The contemplative process of waking up has granted me several sudden insights. One of them: I’m an ass. But allow me to explain by way of example in a social setting, say, going to church. Now, this same dynamic I’m about to describe holds for just about any social setting, but there’s more structure in a church context, so some of the ego dynamics are more obvious there.
I’m an introvert by nature and fairly reserved in social settings. I don’t particularly stand out in a crowd, have a medium to low affect most of the time and have never been accused of being terribly charismatic.
Shortly before graduating seminary I struggled with a series of panic attacks. While finishing classes I had taken a job as an aide in the Special Ed department of the Pasadena USD. I felt pressure from my girlfriend to be ready for marriage, I had not settled on a clear career path, student loans would kick in soon, and some quick math revealed I wasn’t making near enough money to make ends meet. Enter the crisis mode.
With graduation looming, I needed to get away and get some perspective. The state I was in, my daily rhythms and comfort zones weren’t adequate to the reality of my situation and external conditions. The result was a general low-frequency dread that sprang up into acute anxiety when triggered. It was clear something had to change, but it wasn’t clear how. It was time to make decisions. This is the root of the word crisis is in fact the Greek krinein, which means “to decide.”
About twenty years ago I was sitting at a dinner table in in Adelaide, Australia. Shortly after another election in which Bill Clinton had been elected for a second term, the conversation soon turned to America, its politics, and its influence in the world. As was not uncommon in such conversations, much of the conversation circled around our combination of arrogance and ignorance.
Someone at the table pointed out, “Well, they’re the biggest. They’re the most diverse, ethnically and ideologically. They’ve got the best, and they’ve got the worst.” In this political season, it’s been pretty easy to situate oneself on one end of that spectrum and one’s political enemies on the other.
Years ago a friend of mine invited me to a Not-Burning-Man gathering in the desert north of LA. This was a surrogate gathering of people who usually attended Burning Man, the annual gathering in Black Rock City of performance art, community, and gift economy. For one reason or another, this group couldn’t make the trip and had a smaller, impromptu gathering closer to home.
In the email of directions and minimal instructions from my friend and his wife, the final line was a reminder to practice “radical self-reliance.” In a teacher’s work week full of classes, lesson planning, grading, and meetings, I hadn’t had time to think through what that might mean.