Last month, on a sub-zero Minnesota winter night, I drove to Minneapolis to record a live event in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. My spirit was a bit depleted with the raw, dry cold and a feeling of looming uncertainty about the future. I convinced myself that getting out and being around people (not to mention making a little extra cash) would do me some good.
I wasn’t wrong. That evening, the Minneapolis-based musical troupe Sounds of Blackness was booked to perform. I hadn’t ever heard them before, and boy was I in for a treat. I sat at the back of The Basilica of Saint Mary with my headphones on and let their sweet gospel melodies pour into my ears. One song in particular shook me out of my worried, wired monkey brain. I think the song is called "Everything Will Be Alright." What you’re listening to here is a really great recording of that live performance.
Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.
But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.
And Glenna at the Scarlett Lion puts a finer point on this as she observes Liberian girls in Monrovia passing over Nancy Drew books donated by Americans. Of course I immediately hear Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina telling Krista that foreigners should just “leave us alone.”
But, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember to apply these lessons closer to home as we encounter more suffering and job losses and homelessness during these tumultuous economic times. When I start to pity the bearded man who sits on a 5-gallon bucket at the off-ramp of Penn Ave and I-394 in sub-zero temperatures, I need to remember he has a life. To pity him is to judge him. That’s not helping him; it’s not helping me; it’s not helping teach my boys in the back seat each day we encounter him.
Repossessing Virtue: Majora Carter on Being More Deliberately Joyful » download (mp3, 8:46) Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
A few weeks ago, I sat in while Kate interviewed urban strategist Majora Carter. Three of us crowded into a tiny editing booth. There weren’t enough headphones to go around so I could only pick up Kate’s side of the conversation as the interview unfolded.
Even though I couldn’t hear her, I remember the moment when Majora Carter told Kate about being inspired by the quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Kate smiled and nodded her head and Shiraz, who was engineering the interview that day, also seemed visibly stirred by Carter’s words.
Carter goes on to share how she’s actively trying to be more joyful and appreciative in her every day life. During this time when so many of us are consumed by fear and uncertainty, she says it helps to be reminded that we’ve all got something to offer. Knowing this — and digesting it truly and deeply in our guts — can transform a perceived sense of scarcity into a trusty foundation of personal power.
I’ll admit that while my brain agrees with Majora Carter my nervous system does not. I’m seeing so many layoffs around me and a middle-grade anxiety seems to be wafting through the ventilation system. Recently I woke up from a fitful sleep and noticed myself tense and ill at ease. I wonder how I could flip the script on this creeping malaise. What are you doing to stay grounded and positive during these difficult days? Do you agree that a crisis is really an opportunity in disguise?
"But what’s really exciting for me today is that we truly have lived to see a time where America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as, through the love and the caring and the commitment of a president, as in our president, Barack Obama.
It’s exciting ‘cause I know my children will be able to say, ‘I was born when there was the first African American president. Yeah, I can do that too!’ But not only can they do that, but all children of all various ethnicities understand that they can speak in truth. They can talk about loving and caring about this country. They can talk about being a united people of the United States of America. They can live that dream that Dr. King talked about so long ago.
And if those in this country and throughout the world — you can put down your spirits of hate and open up your hearts to receive God’s ever commitment of love, then we can be a united people of the world. If we can think that big, and feel that strong, then I believe, as is said to me by my God, impossible is unacceptable. We don’t know the miracles that will be bestown on us because of that.”
We’re putting our show about depression on the air again this week. It’s been over two years since it has been broadcast, and, as always with rebroadcasts, we went in and refined and hopefully made it better. But this is essentially the show we created six years ago, which people discover all the time online.
Some have told us it has helped keep them alive. This kind of effect of our work is humbling and amazing beyond words. But in every way this show is unusual. It is more personally revealing for me than anything else we’ve done. I feel vulnerable knowing it will be out there in the ether again in coming days.
In my journal this week, as in the program script, I “disclose” that when we first created this program I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. I have a bit of the same sense now, airing it again, because that dark place seems a bit closer to me this February than I’m happy to admit. It’s a long, cold, depressing month in a frankly depressing moment in time, and I’m very tired.
As I prepared for those interviews years ago, and conducted them, I worried that peering down into that abyss again — even in memory, or vicariously through conversation with others — might send me into it. It did not. It was a clarifying, strengthening experience; one that made me grateful to be at a remove where I could in fact learn from depression rather than be enveloped by it. But I will stress here — as much for myself as for anyone reading — that we are not in a place to find spiritual enlightenment when we are in the throes of this illness.
Just in recent weeks, I had a new conversation with Parker Palmer, in which we both found wisdom on economic depression in some of the ways he had talked to me about clinical depression all those years ago. But hearing this show again right now, I’m personally most held and strangely comforted by Andrew Solomon and especially Anita Barrows’ insistence that emerging from depression — “healing” if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.
Those of us who have struggled with depression live imprinted with its reality — and the terrifying possibility of its recurrence — ever after. It is a gift, albeit an uncomfortable one, to live on this side of health where I can accept darkness as a companion, not a teacher when it is as close as this, yet an essential thread of the life that is mine.
We’ve been talking a lot more about poetry here lately, thanks to the recently increased involvement of Larissa, APM’s Poetry Producer. I have to say, I can’t complain about the fact that I now have poetry arriving in my inbox on a fairly regular basis.
Thinking more about poetry has reminded me of a message we received from a listener when we rebroadcasted “A History of Doubt" in January. In the message she mentioned, "As a poet, I’ve long embraced doubt, which Keats conceptualized and praised as Negative Capability."
[…] several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
In other words, negative capability is an ability to thrive alongside the uncertain and unresolved aspects of life, a trait that Keats believed poets express especially well. It seems that this capacity could be incredibly useful now, when we are living with a new-found abundance of day-to-day uncertainties.
For this reason, I’m glad we’re making an effort to include voices like poet Katie Ford in our Repossessing Virtue series. As we continue to interview wise voices on the current economic situation (many of which you’ll hear in next week’s program), we’re hoping to hear more from our listeners for a show in May: How are you dealing with uncertainty in your life, and how are you cultivating your own negative capability? Tell us your stories here.
Krista and the staff regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent essay by Martin Marty is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The “moderate evangelicals” were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching “You cannot serve God and Mammon;” the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached “the prosperity gospel” or the “gospel that God blessed only ‘free enterprise.’” In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against “commodification”, whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.
They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope’s Laborum Exercens, his “social encyclical” which “shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…” John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who “assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict.” With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called “Capitalist” and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.
Today Sightings has bulging files which document where “enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict” were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, “an expat Midwesterner” who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: “Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in.” Hundley reports on “the new braggers” who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties.
Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as “frugalista” and “luxury shame” (“a sense that even if you can still afford it, it’s best not to make a show of it”). Dames: “Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it.” Paul Harris in Britain’s Guardian: “For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold.” What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.
In a recent post including my conversation with poet Katie Ford for our Repossessing Virtue series, Ford talked about how in these hard economic times she finds comfort in literature, and more specifically, in the poetry of James Wright. During our talk, she mentioned a poem he had written, and the title was so compelling, I just had to dig around to find it.
"In Terror of Hospital Bills"
I still have some money To eat with, alone And frightened, knowing how soon I will waken a poor man. It snows freely and freely hardens On the lawns of my hope, my secret Hounded and flayed. I wonder What words to beg money with. Pardon me, sir, could you? Which way is St. Paul? I thirst. I am a full-blooded Sioux Indian. Soon I am sure to become so hungry I will have to leap barefoot through gas-fire veils of shame, I will have to stalk timid strangers On the whorsehouse corners. Oh moon, sow leaves on my hands, On my seared face, oh I love you. My throat is open, insane, Tempting pneumonia. But my life was never so precious To me as now. I will have to beg coins After dark. I will learn to scent the police, And sit or go blind, stay mute, be taken for dead For your sake, oh my secret, My life.
Copyright 1971 by James Wright. Reprinted from “Collected Poems” with permission from Wesleyan University Press.
I’m struck by the lines, “It snows freely and freely hardens / On the lawns of my hope,” and how the speaker wonders “what words to beg money with” when hospital bills finally bring him to poverty. Yet later, the speaker says “But my life was never so precious / To me as now.”
It’s a sentiment I feel I’m hearing often in these Repossessing Virtue conversations and in listener comments — that despite the fear and anxiety of this time, this economic collapse has offered us an opportunity to reexamine and refocus our energy on what we really value.
We’d love to hear what you think of this poem, or what other poems and/or poets are you turning to lately. One listener said he’s been reading a lot of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue this past year. What other poets are offering you comfort or insight during these economic times?
Laura Rozen reports that during a conference call George Mitchell, the newly appointed U.S. envoy to the Middle East, told Jewish community leaders:
Mitchell said that on the plane back from his recent trip to the Middle East, he had re-read his eight-year-old report on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and was struck by how much the situation had changed. Among the changes he noted, Mitchell said that eight years ago, no one talked about Iran. But this time, everyone mentioned it, both Israeli and Arab leaders.
Repossessing Virtue: Katie Ford on Poetry, Katrina, and Wasting One’s Life » download (mp3, 17:21) Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
I used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember it was such a strain on my students’ imaginations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joad family these past few months, with the staggering the numbers of people losing jobs, and collecting unemployment, and I wonder how the Joads’ experience can offer some insight into the current economic crisis.
Honestly, it feels like a strain on my imagination to think about how the Joads endured. They lived on lard, flour, and potatoes. (The potatoes I can figure out, but I don’t even know what I would do with lard and flour.) They lost everything except what they could pack in their truck, along with over a dozen people — some too old to live through that kind of journey — and drove, slowly, across the country to find a job, to survive.
In our conversation, Katie Ford talked about turning to literature to find wisdom and comfort during times like this. She looks to James Wright, a poet who grew up during the Depression in a working-class family and knew what it meant to struggle through economic turmoil. She mentioned one of his poems, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” and talked at length about some of his most well-known poems like "A Blessing" and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
We thought this might be an ideal time to ask you about poetry and its role in your life. What poems and/or poets are you turning to in this economic environment? What insight are they offering you? Share your story in the comments section below or, if you prefer, write us here.
[Editor’s note: I was combing through a test blog for SOF that never made it into production. One of the entries I posted I regretted not publishing. The piece is timeless, so I thought I’d re-post for you design lovers.]
The design house of mike and maaike developed a wonderfully elegant and simple bookshelf for a curated series of bookshelves. Its title: “religion.” Niches for seven influential religious texts are carved out of a three-foot-long piece of hardwood and reverently cozied up to one another. Included are the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, Confucius’ The Analects, the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell), The Discourses of the Buddha, and the Torah.
You can get one of these lovely pieces, but it’ll cost you. The price: $2500.
Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering » download(mp3, 9:17) Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.
The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.
This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.
In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.
Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.
Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.
My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.
I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.
So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.
"Roshi’s Very Tired" by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing
“It wasn’t about doing the right thing. It’s just me as an athlete — I feel like we all compete and train for four years to get to the Olympic Games. We got there, he was told he finished second after all that, he took a victory lap. I can understand his humiliation and embarrassment and all that. Me being an athlete, I know how he feels, so I feel like it was to me to give it up to him.”—
—Olympian Shawn Crawford
In a display of sportsmanship, the U.S. sprinter gave his Olympic silver medal to Churandy Martina, who finished ahead of Crawford in the 200-meter event but was disqualified for running outside of his lane.