Reasons for Hope, April 2018

Image: A violet blooms in the cracks of a parched landscape. (manfredrichter/pixabay)

I’m always looking for signs of hope.

  1. Today I went to get my blood drawn, a weekly routine. My phlebotomist today was a trainee instead of the usual person. My veins are not the easiest to find, and the stick took longer and was more uncomfortable than usual. On the plus side, she’s now logged a bit more practice on an arm like mine and she’ll improve. I could tell she was trying not to hurt me. She could tell that I was doing my best to be pleasant. We had sympathy for one another in the moment.1.
  2. I am encouraged that the heads of state of North and South Korea met and were civil to one another. I don’t know how significant that was but I choose to see it as progress.
  3. I talk with a broad range of people on Twitter. I know Twitter can be a sewer, but it has allowed me to exchange ideas with people I’d never have met otherwise. I am encouraged that we can talk about difficult things and still see the humanity in each other.

All three events have a common denominator. Each involves a one-on-one personal connection which bridges a challenge.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that when we choose to see the other person in front of us, to really be present to them, and they do the same with us, it is a special kind of event. He called it the I/Thou encounter, and he wrote that the Holy One dwells in the connection between those two people.  We can’t always have such encounters, but when we do, we bring holiness into the world.

Normally, my connection with phlebotomists is more of an I/It transaction. They are there to do a job; I’m a patient. But today, the difficulties posed by her inexperience and my hard-to-find veins presented us with a couple of choices: we could be thoroughly frustrated by each other OR we could choose to see each other in our humanity. The latter course left us both happier, I have no doubt.

I have no inside knowledge about the meeting between dictator Kim Jong-Un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea. However, I was impressed that they met one-on-one, they shook hands, they spoke at some length privately, and they published a list of shared goals. In addition to saying they were going to work on de-nuclearization of the peninsula, they published a declaration:

In the declaration, both sides also declared a stop to all hostile activities against each other. They also agreed to link cross-border railways and roads, and pledged to turn the demilitarized zone into a “genuine peace zone”. – CBS Miami, 4/27/18

I know there is skepticism on the part of South Korea, with fears that they are being deceived by the North Koreans. I imagine there are similar fears on the other side. But the two leaders met. They looked in each other’s eyes. They were present to one another. This was the first such meeting in 65 years. Surely that is a reason for hope.

In the final example, I’m sure Martin Buber could not have imagined Twitter in his wildest dreams, nor would he have wanted to. There is no handshake there, no meeting of eyes. However, Twitter provides a venue in which I can have a discussion with a Pakistani-American grad student who is studying Hebrew because he cares about Jewish-Muslim relations. Do we agree on everything? Not by a long shot. But we can listen to one another, we can acknowledge one another, we can find points of mutual interest even when we don’t agree.  I know what steals his sleep at night. He knows that I lose sleep, too.

The same goes for a few others, mostly activists I’ve met on Twitter.  I’ve learned more about race in America by listening quietly to those voices on Twitter, and following their reading suggestions, than I ever learned in my formal education. I had to learn to squelch my defensiveness and my urge to say, “But not all white people…” I had to learn to listen without arguing, to truly listen. Trust builds that way. Conversations have room to develop. Holiness enters the world.

Sometimes, in our anxiety, we demand too much too quickly. We want the pain to be over. We try to skip over the hard work of listening, of being truly present to one another, because the needle hurts, because nuclear warfare is terrifying even to contemplate, because it is painful to engage with ancient injustices.

The problem with magic wands is that they wield one-sided power. If I could wave a magic wand and make the phlebotomist suddenly really good at her job, I would rob her of the process of learning. Worse, I would rob both of us of the opportunity to find God between us at a painful moment! Holiness would not enter the world, because instead we would have a tidy little I/It transaction.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal Korea, it would be fixed as I think it should be fixed, and not take into account what the Koreans themselves want. Any peace that fails to take their needs and dreams into consideration is doomed to fail.  Only by doing the hard work of listening and talking – in that order! – is there any hope for true healing of that terrible wound.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal race in America, it would not bring peace. That’s because what we require for true healing of this dreadful illness is mutual respect. Because of that pesky “mutual” element, that peace will only come in the holy space between people who choose to see each other in an I/Thou way, recognizing each other’s humanity, respecting even each other’s fallibility.

If I could wave a magic wand and “fix” the Middle East, it would look like what I want it to look for about 10 minutes – and then it would all blow up again. The repeated failures in the Middle East are the children of a series of “fixes” that go back to the Roman Empire, if not before. Neither the Romans, nor the Ottomans, nor the British under the Mandate, nor the United Nations have really listened to all parties in their attempts to “fix” the region. Even had they listened, their listening would not have been a substitute for the actual Palestinian and Jewish stakeholders being able to encounter one another in an I/Thou mode. At this late date, I have no solutions to offer about the Middle East, but that is as it should be. I am not one of the primary stakeholders: I don’t live there.

This is my hope for the world: that with all the means of communication available to us, we will be able to have more conversations across our divides. Is it a faint hope? You bet. There are forces that profit from discord, and they will stir the pot and make life difficult. What I can do, what we all can do, is seize the opportunity to be present and human to one another when those moments offer themselves to us. All we can do is bring holiness into the world at every opportunity.

When I see that happening, I have hope.

 

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Making A Sacred Connection

Conversation
Conversation (Photo credit: Rohit Rath)

Judaism teaches us that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We strive to honor that spark of the Divine in every person, but that is not usually instinctive. It requires learning.

The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber taught that God is present between two human beings when we make what he called the “I-Thou” connection, a real and sacred awareness between two people, a true sharing and meeting of the souls. This can only happen when we are open to the other, when we are aware of each other without objectification or distance. It is a truly sacred moment.

I would like to introduce my readers to a remarkable young woman who is willing to teach us how to communicate and connect with a person with aphasia, damage to the part of the brain involved in language. I first heard of Laura Cobb because I went to high school with her mother: a photo of Laura riding her tricycle as a very little girl was on my refrigerator for years. Laura was hit by a drunk driver in September 2008, was in a coma for three weeks, suffered a stroke, and now has aphasia. She is a highly intelligent 27 year old with a lively sense of humor.

The aphasia has presented her with challenges in conversation with both friends and strangers. Laura took the remarkable step of creating a video to assist the rest of us in learning how to communicate effectively with people with aphasia. That video has gone viral, because it’s very, very good.

If you’d like to learn how to speak and how to listen to someone with aphasia, here is the video, in the context of a Huffington Post article about Laura. Much of what she suggests is also helpful for speaking with persons who have auditory processing difficulties and other language issues as well. If you are trying to talk with someone, and you get the feeling that language is a barrier, these are things to try.

This is a video that teaches important Torah, the art of connecting with another human being. Enjoy.