Out of a living silence

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“and speech created thought, which is the measure of the universe”

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On Friday, 4 December 2009, on The News Hour Jim Lehrer read out the guidelines of what he calls MacNeill/Lehrer journalism.

Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

It occurs to me that several of those guidelines could serve a general guidelines for educators and for everyone else who communicates for a living. Come to think of it, they would serve as good guidelines for those who communicate recreationally. Here are those guidelines stated in a more general form:

  • Say nothing you cannot defend. Use the same care in speaking of anyone that you would use in speaking about yourself.
    It is a rare person who exercises as much care in describing another person’s conduct, or speculating about another person’s motivations, as is exercised in talking about oneself. Most people are fairly sensitive about how their actions are described and how it is reported what they have said, and few people enjoy having others speculate about what it is that motivates them to act and speak as they do. This guideline is nothing but an application of the Golden Rule. It is an invitation to remember that others are as sensitive as oneself
  • Assume there are many sides to every situation, and that every situation can be seen from a variety of legitimate perspectives.
    Because everything we know comes through the senses, and because the senses are located in the phyiscal body, and because the physical body occupies a finite and particular region of space-time, it is impossible for us to see things as others see them. We can only experience things from our own particular vantage points, so it is easy to forget that others are experiencing things from their particular vantage points. Just as conditioned as our physical senses, of course, are our interpretations of events as they run through the complex filters of memories, educations, unreseolved emotional complexes of which one is not fully conscious and so forth. This conditioning is a good enough reason to doubt the privileged status of one’s own judgements, and to consider giving credence to the judgements whose opportunities have been different from one’s own. It sometimes takes an effort of the will to try to imagine who one might see things if one had had a different family, different religious indoctrinations, and had come from a different country or had learned a different language as one’s mother tongue. Making the effort is invariably worthwhile.
  • Assume that whoever you talk to is as smart, as caring and as good as you are. Assume the same about whoever you talk about.
    Everyone has limitations, and no two people have exactly the same limitations in their intelligence, thier compassion and their manifestation of virtue. Everyone has something to gain through interactions with other people, and no one can be discarded as having nothing to offer. Remembering this is a good way to cultivate respect for those to whom one speaks and about whom one talks.
  • Respect the privacy of all people.
    It is not always easy to recall in a culture as given to attention-seeking as contemporary society has become that most people still have matters they would rather not become public knowledge, and that there is nothing alarming about this fact. For whatever reason a person may have for wishing to keep part of his or her life out of public view, it is a wish that is worth respecting.
  • Be mindful of when you are stating an opinion and not merely reporting facts.
    There is considerably easier to say than it is to do. It is not always clear in one’s own mind where the boundary between opinion and fact are. Some have even doubted there is such a thing as fact as all; rather, such people would say, there are those opinions that we acknowledge are opinions and those opinions we mistakenly think are facts. That notwithstanding, it is not a bad practice to be mindful of all the ways in which one has become opiniated and may be inclined to pass personal convictions off as objective truths.
  • Be careful not to pass on hearsay or opinions disguised of reports of whan unnamed “other” people say.
    One of the easiest ways to introduce an idea into the public arena without taking personal responsibility for it is to report it as an idea one has heard others say. When pushed to name the sources of these ideas, people who resort to this tactic often appeal to the right to privacy of the &lquo;others” whose opinions are supposedly being reported. Such reports rarely have a legitimate role to play in serious discussions. It is best to let these others speak for themselves.

Speech guidelines, in my experience, are the most difficult to follow, because speech is so subtle. Unless one has a stutter or a speech impediment, it is so easy to speak that words often escape from the lips before they have been properly inspected for suitability. And yet, when one thinks of the power words have to shape people’s beliefs, to influence their emotional states and to urge them into action, it is difficult to think of anything more important in human life than mindfulness in using language.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 16:15

Posted in Vocal ministry

Ministry in a first-person culture

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Years ago—decades ago—when people rose to give vocal ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship, it was common for the speaker to quote a passage from the Bible, or from the essays of Emerson, or from Leaves of Grass, and follow it with some reflections that brought out the meaning of the quoted text and its relevance to some situation at hand. That type of vocal ministry has become less common these days. A more common message these days is a first-person account of something the speaker has recently experienced or has been thinking about. Speaking in the first person was at one time less customary than it has become now.

The change in the style of vocal ministry in Quaker meetings seems to be a reflection of a change in American society in general. People seem to speak much more about themselves these days than used to be the case. They want to tell their story—not just any old story that could have happened to anyone. People are very much at the center of their own universes these days; everything revolves around them. One sometimes gets the impression that not much else really matters except that person who is at the center of his or her universe, making comments on all the things rotating around the center. These are egocentric times.

Quakers are encouraged to speak what the spirit urges them to say, and it is not uncommon for the spirit to relate things to the speaker’s own experiences. Quakers are encouraged to speak from their own experience and understanding rather than merely offering reports of what others have said and thought. The locus of authority is one’s own inward light, the particular refraction of light that has worked its way through the prism of one’s own life history. So there is nothing at all blameworthy in first-person narrative in vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. For something to be a truly spirit-led ministry, as opposed to a simple report of something interesting that happened on the way to the meetinghouse or an account of something amusing that the cat did yesterday, it should have some sort of universal dimension. It may be about oneself, but it should also be about others as well. It should be something that, in Quaker idiom, speaks to their condition as well as to one’s own.

Needless to say, not every message can or should speak to everyone’s condition. There is a reportedly a belief among some Muslims that there are so many religions in the world because there are so many kinds of people with so many different needs and perspectives that God must constantly provide new ways of reaching all of them in their diversity. Even God cannot find messages that speak to the condition of everyone. How much less can a Quaker minister impart such a message. That said, even if a message cannot be expected to speak to everyone, it can be expected to speak to others in the room than the speaker.

When someone else rises to speak in a meeting for worship, one sometimes has the initial feeling that what is being said is irrelevant to one’s own conditioning. Rarely is it the case, however, that a spoken word, however falteringly delivered or apparently pointless, cannot become the basis for fruitful reflection by nearly everyone who hears it. In the final analysis, the old saying is perhaps true that the spirit makes no mistakes.

These are first-person times in America. These are times of self-centeredness and self-absorption. That is just how things have become for now. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 05:01

Posted in Vocal ministry

Swallowed up

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Looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are all swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory, and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.

If George Fox had never written anything else, the words in a letter to Lady Claypole (Elizabeth Cromwell, the second daughter of Oliver Cromwell) would be evidence of Fox’s profound insight into human nature. Condemning those who fail in various ways is a sure route to being captured by failure. When the mind focuses on sin, it can never break free of sin; it lives in a world of awareness of sin, and this world is cramped and stifling and ultimately unsustainable. Literature is filled with stories of preachers and ministers who specialize in pointing out the sins of others and who eventually fall into the very sins against which they preach most passionately. One need not turn to fictional literature for such stories; they can also be found regularly in the daily news.

Fox’s words to Elizabeth Cromwell are more than a warning not to become too obsessed with the failings of others lest those failings become one’s own. It also has the positive advice to look at that which makes shortcomings known. Fox calls it the light that discovers—in modern English we would say “reveals”—these sins, corruptions and distractions. That inward light, which corresponds in part to what we might call conscience, shines equally on all sins, corruptions and distractions, including one’s own. When the light is shone on one’s own failures, it also reveals the way to stop failing. Nothing more is required than to stop doing whatever it is that is blocking success, and whatever that may be, it is obvious to anyone who recognizes that he or she if failing.

Probably all of us have become habituated at least to some degree to making excuses for our own failures. We know what we should do, but somehow we think we cannot help doing it. In talking about inability to act, the Chinese philosopher Mengzi said there are two situations in which a person says “I cannot.” As an example of one situation, Menzi gave picking up a mountain, tucking it under one’s arm and jumping across the ocean. This task is physically impossible, so it is legitimate to say that one cannot do it. As an example of another situation, Mengzi gave the example of helping an elderly person find firewood. Helping out in such a situation is something anyone can do, so when one says “I cannot help,” what one is really saying is “I do not choose to help. I do not wish to help.” One of our greatest tragedies as human beings, says Mengzi, is that we fail to distinguish between these two ways of saying “I cannot.” We deny our own unwillingness to be humane, benevolent, kind and helpful when being that way would be slightly inconvenient or would distract us from the immediate pursuit of some transitory and essentially meaningless pleasure or bit of fun. We fail to be ashamed of our own selfishness.

The light that discovers our own unwillingness to act on love also reveals everything that it is necessary to do to quit failing to act on love. All that is needed is to act on love. And all that is needed to do that is to stop thinking only of oneself. It is that simple.

An effective way to avoid being aware of one’s own selfishness is to focus on the selfishness of others, to see their failures and shortcomings. But being blind to one’s own failings is the only benefit that comes from focusing one’s vision on the sins of others. And that benefit is so piddling and empty that it should be easy to forgo it in favor of the enormous benefit of seeing one’s own failures, seeing the way out of them and then taking the way out.

For better or for worse, I see what I must do to be fully at peace. Can I do it? Yes. Will I do it? Suffice it to say, there is no good reason not to.

A longer excerpt from Fox’s letter to Lady Claypole is found in an online version of his Journal.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, March 23, 2009 at 10:47

Posted in Vocal ministry