Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

The Vision Thing

BushIn 1987, as Vice President George H. W. Bush prepared to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and run for the Presidency, he was occasionally urged to step back and take a large view of the America he wanted his possible Presidency to help create. This, as it turned out, was not particularly easy for the Vice President to do. Colleagues reported then and later that while Bush understood thoroughly the complexities of issues, he did not easily or naturally fit them into larger themes or frameworks. This led to the reputation, deserved or not, that Bush lacked vision. It rankled him. At one point, the story goes, he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country, urging the VP to think about a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. vision“Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.”

The vision thing has been front and center for me over the past few weeks. Last month I spent a day on the campus of a state university in Connecticut as one of two outside reviewers of their liberal arts core curriculum. As one of several state universities, this one’s “brand,” established more than a decade earlier, was claiming to be Connecticut’s state liberal arts university. The core curriculum, created with that vision in mind, was a rather complicated three-tiered system that all students are required to navigate through steps from familiarity to expertise in a diverse range of skills and classroom experiences. Six years after its inception, it was time for both self-study and external review.

The good will and commitment of everyone my colleague and I met on our visit, from students through faculty to administrators, was clear. It was also evident that the core was the result of a few years’ worth of debate and compromise in the early 2000s, a process of negotiation and give-and-take that I am very familiar with from my own campus. ecsuWhat was not clear in the self-study, nor in our campus visit, was the original vision behind the core program. Clearly someone, more likely several persons, originally provided the reasoning behind the core, the evidence that this new system of required courses, undoubtedly risky on a public university campus, would over time in practice embody the university’s public commitment to the liberal arts.

But no procedure for “keeping the vision alive” was established at the outset, and now several years later many of the original visionaries have retired. My colleague and I met with one of them, a professor emeritus who confided that the core curriculum as it exists not “isn’t what we had in mind.” coreProfessors hired in the last decade told us that they had received no orientation to the core curriculum upon being hired—they had just picked up what they knew about it on the fly. The students had nothing to say when asked about the value of the liberal arts education they were in the process of receiving—as far as they knew, the core so carefully planned several years ago was just a bunch of courses to “get out of the way” so they could get to the real purpose of their being at the university—their major courses which they perceived as being their direct vehicle to a good job upon graduation. There was no system for assessment in place, because no one really knew what the core was supposed to be accomplishing. And now it is just something everyone does—and no one can really explain why. The report that is due from my colleague and me in couple of days is writing itself.

As I live out the final weeks of my four-year stint directing my college’s large interdisciplinary, team-taught humanities program required of all students during their first four semesters, regardless of their major, my outside evaluator experience has been a reminder and warning. Don’t let the vision die. a classic makeoverAfter a number of years of debate, starts and stops, and hard work we are in the third year of a new core curriculum, a new core of which the program I direct—in a re-energized and exciting form—is the centerpiece. I was an active participant in the creating of the new core, but my real task has been to steer the program I direct from the old to the new, to urge, force, and seduce the faculty to “buy in” to this new thing that is replacing what we had been doing for more than thirty years. And this requires, first, knowing what the vision behind the new program is (I do) and, second and most importantly, creating systems and methods to keep that vision alive as we original establishers and keepers of the vision fade away like thecheshire cat Cheshire Cat (I’ve been working on it). I imposed the vision largely by force of my own enthusiasm for it, assisted by faculty who shared the vision and enthusiasm, in the first couple of years as director, but realized eventually that a transition had to begin that would move the program from personality to vision-driven.

If this program and the core curriculum on my campus is to avoid becoming the program I evaluated two weeks ago across the state border, succeeding waves and generations of faculty and administrators must keep the vision alive. The other day a good friend and colleague told me at lunch that the most hated colleagues on campus from the perspective of the faculty in his department are the members of the committee whose charge is to approve (or deny) courses proposed as satisfying various elements of our complicated new core curriculum.no I agreed with my friend that these committee members, all of whom are our faculty colleagues, do indeed draw the ire of many faculty on campus. Why? Because they often say “no.” They are responsible for making sure that the objectives of our new core are adhered to. They are, in other words, the committee charged with “keeping the vision alive.” And that makes them very unpopular. “Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done, perhaps with a minor nod toward the new core objectives?” many faculty want to know. The answer is that there’s a new vision in town. This committee’s job is to make sure that the energy and creativity infusing the new core at its inception is not lost in the daily grind of getting shit done. It’s not an enviable task, but someone’s got to do it. Really. The alternative is to find ourselves not many years down the line just cranking out bunch of courses, organized somewhat differently than they used to be, having lost any awareness of why we made the change.

According to the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And so, I would add, do programs, curricula, plans, hopes and dreams. vision 2One of the most important continuing lessons I have been learning over the past few years is “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Make a point of paying attention to the trees instead of obsessing about the forest, in other words. The vision thing is the flip side of that. I could spend so much energy and time with the trees that I might forget that there is a bigger picture. As Thoreau wrote, it would suck at the end of my life to find out that I hadn’t lived. The rather boring but absolutely true thing is that it’s a matter of balance. The vision thing helps me to remember the difference between living and living well, as Socrates described shortly before his execution. But the vision thing has to be lived out incrementally and daily. After all, this forest is made up of trees.

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . . 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . . 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be bursting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”