Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

Advertisements

When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.

 

Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

Transformative Moments: the Puritans Had it Right

There’s a question I have been wrestling with for at least fifty years: what makes change, particularly deep and transforming change, possible.  I don’t mean learning to be more polite, for example, but learning to express heartfelt gratitude to another.  I mean learning that shifts the underpinnings, the foundations, not the surface.

You can only prepare yourself for this kind of change.  You can’t force it.  Let me tell you a story about the early Puritans that illustrates my meaning.  The Puritans came to this country in the seventeenth century in pursuit of religious freedom.  They believed that the fate of their souls was predestined—in God’s hands alone.  Nothing they could do would influence the decision.  This created tremendous tension in these industrious people, who badly wanted to achieve God’s grace through good works.  In fact, some rebelled and created what they called a Doctrine of Works, which claimed that enough charitable actions would lead you to heaven’s door.  The Doctrine of Works provided solace for some but not for the strictest among them.

That little band believed they could, at best, prepare for grace by living simple, humble, and charitable lives.  Then they could only hope and wait.  And here’s the most interesting part of their approach to grace: It only came with heartbreak—the loss of a loved one or a home being burned to the ground, undoing years of backbreaking toil.  It’s as though the shell they constructed to protect themselves from life’s harsh injuries had to be cracked in order for God to enter.  If you substitute love or strength or understanding—more modern pursuits—for God, then you’ll see what I find so compelling in the Puritans’ pursuit.  Crisis tends to precede change and make it possible.

The lifetime of preparation, the striving for simplicity and humility, might take years to perfect, and even then there would be no guarantee of grace, but, once it came, it was sudden and complete.  You were transformed, and everywhere you looked, things were brighter, clearer, more connected.  The timing and content of change were unpredictable but durable.  The element of crisis was key to the journey.

Since I began publishing the essays in my blog, I have received a good deal of kidding and concern from friends about the dark side that I’ve revealed.  I appreciate their concern but I want them also to pay attention to something I am striving for: a kind of clarity and light that only comes with the acknowledgement, even the re-experience, of heartbreak.  Like the Puritans, I believe that it is necessary to move through times of confusion and instability to change the underpinnings of my mind.

The Puritans and I are not alone.  Virtually all contemporary change theorists sing a similar tune.  Here I think of Ilya Prigogine in physics, Steven Jay Gould in evolutionary biology, Eleanor Duckworth in education, and many more.  Let me escort you on a little journey through their world.

Prigogine says that systems in disequilibrium are vulnerable to change, often precipitated by random events.  When it comes, change can be sudden, massive, and complete.  The heartbreak of the Puritan is a kind of disequilibrium.  Most of us know these moments, when we are confused, off balance and uncertain, when the way we have solved problems and coped with pain in the past no longer work.  We reach and grasp for the ways that once worked but they seem to have abandoned us.  When we cannot recover our balance or our clarity, when we will ourselves to see the crisis out, eyes open, then deep learning is possible.

We find ways to see our world that had been invisible before, and new vision leads to new action.  Where once it had been unthinkable to confront an abusive boss, you “know” that you can do it—and you do it.  Where once you felt chained to a job or a relationship, you see the way out—or the way in, towards renewal. Where once you could not see beyond the death of your husband or wife, you might see the possibility of new friendships and professional pursuits.  You see these alternatives not because you are straining to do so; they are simply present.  These are transformational moments.

Steven Jay Gould developed a similar notion, which he called punctuated equilibrium.  He argued that it is only when species wander far from their normal environment that they are likely to mutate, creating new species. This, he tells us, is the engine of evolution.  So it is with our intellectual and social lives.  When we are placed—or place ourselves—in unaccustomed, often uncomfortable environments, we adapt.  We adapt in order to survive.  In this process of adaptation, we act and understand the world differently.

Eleanor Duckworth, a pioneering educator, famously said, “To be confused is good. Glorify confusion!”  She encouraged learners to experience cognitive conflicts, even painful ones, which, she believed, led to their minds becoming more deeply engaged with problems they were trying to solve.  She was less interested in students finding the right answers than in trusting the process of exploration, then testing conclusions—new ways of seeing—in light of how well they held up in experience.

In 1995, in my attempt to help individuals, couples, and families change, I developed a theory of my own.  It seemed to me that people change when they are ready to change. Trying to change people who are not ready was like trying to push a Suma wrestler off his spot when he knows you’re coming.  But when people are ready, when they are confused, off balance, and frightened, they could be changed with a little push from behind.  The push represented a kind of emotional judo, in which the therapist makes use of the patients’ own momentum.  Instead of forcing the matter, I would often wait for a moment of readiness, then provide a very safe environment, and encourage people to come up with innovations of their own.  It worked, and I often wished that I had someone to help me in that way.

This year, I turned seventy-four, I retired from my professional life and left a very nurturing work community.  For a year or so, when people asked what I was going to do with retirement, I said that I didn’t know.  The passage was cloudy, and I couldn’t see to the other side.  I was willing to not know because I did know that uncertainty had often had such a powerful and positive impact on my life.  The results have been extraordinary.

For the last six months, my mind has been more fertile than ever, my ability to write has been unblocked, my wish to tear down barriers between myself and others has surprised me.  When I look at issues that interest me, I see them as though from the height of the highest tree.  Ask me about any given political challenge and I remember things that people have tried sixty, fifty, thirty, and ten years ago.  History feels present, a familiar landscape.  The same is true for literature and music.  I feel like I am living in an expanded world, whose full availability feels new to me.

I also feel free.  I seem to have frequent access to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, being in the zone, being utterly absorbed in and energized by writing.   I wonder sometimes whether—or when—this will wear off.  I have no wish to flee, no wish to get back to “normal,” no wish to relax into golf, movies, vacations, and bon bons in bed..  And I’m going to milk this for as long as I can.  Then, when the next crisis comes, as it will,  I can only hope, that I’ll have the courage to work through another time of confusion and difficulty in order to celebrate  what’s on the other side.