Things feel turbulent when reading the news, the world seeming to fall into halves. It’s difficult to feel wholeness is possible when the vision repeatedly reinforced is that we’re either in one world or are placed entirely in the opposite. “A dreadful oblivion prevails in the world. The world has forgotten what it means to be human. The gap is widening, the abyss is within the self,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, in On Prayer. A world of interconnected wholeness seems a faraway paradise that can’t be found, and what lies ahead is unclear. People who were once friends now decide they can no longer communicate. Often, people who once found value in religious or spiritual engagement, now eschew it. Republican, democrat–these terms mean something now they didn’t twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. Self sorting according to race, gender, region, religion is happening everywhere. Divisions abound and finding common ground allowing us to meet and greet each other is challenging.
In her February 6 conversation with Ezra Klein about his new book, Why We Are Polarized on Krista Tippett’s podcast site, On Being, Klein suggests that if we are going to move beyond the dividedness we currently experience in the US, it would benefit us to activate different parts of ourselves to call forth our other alternative identities. There are many selves within the self we currently walk around in. We are not simply and totally one thing or the other. We are complex. Certainly, the self we were as a child is different than the self we are at thirty or at sixty years old. We may think of ourselves in a certain way, stories we’ve told ourselves about who we are for many years, something, perhaps, like I can’t draw, I’m shy, I’m not adventurous, or other statements. There are other selves we can call up and nurture, and in doing so we can grow into telling new stories about ourselves that enable us to move beyond old boundaries we’ve assigned ourselves to.
Social connection is a fundamental need for humans. Douglas Abram’s in The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, states, “The latest brain scan research suggests that we have a rather binary understanding of self and other, and that our empathy circuits do not activate unless we see the other person as part of our own group. Often, when disasters happen, people pull together, helping others, unconcerned about things that might otherwise separate and isolate them. Similarly, when people share a creative activity, people who may be different from each other in other ways feel connected with each other. To find ourselves in others who we name as different from ourselves, we need to see with new eyes, listen to with new ears.
In his book, The Way Home, Len Anderson writes in his poem, “Who is that Singing?”
Before there were words
there was song. Have you ever noticed
what a good listener God is?
To sing, you must listen for the song.
We can’t hear the story, the song or prayer in others’ lives if we aren’t listening for it. If we listen for only what we want to hear, how do we ever become larger? Later in the poem, Anderson goes on to say,
We may wonder about the beginning of time
but at any moment we are still
the beginning of ourselves.
What a wonderful statement of awareness! There is always the possibility of beginning, of becoming new. How to find the song that will open our heart and the hearts of others who are longing for gentleness, relief and renewal may not be clear, but beginning to sing is a kind of restoration. As Heschel writes in On Prayer, “The irreconcilable opposites which agonize human existence are the outcry, the prayer. Every one of us is a cantor; everyone of us is called to intone a song, to put into prayer the anguish of all.”
Lately, I’ve been working in the garden, weeding, removing dead tomato vines, pruning the asparagus. Like work done in a garden, what we tend to and nurture over time grows and thrives. When considering how to see ourselves in others in order to find and build on our common humanity, we can work to trim, weed and water our thoughts and reactions, aiming to go a layer deeper than our initial reaction as we look for threads of our common humanity. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has said, “Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.” Many have a feeling of emptiness in their hearts these days, and perhaps this is a place to start. “Prayer may not save us,” writes Heschel, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. “But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.”
To change a world or a nation is a grand goal. But we can begin with ourselves. In our thoughts, actions and reactions, we can practicing see ourselves in others different from our definition of those who belong in our group. We will be heading into new waters, but this is the way people have always grown–through expanding their interactions with new places, people, and ideas, and with those who hold a world of understanding are different from their own. As Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!”