Some things don’t change quickly, some things do. What seldom changes is humankind’s aversion to pain, to discomfort, which is a real shame since that’s the one short-cut, the single take-no-prisoners corridor through chaos and out the other side of lingering dysfunction. What seldom changes at all is the process by which we assess risk.
In the simplest possible terms, we don’t change quickly because we’d have to think outside of the box, perhaps risking all those things we’d stuffed inside it, and that frightens us enormously. I read today that Lowes Home Improvement will no longer sell bee-killing pesticides known as neonicotinoids — but that won’t start until 2019, as alternatives can be developed. Let’s hope that all the bees don’t die in the next four years, then, along with half our crops. We’re not so good at the kind of in-the-moment improv needed to face reality squarely, obviously, or we’d yank the rip-cord on all things climate change and let the deniers go pound salt.
Although it doesn’t necessarily follow, thinking outside of the box appears to be throwing the box under the bus to those depending on its walls to keep them secure, and scares the bejesus out of the natives. That changes slowly, but it does change. Take the Pope, for instance. This is a man who selected a very tight box for himself and yet he’s managed to push out the walls to such a degree that a lot of traditional Catholics are pissed at him.
Even in South America, where he practiced a very populist form of Jesuit ministry for the poor and disenfranchised, a number of his followers have protested his embrace of markedly non-conservative activity. Francis is a man following his conscience, living as simple a life as he’s allowed and practicing tolerance and inclusion wherever he can. And no one can doubt his courage, going after the Mafia during Easter Week, accepting evolution as a possible form of God-activity, and calling the Koran a book of valid spiritual teaching, Islam a religion of peace earlier this year.
This coming week, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Obama will likely meet face-to-face with Raul Castro, seemingly poised on announcing the removal of Cuba from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states, if not lifting sanctions entirely. Perhaps a bit too soon for the conservative public, and still a toss-up as Obama continues to consult his advisers, these measures are in the works as Cuba attends the Summit for the first time since its inception in the early 1990s. And give the devil his due, this project would not be so far along without the urging of Pope Francis, who acted as middleman between the two governments.
It would seem the little man born of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aries, and the half-African half-American kid born in Hawaii, share an ethical core. Which is not to say that Pope Frank is changing the face of the church into a liberal entity. He hasn’t come out for gay marriage, married priests, women priests or birth control, nor will he and keep his job. Despite his personal acceptance of diverse characters, his official position on gay ambassadors, for instance, remains stonewall (despite, or perhaps because of allegations of overt Vatican gay culture).
But his open mind and think-outside-the-box manner have charmed not just non-Catholics in this country but disenchanted Catholics who have left the church behind. He’s a man of the people and his teaching on poverty and justice, along with a fiery rebuke of renegade capitalism, hasn’t won him any fans on the far-right. He’s hardly the darling of the tradition-steeped, deeply incestuous and politicized church, the one that is still at war with the Reformation. His own Bishops are deeply divided, especially in this country.
Within the uneasy alliance with evangelicals, those who counted on backing from the Catholic hierarchy, like Sara Palin, have questioned his bona fides with Gawd Almighty.
Some among his own have complained that he’s less progressive than ‘radical,’ perhaps sent from the Devil as a liberalizing influence to destroy the church. It’s been whispered that he’s an anti-Pope, like the black guy in the Oval Office is an anti-president: neither of them fit to serve. In fact, FOX News calls him the “Barack Obama of the Vatican.” The walls of that long established patriarchal box hold tight, in some quarters.
In discussing the outreach to normalize Cuban relations, Obama told a group of listeners, “Engagement is a more powerful force than isolation. I believe that we can move past some of the old debates that so often define the region, and move forward.” Read between the lines of this situation and you’ll find the Obama Doctrine, as we have learned to recognize it: reach out a hand for a diplomatic partner and see what happens.
This is is the same open hand that Francis is offering, an attempt to define similarities rather than differences. The different world views — with both the President of the United States, and the 266th Catholic Pope — are real enough but the spirit of their conversation asks for respect rather than derision, collaboration and win/win rather than zero sum. Somewhat odd bedfellows, they are both sons, although in different ways, of liberation theology.
You will remember ‘liberation theology’ as the buzzwords that came along with candidate Obama’s churching history under the tutelage of the Reverend Wright in Chicago, creating a rift between the two (mentored and mentor) that, at last report, remains unhealed. Francis seems to have experienced his own liberation epiphany after very public failure within the ranks of the church, as outlined in this excellent Rolling Stone piece from last year.
Both of these men have more than passing acquaintance with oppression, poverty and diversity. That this philosophy is identified with Marxist thought is enough to land these two world leaders under the ‘pinko’ umbrella that conservatives save for the real troublemakers. Rush Limbaugh considers Pope Frank a “pure Marxist” of course, and the Kenyan a “pure Islamist.” You’ll forgive me, I trust, if I mention that I consider Rush a pure idiot, and someone whose bust does NOT deserve a place in the Missouri statehouse beside the likes of Mark Twain and even feisty old Harry Truman.
The Pope will visit the U.S. later this year, facing covert hostility from within his ranks and the conservative press, but I expect him to be warmly received by the American public. He will address a joint session of Congress, and I have hopes that he will do that of which we’ve seen him capable: speak truth to power. It might move few conservative hearts, but I bet it will move the needle on America’s perception of conservative politics.
The most important realization I can think of, in terms of rehabbing ethical behavior as an American standard, is exposure of the stiff-necked, punishing and self-serving philosophy dished up to the American public as politically-packaged Old Time Religion. The walls of that selective little box need busting down in the worst way.
There is every indication that those walls of stilted regressivism are shakier than the many Republican candidates think, but it’s the walls we’ve got, right? Gotta keep them high until we can replace them with something that keeps us — and all our stuff, and our ability to get it and keep it — safe. Unthinkable to risk more, even if the box is the devil we know and chaos reigns inside.
Or maybe not. Maybe we can speed that up.
I read an article awhile back about Jon Stewart’s brain. Don’t worry, it’s fine — in fact, it’s better than fine, according to a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital who cited him as an example of someone who thinks outside the box. Tracking brain changes in improvisational rappers and jazz musicians, she suggests that the differences between learned comedy routines and those realized in the moment would also show up on a brain scan as highly creative thinking. She says, of Stewart:
“I recently saw him in person, Jon Stewart. He is just brilliant at being in the moment and putting together separate ideas — he would take things that had occurred earlier in the night and then weave them together with other things that were happening in the moment. And you knew it couldn’t have been prepared in advance.”
“Quick-witted would be the layman way to put it; he’ll be interviewing someone on The Daily Show, and he’s just very quick, very quick at making these unexpected connections. But the term we would use for that is divergent thinking — that is, making novel connections between things that other people don’t put together, and finding the humor in that. You could also think of it as just “thinking outside the box.””
We need to start recognizing what thinking outside the box looks and sounds like. It happens in the moment, it happens when we really LISTEN. It comes bubbling up from our ability to connect dots and keep focus, it’s creative and imaginative. It takes in the whole picture, not just what we want to know but what there IS to know.
This is a necessary skill to acquire, my dears. None of us are pure left or right, male or female, good or bad. We are, each of us, an amalgam of everything we’ve ever done or seen, all we’ve felt and imagined. We all live in boxes of our own making but not all of us are stuck.
Barack Obama is an establishment president, business-friendly and too moderate to impress some on the left, but he seems determined to put a progressive stamp on his last months in office. He’s not a people-person, so much as an academician given to asking questions of everyone in the room, soliciting opinions to get a complete picture. Then, and only then, does he make up his mind. From what I’ve seen, once he does, there’s nothing wimpy about this Leo. He has a reputation for being quick-witted and open to productive ideas and creative solutions. He lives in a very tight box, but he’s been dedicated to projecting outside of its structured restraints to change the face of American power, and it seems to me he’s been amazingly successful for a Kenyan.
Pope Francis is a people-person, more at home with one-on-one conversations than as the formal face of the church. He has suggested that he may retire before his tenure is done, but until he does, he will make the powerful uncomfortable and the victimized welcome in his church. He may not punch his way out of the tight walls he’s chosen for himself, but he’s made enough holes in them already to invite some in who will change the intent of the institution long before the leadership does. Sometimes the smaller picture — washing a prisoner’s feet, kissing the bambini, eschewing the trappings of a Prince of Rome for the garments of a servant — provides an experience of love far superior to notions of divine authority and church dogma.
We all live in some kind of box, some kind of structured system that we’ve accepted as true. Perhaps the walls are less rigid than we think, perhaps the space far more limited than need be. Perhaps a bit of practice at connecting dots, finding commonality and keeping an open heart will grow the space we inhabit to include us all.
One last comment, today, something I’d like to share. I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely surprised by much. I can almost always find a place in my extensive system of mental file-folders to tuck information and occurrences. But this week, something changed. I’ve had two dreams now, one after another, that are 3D paradigm-breakers.
Last evening, when my son mentioned that he’d had weird dreams the night before, I told him I’d had a disturbing one. I don’t have nightmares, not since I was a kid with repeaters that disappeared when I finally recognized them as incarnational, but occasionally I’ll have one that leaves me disquieted upon waking. I had one night before last, leaving me with questions about reality. I just didn’t know where to put it.
Then, last night, there it was again — a different set of circumstances resulting in exactly the same ah-ha! moment — surprising me, and asking me to push past the walls of old thinking and realize how multi-dimensional I am, you are, we are. The thought is not new, nor is even a multi-dimensional experience, but the uniqueness of this realization is so different that I can’t quite yet describe it. All I can say is that we’re bigger than we think. We’re braver, too.
We’re changing because we have to. Others have done some of our heavy lifting for us, made it possible to follow. Some of the most gentle and reasonable of the voices urging us forward have already proven that compassion and cooperation lift us faster and higher than unnamed fears can frighten us into downward spiral.
We have the option of continuing to be frightened and helpless, defensive and hostile, or changing the way we fit into this little box of ours. The walls are falling. Push a little, see what happens.