How are humans different from chimpanzees? Are stories really important? Do you know the most successful story ever told? What story will answer the biggest question of the 21st. Century? What is the biggest question of the 21st. Century. Yuval Noah Harari suggests some answers to these questions and more in this fascinating TED Talk.
I think these are important questions for Passionist Partners. We’ve always known the importance of story and for many years people have listened to the story of the cross and have found hope. Does that story have relevance for 21st century peoples? Millennials (18 to 30 year olds) will be living the majority of their lives in this century. Are they listening to the story of the cross? Does the story need to be tweaked?
A number of years ago I was on a sabbatical at Princeton University, in New Jersey. While there I stayed in the house accommodating priests serving the needs of the Catholic students on campus. During my stay, one of the priests resident there inquired whether I would be interested in walking his dog, while he took off a few days for some R and R. He made this request because he was aware I was an avid walker, morning and evening. So I said I would be happy to do so.
This was an impressive specimen of a dog. A very large animal, of German vintage, he had a massive head with green eyes protruding from it. The mouth was large, as was his body, sporting a close-cropped grayish coat, displaying some very evident muscles rippling along the frame with which he was endowed. Fortunately, he was a good-natured beast, who always looked forward to taking a walk. Nonetheless, I kept him close at hand on a sturdy leash.
When he and I walked together along the sidewalks of the very well-to-do neighborhoods, typical of Princeton, passersby always took care to give us adequate passageway, sometimes even crossing the street. I too was the beneficiary of the respect shown this animal. We amicably pursued our morning and evening walks in this fashion, until one early weekday morning. From the other side of the street, on the spacious front lawn of an elegant home, came a series of high-pitched yapping sounds emanating from a very small dog sporting a white, fluffy mane. As we pursued our placid walk along our side of the street, our only concern was waking up the neighborhood, since it was early, and the little dog continued his barking barrage as we proceeded peacefully along, until we were directly across the street from him.
At that point he bolted out of his yard and dashed across the street, directly toward us. I shortened the leash on the dog I had, fearful that he would lunge out at the little intruder and do him considerable harm. But on the contrary, as he charged straight at us, “my” dog stopped and started trembling, while the little fluffy one lowered his head, leaped up and rammed himself into the side of this massive animal beside me, knocking him over on his side, then standing over him in a threatening manner while continuing to yap victoriously over my trembling animal, completely subdued. When the little fellow satisfied himself that he had won the day, he pranced back across the street to his own yard.
I was dumbfounded at this one-sided skirmish, and had to pull the behemoth from his prone position on the sidewalk, to an upright position. I looked furtively around to see whether anyone else had observed this incredible fiasco, perhaps peering out through one of the lace-curtained windows of one of the elegant homes lining either side of the street. We then sheepishly made our way home by the shortest route possible, and disappeared within the safety of our own confines.
Needless to say, my own esteem of this massive animal living with us was seriously deflated, and our subsequent walks sought out other streets for our exercise. But we no longer enjoyed the esteem that accompanied us in our previous walks.
This was a replay of the David and Goliath biblical encounter, showing that appearances are not what they seem to be. There is another element that enters into the conflicts of life. Certainly, self-confidence is one of those. In the case of David, of course, it was self-confidence larded with confidence in the Lord.
And, in addition, there is the skill at assessing the opposition or difficulty one faces. While initially it may seem formidable and even overwhelming, sometimes a bit of patience and careful consideration can considerably reduce the fearfulness of the opposition we are facing. Certainly the little dog in the story above accurately assessed the opposition he was about to go up against, and calculated his chances of success with care and precision. What appears to be the case may only apparently be so, and those convinced of this can confidently persuade themselves that “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”.
Appearances are deceptive. They are not always what they purport to be. There are other elements entering into challenging and formidable situations, and these often spell the difference between success and failure, victory and defeat. An indomitable spirit is a key element in surmounting life’s problems and difficulties, and when fortified by God’s grace/help, proves equal to the challenges of life.
The cross can happen even in the life of a child younger than three years old. If you doubt that, then I dare you to watch Noy Thrupkaew’s TED selection for today’s post. I think it might change your mind. As I listened to Noy’s presentation I recalled reading Harville Hendricks who postulates in his Imago Therapy that we spend a great deal of our life grappling with our childhood issues. We even choose our friends and intimate partners based upon this inner drive.
Noy discovered this in her life when she ended up in therapy. What she did with this realization is the story of the cross and resurrection today. Yes, as she says, it’s messy and unfinished. More importantly, she’s begun the task we all have of transforming our lives, and by doing this transforming the lives of all those around us.
In his Encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis recounts the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism, who eventually summed up his Rule of Life in two words, Ora et Labora (pray and work). Reflecting on Noy’s talk as well as my own work experience, I think maybe the problem with our 21st Century American way of life is we’ve entirely left our the first of these, prayer, and completely vilified the second, work. I think we could all benefit by prioritizing the prayer and work in our lives. I love what Pope Francis says regarding work:
Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.
(Francis, Pope [2015-06-22]. ENCYCLICAL LETTER LAUDATO SI’: On care for our common home: Green encyclical on the environment. [Kindle Locations 958-959]. . Kindle Edition.)”
There are innumerable kinds of trees growing across the land. Trees enjoy those types of shapes that babies can readily identify, and early on add to their growing vocabulary. Of course, there are different kinds of trees, each with its own kind of name, and babies are not as adept, while still babies, at naming and identifying the different species. But they can, early on, tell the difference between a tree and a flower.
But there are many kinds of trees, and it is only with the passage of time that a baby (now a youngster) can begin to identify, distinguish and even name these various kinds. Among the many ways for identifying trees, and distinguishing them from one another, is the length of time that it takes for a tree to fully develop and attain its final form and shape. There is value in knowing the quality of timber one intends to use in planning to build a house, in terms of its inner framework, but also in terms of the exterior setting and surroundings of the house, especially if it is being built on a piece of property devoid of an abundance of trees, leaving it open to the elements of the weather.
A home-builder, sensitive to this setting, may early on want to take steps toward improving the newly purchased land, not only to beautify it, but also to enhance the protection it might offer against inclement weather, whether severe blasts of wintry winds, or the relentless heat with which a blazing sun can bake the land.
Trees can offer help in this effort. One might think of planting a fast-growing tree that, within a few years, can reach a height and fullness that satisfies the owner of the property, offering him or her early protection against both the penetrating winds of winter, and the enervating pall of summer. A tree such as the poplar meets such hoped for results, given its capacity for rapid growth. Within a relatively few years it can reach full maturity, offering the landowner and his/her house protection against both summer’s consuming heat and winter’s bone-chilling blasts.
But there is a downside to the benefits offered by the poplar. Its longevity is short, so that, within a few years, its value as an asset begins to diminish, suggesting the wisdom of a fall-back plan to compensate for a now failing poplar tree. A far-sighted land-developer would anticipate this, so that, even at the time of planting poplars on his property, he or she would, if soil the condition is favorable, also plant a completely different kind of tree, such as the sequoia or the redwood. But this decision calls for patience. Unlike the quick-growing poplar tree, the sequoia and/or redwood are very slow-growing trees, requiring an amount of time that will far outlast the lifespan of the property-owner. Only his or her children or grand-children will begin to reap the benefits afforded by these two magnificent specimens, growing upward toward the skies above, while sinking their roots down into mother earth below. They too, like the poplar, can fulfill the purposes of protection from summer’s heat and winter’s cold.
Are there any implications in this tree reflection for something other than property improvement? There are. The question of our own growth, in the sight of God, arises. For example, some of us are quick responders; that is, we grow in our relationship to God fairly rapidly, often with much enthusiasm and initiative. In this regard, we’re like the poplar trees. With little prodding, and in a short period of time, there are some of us who experience a closeness to God, a friendship with Him, a sense of His warming presence to us, and His protection against a chilling sense of coldness or aloofness from Him. Some adult converts to the faith experience this kind of heart-warming experience in a new experience of God’s closeness to them. The apostle St. Paul is an example of someone suddenly encountering God, in the person of Jesus Christ, and undergoing a conversion of instant and enormous proportions, leaving him enthusiastic and energetic in this new experience of God.
But there are others among us who more slowly respond. These are those who have been watered and enriched and protected as lifelong Catholics, but without any signs of enthusiasm on our part. They have been dutiful Catholics/Christians their whole life, but, so it may seem to them, with little sign of spiritual development or growth. They just seem to plod along. But somewhere along the way an occasional bit of heart-warming occurs within them, suggesting they are not as lukewarm as they thought, that there is a spark of life within them. They’re like the sequoias or the redwoods. They need time and space to develop, laying out an elaborate root system at their base. And all along they have been slowly growing into someone pleasing to God. They are like St. Peter in this regard, who was an associate of the Lord from the very beginning, slipping here and there, but gradually becoming the rock (the meaning of the name Peter) on which the church is being built.
There are two ways to grow: quick and slow. Each is valuable in its own way. The important thing is for growth to occur, if not sooner, then later, so that we can begin to enjoy the shade and warmth like both the poplar and the sequoia/redwood can provide in God’s acre we occupy
My brother Dave and I like to discuss current issues. The other day we chose, addiction which we both agreed is widespread in our society. Like the author in today’s TED selection, we have a history of addiction in our family. I, myself identify as an alcoholic and work a daily program based upon that awareness.
Back to our discussion. We could not figure out why some of the most “religious” people we know seem to be troubled with addiction, not just to alcohol, sex and all those good things (and yes, I do mean good things) but to almost every conceivable human activity we know, i.e. working, reading, cleaning… We call these obsessions, and I think they are the same.
Johann Hari in this TED Talk identifies “the cure” for this and I believe he’s right. He cites Portugal as an example of a country who is succeeding in truly helping addicts and they have been doing this for 15 years. In that time problems associated with addicts have decreased in Portugal by 50%.
I wonder what would happen if we took the same approach in our church communities? Of course, some of our church communities are successful in their programs for addicts. From my perspective these churches are the ones doing just what Portugal is doing. There are many churches however that are not succeeding. If you happen to be a member of a community that needs help understanding the addict, you might find Portugal’s experiment worth trying.
Somewhere along the journey of my life I’ve learned that if I want to be successful, I need to hang around successful people and maybe even more importantly, do what they do. In today’s TED selection, Bel Pesce, a successful entrepreneur, an author, founder of the school, FazINOVA, a networker (she knows the importance of collaboration), a member of Sandbox… She is an amazing young woman. I hope you enjoy her as much as I have.
I’m reminded of the song from “South Pacific”, Happy Talk: “…if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true.
Cats and dogs are the epitome of opposites, and mutually opposed adversaries. Cats are the proverbial “loners”. They are self-sufficient, and can manage quite well by themselves, thank you. They don’t need someone to provide their food, shelter them or walk them. They are independent, and prefer to be alone. Though they can let out ear-piercing screams, as a rule they are extremely quiet; one never knows they are even around. They are not “groupies”. They tend to avoid fights, but can do it well if need be. Trent Lott, former Senator from Mississippi, and majority leader of the Republican party when they controlled congress, once remarked that trying to get the Republican Senators under his leadership to agree to anything among themselves was like trying to corral and marshal a bunch of cats. Cat owners readily acknowledge that this is not an easy task. Cats are not notably sociable.
Dogs, for their part, can be aggressive, especially regarding cats, as a rule, are “groupies”. Dogs usually like to be together, run together, play and rough-house together. They are largely helpless when it comes to self-care: they have to be fed, groomed, walked, housed. Unlike cats, dogs are noisy. They are dependent, and need to be walked outside. They are usually very noisy. They crave attention, and can be very noisy. Dogs can be trained to do many things, and take pride in it. Dogs are good students, and profit from going to obedience school.
Cat owners and dog owners argue among themselves on which animal is preferable to have, or, more briefly, which is the better animal to have around. Comparing cats and dogs is like comparing apples and oranges or pie and cake. This points up the diversity that is so paramount among us humans, and the observation that diversity seems to be at the root of so much of the divisiveness and rancor that characterizes human relationships.
We do note, however, that there are also differences in God. But they seem to coexist together in remarkable harmony, to the point where we can affirm that there is but one God, even while we acknowledge that there are three Persons in God: a remarkable combination of unity and diversity. And here may be the answer to our question. God has made us in His image and likeness, and so we display this paramount features of the Godhead: unity and diversity. We have in common that we are all human, even while we recognize how different we are from one another. And this leads to the common observation struggle about our human likeness to one another, even while we vigorously maintain our differences from each other. Like cats we treasure our privacy like dogs we like to group together.
That is to the fore in the foundational documents of our nation (the Bill of Rights and the Constitution) which embrace two fundamental values: freedom and equality. Freedom fosters our tendency to be ourselves and do our thing; equality motivates us to share and enjoy the same basic goods of life. Too much freedom hampers our common humanity; too much equality snuffs out our identity and uniqueness. Too much uniqueness separates us from one another. Too much similarity obliterates what makes us special. We try to capture this in affirming God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: each is one and the same God, but in His own special way. And among ourselves we use the same family surname to note our likeness to each other: Smith, but we also have a different first name: Sam/Sarah, Phil/Phyllis, Bill/Betty (even the twins among us), to distinguish us: something in common to mark our equality, something unique to note our difference from each other. Cats like their individuality, dogs like their groupiness.