‘Pull yourself together’ is what my father used to say to me when I was not acting as I knew I should. It’s what we sometimes have say to someone we love who appears to be collapsing under the pressure of circumstances in their lives. It’s what we need to tell each other today.
The words – ‘pull yourself together – mean two things to me: one is personal and individual and suggests remembering who we truly are and what is important and what we are in fact equipped to do; the second is collective and community and refers to coming together to support one another in the face of challenges, but also to generate the wisdom we need to address these challenges.
The recent election results have left us stunned. My experience is that many of us feel ourselves to be on the edge of despair and also frightened for our future and, more importantly even, the future of our children and grandchildren. We are out of control, forgetting who we are and what we are actually made for. But we CANNOT indulge in or give in to this, but instead must simply respond as creatively as we can. For this is why we are here as human beings: to respond creatively to life. It is why everything is here. In our case, this means responding to our experiences with integrity, emotional balance and intelligence. For us who are older we cannot simply lament the challenges our grandchildren must face but rather look for ways to inspire them to face these challenges in ways that we ourselves cannot. They are equipped for this just as we were equipped to face challenges our grandparents could not. So we first have to pull ourselves together in this way: to remember who we are and why we are here. We all have our ways of doing this: our sacred places, our personal practices. I walk and play music, I meditate and write, I look for signs and create symbols to remind me of what I already know and have even committed to. In fact, all my practices and all my preparation have been for moments like these. This is who I am, for this was I born.
This is also part of the grieving I wrote about last time: a grieving I described as letting in in order to let go; not a passive consoling or simply succumbing to the inevitable but facing things as they are. This is a deliberate, proactive process that not only faces into the experience in a stoical way but also adverts to all its aspects, including my reactions of fear and denial and anger and depression. Only in this way can I come to a truer, fuller, more creative response. Tonglen is a Buddhist practice that involves breathing in the darkness and pain of a difficult experience, in oneself or in another and breathing out light and hope. In a way too, it is a purification process that cuts through the many things that prevent the best response. It is truly pulling myself together. Try it….
The other aspect of this pulling myself together is coming together as a community, not just for mutual support or understandable venting (which is – appropriately – only the first step of the grieving that lets in in order to let go), though that too, but, even more importantly, to generate the insights – the wisdom – we need now. However, this means more than connecting with like-minded friends and family, though we will probably begin there, but with all of us who have experienced the same events, albeit with different initial reactions and interpretations. It means more than reaching across the political aisle to find compromise in the various decisions and policies that are being promised or threatened. It is already too late at that stage for any real collective understanding and response. Rather it means reaching out now and finding common cause with one another across the divides of assumptions and perspectives and the perceptions and positions they create.
I grew up in the divided world of Belfast, N. Ireland where community assumptions and the positions they created divided us to the point of violent conflict. The assumptions were framed in terms of religious differences (Protestant vs Catholic), and the positions in terms of ideological and political differences (Unionists – with Britain vs Republicans (ironic??) who identified with a United Ireland). As a boy, the divide seemed impossible to bridge: like two worlds, two nations, two cultures. Just like the USA today. But I was fortunate to have a father who helped me see beneath the surface of these differences. Those who had attained power, he would explain, had done so by fostering the divide and representing themselves as the right side of this divide and the saviors who would bring their side to victory (though, clearly, it seemed, at the expense of the rights and even lives of the other side). He would say to me, ‘you must not see other people as enemies just because they see the world in different ways or hold different positions from us.’ He would then describe how we are closer than it might appear, with the same hopes and fears, and the same needs and desires, but that we have been convinced by others with their own vested interests that this is not so, and that we are enemies. As long as we believe this, he would say, we will never see the real issues and the true causes of our problems which were not that different from the problems in our country today: justice, fairness, equity. Those that hold power, he would continue, want us to continue to think and act in this way, because as long as we are at each other’s throats we will never see the real causes of our problems. They are afraid that if we got together we would see all this – how similar we are, how are problems are the same – and join forces. The only resolution to our challenges, he would conclude is for us to find ways of reaching across the divides that others have made, for when we do, we will take away control from those who keep us divided and in misery.
His inspiration kept me going throughout the thirty years of the Irish conflict which only ended, of course, when ordinary people were all owed to find common ground – however fragile – on Good Friday in 1998. My father lived – only barely – to see this. We can’t take that long. So, my suggestion, while we continue to grieve – by letting in, in order to let go – is to begin the harder (at first, certainly) process of reaching across the apparent chasm that divides us, the ordinary people of the United States. My poet-friend, Rilke, always has an insight:
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…..For the god
wants to know himself in you.
As I said, this is our work: constantly and continuously, to reach across the divides that are mostly of our own making, and respond creatively to the challenges of living in a way that generates new life.
I have a concrete proposal to get us started: a Thanksgiving Conversation.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the essential – certainly the heart-centered – celebration of our nation. It is the time when we all come together across our differences. Unfortunately, because of the way we have been divided by forces that benefit from our separation, we actually – in most homes – tend to avoid talking about these differences. The danger is that this will especially be the case this year. But it doesn’t have to be. We could take a simple, calculated risk of having a family conversation under the simple theme of I am for US. This could even take the form of a pin to wear this year and banners to hang to inspire a community-centered movement that transcends the political divide.
A couple of thoughts to help us make it happen:
- An invitation to our guests to an ‘US creating conversation’ with the intention of building our story out of my stories
- An invitation to bring and share my story: my dream for US + my fears for US
- Chairs + a symbol of US (banner, pins, flag….)
- Welcome and reminder of intention
- to elicit story = MY dream for US? MY fears for US?
- Explain simple process for Round 1:
- Go in sequence. No interruption. Try not to rehearse what you’re going to say
- Allow conversation to continue in open form for pre-determined length
- Leave 10 m at the end to close as follows:
- What did we discover?
- What worked in the conversation for you?
- What is one thing you will do to create US?
- Closing symbol: silence, poem, song….
We (re) connect through sharing our stories.We create our story through sharing like this.
We become a community around our story. We grow and develop through exploring and deepening our story
So for our own sakes and for the sake of our children, let’s pull ourselves together..