Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Traveling mercies

“Traveling mercies” is an expression, a wish for grace to follow you when you go off traveling somewhere. It is also the title of a book by Anne Lamott, subtitled Some Thoughts on Faith. I do not pretend to write like Anne Lamott but I have been struggling to articulate something that goes a little outside the normal fare even of The Discreet Traveler. (If you would rather skip all this, there's a colorful infographic posted below--all neat facts.)

This post has to do with how we are in the world, no matter where we travel or whom we meet. It is a vision TDT holds for how we could think, and act, as we make our journeys, not only across the globe but—perhaps—through life.

That vision requires messiness. This beautiful world we travel has horrible things in it and there are no neat answers. We need messy thinking, a messy frame of mind. Allowing for contradictions and questions we cannot answer.

I hope my readers can bear with my examples of too much neatness, some of which may sound like an indictment of particular individuals. They are not meant to be; they are meant to indict all of us, at times, as human beings.  Every one of us can, or should be able to, recognize times when we have taken the neat way, rather than the messy way.

It is neat to know that something is wrong, not because of facts or a consistent moral position, but just because it was done by Barack Obama. Or George W. Bush. Or Margaret Thatcher. It is neat to know instantly what to think about a difficult decision based solely on who made it.

It is neat to be able to judge how a nation should defend itself, without even mentioning civilians on the other side. There are, on this World Wide Web of ours, supposedly Christian comments about the Gaza situation in which it appears that Palestinian lives are utterly valueless. There are also comments about the situation with a tin ear as to anti-Semitism, as to the fear that encircles the lives of Jews in countries other than Israel. It is neat to think so completely on one side or the other of this psychological wall.

It is neat not to know, or care, anything about the historical context of a messy situation. To regard each act of gun violence in the U.S., whether it’s white kids shot in an elementary school or black kids shot by police, as its own rather commonplace event, that doesn’t stem from anything systemic.

It is neat to have an opinion about immigrants that is uninformed by the experience of previous immigrants or, indeed, one’s own family. To say of terrified people in a shipping container, "Ship 'em back" or even "Seal it up and leave it!" To fear that Spanish speakers, or brown people, or mosques are coming to “swamp” your country, but exempt the people from whom you are descended. It is neat not to think about how the Native American Indians must have felt, on the receiving end of dispossession. Or the Celts.

It is neat to know, based on something in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament or the Qur’an, exactly what political or military decisions should be made today. It is neat to so completely conflate religious heritage with secular government. It is especially neat to give such life-or-death importance to one verse—in Genesis or Leviticus or Romans—that you can overlook hundreds, or thousands, of other verses that might challenge you with a higher value.

It is messy to negotiate the contradictions of your many identities: as the citizen of a nation or nations, as a follower of one religion or no religion, as a heterosexual person or a queer person or a person who is past all those labels. It is messy to condemn violence, to abhor the consequences of certain beliefs, while still acknowledging the value that those beliefs have for others. It is messy to acknowledge where those values even overlap with your own.

It is messy to love. To love a person is messy, because there is so much about each of is that is unlovable, or unlovable from time to time. To love a country is messy for the same reason. Or to love a city, or a neighborhood. To love an institution for which one has worked. To love one’s brothers, brothers in arms, brothers in Christ. Love is messy.

Last week a friend was speaking about the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was said by Jesus in Matthew 7:12; he probably knew the earlier version from a conversation between the rabbinic sages Hillel and Shammai. The story goes that a Gentile came to both and asked to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai saw this as a provocation, and whacked him angrily with a measuring rod. But Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”

Every sura of the Qur’an begins with words that translate in English as “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.” There are lots of other words that could have been about Allah, but in the Prophet Muhammad’s recitation, mercy and compassion were given top priority.

My friend reminded me that the Golden Rule is the overarching message—though as Hillel said, there is plenty else to study, and to comment on. The Golden Rule is simple to understand, hard to practice. But what a difference it would make if we all practiced it, first, and then got around to arguing about the other stuff.

The Golden Rule is a lot of hard work; it is messy, but it is still golden. And the fact that we human beings honor it mostly in the breach does not make it any less of a rule.


Bob Haisman said...

Thank You for this post.... you made me think. great. UB

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks UB.