Sunday, April 08, 2007

A hidden wholeness

As promised, I spent some time over the last few days reading Parker Palmer’s latest book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, in which he describes in detail how he uses things like the clearness committee to help people (and himself!) find their proper path in life.

This was the first time I have read anything of Palmer’s (his The Courage to Teach has been recommended to me, often, but I’ve never picked it up). On one hand, I was a bit disappointed by his writing. Unlike the book of the other creative educator I picked up recently (bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom), Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness is not fueled by a compellingly written personal story. Some of his examples of how people were transformed by the clearness committee and other related practices were quite weak, as well.

But, on the other hand, I find some of his ideas quite compelling. To me, some of them sound like ‘Pastoral Care 101’. That is, they are statements of things that I think it is very important to make part of a pastoral care training program, and, as such, Palmer may become one of my theorists behind my own work going forward (as I work towards articulating my own personal theory of clinical pastoral education).

Here are some excerpts of parts of the book I found compelling:

If we want to create spaces that are safe for the soul [by soul Parker seems to be mean a relatively secular definition – something like true self or basic essence of a person; his work is centered around trying to create settings where people will feel safe enough to reveal their soul/true_self to other people (and thus to themselves!)], we need to understand why the soul so rarely shows up in everyday life.

[Parker goes on to explain a number of reasons why the soul/true_self is so afraid to be seen. He uses a nice image of the soul as being akin to a wild animal (powerful and beautiful, but also scared and shy). But he also succinctly expresses something that I often feel – that it is davka/precisely people’s insistence on helping (or fixing) that scares me away from sharing openly and honestly with them.]

. . . Convinced that people lack inner guidance and wishing to “help” them, we feel obliged to tell others what we think they need to know and how we think they ought to live. Countless disasters originate here . . . in presumptuous advice-giving that leaves the other feeling diminished and disrespected. (52)

[This sounds a lot like what I have heard as the definition of being patronizing – that we are patronizing when we assume (and communicate!) that we know better than the person themselves what he or she needs. . . . For Palmer, this would be a basic violation of the first rule of the kind of interactions he is describing. That is, Palmer assumes (in line with the Quaker tradition in which he is rooted) that each person has an inner voice or teacher that knows better than anyone else what it is that the person needs. The point of a discernment exercise like a clearness committee is to help a person hear their own inner teacher.]

Palmer also speaks compellingly of how when we are trying to minister to a dying person that this kind of relationship is the only one we have to offer:

When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to “be alone together.” [This phrase comes from Palmer’s discussion of how we need community to be able to be alone and we need to be able to be alone to be able to truly be with community.] First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships – the arrogance of believing that we have the answer to the other person’s problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand what is before us is not a “problem to be solved” but a mystery to be honored. As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently.

Second, when we sit with a dying person, we realize that we must overcome the fear that often distorts our relationships . . . .

When people sit with a dying person, they know that they are doing more than taking up space in the room. But if you asked them to describe what this “more” is, they have a hard time finding the right words. And when the words come, they are almost always some variant on “I was simply being present.” (61)

[He goes on to describe his own experience of people trying to “help” him or “be present” with him during an episode of depression.]

. . . I took comfort and strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me. Their willingness to be present revealed their faith that I had the inner resources to make this treacherous trek – quietly bolstering my faltering faith that perhaps, in fact, I did. (62)

This, in fact, is how I have most been able to be helped by others in my own times of darkness – I have been helped most by the people who had the strength and courage to not try and help me. . . who were just willing to be present for me and walk alongside me in my despair. The one clearnes committee that I have called in my life functioned much in that way – the faith in me that these people showed by being willing to explore my pain and despair for an hour and a half (without offering me advice!) immeasurably bolstered my own confidence that I had the resources myself to cope with the issues before me.

The best image I know in Judaism to try and understand this is from Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical tradition). In Kabbalah, there is an understanding of the relationship between God and other things, and of how the nature of the relationship affected the way God created the world. The understanding is that God – in God’s true form – is so great that nothing else can exist separately before it. So, in order to make it possible for other things to exist, God had to practice withdrawal (צימצום/tzimtzum in Hebrew) or contract. In this way God lovingly created a space for God’s creation to form as independent entities capable of choice and acts of free will. For us to show love for others (and to help them grow and find their own true path), we also must be willing and able to withdraw at the proper times. Pastoral care is one such setting where this kind of withdrawal is needed.

I started reading Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petalled Rose over the first part of Passover. Now that we are about to come to the last couple of days of this holiday of freedom, I intend to finish it. It is a succinct expression of Steinsaltz’s understanding of Kabbalah and the role it should play in a person’s life. Although I am hardly a Kabbalist myself (despite what I wrote in my last posting, I am a bit too much of a rationalist for that), I think that a careful reading of Steinsaltz’s work will help me refine my understanding of concepts like tzimtzum and help me to better integrate them into my own personal theories of Pastoral Care and Clinical Pastoral Education.

I think, for example, in Kabbalah’s understanding of how the soul and the body are interrelated to each other, there may be some good images for understanding and expressing the kind of concepts about wholeness that Palmer advocates for in his book. Palmer argues that it is a lack of wholeness – for example, contradictions between our soul and role – that lead us to do (spiritual) violence to ourselves and (eventually) to others. I think Kabbalah also should have some images to offer me towards expressing the importance of community to being alone and being alone to community.

One thing, by the way, that I do _not_ think I share with Palmer is his insistence (and this sounds to me like it must come out of some important Christian theological debate that I do not know about) that we consider people to be pure and without sin in their original state. It does not bother me that Palmer believes that, but it bothers me that he thinks such a belief is necessary in order to apply the techniques he advocates. In essence, he links this understanding of this original, pure state with the existence of the inner teacher; that is, seeking the inner teacher is the process of trying to return to some version of that pure state (before all the experiences of life corrupted it).

I guess Palmer needs all that because his argument for the existence of the inner teacher is essentially a theological one. . . . But, as a Jew, I don’t feel the same kind of need for theology that people steeped in (belief-centered) Christianity do. For me, it is just common sense that we best know our own way and that the best help is help that helps us find our own way. . . . I am sure there are sources in Judaism that support that, although searching for them will have to wait for another day.

Hag sameach!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No comments: