theorangeinkblot

Looking at life through orange colored glasses…

Archive for the tag “religion”

We have the right to remain silent

I have just returned from a week away in the beautiful mountains of Colorado where I was participating in a spiritual leadership training program.  Part leadership development, part meditation practice, along with a healthy dose of reconnecting with nature, the program asked each of us to explore the question, how can I be of best service to my family, my community, and the organizations in which I work during the difficult times we are currently facing as a nation?

There is a lot to unpack from this experience and I suspect I will be doing so for a while. My initial thoughts, however, come from the way we started each day while in training– in silence.  Each morning, from the time we woke up (for me that was about 6:00 a.m.), through our morning meditation, breakfast in the dining hall, until our first learning session at 9:00, we were asked to remain silent.

This was new for me- spending the first three hours of each day in silence even as I was at times surrounded by people.  And it has gotten me thinking about our need as a society to fill every moment of the day with activity, noise, distraction, and chatter.  A friend of mine pointed out recently that she can’t even fill her car’s gas tank anymore without a screen babbling to her in the form of advertisements, celebrity gossip, and “important” news of the day. From early in the morning until we collapse into bed at night, exhausted, we run ourselves and our children ragged racing from one activity to another- work, school, the gym, sports practices, tutoring, volunteer obligations and more-all while listening to podcasts, audio books or music while driving; receiving and responding to texts and emails throughout the day; updating multiple social media accounts with our whereabouts and pictures of our specialty ‘Frappacino’ and lamenting to friends and family that we would love to be spending more time with them if only we weren’t so busy.

Why do we choose this constant state of busy? And can we be clear that it is a conscious choice? As I theorize about why we make this choice I can’t help but ask myself these questions: What are we trying to prove by maintaining this constant state of busyness? What do we think we will accomplish? What are we trying to avoid? What is the void we are trying to fill? Are we so afraid to spend quiet time with our own thoughts and feelings?

I can’t answer these questions for anyone else but I can share what I learned by taking a few hours each day to slow down, be still, and be silent.  For me:

  1. Silence creates space for things that are often times squeezed out in the busyness of each day- divine presence; prayer; clear and calm thinking- just to name a few.
  2. Silence leads to noticing.  In these moments of silence I found myself more awake and aware of what was happening around me and inside of me.  I listened more deeply, observed more carefully, was more in tuned to how I was feeling.

You may be thinking- this is all well and good if you have three hours a day to dedicate to silence and stillness.  How am I, this very busy person, supposed to find the time to be silent? We may not have a few hours.  I certainly don’t in my “regular” life. I am suggesting, though, that perhaps we take back a few minutes from our day to sit quietly and see what comes out of it.  What will fill the space that you create with silence? There is only one way to find out.

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Letting my soul take the lead.

It’s 4:15 a.m.  I’ve been laying in bed, awake, for the past hour or so listening to the wind blow. The power just went out and some electronic device with battery back up is beeping so I have gotten up to find it and turn it off before it wakes up everyone else.  I have given up hope of falling back to sleep so I am pencil and paper writing by flashlight.

These early morning hours are powerful for thinkers and writers like myself. Even with the wind howling outside it feels quiet and still in the house, especially without the low, normally ever present, hum of electricity.

I am sitting here in this beautiful quiet with the wind as my soundtrack and I am thinking about my current volunteer work as a lay leader with a non-partisan, interfaith, community organizing group.  It is hard work, sometimes frustrating, but worth it. Through this work I have gotten the chance to work with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met who have truly amazing stories. I am blessed in this work with inspiring teachers who are invested in me as a person and as a leader in my community. I feel like I am part of something larger than myself and with that comes a sense of purpose that I have not felt in a long time.

I have also been feeling a tiny bit inadequate. As I get deeper into this work I find myself faced with important questions: What do you want out of your involvement with this organization? What do you want for your Core Team? Why are you doing this work? For the life of me, I cannot get my brain to cooperate in helping me to articulate answers to these questions and I feel a little bit stupid because it seems like for something that I feel such strong emotions about I should be able to think of the answers.

But, maybe the problem is that I am trying to think of the answers.  I am quite used to my brain running the show- for better or worse. I think and overthink until my grey matter is so bogged down in grey areas that I become completely trapped by my own thoughts.

I am starting to get the feeling, that my brain is not in charge of this.  When I am asked why I am doing this work, the only answer I can honestly come up with is that I can’t imagine not doing this work.  The thought of walking away from this experience makes me feel like crying.  So I am thinking that maybe my brain is not the boss here in this particular circumstance. I am thinking that perhaps my soul is taking the lead on this one.

I’m pretty sure that my soul knows exactly what I want from this experience, what I want from my Core Team, why I am doing this work.  What I have figured out is that in those moments where I stop thinking so much and just focus on doing, there is so much joy and meaning.  When I just let go of trying to understand the answers at a cognitive level I find I am instinctively making many of the right choices, I am contributing, I am not inadequate at all.

So maybe it’s okay that I don’t have the words yet to articulate what I think. Maybe it’s okay that my soul feels like the leader of a marching band, deliberately and confidently stepping in the right direction while my brain is twenty steps behind trying to figure out how to play the tuba, read music, and march in time all at once.  My brain will catch up eventually and cognitive clarity will come when it comes.  Hopefully, the people who are asking for answers can be patient with me until then.

And until then, I’m going to work on having faith that my soul is not going to lead me astray. That’s hard work too and sometimes frustrating but also worth it.

From Empathy to Action

Back in September, as we moved closer to the Jewish high holidays,  I sat down with my ten year old daughter and asked her if she had a personal goal or anything about herself that she wanted to work on in the year to come.  After thinking about it for a while, she decided that she wanted to focus on trying to better understand how other people feel. In other words, she wanted to work on becoming a more empathetic person.

As the year has progressed, I have been checking in with her periodically to find out where she is in thinking about or working on that goal and quite frankly, I have been blown away by the stories she is sharing with me.  Recently, she came home from school and shared this:

There is a boy in my daughter’s grade who frequently passes gas.  My daughter has heard that the reason for this is medical- either the side effect of a medication he takes or the result of a chronic gastrointestinal disorder he suffers from.  You can imagine, I’m sure, the reaction that this boy gets from his classmates- laughter, teasing, and straight out ostracizing.  Nobody wants to sit next to this boy or play with him or be his friend.  My daughter readily admits that she is not looking to be his best friend but she has been spending some time thinking about how he probably feels- lonely, sad, angry- and she has decided to make a concerted effort to show this boy kindness.  If she sees him standing alone at recess she goes over to talk to him.  If he needs a partner in P.E. she asks him if he wants to be her partner. The boy, my daughter says, seems appreciative and she feels good about her choices.

What she doesn’t quite understand is the response that she is now getting from some of her classmates.  My daughter had hoped, that by role modeling kindness, and reaching out to this boy that some of her classmates might follow suit. Instead, she said, she feels like some of her classmates are getting angry at her.  They are questioning her show of kindness and inclusion and asking her why she is even talking to him.  This has given us the opportunity to dig deeper into my daughter’s quest to better understand how other people are feeling and we have begun to explore the question of why my daughter’s show of kindness to a child whom everyone else has turned their back on might cause her classmates to feel negatively towards her.

We have been talking about how fifth grade marks the beginning of those years where for many kids, what they want and value more than anything else is to “fit in.”  As long as they are not the one being singled out or teased they are content. Additionally, if in order to fit in it means they feel like they need to ignore or tease the boy that everyone else is ignoring or teasing then that’s what they are going to do.  And if EVERYONE else is doing it, then it must not be that bad, right?

My daughter has made the very brave choice to not go along with the crowd.  Perhaps, in watching her, some of those other kids are now examining the choices they are making and may be feeling conflicted in their hearts about those choices.  Maybe, I told my daughter, they don’t feel so good about treating this boy unkindly, but they are too scared about losing their own social status or worried about being singled out, to change how they are acting.  They may try to pull you back in line, I explained, not because they think you are doing the wrong thing, but because they know that you are doing the right thing, and having to deal with that internal conflict is more than what they can deal with at 10 or 11 years old (heck, many adults can’t quite seem to figure this out).  Understanding those feelings is also part of becoming a more empathetic person.

I wanted my daughter to understand, too, that just because she might come to empathize with the reasons that some of her classmates were upset with her does not mean she has any responsibility to stop making good choices in order to protect people from having bad feelings about bad choices.  In fact, that uncomfortable feeling that we get when we don’t make a good choice or when somebody challenges our worldview is supposed to act as a signal for us to think about why we might be feeling that way and get us to evaluate our thoughts and behaviors so we can make necessary adjustments.

I told my daughter how proud I am of her for the choices she is making and especially for how she is stretching herself beyond her goal of trying to understand how people are feeling to use that understanding in choosing to act in a way that exemplifies how she is living the values of kindness and compassion that she is realizing are important to her.   Finally, I thanked my daughter for the important reminder that it’s not enough to just think about doing the right thing.  Empathetic thoughts alone are only so helpful- but if we can use our empathy to spur us to take action then we really have the opportunity to both make a difference in someone’s life and challenge the thinking of those around us.

 

 

 

My father says I’m not allowed to play with you…

My ten year old daughter approached me a few days ago and said she needed to talk to me about something that had happened when she was playing online.   Being that she is very into coding and online computer/video games my husband and I have had many conversations with her about internet safety- never using her real name, or providing her age, photograph or location when playing games online with people she doesn’t know.  We have talked to her about online predators who might pretend to be something they are not in order to try to form a connection with her.  So when she said something had happened in an online forum, the following story is not what I was expecting.

My daughter was getting ready to start a multiplayer online game on the Roblox website when one of the kids on the site asked her via online chat if she believed in God. My daughter answered that she did but suspected there was more to the question and asked if the real question was if she was a Christian.  The girl responded by asking my daughter if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.  My daughter replied that she is Jewish and that Jews don’t believe that about Jesus at which point the other girl told my daughter that her father had said they couldn’t play together anymore (even in an online forum).

My daughter told me that she asked the girl, “Are you willing to have a conversation about that -because if we talked about our faiths I think you might be surprised by how much they have in common.”  The other girl said “okay,” so my daughter started listing ways their faiths overlapped.  Typing away, she pointed out that their God is one and the same, that their sacred texts overlap, and that their faiths share many of the same values such as caring for the poor and feeding the hungry.  The girl countered that all that may be true but their differing opinions about Jesus Christ made them opposites. She reiterated her belief that Jesus had died for her sins, and that if one did not accept him as their Lord and Savior that they could not go to heaven and that if my daughter did not believe this that they could not play together.

At that point, my daughter did not know what else to say. The girl logged off the game and my daughter played with someone else.  Later, when she told me about what had happened, I asked her how she was feeling about it?  She told me she was a little surprised but that she was comfortable with her faith and mostly she wanted to know if she had handled herself appropriately. I told her she could probably teach classes on how people could handle themselves more appropriately and that I was really proud that she had attempted to open up a dialog with this girl.

We talked about, too, how lucky we are, really, to have so many friends, family members, and neighbors of different (or no particular) faiths.  My daughter adores her non-Jewish cousins and Aunts and places equal value on her relationships with them as she does her Jewish grandparents, uncles, and cousins. She has Jewish friends, yes, and she also has friends who are Catholic, Christian, and Muslim and I do not fear or worry about my daughter playing with any of them.  In fact, I welcome it because it is through these relationships that I believe the world becomes a little bit safer for everyone.  It becomes harder and harder to generalize about or hate entire faith groups, the more relationships you have with people of those faiths.  At the same time, learning about other religions can have a funny away of bringing us closer to our own faith by making us think more critically about why we believe what we believe and be able to better articulate our own beliefs.

So, fear not. If your child comes across my child online I can assure you that there are no Jewish cooties (“Jooties?”) that are going to travel through the internet and negatively impact your child.  It is entirely possible to both lay a strong foundation of your own religious beliefs at home and also allow or even encourage your child to interact with children of different faiths without prejudice or fear.

Prayer as Action

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris this past weekend the twittersphere blew up with the hashtag #prayforparis.  This was quickly followed up by requests that people also #prayforlebanon, #prayforhumanity, and #prayfortheworld.  I saw other people posting messages of a different nature saying, “Paris doesn’t need your prayers;” “France doesn’t need more religion;” and “Don’t just pray- actually do something.”

I both identify and struggle with both sentiments.  As a fairly secular Jew, prayer, in the traditional sense, is not typically my ‘go-to’ reaction.  However, as someone who does lay claim to the Jewish faith, belongs to an organized congregation, and feels like it is important to recognize that there are forces at work in the universe that reach beyond my comprehension, I can understand why some people immediately turn to their higher power in times of darkness.

Within my internal struggle comes a rejection of the idea that to pray is to do nothing.  This rings especially true for me if I broaden the definition of what it means to “pray.”  Traditionally, prayer is generally defined as a direct communication between a person and their deity, and that can be a truly beautiful thing.  But, I think that prayer can be broadened beyond that definition. As I contemplate the events of the past week here is how I am defining and practicing prayer:

Self Reflection as Prayer

I am fairly vague when it comes to my own definition of a “higher power.”  However, I do have a very strong “G-d Voice.”  My “G-d Voice” is that little voice inside of me that speaks up when I feel very strongly about something.  It guides me in my daily decision making, parenting choices, and choosing how to put myself out in the world.  This past week, I have found myself asking my inner voice some important questions:

What kind of American do I choose to be?

I choose to be an American who remembers that our country is a country of immigrants; that we are the protectors of democracy and freedom.  I choose to be an American who knows that our diversity only serves to make us stronger.  I choose to have the courage to approach those who are different than myself with curiosity instead of fear. I choose to seek out factual information and not buy into media hype.

What kind of Jew do I choose to be?

I choose to be a Jew who remembers that our collective history is laden with our people being forced from our homes, cities, and nations at the hands of extremists and bigots.  It was not so long ago that Jews trying to flee the Nazi Regime were turned away at every border.  Brave souls who stood up to the extremists of that time were hard to find and propaganda was easy to buy into.  I choose to be a Jew who stands up for innocent people suffering at the hands of extremists, and who knows that the only way to fight the dark is to spread light.

What kind of human do I choose to be?

I was telling someone recently about the nice Muslim family who lives down the street from me.  My daughter plays regularly with their daughter in both of our homes or at our neighborhood park.  The person to whom I was speaking with wanted to know- how did I know that this family wasn’t just being nice to my face while they were actually thinking, “we hate Jews.”

I guess we can’t ever really know what people are thinking but I choose to be a human being that evaluates people based on their words and actions and not on what they might be (but most likely are not) thinking.  I choose to be a human being who tries really hard to not make fear-based, media inspired decisions.  I choose to be a human being who believes that our best chance at peace is to look deep within ourselves and identify and then work on our own fears and biases.

Right Action as Prayer

Nothing makes that little voice inside me sing louder than when I do something to help make someone else’s world a little brighter.  Doing a good deed- whether it is donating money, standing up for someone who doesn’t have a voice, or collecting food or needed resources for people in need, is for me, as close as I get to feeling like a spiritual being.

My daughter, who suffers from separation anxiety, likes to say, “mommy is a lighthouse,” in emphasis of the idea that a lighthouse can protect and guide surrounding ships from a distance.  I love this analogy and choose to take it one step further.  We can all choose to be a lighthouse- a beacon of light, calm, and dependability- helping to steer each other through stormy waters.

Gratitude as Prayer

For me, there is no better way to pray than by practicing gratitude.  If you are currently reading this, you are likely doing so on an electronic device that you are thankful to own, in a house you are thankful to live in, or at a job that you are thankful to have.  Life is not perfect.  We live in an increasingly scary world.  It is easy to focus on the negative, the scary, the unknown.  But I am trying to see the world, each day, through grateful eyes.

I am grateful for love, for stability, for peace everyday we have it.  I am grateful for the courage to write all of this knowing that there are many people out there who will disagree very strongly with what I have written and may have less than kind words for me.  I am grateful that I live in a country where people have the freedom to disagree with what I have written without fear of persecution.  I am grateful for the voices that are different than mine because they allow me to look within and clarify my own system of values and beliefs and to broaden my scope of understanding of the world in which we live.

Prayer is many things to many people and it is completely optional.  But I don’t think that prayer is akin to “doing nothing.”  If we pray in a way that leads us to a place of greater peace, self awareness, gratitude, and right action, then it impacts the way we put ourselves out in the world and better allows us to shine our own lights.

Until next time, I will be praying in my own way for peace, love, and stability for the world.

Freedom- Short and Sweet

Last week my Rabbi suggested that since Passover is a holiday about freedom that we might want to spend a few minutes reflecting on what freedom means to us personally.  It’s a topic that is quite relevant to me since this year, with both kids in school, I have more personal freedom than I have had since before becoming a mom ten years ago.

Every weekday morning I put my kids on the bus, make a cup of coffee and ask myself- What do I feel inspired to do today? Then, I use my new found freedom to make it happen.  This year, using my heart as a compass, I am happily forging a new path.  I am thinking globally and acting soulfully*; watching more carefully and listening more intently.  I am reading and writing with abandon; reflecting and creating; and realizing that the biggest joys are found in the smallest of discoveries.

At Passover, we talk a lot about “next year.”  Having no idea what next year will bring I am focusing on this year- making the most of every day, every hour, every minute.  This year is a blessing, an opportunity for renewal, a celebration of freedom and it just might be the best year ever.

*credit to my brother Dan Orange for the phrase “thinking globally and acting soulfully” which is a line from one of his poems…

All Things Good

All Things Good

It has been more than fifteen years since my grandmother passed away following a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  While I think of her often, this week, for no particular reason, my Grandma Nat has been on my mind more than usual.

My grandma was not your typical Jewish grandmother.  Unlike many Jewish grandmothers, mine was not known for her culinary abilities.  I have no memories of my Grandma Natalie frying latkes in the kitchen or making matzobrei.  I never saw her bake or cook anything, though I did once hear a story that she broke a pot while trying to reheat soup.  The only food I remember my Grandmother preparing for me is tuna salad- which happened to be one of her favorites.

My grandma also differed from other Jewish grandmothers in her love for Christmas.  Each holiday season, my grandmother turned her front room into what could have been a department store window display.  A glittery white felt and cotton carpet was topped with a red cardboard chimney and an inflatable Santa Claus.  Placed carefully around the chimney were everyone’s “Chanukah” presents which we opened together during our annual holiday get together (which was catered, I assume).

My grandmother had four grandchildren: three grandsons, and me, the only granddaughter.  She was proud of all of her grandchildren; of this I am sure, but being the only girl I always felt that we had a special relationship.  This was especially true once I reached middle school and would sometimes spend the weekend with my grandmother at her apartment.  My grandmother was a volunteer in the gift shop at Long Island Jewish Hospital.  Part of what she did was decide which items the gift shop should stock.  During my weekends with Grandma Nat, she would bring me with her to volunteer.  We would go through the catalogs together and she would ask my opinion on items that kids would want to see in the shop.  She would take me to lunch in the hospital cafeteria where we would both eat, what else, tuna fish.

During these weekends, my grandmother taught me how to play various kinds of solitaire (then called it beginners luck when I won the first three hands I played).  We talked about the books I was reading and she took me to “the club” where she introduced me to her friends, let me order sodas on her tab, and I swam in the pool while she sat and kibitzed with the other ladies.  These weekends that I had with my grandmother are some of my best memories of her.

By the time we celebrated her 80th birthday in 1990 Grandma Nat was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s.  She experienced a slow and steady decline between then and her passing in 1997 but there is one more visit with her that I remember very clearly and will always treasure.  During one of my visits home to NY while away at college, I stopped by my grandmother’s apartment to have lunch with her.  She was still having some lucid moments, but got confused easily and couldn’t always differentiate fantasy from reality.  She required a daily nurse to manage her medications, and to make sure that all of her day to day needs were being met.

Luckily, that particular day she was especially lucid.  She knew who I was and was excited to see me.  We had our traditional lunch of tuna fish on rye and pickles and sat and talked on the couch for a long time.  My grandmother told me that she knew she was nearing the end of her life but that she was not afraid of death.  She was afraid, she said, that after she was gone nobody would remember her.  I did my best to assure her that this was not the case- that her memory would live on through our oddly Christmas like Chanukah celebrations, our book discussions, our card games, and our tuna fish lunches, not to mention the countless family gatherings we shared for Thanksgiving, Passover, Mothers and Father’s Day, and other important family events.  I hope I was able to put her mind at ease that day.  When I left her apartment that day, she left me with the same parting words she always said when we said goodbye, “All things good.”

When I got back to college, my creative writing professor assigned our class to write a poem.  I don’t remember what the specification of the assignment was but this is the poem I wrote:

All Things Good

 

The black door swings open.

She stands smiling

With painted face,

Flowery house dress,

Matching slippers.

“Hello Stranger,” she says and holds me in a maternal embrace.

I hold her frail body to mine

Kiss a soft, wrinkled cheek.

 

In the kitchen we eat

On a table of Formica.

Tuna on rye,

Sliced tomatoes,

Sweet pickles.

“How did you know tuna was my favorite?” she asks.

I smile at her contentment

And help her clear the table.

 

We move to the living room

Sit side by side

Stories from long ago,

Childhood tales,

Sincere declarations.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” she says. “My fear is of being forgotten.”

I take a velvet hand in mine

And promise eternal life.

 

The black door swings open

She stands smiling with painted face,

Flowery house dress,

Matching slippers.

“All things good,” she says.

My hands smell like tuna

As I wipe away salty tears.

I have one other memory of my grandmother.  The very last time I saw her was several weeks before she passed away.  I was a graduate student at that point, living in Michigan and it was harder to get home for visits.  Her condition had deteriorated terribly.  She lay in a hospital bed murmuring, “why, why, why, why” over and over again.  She looked distressed and confused and it was unclear if she knew who was there with her.  My parents and I stood at her bedside and I took her hand in mine.  My mother, in an attempt to engage my grandma said to her, “Natalie, did you know that Meryl has a boyfriend?”  My mother held out a picture of the man who two years later would become my husband.  My grandmother looked at the picture, looked right at me and asked in a feeble voice, “is he Jewish?”  I guess my grandmother was a typical Jewish grandmother after all.

Be Brave

I was a few days into Resident Assistant training before the start of my junior year of college when my Residence Hall Director, Sam,  pulled me aside.  My father had just had a heart attack, was in the hospital and I needed to call my mom to make arrangements to fly home to New York.  As I left Sam’s office that day, visibly shaken, he offered these parting words- Be brave.  I have always remembered those words though I don’t think I fully understood at the time why they were so appropriate and important.

Last night, during Shabbat services at my synagogue, I was struck by a line in the prayer for healing the sick.  The prayer says, “May the Source of strength who blessed the ones before us help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”  While I was singing these words I was also remembering Sam’s advice from 1994 and contemplating the role that courage plays in our lives.  Why is it is so important to have courage?

After giving it some thought, here’s what I have come up with:

Courage is important because it allows us to experience the best parts of life.  Courage allows us to give our hearts fully and experience love even if it ends in heartbreak.  It allows us to give 100% to a situation even if we think we might fail.  Courage helps us to share our stories and make ourselves vulnerable even when we fear judgement or embarassment.  It helps us take on new challenges and think about things in a new way even if it makes us feel uncomfortable at first.  Being brave aids us in reaching out to those in need despite our fears of rejection or concerns that we are not saying exactly the right thing.  It gives us the strength to make a change when it’s easier to maintain the status quo.  We need courage to stand up for what we believe and speak out in the face of injustice.  Without courage we could not rise above adversity and make our dreams a reality.

My husband and I have spent a considerable amount of time this past year helping our daughter overcome some fears and anxieties of her own.  Her psychologist, who has been invaluable in this process, offered us this little morsel of wisdom- There will always be situations in our lives that cause us to feel anxious or fearful.  However, these feelings do not have to dictate our behavior.

For me, this is key.  It is not about living a life that is devoid of fear- such a life does not exist in my opinion.  But if we let those feelings dictate our behaviors, actions, and decisions we will never know what we are actually capapble of both in terms of our own personal achievements and what we can do to affect change in our communities.

Acting with courage is hard.  (If it came easy we probably would not think to pray for it.)  When I look at the choice between living a fear based life that will hold me back from achieving my goals, or living courageously and taking (small) steps every day towards self actualization, to me the choice is clear.  It’s clear, but it’s not easy.  It’s a conscious choice that has to be made every day.  I’m not always good at it, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable at first, but I very rarely regret making a courageous choice.  I am much more likely to regret having not done something because fear has held me back.  Sometimes, even when I act with courage, I still make mistakes. Mistakes are teachable moments.   The next time that opportunity arises I’ll be better prepared to handle it.

When I live courageously, I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.  I feel connected to my inner self, my family,and my community.  I feel like I am getting what I need to feel fulfilled, and that I am also able to give back- be a better family member, friend, and neighbor.  When I don’t let fear hold me back I truly do feel that my life is a blessing.

There are plenty of things to be afraid of in life.  Fear of failure, heartbreak, embarassment, discomfort,injury, illness, rejection, and change (just to name a few) can hold us back from living the life we were meant to live.  What is fear keeping you from doing?  How do you choose to live a courageous life?

Independent Thinking: It’s like Pilates for your brain.

“It’s not our differences that divide us.  It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

                                             -Margaret J. Wheatley*

Like I said in my previous post (though you don’t need to read it to understand this one), the way I think about the world was sparked by my participation in The Appalachian Semester program (a semester long domestic study program for college students at a small private college in Southeastern Kentucky).   So before I get into my world view, there is one more Kentucky story I need to tell you.

It became apparent very quickly, that belonging to a church was a very important part of life in Southeastern Kentucky.  I got asked on several occasions by students who attended the college that I was visiting which church I belonged to back home which inevitably led to a discussion about my being Jewish.  This generally got one of two reactions.

Reaction 1: You mean don’t have electricity or drive cars or anything? (Actually, that’s Amish.  I’m Jewish.)

Reaction 2: But if you’re not a Christian and you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior then you can’t go to Heaven.

Reaction 1 usually became Reaction 2 once I explained what Jewish meant.  Reaction 2 was followed by a very enthusiastic invitation to attend whichever church the individual belonged to.  Maybe they were awarded extra points per person ‘saved,’ as some of the college students I met were very concerned about the future of my soul.

Growing up, I had heard that there were people out there who believed that because I was not a Christian, I was doomed to spend eternity in Hell.   I had made the assumption that anyone who thought that, must be coming from a place of hate- you didn’t relegate to Hell people that you love.  Now, here I stood, face to face, with “the people” I had been warned about.  But I didn’t hear hatred in their voices.  I didn’t see hatred in their eyes.  That’s not to say that there aren’t people walking around with hate in their hearts.  It just wasn’t my experience.  In fact, except for one negative interaction with a woman from a group called ‘The Christian Crusaders’ I found that people were genuinely concerned about me and scared for me.  They wanted me to feel the same comfort and security that they felt through their relationship with Christ.  They were coming, at least in part, from a place of love, and in part, I think, a place of fear.

Being able to understand the intent behind their belief system allowed me to remove judgment from my side of the aisle and see them as individuals.  Despite my disagreeing with their religious beliefs, we shared many similarities. These were college students, just like me; active, service- oriented community members.  They worried about their grades, and were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they “grew up.”   Our commonalities seemed to outweigh our differences.

This experience got me thinking.   How do we know what we truly believe?  If we just take the belief system we were raised with (be it political or religious) and carry it into adulthood without questioning it, is it really our belief system?  I had extremely strong opinions when I was in high school and college and I was pretty vocal about them.  It wasn’t until I took myself out of my comfort zone that I realized that some of those very strong opinions weren’t my opinions at all.  They were my parents’ opinions.  It had never really occurred to me before then to question what my parents had taught me, but beginning that semester in Kentucky, and for years afterwards, as I experienced life for myself I began to realize that I didn’t believe everything my parents believed.

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Should people take their belief systems out for a test drive?  If so, how does one go about doing that?   When we are young, we are tested constantly by our peers who try to get us to go against “the establishment.”  Whether through peer pressure, or games of Truth or Dare, kids are constantly pushing each other and themselves to test boundaries and see what they can accomplish.  As an example, sit down and watch snowboarding or BMX biking the next time it is on TV.   These young athletes invent all sorts of moves that seem to defy the laws of physics, and they do it by pushing past previously set boundaries to see what is possible.

As we get into adulthood it seems that we are pushed (by our peers and ourselves) to conform to the establishment, instead of against it.  People who operate outside the “norm” are considered “radicals” or “extremists.”  The OWS protesters are “hippies” and Michelle Bachmann is “crazy.”  In my opinion, people who push the boundaries serve a very important purpose in our society.  They force us to actually think about what we believe.  By sparking dialogue they get us to actually talk about the issues that are important to us.  They make us think about where we stand.  The problem comes in when we don’t take the time to understand why we believe what we think we believe, and how we can better communicate that piece to those who stand across the aisle.

As adults, we have the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  Instead of   encouraging each other to explore alternative points of view, we rile each other up and feel even more justified in our belief system than before.  We also end up feeling more “right” thereby making the other side completely “wrong” in our minds eye.  That works great for politicians trying to gather support from their base, but it completely disregards the valuable life experiences that we have all had that are at the roots of our belief systems.

If our system of values does, in fact, originate in our childhoods, then it makes perfect sense that our belief systems are different.  We live in an extremely diverse country with many different cultures, religions, and geographic topographies.  Just based on geography alone- whether you were raised in the mountains, near an ocean, or in the desert, changes the things that you value.  Once you throw religion, ethnic background, and socio-economic circumstances into the mix- it’s amazing that any of us have anything in common at all.  We are never all going to believe the same thing.  People have tried throughout history to make us all the same- The Crusades, The Holocaust, the recent genocides in Darfur and around the world.  It has never worked, and it will never work.

My belief in God is fluid.  I believe in something that cannot so easily be defined.  But even if we all believed that we were all created in God’s image that does not mean that God intended for us to all be carbon copies of each other.  If you believe that God created a wide diversity of plants and animals, and widely varying geography, and temporal climates, then why is it so hard to believe that he also purposely created an amazingly diverse population of people with a wide variety of abilities, talents, beliefs, and opinions?

I was born Jewish in New York.  But what if I had been born Muslim in Michigan or Buddhist in China?  In some ways, the initial set of beliefs that we get are random.  We are born at the starting line and given some general rules to live by while we figure the whole thing out for ourselves.  But I don’t believe that we are required or expected to die living by the same exact rules that we start with.  To me, that would mean that we didn’t learn anything along the way.

So how do we put our belief system to the test?  By actually putting ourselves in positions where we have to think about something that is not in our area of expertise.  Here is an example of how I try to test my own boundaries:

A friend of mine is a very active member of her evangelical church.  A few months back she posted on Facebook an audio track of a sermon her clergy member had given during services.  She asked people to listen to it as she felt strongly that there was a very important message about misconceptions that people have about Christians.  I wasn’t sure, being Jewish, that there was a whole lot I could learn from an evangelical preacher, but I decided to give it a listen.  The preacher was saying that there are folks out there who call themselves Christian but perhaps do not act in such a way that personifies true Christian beliefs (for example, people who resort to violence, or who are hypocritical in their actions).  He said that some people might look at those people and generalize about all Christians.   Christians, he said, (and I am summarizing, not quoting) do not want to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  And it was frustrating to him that these were the “Christians” garnering the most media attention.

I thought about this for a while and decided that I agree with him.  I agree so strongly that I’m taking it a step further.  NOBODY wants to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  Whether you are one of the millions of peaceful Muslims being poorly represented by a much smaller group of violent Muslims, or a Jew who does not want to be represented by a small group of ultra-Orthodox who hurl insults at children as they walk to school, we are all individuals who deserve to be judged based on our individual merits and if we are not privy to each other’s individual merits then we should just withhold judgment altogether.   It turns out I did have something to gain by listening to an evangelical preacher after all.

Change is hard and can be scary.  For some people, change only comes as a result of a life altering experience- serious illness or injury, or a great loss, for example.  For most people, I think change is a slow and gradual process brought on by our interactions in the world.  I believe that the greater our interactions and willingness to step outside our little boxes, so grows our capacity for change and our capacity for human understanding.  Perhaps if we approached each other with curiosity instead of with fear and anger, we could find a place where we could have a real conversation.

I think there is a danger in becoming complacent.  On a National level, we have reached a point where we have stopped listening to each other all together.  People seem to want to be heard- they are taking their issues very public- to Facebook, blogs, television, and campaign trails. But despite all the noise we are making, we are not hearing each other very well.

There are personal implications as well.  How many times have we sat at our desk at work, or lay awake at night staring at the ceiling and thought, “I’m in a rut” or “I thought my life would be different than this.”  We might even project our discontent onto other people thinking that our boss, coworkers, spouse, or children are to blame.  Maybe we are feeling that way because we have stopped listening to our own little voice.  We are tired and burnt out and busy doing a hundred different things- many of them things that we maybe don’t want to be doing at all.

So, faithful readers, I am issuing you a challenge- a truth or dare opportunity- if you choose to accept it.  I dare you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new for 30 days.  It can be anything.   Read a newspaper that you find to be biased against your typical point of view and see if you learn anything.  Try a new exercise program.  Visit a house of worship different from your own.  When you start to get that “I’m not so sure about this” feeling, just go with it.  Let your brain actually think about it instead of going straight to that place of anger or resistance.  Try something new for a month and see if it changes your thought process at all.

And just to prove to you that I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself, I have already started.  I have always been curious about the vegetarian lifestyle and have decided to go both vegetarian and dairy free for 30 days.  (Today is day four.)  I want to see if the experience changes the way I think about what I put in my body, or where my food is coming from.  I am already learning (I’m sure you’ll be reading all about it in a future blog) and life is a little more interesting than it was four days ago.

If you decide to take me up on my challenge, I would love to hear about it.  If you think that everything I’ve written is a bunch of malarkey, that’s okay too.  My belief system does not have to be your belief system, nor is it a threat to your belief system.  If you have taken even one thing from what I have written (like I did from the evangelical sermon) then I would encourage you to share this post and get some real conversation rolling.  Thanks for reading!

*Quotation is from Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future Berrett-Koehler Publishers; First Edition (January 9, 2002)

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