Tag Archives: education

Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

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The Gospel of Star Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was in high school.  It was a mediocre public school in Lancaster County, PennsylvaniaPaulBarberEdit1 where there was a holiday for the first day of deer hunting season, but not for Martin Luther King Day.  This is, however, where I met Mr. Paul R. Barber, my own Jedi  master.  Mr. Barber died this month, so this column is in his honor.

Having lived in the Midwest and visited Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, I can tell you that Lancaster County trumps all of them with Bible-belt influence.  Some people consider that a good thing, I am not one of them.  The predominant Biblical interpretation for this region is literal, which strips Christianity of the rich potential of metaphor.  It was in this environment that Mr. Barber volunteered to teach world religions.  He was a devout, practicing Roman Catholic, but when he taught Hinduism, he became a Hindu.  He was so effective that invariably the Biblical fanatics in class – and there were always several of them – would barrage him with angry arguments.  They expected his approach to teaching non-Christian religions would be to offer up what was wrong with them.  Living where I did, I think I understand what it was like for Luke Skywalker on the desert, trying to farm, when he finally met Obi-Wan Kenobi (Episode IV: A New Hope, the first movie produced), who would become his own Jedi master.

With Mr. Barber, I took an independent study in philosophy where he introduced me to the likes of existentialism and pragmatism, while also letting me read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and showing me how to find philosophy in popular culture and simplistic books.  At the time of this writing, All Things Religious is up to about 6,500 views.  I recognize that CNN gets that many hits in 15 minutes, but think about how long it would take the majority of clergy persons whose average Sunday audience is 70, to be able to say their sermons were heard 6,500 times.  I would not have taken this path without Mr. Barber.

Star Wars creator George Lucas said, “I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers — teachers with very loud voices.”
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/george-lucas/about-george-lucas/649/LucasC3PO

The values and mythology of Star Wars was not accidental.  Lucas told “American Masters” (PBS): “There was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life…Nothing was being done for young people with real psychological underpinnings.”  Lucas said that he set out to write a “modern fairy tale” for children and was greatly influenced by mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell (substantiating YouTube link follows).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSyyqctan2c

Joseph Campbell warned us (“The Power of the Myth,” with Bill Moyers, PBS) that without mythology, society starts to fall apart.  If you would challenge that, then observe the shocking and ever-increasing incidents of random shootings.

It is possible that a secular culture, like Lucas created in Star Wars, can still share stories, fantasies and a value system.  The Galactic Republic of Star Wars was the democratic union that governed the galaxy of many races and species in peace for a thousand years with the Jedi Order as guardians of peace and justice.  Then slowly and surreptitiously, the (evil) Empire rose to destroy democracy to the benefit of the few.  Their challenge was all the easier in a culture that had succumb to corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

The Jedi Knights were the spiritual sort in the galaxy who trained and self-governed with telepathy, insight, and wisdom.  I see them as conscience police.  When bad things happened, it was good to call a Jedi to investigate and defend.  They were armed with lightsabers which were more for defense than offense and had both power and grace.

Lucas mixed the temporal and the meta-physical by introducing the “Force” and the midi-chlorians.  For help on this, I found a site that calls itself “Wookieepedia,” the Wiki for Star Wars.  (Don’t know how good it is but it the name makes me smile.)  It convincingly described the Force as “a pervasive energy field.”  It’s a little more than that because it seems to have a “will” for the creatures of the galaxy.  To help interpret that will, there are the microscopic midi-chlorians which are present to varying degrees in different species, highest of course in the Jedi.
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian

At this point I remind you that the creator of the Star Wars phenomena – for it is a great deal more than six movies, set out to tell stories to children.  The movies have all been extremely successful.  There are Web sites, games, toys, Halloween costumes and products that seem to reach to the stars.  One year for Halloween I was a Jedi Knight and my little dog was Yoda.  Some silly neighborhood kid came as Darth Vader and was freaked out when I drew my lightsaber on him.  Well, what was he expecting?  I’ve got your lightsaber now, kid.

I propose that Star Wars is more than entertainment and Joseph Campbell was right.  The attraction to those stories speaks to our natural desire for myths that serve our time.  Curiosity about the metaphysical is natural.  A common morality is essential.  As a global community, we have to stand outside our own traditions to recognize our common values.  I don’t see how we can survive otherwise.  I challenge you to present me with a culture that doesn’t value justice, for example, though of course not as much agreement on how it is defined.  Or view from the reverse perspective; examine what’s behind those trying to impose micro-ethics on others.  I predict you will see a desire to control, oppress, or subjugate someone who is different, and it is often fear-based.

Here’s what Master Yoda said about that (Episode I): “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

Thank you Jedi Master Paul Barber.  May the Force be with you. –J.B.