On many First Days (Quaker terminology for Sunday) I cannot clear the 90 minutes (including travel time) necessary to attend Meeting for Worship, although this morning I most certainly will. Even on those days I try to take a period of time when I am not "doing" - reading, writing, listening to music, cleaning the house - and just "be" - sitting in a certain amount of stillness and letting my mind settle. In fact, I try several times during every day to create some space to "settle" like this, and am fortunate that I often have little choice when one or more cats decide my body is an appropriate place to take a nap and I am unwilling to disturb my feline friend(s).
For my diary today I want to offer a few thoughts on the value of stopping, formally as I do, whether or not in Meeting. I will share a few ideas on the value of taking time to reflect, not in focused thinking, but in opening oneself up to possibilities perhaps unconsidered.
This is a political blog. I posit that taking time for quiet reflection is an inherently political act. I would propose that it may be as important as any other political act we make.
Let me begin the body by offering a lesson learned in a music class at Haverford. The late William Heartt Reese, who was a major influence on the campus for a long period which included all three of my times at the College, once asked in a class on the symphony what the motif was of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. One of the four of us, perhaps the playwright Ken Ludwig, responded "dit-dit-dit-DAH" using the Morse code for the letter V - after all, during the 2nd World War the symphony developed an association with the letter V for Victory.
Dr. Reese responded "Wrong! It is REST-dit-dit-dit-DAH." And of course if you examine the score, the time signature is 2/4 and very first measure, with the motif played by the strings and clarinets, the very first thing we see is an 8th note rest followed by the three 8th notes we represent with "dit."
In that brief few moments Bill Reese taught us all something important - that music consists as much of silence as it does of sound, that the sound has meaning place against the background of no new sound, that the moments of silence, however brief, even if only of some instruments and voices while others continue, is part of the overall conception of the composer.
Since I am a musician by training, I hope you will forgive me what may seem like a pointless excursus. It is for me perhaps the easiest way to begin my explanation.
In the political part of life we have a heavy preference, even a prejudice, in favor of action, and of words that bespeak action. We want to know what a candidate or office holder will DO to address the myriad of issues which we can identify, or which the candidate in her wisdom (and desire to obtain our support) brings to our attention. I would argue that our predilection for action needs to be balanced with a willingness to reflect, to ponder, sometimes merely to listen.
Let me expand this idea by using an important concept from my vocation as a teacher. It is known as 'wait time." When a teacher asks a question, there is a tendency not to allow sufficient time for students to react, to want to move the class forward - after all, there is so much material to be "covered" just as in politics there are so many issues to be "addressed" and problems to be "solved." One reason I do not simply let students call out is that there are those (usually male) who will simply blurt out whatever partially developed thought is in their minds. Whatever they say, it in some way short-circuits the thinking process of the others who are trying to react to the challenge posed by the question (and I am not here addressing something that merely requires simple recall). Similarly, if I as teacher am too impatient, my students will not have to accept the challenge of wrestling with the question, of reflecting more deeply.
What I have just described is something for which I find equivalence in our political processes. Our politicians are far too quick to offer answers to questions about which they have not yet thought, and we are far to quick to demand fully developed statements on issues that have not as yet been reflected upon in a fashion that would lend itself to a complete understanding. As a result, far too often what occurs is a statement derived from a purely intellectual exercise, combined with an analysis of the political implications of the statement - will this gain or lose me votes? How might I be able to use the statement to position myself with respect to political opponents, whether in primary contests for a nomination or general elections for the office?
In my diary yesterday, entitled We have to do something different here I offered the following thought:
We must be willing to expand our vision to consider new possibilities, new ways of thinking, equally new ways of organizing our thoughts and our actions.
. In my own rereading of the diary and the ensuing thread, and my subsequent reflections upon both, I realized that I had omitted something important, the idea of stepping back and reflecting without cogitation.
Let me see if I can explain this more cogently. My experience of myself is that unless I am willing to stop wrestling with a problem and allow it to simple ferment on its own, I often miss important things about the problem. My thought patterns blind me to connections, to obvious aspects that I had not been considering. If I relate this to my experience of Meeting for Worship, it would be as follows: when I enter the silence of the Meeting there is no doubt that I am carrying many concerns with me, but if all I do is think about them I am prevented from entering a place where I am open to other possibilities. In Meeting someone might be moved to share a "message" that seemingly is unrelated to the concerns with which I arrived. If I am open to hearing that message, because I have entered a place of quiet and reflection within myself, I may without conscious thought or action on my part gain the advantage of a different and heretofore unconsidered perspective that allows me to move forward, perhaps even resolving some unrealized conflict.
The religious traditions that have dominated European and American culture all have the idea of a DAY of rest, of withdrawing from how we normally act. Within the Abrahamic family of faiths there are also many examples that draw us to the idea of stillness, of reflection on a smaller scale. The line in Psalm 119 of praising God seven times a day is but one example of this, as is the tradition to stop for prayers to Allah in Islam. But even that represents an action, and I am struggling to express something beyond that, perhaps more readily apparent in the ideas of the religious traditions of the East, although not unknown in the Occident: in Psalm 46:10 we read "Be Still and know that I am God."
Since I am posting this on a political, and not a religious, website, some may be turned off by my references to Biblical material, especially to the overt references to a deity. I offer them because they are part of the underlying understanding of human nature upon which I am relying in what I am writing, the human need to in some way step back and find a different way of being in and reacting to the world around us.
I believe that our politics would be far healthier, less discordant, and far more productive, were we as participants willing to allow the time and space to reflect, to not react immediately to ever issue and encounter as if it required an instantaneous response. I am positive that some reflection, in which we are willing to listen, and reflect for a while, BEFORE we demand answers and actions, might be beneficial. I am willing to suggest that an unwillingness to explore such an approach might be an indication of a fear that we cannot come up with answers, and a recognition of our unwillingness to trust that even if we as individuals cannot, our collective reflection might empower us in ways that our collective impulse towards action does not.
I do not deny that many situations which we encounter seem to demand instantaneous responses on our part - after all, the longer we wait the greater the destruction to the environment, or a person might be unfairly executed, or an administration might take yet one more action that seemingly will tilt us inexorably towards tyranny at home or widespread conflict, death and destruction internationally. Surely we must act, and immediately if not sooner, right?
Perhaps I can offer a thought that may help with this seemingly irresistible and legitimate demand for immediate action. I am not advocating quietism nor am I saying that the period of reflection need be extensive. I am suggesting that a willingness to wait, to step back, if developed as a part of our regular practice, will empower us to take whatever time is necessary to be open to different ways. If as a teacher I regular do not allow wait time, my students will learn that they do not have to do the hard work of exploring the challenge of the question - I will give them an answer. And thus what is most important in my pedagogy, empowering my students to learn on their own, will be lost to the impatience of the teacher, the desire to move forward. Or musically, the 3 eighth-notes preceded by a rest will instead be distorted into triplets covering the entire timespan of the measure - we will have something very different, and in the case of the Beethoven NOT what the composer intended.
I care deeply about many issues, as those who regularly read my postings well know. I can be as impassioned - and impatient - as anyone here. I do not hold myself out as a superior being. In doing an exploration like this diary, it is something derived from my own failings, it is a reflection upon my lack of success in helping to advance positive "solutions" perhaps because I am myself too prone towards the immediate word or action.
This is my wish for all of us. That we on a regular basis learn to step back, to reflect without thinking. to let things ferment, especially when we are upset and angry, to allow that space and time for the unexpected still small voice to arise in our consciousness, whether from within or without. We will have to speak, to take action, but let us try to ensure that we do not do so hastily.
A life in which reflection is a regular portion of our existence is one in which the actions to which we do move and the words which we must speak are rooted in something deeper than an immediate and incomplete understanding. In the political processes to which this site is dedicated, it may - just may - empower all of us to find ways that will productively advance a positive agenda. We might be able to understand words to which we initially reacted with anger or outrage in fact offer us a window into an understanding that helps resolve a conflict.
We may also come to have a greater determination to move in the direction to which our first reaction seemed to impel us, only this time with an assuredness that we are not acting too impulsively. And the more we make reflection a part of our existence, the greater the likelihood that we well have such assuredness, and can be reasonably certain that it is not mere arrogance derived from our sense of superiority or correctness, but rather something else. Yesterday I wrote that at times we must move or die. We need to be able to understand that in such cases we need sufficient humility to recognize that our first movements may require much modification, and the reflective person is more capable of making such alterations. If our political processes encourage reflection, I believe we will find far fewer occasions where those in or aspiring to positions of leadership will or can not admit that they need to change what they have been advocating.
Call this the humility of being human, and hence imperfect. Label it if you must perhaps as the wisdom of the collective unconsciousness. I don't care how it is described. I for one choose to embrace it. I recognize that we are unlikely to ever have perfect knowledge, even collectively. I also believe that if we allow ourselves and others the time and space to reflect, perhaps we will also allow greater freedom to recognize that ALL of us, no matter how great our judgment, are imperfect, and thus empower all of us to the humility necessary to make those changes that will prevent ultimate destruction of that we hold most dear.
REST-dit-dit-dit-DAH. Do not forget the rest, even if it is only a brief 8th note.