Sunday, August 17, 2014

Disengagement and Connection

View North from Burnt Knob, Kevin Kenny, Catskill Mountains, 2013
When I was a kid I spent my summers at a camp in the Catskills – perched on the side of a mountain, looking out across the Hudson Valley toward Connecticut and Massachusetts. Once a week I received mail, a small envelope from my grandmother, with a sentence or two about the current pet, news about the Japanese beetles eating her roses, or the rhubarb pie she made for a neighbor. The world seemed very far away, misty green and gold squares bordered by darker tree lines, traced with slow-moving shadows from the fluffy clouds above.

The world is much closer now – insistently so. It hammers at me from the radio as I fold my laundry: Ebola, Gaza, Yazidis, Boko Haram. It grabs my heart when I check my email: a sobering update on persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq, with requests for prayer, financial and political support. 

Checking in preparation for a Weed Warrior workday, I find myself confronted with more news: “The Real DeathValley: The Untold Story of Mass Graves and Migrant Deaths in South Texas.”

From every direction, every device, we’re asked to care about people we’ve never met, issues we don’t understand, places we’ll never go. Sign petitions, send money, call your congressman.

What do we do with what we know?

That’s the question that runs through a book I’ve been reading: Visions ofVocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Stephen Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture

He describes “An Info-glut Culture” that leaves us feeling numb, quoting at length from a 2002 Harper’s article by Thomas de Zengotita, The Numbing of the American mind: Culture as Anesthetic:
The moreness of everything ascends inevitably to a threshold in psychic life. A change of state takes place. The discrete display melts into a pudding, and the mind is forced to certain adaptations if it is to cohere at all.
When you . . . hear statistics about AIDS in Africa, or see your 947th picture of a weeping fireman, you can't help but become fundamentally indifferent because you are exposed to things like this all the time, just as you are to the rest of your options. Over breakfast. In the waiting room. Driving to work. At the checkout counter. All the time. I know you know this already. I'm just reminding you.
Which is not to say you aren't moved. On the contrary, you are moved, often deeply, very frequently--never more so, perhaps, than when you saw the footage of the towers coming down on 9/11. But you are so used to being moved by footage, by stories, by representations of all kinds--that's the point. It's not your fault that you are so used to being moved, you just are.
So it's not surprising that you have learned to move on so readily to the next, sometimes moving, moment. It's sink or surf. Spiritual numbness guarantees that your relations with the moving will pass. And the stuffed screen accommodates you with moving surfaces that assume you are numb enough to accommodate them. And so on, back and forth. The dialectic of postmodern life.   
Garber suggests that the numbness we feel in the face of our info-glut culture leads us toward “a shrug of the mind and heart, whatever”:
Sometimes playful, often cynical, the word itself is a window into the complexity of life; we feel overwhelmed in so many different ways all at once. How else to respond than with a heartfelt ‘whatever’? . . .

And yet there are ideas and issues that seem beyond ‘whatever.’ . . . The reality of pain and evil in this life requires a response that is more than the culture of whatever provides. . . Thoughtful, honest human beings wonder, knowing what I know, what am I going to do? To do nothing seems less than human, seems less than right.
The Synchroblog topic this month is Connection – and that word appears regularly in Garber’s “Vision of Vocation”:

What is “the connection between education and vocation”? (22)

“What is the relationship of ideas to life, of theories to practices, of knowledge to responsibility? Almost always, we assume a connection, that the one implies the other.” (97)

How do we live in relationship to broken people, broken places, loving even when we see the flaws? “In every century and every culture there is an integral connection between knowing and doing, and it is most fully expressed in love. For glory or shame, we choose to live in love – or not.” (135)

I’m still working my way through Garber’s book, and still puzzling over how to stay engaged with needs both near and far away when the lure of  “whatever” beckons.

Wondering how to encourage engagement in friends and family who say “Carol, you think too much.”

“It’s all hopeless, so why bother?”

We all have numbing behaviors, both symptoms and fuel to our disengagement:

Hours spent on games like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, FarmVille.

Evenings spent cruising Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram.

Darker addictions, like online gambling, pornography.

Withdrawal into work, food, shopping, TV.

In one of his closing chapters, Garber talks about “Learning to Live Proximately.”
It is so very hard to keep at it, knowing what we know. Even our deepest hopes are hard, because in this now-but-not-yet world we have to live with something less.
Several years ago I had to write an essay on the vocation of politics, and I offered “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” It is an old idea, one that ripples across the centuries, taken up by people who in their own times and places have longed to do what is right, knowing that all that is right will not be and cannot be done. . . (201)
Whatever our vocation, it always means making peace with the proximate, with something rather than nothing – in marriage and in family, at work and at worship, at home and in the public square, in our cities and around the world. That is not a cold-hearted calculus; rather it is a choice to live by hope, even when hope is hard. (203)
Yesterday I spent the day with thirty women who are part of the League of Women Voters of PA,several of them fifty-year members, women who have been persisting in pursuit of voting rights for all and a fair and equitable democracy across more than half a century. They celebrate their small successes, grieve the many set-backs, continue to share their vision. 

Garber offers descriptions of other men and women involved in working for justice, for health care for those without, holistic education, courageously, persistently creating connections between vision and reality, between theory and practice, between values we say we care about and the every-day work of making it happen. Accepting the proximate, when their real goals remain elusive. 

What do we do with what we know?

How do we maintain connection between who we are and what we do, between ourselves and a hurting world, when numbing disengagement seems the safer, certainly easier choice?

Here are some practical ideas I take with me:

Stay alert to the ways we numb ourselves, or wallow in our numbness. Ask for help (from God? from each other?) to hold those behaviors in check.

Examine the ways we fall back on “whatever.” Surround ourselves with others who choose to live and work in hope, and talk together about what we know and can do to bring change in areas that concern us.

Bread for the World: With Child Refugees,
Who Are Members of Congress Listening To
Take small steps to connect what we know with what we do: give to one organization working on refugee relief; make a few phone calls advocating for more equitable legislation.

Pay attention to the distance between the way the world is and the way we think it should be. Where does that vision of how it should be come from? What responsibility do we have to act on what we see and know?

Join an organization committed to training members in practical ways to facilitate change: Bread for the World, Oxfam, International Justice Mission, League of Women Voters. We can’t join them all, but we could learn a great deal from ongoing engagement in one. 

And one more - that I'll post about next week - maintain Sabbath times, as an acknowledgement that we're not the ones in charge. We are called to love, connect, engage, but also to step back in times of rest, renewal, and reminder that the burdens we carry are not ours alone. 

This is part of the August Synchroblog, Connection.  Please take time to read some of the other posts exploring this topic: 
Jerry Wirtley – Connection
Michael Donahoe – Connection
Minnow – Our Dis-Connect
Leah Sophia – Touch of Life
Karen “Charity” Aldrich – Wuv True Wuv

This is also the sixth in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Justice for All, July 20, 2014  
Appalling Silence, August 3, 2014
The Role of Rules, August 10, 2014

 As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.