I have been thinking about and reflecting upon and experiencing feelings of helplessness a lot lately. There’s good reason, some of which is too personal to go into here, but it’s been a major theme in my spiritual life this past year, made explicit during my ten-day silent retreat over the new year (my first). I fear this post is dripping with self-pity, but I will sit with that possibility and still post.
When I first read Reverend James Ford’s sermon on Syria, not only did I think it was brave to take on the topic (because who really wants to be decisive in this situation with no good or clear solution available), I thought for a not insignificant period of time that I agreed with his conclusion.
And though I’m sure of my not agreement now, I’m not sure of anything and am painfully aware of how my distance from this violence allows me the luxury of wallowing in my uncertainty. I read one of my Muslim colleague’s comments on Facebook about how much of the talk on the internet and in the blogosphere, not to mention on television, concerned with “the tone used in some quarters against Syrian intervention,” which sometimes “appears to be spoken with a sneer and a careless shrug towards those crazy Muslims fighting all the time.” (She acknowledged that there are more than just Muslims impacted in Syria, but that dismissive attitude so prevalent in usAmerican media chatter paints a grossly crass brush…) I know I am not part of THAT dismissive anti-interventionist crowd, but my paralysis and confusion makes me bedfellows with them.
I do agree with Ford that
We’re now watching the dying embers of the Arab Spring. It’s a mess. Democratic dreams have been captured by those who believe in one man one vote one time. In Egypt we see the response to a rising theocracy in a lurching back toward military dictatorship. In Syria the democratic Arab Spring fell into a smoldering revolution now in danger of being dominated by its own theocratic forces. (Rev. James Ford, Sept 1 2013)
The whole region is awash in tears and blood, all interconnected and complex. Shadows of the holocaust followed by the horrors of the nakba, dictators and princes, religious and ethnic hatreds. And, oh yes, oil. It seems no one has clean hands, and if we look at our own American hands in all this, they drip oil and blood. Wrong piles upon wrong, sadness upon sadness. (Rev. James Ford, Sept 1 2013)
So, for us, for you and me, what are we to do? Here’s how I see it. Our issue, the real deal for us here in this community, is how to act in a sacred manner in this mess of relationships that are our lives. Faced with the complexities of war and peace and never having enough information, but being the eyes and ears of the world, and the mind and heart, too – what do I do? What do we do? (Rev. James Ford, Sept 1 2013)
In the end of his sermon, Ford takes a stand, knowing many (most?) of his congregants and likely blog followers will not be in agreement or pleased. He expresses his deep concern for the “lack of a clear outcome” regardless of action or inaction. And then he shares his stance,
Me, I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict. Out of respect for the Kurds. Out of respect for those others who’ve been victim to these horrors, to prevent the reintroduction of this terror. To finally, finally draw a line in that one small regard, at last. (September 1, 2013)
Though I do not agree with this stance now (but am so close to the edge of not knowing what is right here, I do not trust this “position” or its fluidity, which seems based not so much on flexibility or strategy, but on fear and ignorance), I feel tender admiration for his courage to take it, to risk being wrong, because right now, I am stuck in a helplessness that is neither brave nor useful to anyone in Syria.
As I have thought about Ford’s meditation, this Mary Oliver poem has returned to me over and over again:
There are days
when the sun goes down
like a fist,
though of course
if you see anything
in the heavens this way
you had better get
your eyes checked
or, better still,
your diminished spirit.
have no fist,
or wouldn’t they have been
for a thousand years now,
longer than that,
at the dull, brutish
ways of mankind –
Instead: such patience!
to let us continue!
little by little,
the voices –
only, so far, in
pockets of the world –
suggesting the possibilities
Behold, how the fist opens
Here is one of those pockets: a recent posting from Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, “Ten Things We Can Do Right Now About Syria Besides Bombing.” Dr. Thistlethwaite is an architect of the Just Peace Paradigm and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary. In this post, she gives us some plausible “yes” actions in the face of our “no” options – something for which we are all so desperately thirsty.
Also returning to me over and over have been Ford’s own words for understanding this paralysis, this helplessness in not knowing what to do or how to do it.
For me the reality is that it is impossible to be right. As the Zen tradition often notes, it’s all one continuous mistake.
In this impossibility to be right there is so much space for helplessness. And when engaged spiritually, perhaps then a surrender to this reality, that allows us to follow our conscience, in hopes that it may serve an ultimate Good. And if not an ultimate Good, the lesser of two (or many) evils. Because it is impossible to be right.
May God (or Ultimate Reality) have mercy and compassion on our souls…