls trickled out and came back in shy, beaming, teary, sweaty. Sorry, JC, but I spent the night crying and apologizing to you and your dad in Heaven because I didn’t like what was being asked of me, though I had no real language as to why. My juvenile brain probably thought Jesus just kept me from making dumb decisions. 

Looking back I think it’s because I didn’t feel broken or wrong. I don’t mean that I had a full and robust sense of self that bordered on maniacal narcissism. I didn’t. In fact insecurity plagues me still. I knew I wasn’t perfect. I just didn’t feel broken up about it. I spent a long time feeling bad about that too. I was told I was probably going to hell by people in my life who did accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior that summer. I tried - several times I tried. My sister cried and prayed over me for years. I pushed away from God, from religion, from my sister. I pushed away from myself too because I didn’t have the language for something I had only begun to intuit.

Turns out I am broken. Just not in the way I thought. I am not broken because there is something fundamentally wrong with me. I am broken, I think, in the way many of us are. I am broken because I believed there was something wrong with me. I think we have to experience separation from our true self and those we deeply love in order to accept the journey back.  We already have the capacity for wholeness, for love, for truth deep within, but maybe we can’t know that until we realize we are living outside of it - until we wake up naked on the intramural soccer field. We cannot know light without dark. There is a Jewish teaching that tells us our souls were all once part of a single ball of light, until one day it broke apart. Upon realizing our separateness, we asked how do we get back to the light? The answer is tikkun olam - through world repair. In other words, we play a part in the whole-making. We are broken when we are not living inside of deep connection, with our truest selves taking the lead. We’ve heard this before, and it resonates personally and globally: “What we don’t transform we transmit.”

I’m not trying to be perfect as I do away with the old understandings. I am, though, trying to rest inside wholeness, to learn to speak in a new way, and embrace that my shadow is as important as my light. 

Recently a new emotion was discovered. “Liget.” (Le-guut) It is described as the feeling of deep emotion that overtakes your body and spirit. When I think of it, I hear a noise, a deep keening. I need a new word for the churning emotional experience of simultaneously feeling broken wide open and becoming whole. 

Michael Dowd conceives that we are all holons (something that is simultaneously a whole and a part) settled inside of a greater whole. What a (w)holy truth! A lot like nesting dolls, the smallest subatomic particle is nestled inside the vastness of the cosmos. Two whole cells - the sperm and the egg - joined to make the single cell from which we grew. Two wholes making a bigger whole who grew to become You. Me. 

II. God

It’s the present day, far away from summer camp days. I’m in the midst of learning how to unknow the God I thought I knew. We used to sing a song there: If I had a little blue box I’d put my Jesus in....I now know neither God nor Jesus belong in a box. I’m winding through the southern Ozarks on a road trip, snatches of billboards beckoning me to eternal life. “Do you know Jesus? Call...” “Use the rod on your children...save their lives.” “One way or the other you will know God when you die. Call...” Maybe there are counselors, waiting to save us on the other end of the line. I’m trying on this idea that I am most likely a-theistic - something I would have fought against and judged myself harshly for 15 years ago. Nothing in the language I had fits anymore. There are ideas, images that sort of work...cosmos, unitive reality, mystery...but the problem is that I don’t believe in a personified God anymore. The cosmos is generative, evolving, expanding for sure. I am a-theistic in the sense that I don’t experience a separate God who stirs the proverbial cosmic soup every now and again. I do believe in the ongoing creativity and expansiveness of reality in which we are all a part and connected in, however gossamer thin the thread. The word I have is God, a mere metaphor or proper name, if you will, for unitive reality, for what is already there. Yahweh translates almost exactly to this: the one who is, the existing. 

Yahweh. It sounds like breath.

To talk of creation implies a creator - just as a piece of art implies an artist. All of life is creative, holons within holons. Maybe I should adopt the Jewish tradition of not saying or spelling g-d. Or maybe I should adopt the habit of saying, “Hey there, God!” To everyone and everything I encounter. The yogic greeting Namaste means “I bow to you.” Symbolically we understand it to mean, “The divine in me sees/bows to/acknowledges the divine in you.” I no longer have a word that is big enough, so metaphors have to suffice. In this liminal space I find it really hard to pray. I don’t know what to say. The stance of prayer, of awe, doesn’t feel limiting. It’s just that the words I had for prayer don’t fit this new paradigm. So saying nothing, asking for nothing, just experiencing awe and gratitude and sometimes liget, frees me into a holy awakening in a way that how I understood prayer never did. I need a new word for this too. Pray comes from the Latin precari: "to ask earnestly, beg, entreat." This isn’t what feels true for me anymore. 

When I blurted this out to Bill the other week - that I have no idea how to pray - he gave me this from Thich Naht Hanh:

Look at the sun, at the farmer, at the rain; at everything that had to be possible to make this meal. In this food, I see clearly the entire universe supporting my existence.

III. Resurrection

Maybe this is exactly where I am. One thing has to die in order for something new to take shape. This is the way it is in nature, in our bodies, in the wider cosmos. Fires destroy forests, homes, animals, but they create nutrient rich soil where new life grows back stronger. On a cellular level, our bodies replenish themselves every 7-10 years. We house our very own universe. An aging star burns off it’s helium core and creates the possibility for all other elements to form. The shockwaves from a dying supernova can generate interstellar nebula - where new stars are born. All of life, then, is formed in the belly of a star.

In this inquiry, in this stance of unknowing, I’m having to let go of the old narrative attached to the very words I am reworking: Broken. God. Resurrection. My cultural Christian understanding casts a long shadow. It evokes immediate images that I have not yet erased. It evokes smells and songs and places and voices that first gave me the word God - however small and exclusive that God was. This too is part of my evolution into the fullness of my being and into the fullness of God.  So I'm going to let them be, to let them take shape and reform in my imagination. 

Broken.

God.

Resurrection. 

I’m concluding that all language to define or talk about God is a metaphor, including the word God. If God is a proper name for all that rests in reality just as Holly is a proper name for all that I am, the name alone does not do justice to the whole picture. I wish images poured from my mouth, that I could paint a swath of them to represent such bigness. Perhaps the cosmos does this already and we need only to see. No matter what we call it, no matter what we believe, we exist inside a creative reality together. So let’s try this on: we are already whole, existing in an infinite, ever evolving, expanding whole. We need just reach into it and across it to realize it. Our evolution is not yet finished.

 

Make Shift Happen

A blog post by Brooke Summers-Perry

Sometimes, with a jolt of clarity, Dr Kerley’s presentations intersect with what I am reading or studying. I wake up in the middle of the night with an ‘aha’ that has me grasping for my glasses, paper, and a pen. 

I attended one of Cindy Wigglesworth’s workshops in the spring. Much of her content was based on a concept presented in the book, The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic), by David Emerald. On the night I finished reading the book last week, I woke with the latest ‘aha.’  I could write several blogposts on how and why the workshop and the book recommendation are meaningful to my healing journey and my desire to break some family cycles. I will focus on what I think is most relevant to this ‘aha.’

The book focuses on two triads. One supports a victim orientation, the ‘dreaded drama triangle,’ while the other supports a co-creator orientation, the empowerment dynamic. In the former, the players are victim, persecutor, and rescuer. Each role has its appeal and its limitations. Victims tend to see people as either persecutor or rescuer, forcing a dualistic perception with little in between. “You are either for me or against me.” The power is held by the persecutor and rescuer, leaving the victim powerless. In the latter triad, the players are co-creator, challenger, and coach. The power is shared and mutual. Thanks to this book and its clear descriptions and instructions, I have been able to recognize how my perception has influenced so many relationships, situations, and cycles.

Here is where this information intersected with Ordinary Life class. One night I woke up with these questions, “What if fundamentalism presents teachings in the Bible as the persecutor, and Jesus as the rescuer, leaving the victim powerless and in need of the church as the link to the rescuer? What if the nature of this reinforces dualism? What if healthy Christianity presents the Bible, Jesus, and his teachings as challengers and offers spiritual teachers and directors as coaches, empowering triumphant co-creators who actively restore union through love?”

My formative years in church were deeply damaging to my ego formation. When I periodically visited my grandparents, I was too shy to go to children’s church. I sat in big people church and listened as if the preacher was talking just to me. I don’t know which came first: my victim orientation or the preacher’s messages that made me feel like a powerless victim. Mid-life, when I was at my lowest point and after a vivid spiritual experience, I turned to Buddhist practices because it was all that felt safe to me. Through the lens of the two triads, it makes complete sense. Something deep inside me knew that I needed to turn to something that would do no harm, something empowering. I was far too vulnerable, broken wide open, and yet more powerfully passionate about living than I ever had been. When the meditation practices were not enough for my longings and curiosities, that same something inside lead me to Bill’s class. I have resisted calling myself a Christian because there is still so much to transform and heal. But in light of my orientation and the desire to shift, I know that I am called to heal the fear based messages and release the damage from my youth so that I can hear the teachings as healthy and empowering. Until I do the work of healing this, the shadow of the victim will have its hold on me. I have done enough work to know how it forms my thoughts, with or without my awareness. It seems much of my ‘work’ has been on healing the thoughts after they’re made instead of healing the source of the thought. 

The morning after I woke with the ‘aha,’  I put the last question at the front of my awareness and sat in silence for 15 minutes.

“What if healthy Christianity presents the Bible, Jesus, and his teachings as challengers and offers spiritual teachers and directors as coaches, empowering triumphant co-creators who actively restore union through love?”

This is what came to me.

What if I evolve from martyr to resilient victim to co-creator? I will no longer be able to hide behind powerlessness. I can and will embrace the ability to play in and with love. What if the fundamental understanding of myself has, by hard work and hard knocks in a messy dance, jolted me out of a stance of being a pawn in the creator’s divine tragedy to realizing that love doesn’t play around with us until she has us in checkmate. What if she has us positioned as playmates? Maybe, just maybe, the only thing missing is my ability to see myself as such?

After reading the Power of TED and understanding my victim orientation in my formative years in church, the last ten years of my life look like resilience training for my victim orientation. That training can also help me hop off the game board. With great hope and inspiration, the future looks like a colorful and wild meadow of possibilities.

 Meadow, 12"x12" acrylic on plywood

Meadow, 12"x12" acrylic on plywood

Precarious Privilege

A blog post by Holly Hudley

Several people dear to me work at a mostly white, highly regarded, wealthy private school.  It’s not that they love wealth and prestige as much as they are brilliant, curious, and inspired by the students’ commitment to excellence - pretty much a requirement at most private institutions. While the friends I have mostly look like the constituents they teach, they use their privilege to ask questions, create dialogue, and perhaps most importantly, provide meaning in the lives of teenagers. They are people from whom I would feel proud to learn, people in whose hands I would entrust my kids’ minds. 

As an educator and life long learner, both the students and courses I most value are those who have pushed me out of my comfort zone, given me pause and allowed me to stretch past “the way It’s always been done.” These lessons were sometimes painful, sometimes exciting, always expansive. In fact, the etymology of the word educate is educe: to lead out. The image evoked is of moving from a dark cave into the light, the proverbial transformation experience. Educate, a verb, an action word, is defined as giving intellectual, moral, and social instruction to someone, usually a child. 

I bet we can all nod and thrust our pointer fingers into the air and sing a chorus of YESes to that! But there’s a catch...what happens when we can’t agree on morality? What happens when the values of the educators misalign with the parents’ who are paying handsome sums for their kids’ “leading out?” They become attached, of course, to the content of the learning. They want some say and feel entitled to it. I’ve been this parent too. My son got an IB project sent home about ancestry. Question #5 read: Why did your ancestors first come to America and what was their mode of transportation? The answers to these questions are dramatically different depending on whether we focus on my husband’s ancestry or mine. Let’s just say one of us arrived as an explorer, the other as a kidnapped prisoner. It’s not that I think we should shy away from this tension - we shouldn’t and didn’t. The creators of the project, however, hadn’t considered the vast array of possible answers. Wearing my hat as a parent first and educator second, I tried to lead them out, to ask them to consider widening their scope, to not put the onus on my child and other children of color to explain this to the class. They didn’t follow, but said we could handle it with our child however we were comfortable, and couldn’t we just say his ancestors came by boat? The project had no malevolent intent. It was, in fact, a rather hopeful one designed to show that America is made up of many origin stories. It just bypassed a fundamental reality of our story: not everyone begins on equal footing. 

We’ve only recently swallowed the phrase white privilege, turned it over in our mouths, sometimes choked on it and sometimes swallowed it, digested it, and understood it. There are all kinds of blogs and lists online that can tell you whether you suffer from too much privilege; that’s not what I’m writing about. If you have to wonder chances are you probably do and might not know it yet. Try swallowing. It doesn’t hurt as bad as you think. It’s just a reality to accept and contend with and maybe even allow to expand you. 

But if you don’t think you have privilege and you wave away the term, I hope you read this anyway because when it goes unchecked, that’s when it suffocates you and really, everyone. 

I grew up privileged though I did nothing to deserve it. I was just born. As I’ve gotten older that privilege has bloomed into full blown wealth - most of which will be inherited. I remember the moment I realized my particular privilege - or as my dad called it, being part of the lucky sperm club. It was homecoming of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college. My parents and I were invited to a cocktail at the president’s domicile. There were 20-25 families there, 1 or 2 other students I knew. My dad made a joke at some point about this being it? “It” meaning all the kids who could afford the whole cost of school. He probably said something like maybe they need to change their prices. I might be making that bit up but I can imagine it. At her house, standing by the veggie tray, thinking about lifting a free glass of wine, is when I realized how privileged it was that my parents could afford a private college with one check. I was humbled and grateful and embarrassed all at once. I’ll focus a bit on the embarrassment: I had no idea this wasn’t everyone’s reality. I really thought all dads paid for college, that it came along with the job description. I was so naive. My junior year I dated a guy who had to balance soccer, work-study, and school. He worried about money and not running out of meals. When he lived off campus I snuck him into the dining hall. He showered in the locker room to shave pennies off his water bill. He had to petition every semester to keep his financial aid based on grades. The only petition I ever had to make was for the dining hall to keep it’s endless supply of soft serve. 

To be fair, my dad did not feel entitled to direct the school’s instruction or interfere with grading policies. Even if he was a little shocked at some of the progressive, social ideals I was bringing home, he never demanded anything other than I do my best and he’d keep writing checks. He and I are very different - we grew up in different times and were exposed to different realities. The privilege I grew up with afforded me to think beyond having to consider financial security first. Although I can imagine parts of my reality challenged him (it was, at first, hard for him when I announced I was marrying a black man), he values independence and has the intellect to accept change as inevitable. 

I hope by now you have a clear picture of my reality. Financially my experience is better off even than many white folks. Trickier to understand, slower to dawn on me, is the reality of white privilege. I’ve always been comfortable with diversity, craved it even. If you saw a line up of the people I’ve dated and the friends I have, you’d see that. In some ways that fluidity to weave in and out of different social groups is its own kind of privilege. While my genuine spiritual and philosophical belief is that we are all one, I know social optics and our learned implicit biases do not play out this way. Just the other week I asked my husband to go with me to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in our city to help me remove a sign from the front yard of a client that I’d been asked to redo.  

My thinking: My husband’s a strong guy. There’s no way I can get this sign down by myself. Maybe he’ll help me when he has a day off. 

His thinking: You want me to go to _________  and take a sign out of someone’s front yard. In broad daylight. Is the guy home? He’s not home? Wait. Let me get this straight. Remove a sign, put it in our car, and drive off. I’ll stay in the car until you absolutely need me, and I won’t get out if anyone stops you.

I think I’ve done a lot of work to peel back the layers of my privilege, but I did not even consider the risk he felt doing something to help me, that if we got questioned by neighborhood patrol, I might feel perfectly at ease pulling my cell phone out of my pocket to confirm with the client my permission to be there while my husband would feel perfectly at ease to fear his life with the same gesture. I hate that I didn’t think of this upfront. I want to. It hasn’t been in my bodily reality. Right now, I’m thinking it’s in the reality of every black man in America. Neither perceptions of reality makes it absolute; both are possible. Willingness to see something another way, by the way, is high on the spectrum of personal transformation. That alone allows for more curiosity and compassion to bloom. It’s a single breath, a pause, a question that asks, “Hm. I wonder what it’s like for you.” For the record, my husband did help me, even though he was nervous, and we did not get questioned. But if we’re honest, we know the reality of that possibility was not far fetched. If I had sent him alone, it is practically a given.

I am still learning. I am willing to be “lead out” of my comfort zone, to recognize that my reality is not everyone else’s. Once you see the imbalance of power and privilege, you can’t unsee it. Quite like learning your parents or grandparents had sex...you can’t unsee it. But it doesn’t make it less true. While I have hope that the world is heaving a collective sigh and moving in the general direction of progress and inclusion, it is not without resistance. People still use their power and privilege to stop progress. And why not? Change can be scary. It can threaten to pop our space suits and force us to live in an all together new atmosphere. We have to find different ways to breathe. For some that’s terrifying because they live under the wrong assumption that opening the doors to the unknown means they will lose something. Sharing is not losing, however. If you think about your first memory of having to share a favorite toy, it might be painful. Maybe it got broken. Maybe you got to exchange it for your friend or sister’s much cooler toy. Maybe sharing expanded you. I’m certain we’ve all been on the pleading side of wanting someone to share a coveted toy with us. My guess is whether it was a positive or negative experience you learned something of value. And I can be almost 100% certain that if you are a parent, you’ve heard yourself say, “Sharing is caring, honey!” And forced your reluctant kiddo to hand over their train, transformer, or glow in the dark Barbie doll. So what happens when we are asked to share our social position? Is it not also caring? Or does it evoke resistance? What really have we got to lose?

Recently I stood on the periphery of a situation where it looked like a few white people with prestige, power, and money edged out another white person - an educational leader - who had been diligent in his efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in his school.  He hired more people of color, allowed more dialogue and affinity groups, and approved wider demographic changes in the student population. There was no scandal, the board (composed of mostly white current or former parents) consulted neither faculty nor community members. Some stayed silent, at least two were opposed, and others had enough clout to move the needle. Based on a recent survey shared with the school his approval rating hovered around 77%. I don’t need to understand much about math to know that’s a strong majority. (Trump only has an estimated 39% approval rating, and he’s still president.) I’m sure he wasn’t perfect in his execution - people rarely are. It’s a glitch in our human DNA. But the people I know who worked there felt positive about his leadership, even if it triggered some conflict. Those who didn’t feel positive (the 23%, maybe less) pointed to his hires and his principles of accountability as reasons to get rid of him. I hear that at least one of his opposers said, “This man doesn’t advocate for white children.” Being an advocate for students of color does not negate being an advocate for white children. It can be both/and. After all, we live in a shared reality, not a singular one. Others did not like that their children had been held accountable for using unkind, sexist, or racist language as they were “just kids being kids.” Whatever their reasons, the changes were scary for them. It pushed them into an uncomfortable liminal space where they had to share their privileged reality and maybe even accept some personal responsibility. Some slid back into their bubbles. Hopefully others took a tiny wobbly step toward someone else’s. Many people seem to be blindsided by what has happened. I don’t know all the particulars of the situation. Only those who pushed to get him fired can know their own hearts, and then only if they’re willing.

Making decisions in this way, without communication at the expense of others, in the service of certainty and sameness rather than expansion and curiosity, limits our human potential. When the wealthy, powerful few make sweeping decisions for the group to bypass their own discomfort and inner conflict, toxicity festers, resentment grows and like a virus it spreads. The powerful remain under the illusion of control while the group is rendered silent. Neither the control nor the silence lasts, however. As a child who is continually controlled, manipulated or abused grows up to resist, so does an ecosystem crack open to make space for new growth. In the unlikeliest of places, plants always find the light. 

I listened to an Invisibilia podcast the other day on perceptions of reality and implicit bias. One of the guests interviewed said, “Most of us think we are better than we really are....but we live in a world with an unfortunate history that is passed down in concept form from generation to generation...I realize now I can make myself more like what I want to be. If I spend my life denying this other self, then I’m letting my other self operate and influence my behavior...I’m letting myself go through life with blinders. Once you understand that you have this other self, it’s not your enemy. It’s a human part of you.”  

This other self is our best teacher. It can lead us out into the light, offer us more empathy, allow our bubbles to touch and maybe even overlap. I cannot conceive of a possibility where living with more empathy is not better for everyone. We are such a curious species: we came up with space travel, a cure for polio, art, and literature. We explore Mars, the ocean depths, and the Arctic tundra. Surely we can explore the realities of those who live among us, our fellow human travelers, and maybe, just maybe, realize that our deepest wants for safety and belonging are shared.

Names of the Lynched

Dear Ones -

We live in prickly times.

If you listen to or read the talks I offer in Ordinary Life, you know that I am devoted to exposing all fundamentalism as the evil it is. And, I am also interested in exposing the shadow side of our culture and bringing it into the light. After all, one of the major goals of the psycho/spiritual work we are engaged in is to experience "enlightenment."

I was both delighted and sobered to read about a new monument that has been opened in Alabama. It exposes an aspect of the long history of racism in this country. One of the ways I found out about this was in an article that was in the June 20th, 2018 issue of the Christian Century magazine. Since then, I have talked to someone who has actually visited the site. I am putting it here for you to read, reflect on and pass on to others. I hope you find it as moving and enlightening as did I.

You can read or download the article by clicking here.

Much love,

Bill Kerley