Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Life-Giving Power of Self-Emptying Attention

My local paper, the Sonoma West Times and News runs columns written by ministers in our area. This week it carried a piece written by Gene Nelson, the pastor of the Community Church here in Sebastopol. It’s a good message, one I’d like to pass along here. (Full disclosure: my wife serves on the City Council of Sebastopol; he and she are members of the same Sebastopol Rotary club; Mr. Rogers is one of my heroes.)

Sebastopol and Civility

The recent uproar involving the Sebastopol City Council, and the behavior of its members and of those who attend its meetings, has reminded me of a story: An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “When you see and animal in the distance and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.

“It is when you can look in the face of any man or woman and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Could it be in spite of our well-known political correctness and our proud stands in the name of justice and fairness and peace, that our community still balances precariously on the edge of such darkness? Has our desire to score political points and ensure that our side wins at any cost brought us to the kind of blindness warned of by that old rabbi? Has the “take no prisoners,” “my way is the only way” attitude of the administration in Washington infected public discourse even here? Judging from the level of bitterness, anger and accusation that I keep hearing and reading about locally, it would seem that the dawn is still a long way off...even in Sebastopol.

I once heard Robert Bellah of the University of California at Berkeley, speak of our educational system as a “relentlessly utilitarian,” a system in which scores on tests matter more than the kind of persons we are producing. How easily that can happen in our civic culture. All that matters is my point of view, getting my way, without regard to the kind of community I am creating—or destroying—along the way. Too often, I fear, in our self indulgent age we suffer from what James Q. Wilson described as the “elevation of self expression over self-control.”

But again, what happens to any hope of community in the process? We may disagree on every imaginable issue, but don’t we still have an obligation to treat each other as persons of worth and good will, as risky as that act of trust might be?

I think back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. Invariably, Mister Rogers treated everyone in the neighborhood with courteous and loving attention, everyone—even inanimate objects—treated as a marvel of supreme worth. “You are special,” he sang to the children and to us, “And you can never go down the drain.”

Says Carol Zaleski of Smith College, “Mister Rogers bestowed attention instead of grabbing it. He reminded us that neighborhoods are arbitrary, tumbling us together with people we didn’t choose; and that what makes a good neighborhood is not emotional bonds but bonds of courtesy and the life-giving power of self-emptying attention.”

Yes, we are quite eloquent when speaking of our rights. But such talk is only empty noise if not combined with talk of my obligations to that old fashioned, hopelessly quaint concept of the common good.


Culmom37 said...

If only all of us could "practice what we preach" the way Mr. Rogers did. He was such an inspiring man who truly lived by his words. So many times people set out to do something wonderful, but never quite make it due to the pressures of life; peer, social, personal, ethic, etc... Mr. Rogers never let any of that get in his way of living his life.

The story of the rabbi has so much truth to it. If we cannot look at one another and truly feel like a brother/sister then we are not giving one another the respect and love they deserve. I wish people could just accept people for who they are.

I would love to share a story with you about a relative of mine (not blood related) who looks at ALL people with respect and love. Unfortunately, some people do not give that respect and love back to her because of a decision she has made in her life, that in no way affects them, but yet they do not treat her as a "sister". I will not go into details about her because I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, but I have learned so much from her and envy her strength. Why can't people just be who they are and be accepted for who they are? Sad...very sad.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

One thing I've learned is that when I have a tendency to criticize people, it's for traits I myself have.

It's that "three fingers pointing back at you" phenomenon.