Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Health Care Debacle and The Possibility of Hope: Fragments from One Spiritual Diary

Yesterday was a remarkable day. Quietly remarkable, in a way that wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone living outside my circle of experience.

I’ve felt lately the pull of a spiritual tide that I can’t quite identify. It’s an impulse—a leading might be a more accurate and traditional description—to create some space for what’s really important to come inside and live there. I have a strong tendency to fill every minute with busywork, a workaholic tendency that militates against the spiritual life.

Which requires a certain amount of emptiness. Because we can’t be filled with spirit unless we have some empty space inside for spirit to fill.

So, without being very intentional about it, I find myself slowing down lately, leaving some empty spaces in the day, letting mind and heart rest a bit. That’s not easy for me to do, because my mind whirs along all the time, jotting notes of articles to read or write, reminding me of birthday cards to send, the mint bed to check in these days of hot weather with no rain, household chores unfinished and supper menus to plan.

One reason, I feel sure, that this tide is running through my soul these days is that, due to the kindness of a number of friends, I have recently had, for the first time in several years, a number of nibbles for at least part-time work to carry us through a time of straitened circumstances to which I've alluded on this blog before. But the very opening to new possibilities provokes in me a need to listen more deeply—in part, because I'm intently aware that in places like Arkansas, which is one large overgrown neighborhood, those who wish to torpedo hopeful new possibilities for someone they regard as beyond the pale can do so very easily, with a phone call here and an insinuation there. And we who are openly and unapologetically gay do continue to be beyond the pale in places like Arkansas, as much in self-professed liberal circles as in reactionary ones.

Yesterday, I woke thinking that I’d simply use the day as a rare retreat day—listening, reading, waiting. And I did that, much of the day, without much systematic attention to doing “spiritual” things, all the while “hearing” a kind of refrain inside: Throw out what’s weighing you down; open space for the unpredictable new.

Nothing much happened as I listened to that refrain. And yet, as the day ended, I realized that something of importance had happened. And that it constituted a quiet lesson to me about the rhythm of emptying-receiving, of giving and being given to, that is at the heart of spiritual life.

First the doorbell rang. I opened the door, and a neighbor from across the street was standing there, holding in her hands a basket of vegetables. She had been to the farmers’ market on the weekend and wanted to share her finds with me—summer squash, cucumbers, new potatoes, and tomatoes.

I had cooked all the potatoes in the house on the weekend, and needed the new potatoes for a dish of goulash I had made for our friend Mary on Sunday as part of my ongoing soup-of-the-week birthday gift to her this year. And I enjoyed the opportunity to visit with a neighbor whom I ought to think about more often, since she has suffered a number of major losses in her family in the past several years.

As I washed the vegetables and put them away, cubing the potatoes for my goulash, the phone rang. It was my aunt, calling to tell me she had baked cranberry-nut bread on the weekend and wanted to bring Steve and me some of it. She takes the daily paper and we don’t, and I had intended to call and ask her for Sunday’s paper, since there was an article I needed to read in it. So her visit brought two gifts at once—the nut bread and the paper I needed to read.

A second surprise gift and a second surprise visit with someone whom Steve and I constantly challenge ourselves to keep in mind and heart, my feisty, independent aunt, who resists depending on anyone but who, like all of us, increasingly needs small favors and assistance as she ages.

Then the mail arrived, and in it was a letter from a friend. With a check in an astonishing amount made out to me. The letter tells me my blogging makes a difference. I suppose the check is a statement of support for the blog.

There’s not a chance I would accept this gift, though I am deeply touched by it—and that’s an even better gift than the check itself. This is a friend who has been kind beyond all measure to Steve and me in the past. When we were forced to leave North Carolina after losing our jobs at the wretched right-wing Catholic school there that effectively ended our careers as theologians, he showed up on our doorstep the night before we moved, a check in hand—in the same amount that he sent yesterday.

On that occasion, we accepted the gift, since moving was stretching us beyond the limit, and those were the years when we had the added responsibility of taking care of my mother, with additional expenses I didn’t track in our budget, because who tracks the flow of money to and from family members at times in which caregiving is taking place?

We took the money on that occasion, that is, with the understanding that when we were able, we’d repay the gift in some way. And we were very happy a few years ago when, after our lives were turned upside down yet again by another faith-based university that also regards gay people as subhuman, we could bring our friend the furniture we’d bought to furnish a new house when we accepted an invitation to come to that Methodist institution, only to have the promises our friend made to lure us there broken within a year.

He had just moved into a new townhouse and had little furniture to fill the rooms. He gives. Constantly. He is a former Methodist who takes seriously John Wesley’s injunction to do all the good we can in all the ways and places we can for as long as we can, though he’d never dream of setting foot inside a Methodist church today, given what his childhood church is doing to gay people while claiming to follow Wesley’s example.

Because he gives without counting the cost, our friend has not set aside many things for himself. It did our hearts good—tremendous good—to be able to bring a truckload of new furniture, dishes, pots and pans, garden things, to him, to help him clean and set up the new place.

And now he is trying to give again, far more lavishly than he should be giving, and I can’t accept such a lavish gift, knowing his situation. But I am moved powerfully by this kindness, and by the vote of confidence in my blog.

And by that third confirmation, in a day of gifts, that life is, as I seem to be intuiting lately, all about giving and receiving, opening spaces inside us for spiritual energy—for love—to fill. This is a message I need to hear in these dark days in which people openly carry assault weapons to political rallies at which the president is appearing. We are in a bad place, as a nation. And things are going to get worse. I feel it in my bones.

When Bob Herbert notes the intent anxiety the health care debacle is causing American citizens, I know he’s right. Because I feel that anxiety in my own body and soul. It weighs me down these days, like some heavy stone appended to my heart.

I can’t think of a time in the recent past when I have felt less hopeful about the future of my country than I do now. When Mr. Obama was elected, an Irish friend of mine who is exceptionally wise—he has more than 90 years of living, studying, teaching, and gardening behind him to fund his wisdom—wrote to say that he and many other Irish people were delighted at what the new president symbolized. To my friend, Obama stands for the hope that the United States will one day awaken from the foolish adolescent dreams that sustained the Reagan and Bush presidencies, and damaged the whole world while Mr. Bush was in power.

But my friend cautioned me: don’t hope for too much. What Mr. Obama can change will be only what the real rulers of the U.S. (and of the world) permit him to change. What he can change will be only what the Wall Street executives, the bankers, the heads of major corporations, the insurance executives allow him to change. Nothing more.

I think about that letter a lot these days. Because it turns out that my Irish friend was right. And, as a result, I feel rather hopeless about the possibility of substantive, meaningful change in the U.S. The reins of power are not in the hands of the people who elected Mr. Obama and gave a Democratic majority to Congress. They are not in the hands of the 72% of Americans who want a public option in health care. They are in the hands of the men my Irish friend’s letter names as our real rulers. Firmly in those hands.

I continue to agree with thinkers including Paul Krugman who argue that the president’s lack of leadership is a serious obstacle to progressive change at this troubled point in our nation’s history. Krugman continues to lament Mr. Obama’s lack of passion for the moral imperatives he articulated so courageously and clearly during his campaign. And I share the lament.

But I’m also aware that the president is up against some serious obstacles (though his temerity about leading makes those obstacles more serious): he’s up against the treachery of members of his own party who belong lock, stock, and barrel to big business and the religious right; he has to face racism so endemic and toxic in this nation that we the people willingly permit gun-toting hooligans to dog his steps, when even a peep of protest at gatherings held by Mr. Bush was immediately and ruthlessly suppressed. He has also surrounded himself with soulless pragmatists who care more about playing cynical beltway political games that are all about winning, than they care about the mandate for progressive change this president (and Congress) was given in the last election.

And he’s up against Republicans that mumble about morality and scream about religion while belying everything the major religions stand for at their core, in their most cherished convictions. Above all, he’s up against powerful economic interests that simply will not relent, will not relinquish the control they have gained in several decades of neoconservative dominance that were, in the final analysis, all about consolidating that control.

And it may simply be too late to change things, when the mechanisms of that control are now so firmly in place and so omnipresent, especially in the mainstream media. And not just in the United States, but around the globe.