Walking Our Edges: The work of spiritual activism (April 2014)

These are the readings and reflections from a service I offered at the First Unitarian Universalist Parish of Chester, Vermont, in April 2014. 

I open with words from Buddhist teacher Pema Chödron and from Grace Lee Boggs, a long time social justice activist and change worker based in Detroit. I offer this sermon in honor of Dr Martin Luther King, assassinated 46 years ago on Friday.

…Anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present, without a reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place, and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time. What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye—not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking. The truth is that when we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, [in the present moment], then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape. (Pema Chödron, Comfortable with Uncertainty)[1]2018. Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Shambala Press

These are the times that grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that, despite the powers and principalities bent upon commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.
Grace Lee Boggs, These are the Times That Grow Our Souls[2]Boggs, Grace Lee. 2003. THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT GROW OUR SOULS: Animating Democracy. on Americans for the Arts website

Dreamers, doers, speakers and holders of wisdom have harbored visions for a different world, for the possibility that things might be other than they are, for many years. The time that has gone by has not affected the resonance and the importance of those visions for those who carry them. I’ve come today to offer some thoughts on ways we might all remind ourselves that those visions we share—the ones we can see when we squint, laugh and sigh, for a world of equality, light, love, justice and open trust—are still possible, and we are still responsible for carrying that visionary flame.

I’ve been involved in a number of different social and environmental justice efforts over the years. As a teenager, I worked with the AFSC’s Vermont chapter as they organized against nuclear proliferation; I also spoke out and stood up as a queer woman when the Civil Unions debate was hot at play in Vermont. Later, I worked with Sudanese refugee students in Nairobi, Kenya, helping them find funding to go to high school, and after college I found myself immensely drawn to the transformative, justice-oriented process that experiential education offers students of all stripes, in the U.S. and abroad. Recently I’ve been involved with a number of different environmental justice projects, primarily as an herbalist and a medic but also as a social scientist. Through all this, I have become increasingly aware of the power of power to determine whose stories are heard, whose experiences are marginalized, and what the consequences of that imbalance of power is for building just relationships.

My approach to activism is rooted in my spiritual life, in my understanding of all beings on this earth as interconnected. I am not necessarily skilled, moment to moment, at recognizing and feeling this interdependence, but I practice. You may know, as Pema Chödron points out, that experiencing flashes of interconnection can actually be as frightening as they are liberating. It can be uncomfortable, especially from the standpoint of contemporary United States culture of individualism, to realize, even for a moment, one’s deep interconnection with the rest of the world.

This is where I see the work of spiritual activism really blossoming. At this edge space, this uncomfortable place of encounter. For me, all social and environmental justice activism s what we might call ‘edge work’ — exploring and expanding the boundaries of our knowledge, our experience, our sensations.

As someone who is privileged in terms of where I was born, the color of my skin, and my class position, I have learned that it is especially my responsibility to consider the ways that margins, edges, and uncomfortable places affect my own life, and to look honestly at how those edges are experienced by the billions of other beings with whom I share this earth.

What does it mean to be in a margin? Where are the margins in our own lives? What can we learn from our own sensations of margin, and what do we hear in others stories of marginalization, of existing in spaces between cultures, between lives, between power or outside of it? How can this teach us to live better on this planet? These are the questions I ask myself as I sit down to ponder out this sermon to share with you.

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As an anthropologist I carry with me a sense of deep and long social analysis—this sense comes with me into my spiritual life as much as into my activism. At times it can feel like a weight—any familiarity with the last 200 years of human history is enough to make anyone groan, and sustained examination offers a danger of making us think things can never get better. Genocides on every continent—every continent where there are people. The rape and pillage of our fellow nonhuman residents of this planet, allowed and encouraged by our tendency in the west to think of them as “natural resources.” A shift towards ways of knowing the world that makes no room for the numinous, for the inexplicable, for the beautiful, for anything beyond rational explanation. We are in a time of great loss, and many of us feel the grief of this deep in our gut.

It could be a bleak picture, if we stop there. Some days, I do stop there, and it really sucks there. The weight of history, and the depth of grief sits in my flesh, huddles in my bones. These are the days when, listening to news headlines, I weep. The days when all I want to do is grab a nice novel and a hot beverage and a cushy armchair. Maybe not everyone has these days of despair, but many of us do.

What do the other kind of days look like, though? The kind where some small crack opens up and you can see through, you can see a better way, or maybe even just scent it on the wind that drafts in. It’s those ones I’d like to lift up alongside the hard days.

For me, at least, those days where I can see through the crack of this world into the possibility of the next are filled with a sense of purpose, a sense that the places I set my work to today matter deeply. And that these small hands could, in fact, play a role in what that old U.U. minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker,[3]1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston. and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. after him,[4]1958 February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren, Published weekly by the … Continue reading called the bending arc of the moral universe.

The work I feel brings me closest to that purpose and clarity is teaching work and healing work. Teaching, learning, and healing are things that always happen at the outside edge of the gentle curve of our comfort zone. Whether we are 12 year olds experimenting with hammers, nails, and a budding but not fully bloomed sense of hand-eye coordination, or whether we are 31, 48, 69 or 85 and finding ourselves, once again, at sea in a delightfully unknown experience.

That space of unknowing can be one of light—of possibility. Whether we step willingly into that space, or are dropped, dragged, or cajoled into it, it is a space where, if we let ourselves, if we listen with our whole being, if we set aside our expectations and open ourselves, we may be transformed.

***

Ecologists speak of the “edge zone” as interstitial spaces between different ecosystems which are often prolifically creative, fertile and abundant. So, too, with human interactions–our edges, when they meet, are creative, fertile, abundant, and often challenging.

Dr. Gloria Anzaldua, a visionary Latina feminist scholar, speaks of ways that we might re-write our culture, our cultural expectations—the ones that spring out of our complex histories of racial and class discrimination and marginalization. This is one place, one time, when the practices of spiritual activism can encourage us to step forward, to lean into the struggle and challenge of interaction, rather than retreating into ourselves from fear of pain. In thinking about the potential that our margin spaces hold, I find her words to be thought provoking. She says

 When two or more opposing accounts, perspectives, or belief systems appear side by side or intertwined, a kind of double or multiple seeing results, forcing you into continuous….encounters with these different stories, situations, and people. Trying to understand these convergences compels you to critique your own perspective and assumptions. It leads to reinterpreting the story you imagined yourself living, bringing it to a dramatic end and initiating one of turmoil, being swallowed by your fears, and passing through a threshold. … Each little encounter is an awakening that causes you to question who you are, what the world is about. The urgency to know what you’re experiencing awakens la facultad, the ability to shift attention and see through the surfaces of things and situations. (This Bridge We Call Home, p 547)[5]Anzaldua, G., and A. Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation

I choose this passage to share because Anzaldua offers us a way think about encounter, and about difference. She speaks of “a kind of double or multiple seeing…” and of the shock of reinterpretation awakening our “ability to shift attention,” to see through the surfaces of things.

One story from my own learning process in social justice activism comes to mind, spurred by these words about shifting my attention. A few years ago, I was teasing a good friend about her increased salary–perhaps feeling a little jealous that I was not making as much money as she was. After I made a few comments about her salary, this friend said to me, “Charis, you cannot say things like that anymore. I’m getting really angry about it. It’s really not ok that you’re teasing me money. I grew up in extreme poverty, and I live with a consistent fear that I will not have enough money–for my basic needs let alone for emergencies. You have no idea what that is like.”

And she was right. I did not have any idea. I was ashamed–I was mortified–I was humbled. I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when I know I really messed up, and my words and actions were, in fact, hurtful to my friend. I had never thought, before, about our relative class backgrounds–in a lot of ways I had thought that it didn’t really matter. And in terms of heart connection, it doesn’t. But in terms of this good friend’s life experience, and mine, and how we understand and interact with the world, it makes all the difference. My ignorance of that difference brought us to a place where I hurt my friend with thoughtless words.

This is a fairly mild example of the kind of learning that can take place when my outside edge meets the outside edge of someone else’s experience. I am challenged to reimagine what I know about the world. As Anzaldua alludes to, this can be dangerous, risky, and was certainly painful for me and for my friend. The risk and the pain involved are all proportionate to how much we otherwise allow ourselves to be closed off from the world, and how much we are willing to open, to love.

Our edges are generative, confusing places where we learn things about ourselves that we did not necessarily want to know.

We find ourselves saying:

oh. is this what I really believe?….

Eee. That is not what I meant to say.

What life am I living, that I’ve come to this point? Is this the life that is the one I want?

What kinds of power am I unconsciously wielding?

We find ourselves hurting, challenged, and maybe, just maybe, we find ourselves, through that hurt and challenge, wanting to reach out again past our edge, to extend the territory that edge covers, to discover what else there is about the world that we haven’t noticed. To listen to the stories we haven’t heard—the untold histories of people who are not familiar to us. The song of the land we live with.

I work towards reaching out and listening, in my practices of spiritual activism. I don’t always succeed–but I practice. Joanna Macy speaks of a “wild love for the world,” and that is the sensation I cultivate in myself when doing the edge-work of spiritual activism–a sensation of connection, where the heart expands, and a sense of where and how I might belong, and what I can do, expands along with it. This expansion is a risky business, as Anzaldua suggested. It is a risk, an act of bravery and trust, to extend love to another human–I suspect we all know that and have taken that risk, and been delighted and hurt in turn. It is no less a risk to extend an amorphous hope for a better world, or love to all these billions of fellow travelers with whom we share this blue boat in the cosmos.

But what, really, is love without risk? It seems to me that they come hand in hand. Risk is the sharpness of the edge in edge work–the part that might cut you. It is also the sharpness that can cut a door in the world that we know, and in the dreams that we have, to make way for the ones that come next, the ones that come better. Walking our edges is a practice of spiritual activism, being willing to risk being cut in the hope that sometimes, too, the door will also be cut open.

This edge work demands our attention. It is a matter of opening the many layers of our eyes–of, as Pema Chödron might suggest, taking off our armor to the world and noticing, in a raw state, what there is to notice. To use another ecological metaphor, walking our own edges is like walking the springtime, in those first weeks of bloom. Perhaps some of you know of what I speak these last few days–the light and warmth is finally enough and you’re out there in your thin jacket, and you’re out on the road or in the woods and suddenly, everything comes rushing in.

The bark of the pine tree is extraordinarily textured–how did I not notice this before? The air smells of greening earth, a deep and feral scent that awakens something in my gut. The leaves in the path, decaying since October, catch your eye as they shift the path of the sunlight. You notice the squish of the ground under your feet, and you maybe even notice your own hands—look at them now. Look at them—look at the fine lines in your palm. … Notice the way the skin flexes and folds on your knuckles as you bend them. Look closely! This is your hand! Have you noticed it before?

Opening ourselves to the astonishing world–human and otherwise–is at the root of walking our edges. Not only are the leaves of the forest floor much more interesting in the first flush of greening spring than we thought they were—not only are our hands much more complex, deserving of our loving gaze. So too, the rest of the world. So, too, is the world made up of layer upon layer of complexity—and every place those layers intersect is an edge, a creative and generative space of challenge, of joy, and of pain. Really paying attention, listening with our whole selves, feeling into those places where our listening leads us to hurt, to learn things about ourselves or our world that we were maybe not ready to know—this takes courage. Walking the edge, celebrating and welcoming the challenge, welcoming being humbled by our own ignorances and by our own, human, honest, limitations—this is at the root of the most meaningful work for justice in this world.

This is the heart of spiritual activism–a daily opening, small as it needs to be, to the unknown. A daily practice of meeting scary things with love, with openness. This is the work that can transform this world, person by person, into whatever we want it to be.

Between this world and all the ones that are coming, there are many thresholds, many ways to step, leap, slide, grow across. But we can’t get from here to there without thresholds—without encountering the margins, the edges, of our zones of comfort. We can’t get there without being willing to make ourselves raw, to open to some of the hurt that is in the world—our own, and that of other humans, and that of this planet. We can’t get there without, in that rawness, being willing to listen, to attend carefully, to seek not only new versions of old histories that we didn’t know—but to seek also for new versions of the history of the future, the stories of the times that are coming. To seek for new versions where we can see ourselves, in all our edgy curiousity, in all our risky love and courage, moving, listening, feeling, mourning, touching, laughing, learning.

Closing Reading:

Whelks
Mary Oliver

Here are the perfect
fans of the scallops,
quahogs, and weedy mussels
still holding their orange fruit—
and here are the whelks—
whirlwinds,
each the size of a fist,
but always cracked and broken—
clearly they have been traveling
under the sky-blue waves
for a long time.

All my life
I have been restless—
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss—
than wholeness—
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.

But every morning on the wide shore
I pass what is perfect and shining
to look for the whelks, whose edges
have rubbed so long against the world
they have snapped and crumbled—
they have almost vanished,
with the last relinquishing
of their unrepeatable energy,
back into everything else.

When I find one
I hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be

that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

References

1 2018. Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Shambala Press
2 Boggs, Grace Lee. 2003. THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT GROW OUR SOULS: Animating Democracy. on Americans for the Arts website
3 1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston.
4 1958 February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren, Published weekly by the General Brotherhood Board, Elgin, Illinois. 
5 Anzaldua, G., and A. Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation