Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bringing a craftsman into the Huppah

A week ago past Sunday, I had the great joy of becoming married. But – as is so often true at times if joy – thoughts of those who could not be there arose as well, especially of my father, Bernard Abrams of blessed memory, and his sister, Bryna Krakow of blessed memory, both of whom we lost to cancer too young.

The Torah portion the day before included a description of the construction of elements of the Mishkan (or Tabernacle) – the great portable shelter the Israelites had for their worship during their time in the desert. As I prepared to speak, I looked up at the talit in the air that had been made above us into another form of portable shelter – a wedding huppah – by wooden poles and the four friends we had holding them. Inspired by the holiness of this special, yet temporary, shelter, I talked of the Mishkan's menorah, beaten of a single piece of gold by the quintesential craftsman of the Jewish tradition, Bezalel.

My father had also been a craftsman, although of a different sort than Bezalel. He was trained as a mechanical engineer (at RPI and MIT), but worked most of his career as a software engineer. He was fascinated by how things work, and was especially curious about systems of human cooperation and interaction. He loved technology, a love he has passed onto me.

He would have been fascinated to watch Bezalel work on the Menorah, the great candelabra of the Mishkan. The Torah (Ex. 25:31) tells us that, while it was made of a single piece of gold, it had many elements – including its base, its seven branches, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms. That is, while it was made from a block of one thing, it looked like it had many separate things.

Issac Luria, the great kabbalist, wrote about the Menorah in a text I was recently studying with Minna (and that was assigned in a class I'm taking with Elliot Wolfson). Luria understands Bezalel's means of constructing the Menorah as a metaphor for how God constructed the world: That, while the world appears to be constructed of many separate things – and this indeed is true! – it is also true that everything in the world is not only connected, but is, in fact, constructed of one thing.

My father would have loved this beautiful metaphor. He loved to try and break down the things we see in the world into their component pieces so he could better understand how they worked and fit together. He loved the technology that gives us the modern life we enjoy. But there's another thing he passed down to me – that it is also true that there is a higher truth. A truth that involves the holiness that God has given us. A truth that helps direct us to the things that are truly of most importance.

Certainly, under that huppah with Minna as I spoke, I was reminded of how she is the most important thing in my life and that the bond between us is connected to that higher reality of which we are all part. And I was reminded of how I miss my father.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that you should find love – and wholeness – wherever you go.


PS If you want to try and learn the Luria text (challenging!) see the arrow on pg. 257 .

What to do when we know -- the cry of Florida, the cry of Cumru

As our great holiday commemorating our release from slavery in Egpyt approaches, it is a good time to ask ourselves what freedom means in our time and where can we find the struggle for it. Of course, there are no shortage of places around the world where people are struggling against violence and oppression. We read about Tibetians in such despair over Chinese government oppression that they are setting themselves on fire. A viral internet video raises our awareness about the enslavement and murder of children in Uganda. And, of course, it is impossible to turn on the television news right now without hearing that we may have come to a time in this country where a certain group of people can't walk to a convenience store in the rain without being pursued like an animal and killed by someone supposedly charged with protecting others.

But just as the Haggadah of our Passover seder challenges us by asking us to imagine that it is not just the distant Israelites who were redeemed from Egypt – but also our very selves – we must challenge ourselves to wonder whether there is oppression much closer to home than Florida or Uganda, oppression that it might be quite challenging for us to acknowledge and to do something about.

The biblical account (Ex. 2:23-25) tells us how God comes to choose the time for the redemption. It's a three-step process. First, the Israelites cry out to God from the pain of their bondage, and God hears this groaning. Second, God looks upon the people and sees. Finally, God knows (ויידע אלוהים).

It is only after this third step – the knowing – that action happens. I am not sure whether we – as a nation – have reached the state of knowing with the Trayvon Martin case. But we have certainly entered the states of hearing and of seeing in an extraordinary way. When people of all ages and colors express solidarity with the cause of a young black man by donning hoodies as part of an 'I am Trayvon Martin' campaign, we can see that something unprecedented is happening. We may be moving closer to being able to see everybody around us as human beings – and not to segregate some of them as merely dangerous animals just because of how they appear to us.

But I'm not sure that even those hearing and seeing steps are happening in Berks County, Pennsylvania where I live. Less than two months ago a 65-year old man used a “stand your ground” law similar to the one in Florida to claim self-defense when he shot and killed a 16-year old not far from my home. But unlike in Florida – where there has been a mass outcry to investigate the actions of the shooter, George Zimmerman – there has been no such outcry in the killing of Julius Johnson in a little patch of Cumru township by a fishing dock. The authorities haven't even seen fit to release the name of the shooter, not to mention release details of why they accepted his account. I don't know what to call it but a coverup.

But what really breaks my heart is that there has been no one in the community who has risen up to demand justice in the Julius Johnson case they way people are demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Quite the opposite, with one newspaper columnist, for example, defending the shooter's actions and the “stand your ground law by concluding a column with these words:

"Thankfully, in this country you have the right to bear arms and defend yourself."

Where are the community leaders in the city of Reading and in the surrounding Berks county? Who will cry out for justice? Who will help us hear and to see? Who might lead us even farther – to know?

And it's not just young men in hoodies who might be subject to vigilante justice if they're out walking. Shockingly, an innocent 58-year old man was assaulted less than a week ago in nearby Exeter township while out for his nightly walk by some neighborhood men under the impression – like Zimmerman was – that they were making their neighborhood safer. In this case, it was rumors posted on Facebook about a man stalking their neighborhood that sparked their attack (it turned out that the person who actually led to the suspicions was a man in his 70s with a tendency to sift through his neighbors garbage).

Luckily, there were no guns on either side in the Exeter incident and nobody died (although the victim did suffer broken ribs and had to go to the hospital).

The “stand your ground” laws are a unnecessary tragedy. Up until 2005, almost every place in the United States had the same standard for self-defense in public – if you felt threatened, you had a duty to retreat before using deadly force to protect yourself. It worked. There was no need to change it.

But ideology can lead to bad decisions. Powerful gun manufacturers and gun rights groups were looking for another victory in their ideological struggle to turn American into an armed camp no matter what the cost in human life. And so now we have these terrible laws in states across the country. Trayvon Martin might be alive today if George Zimmerman did not feel so empowered by the “stand your ground” law in his state.

The real problem, however, is not about guns. It's about attitudes. We live in an us-and-them culture. If we think someone is not part of our 'us' – maybe because they're wearing a hoodie or because of their skin color, or maybe because of something we read on Facebook – we dismiss them as other. We think we don't have to care about them. We think we don't have to do anything to help them or protect them. We just want to be safe in our own castle or our own gated neighborhood.

It has to stop. We have to start listening and seeing. And once we've done that, we need to move onto knowing. We need to fight to bring all our people out from the enslavement caused by hate and make this one country that serves all its people.

Do you know?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NYU student leaders oppose NYPD surveillance of Muslims

The following email went out to NYU students, today:

TO: Members of the NYU Community

FROM: Albert Cotugno, Chairperson, Student Senators Council

RE: NYPD Surveillance of NYU Students

Recent news reports have revealed that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been engaged in the prolonged and secret surveillance of Muslim college students for the past several years. In these reports, New York University was listed as one of the schools targeted, although specific details as to the nature of the surveillance at NYU have yet to be released.

The SSC echoes the concern of many New Yorkers about the existence of this surveillance program. We acknowledge and share the rightful outrage that many of our students have expressed. We strongly oppose both the invasion of an individual's privacy based solely on his or her religion and the violation of constitutional rights under the guise of national security. The SSC stands united with our fellow students against this breach of their rights to freedom, security, and safety. Students should not have to live with the fear that forwarding an email, inviting other students to club events, attending social events, or participating in legal protests will be cause for police suspicion. NYU must remain a safe place where students feel free to learn, grow, and express themselves freely.

While the specific details of surveillance of NYU members have yet to come forth, we encourage any students with knowledge about specific incidents of surveillance to report them to the University immediately.

We call upon our elected officials to take steps to safeguard the fundamental rights of every New York resident and especially our students. Further investigation into the details of the surveillance must be undertaken.

In the interest of transparency and justice, we also call on the NYPD to release all documents related to the unjust surveillance of NYU students.

Finally, we call on the NYU administration to continue its support of the NYU community by actively working to uncover the extent of the surveillance conducted on its students and standing aggressively and publicly against these shameful practices.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Revisiting parallel process – a “hidden curriculum” in pastoral education?

One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog is one I wrote in 2006 about something called parallel process. It's one of the most mysterious and yet most powerful concepts we have in pastoral education. Even though it's not part of our official educational outcomes, I think it's so central to our field that it's impossible for our students to understand what we do without having some kind of idea what parallel process is. Yet, we only rarely try and explain it to beginning students. I'm starting to wonder if that's a huge mistake that explains why our students sometimes find pastoral education to be so mysterious – or sometimes even intrusive and
Let me explain. As Kathleen Pakos-Rimer points out in her excellent 2005 study of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, our students know from the moment they look at a standard CPE application that self-awareness is an important value in CPE. The application, for example, asks them to write essays that “provide a reasonably full account of your life, including important events, relationships with people who have been significant to you, and the impact these events have had on your development” (pg. 48). And, the student, if they should read our official, hoped-for educational outcomes for CPE, might even learn that we in CPE think that the reason it's important to build this self-awareness is so we can understand how our background and key life events affect how we act with patients and other suffering people. But what the student could never figure out from the written standards alone is why we think building self-awareness – and being able to share that awareness in the moment with others – is so important that we spend more time on it in the seminar room than anything else, and we evaluate students on it (we call it, “being present” or “being engaged”) when they appear before committees. This is where parallel process comes in.
On the broadest level, parallel process simply means that what happens in one relationship in a person's life gets reflected somehow in other relationships. Think of the old story about the man who gets yelled at by his boss and then comes home and kicks his dog – the abuse in the boss-man relationship gets acted out in the dog-man relationship. This doesn't just happen with bad things like abuse. As Care Theorist Nel Noddings argues, children who are treated in a truly caring way by their teachers and parents tend to grow up to be caring and moral adults.
In CPE, we use parallel process to assess some of the pretty demanding ideas we have about how our chaplain-students should act with patients. That is, supervisor-educators like myself want our students to take on the incredibly demanding task of forming deep relationships with patients amid the challenges of encountering the scariness of death, suffering and pain, as well as the challenge of having limited time to form those relationships. And we think that some of the toughest issues students have with forming relationships with patients will also show up somehow in their interactions with us, their teachers – that's parallel process.
It's also something that might be called part of a hidden curriculum of CPE – things about our educational process that our students might not be fully aware are a part of this game. That's unfortunate because students who feel like we're involving them in a game where they don't know the rules are likely to feel that they are being treated unfairly and that the education we are offering is not serving their interests. Worse, they may experience us as a bunch of intrusive emotion voyeurs – who just want them to share the most intimate details of their lives because it entertains us.
So, it's imperative that we raise our awareness about what parts of the CPE curriculum might seem hidden to students – and to find ways to explain those things so they are no longer hidden (assuming, that is, that we decided we want to keep these once-hidden things as part of CPE).
Parallel process may be one of those hidden things. But, unfortunately, it's not the only one. Pakos-Rimer identifies five implicit – or hidden – outcomes in CPE including the “ability to engage the person in the patient without violating professional boundaries.” But what does that mean to engage the person? We who are steeped in the hidden curriculum of CPE have a fairly well developed idea about what engagement means, but do our students share this? When, a few years back, I was sitting before a committee of veteran supervisors for an hour asking to be allowed to begin the first steps towards joining their ranks, I was nervous for many minutes and was desperately trying to give them the 'right' answers to their questions. If I had stayed in that nervous, desperately-trying-to-say-the-right-thing state, the committee would have failed me for sure. But, then came a time of dramatic shift – I started to talk about one of the greatest fears in my life and tears came to my eyes.
In another field, showing emotion in an interview-type setting like this probably would have been a disaster for me. But in CPE we value engagement in an interview (because we understand that good pastoral care is about true engagement and because the doctrine of parellel process tells us that if a person can engage before a committee he or she can also probably engage with a patient). I knew about that value when I was before the committee shedding tears, so I realized in that moment that I had moved from failing this committee appearance to succeeding at it – not because of the tears alone, but because I was no longer afraid of what these people would think of me. I already then knew enough about the CPE hidden curriculum to know how the committee would experience this – they would see my as engaging them with my genuine person.
Parallel process is why this makes sense – if you believe in parallel process than what the committee saw happen between me and them in that moment tells them something about what I was capable of being with students and with patients. That is, if I could show them I could experience intense emotion with them – and yet still be able to retain enough control and self-awareness to be able to rationally discuss with them what was happening for me – than that indicated I could also experience intense emotion with patients, but still have the control of a skilled professional. (This is closely related to something that Pakos-Rimer calls well-bounded empathy – where you can, to paraphrase Carl Rogers, enter the experience of the patient as if you are in his or her shoes, without ever forgetting the as if condition.)
Of course – as many a student has complained – sitting with a patient is not the same thing as sitting before a committee of veteran professionals. But we supervisors in CPE – rightly so in my view – believe that the basic issues of entering into and maintaining relationships will be largely the same wherever the student finds opportunity for relationship. And, most importantly, we believe that the essence of pastoral care is about entering into relationship with the person we are caring for – genuine relationships that are deepened because we are able to share some fundamental part of our core being amid them.
But it's not enough to just tell the student that this is just the way it is and get used to it. We have to explain for them as best we can how we believe our educational process works. And before we can do that, we need to be able to be able to explain it to ourselves. Here is the opportunity – and need – for research. We need to define our terms in a disciplined way. Pakos-Rimer has contributed to this by exploring, for example, what we mean by empathy and why we might think it needs to be well-bounded. Another excellent work – Judith Ragsdale's 2008 study of the education of CPE supervisors like myself – made another important contribution: providing support for why a program of continuous spiritual and professional self-examination might be particularly important in our field.
And other terms that we professionals in the field throw around as if they are clear need to be more carefully defined (like integration). We also have expectations that may be culturally determined – like our expectation that chaplain-students develop a greater sense of autonomy and personal/professional authority so that they are more able to engage in what we call self-supervision, self-assessment and self-care. When students come before us for evaluation, we expect them to be able to demonstrate a strong sense of their own authority – and to be able to even take charge with us in discussing their learning. We might even expect them to resist being interviewed – to resist just providing answers to our questions – and to, instead, engage us by sharing their own deepest, unanswered questions about their own work and to try and use us as resources in wondering about how those questions might be answered.
Not everyone believes that all the self-examination CPE professionals engage in is actually necessary to become a skilled spiritual caregiver. I am not sure that everyone in the Jewish Healing movement, for example, believes in the necessity of the level of self-examination we do. And there are alternative training models in the Jewish world, certainly, for students to learn pastoral care. At Yeshiva University, for example, there is an emphasis on what is called positive psychology – an approach that does not call for either the chaplain or the patient to explore their emotional and spiritual wounds. If CPE is to remain the dominant spiritual-care training model we must answer the questions and challenges raised by these alternative approaches and perhaps, even, adopt aspects of them.
I believe that we can meet these challenges. And parallel process is at the core of what we have to contribute to the world of spiritual care and beyond. By forming model relationships of true caring and compassion with ourselves and our students, we can – through a giant chain of parallel processes – affect nothing less than every other relationship in the world. Like ripples in a pond from a single pebble, we can spread peace and wholeness one relationship at a time. This is what we hope to prepare our chaplain students for – not just so they can learn to minister to individual patients one at a time, but so that they can become forces for greater caring and compassion everywhere they go.
May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that we shall all know peace, soon, speedily and in our days.

Parallel process, by the way, is not an invention of pastoral educators – but, rather, something we borrowed from the filed of psychoanalysis. One interesting question is why the concept of parallel process has remained so central in the field of pastoral education while it has become less important in the field of pscychoanalysis.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Cargo dream ride

I spotted this Trek Transport on the streets of Manhattan on Friday. Note the huge, built-in front rack and the side cargo "wide loaders" on the rear that fold up and down. Very cool. I didn't know Trek had got into the longtail business.

I want one!

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