Oct 232019
 

I often feel guilty for not being more present in the exploding world of blogs, podcasts, and videos. I spend too little time, it feels, listening to others, and precious little time creating personal content. A voice, demanding I change my errant ways, screams from all directions. “You need to write every day.” “Only those who create content with regularity command an audience.” “Why are you withholding all that you know from others?” When I listen to this voice, I judge myself harshly for being lazy and lacking dedication.

But there is a softer, more timid voice I hear when I listen carefully, and quiet the voice of condemnation. That voice fears that a forced dedication to creating and publishing would simply unleash yet more clatter in a world already overwhelmed by tumult. It asks, “does the world need more noise?”

A group of professionals unknowingly forced me to step into this war of emotions and mediate a cease-fire. They asked me to address the topic of how and when to speak. I was horrified. There are thousands of books, articles, blogs, videos and podcasts on the topic. I am certain I have nothing to add to that chorus of oft-conflicting voices. Anything I might suggest, I felt, would add, not wisdom, but noise.

After hours of denial and reflection, a moment of inspiration arrived from some unknowable place. I began to consider what might emerge if I addressed the topic of how and when to remain silent. Perhaps then, we might find a more compelling place from which to speak.

When the group gathered, I asked how many shared my guilt for not spending more time perusing the online world of thoughts, opinions, and ideas. The nearly unanimous chorus was comforting. Then I asked, “When you do find time, how much of what you experience fundamentally changes your ways of seeing the world—fills you with awe—and how much simply reiterates, rearranges, or regurgitates ideas you already know?” An informal poll indicated that most felt little more than 5% filled them with awe. I suggested we refer to that small percent as “awe-full” and the rest as noise.

So, how might we restrict our words to the 5% that fills others with awe? How do we find and speak to wisdom, and silence the noise? Hidden deeply beneath the question “What and how to speak?” lies the question “When to remain silent?”

The 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz once wrote, “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.”

How might we be different in the world if we were to think of ourselves, not as the flute nor the breath, but simply as the hole? What if we were to remain silent, in thought and deed, until what was coming through us was nothing less than the breath of God?

You needn’t believe in God to be moved by this thought. Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, most of us understand we are an infinitesimal piece of an inexplicable mystery known as the Universe. What if, in our smallness, we were to think about what it would mean to allow the mystery of the Universe to flow through us?

For me, the most powerful messages I ever discover are those I listen deeply to hear. Not what comes from me, but is aching to come through me. In my most awe-filled moments, I realized the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself are no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen and heard. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath or the flute, only then is there hope.

In the end, when we find enough silence so that which moves through us is the breath of God, it will do its work in the world, despite our inability to deliver it with perfection.

Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.