A paper written for the class “Care of the Soul and the Call to Sacred Activism” at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology
“…and there was so much terrible out there, even among us.” After reading both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me and Parker J. Palmer’s book, The Active Life, I will attempt to discuss how Coates exemplifies the cycle of spiritual action, reflection, and introspection as outlined by Parker. I will admit this is a feeble attempt at best, but will also discuss how each author’s point of view and story parallels and contrasts with my own as I too attempt to work, create, and care for a world I no longer recognize.
As I sit here contemplating the state of the Church and the cavernous divisions within America, I find myself feeling as if I have awoken in an alternate universe. The terrible did not happen overnight, and I think I remember catching glimpses of it from time to time over the past 50 years. Admittedly I spent at least a decade in an addicted stupor, refusing to feel or participate in my own life. To do so would have required me to slow down, take personal responsibility, contemplate and come face to face with the monsters under my bed – and within myself – in hopes that I could penetrate the illusions all around me so that I could clearly see the open portal to reality. Once seeing the portal, the next question to contemplate would be if I really wanted to walk through it or stay hidden deep inside my echo chamber.
Echo chambers, West states, “dominate our culture…are formed based on one’s ideological, political or religious views…[and have divided our nation to the point that] we have segregated ourselves into subgroups whose values, views and perspectives are seldom at odds with our own.” Coates alludes to this echo chamber as being tribal in that groups of people name hatred for other groups of people (strangers nonetheless), yet receive confirmation from within the tribe that the hate is somehow justified and that we are on the “right” side of it. Yet Coates explains that the tribe is infused with fear in that it manifests itself outwardly for all the world to see the “proof” that this tribe lives up to its so-called societal label. But what happens when the tribe starts to shatter and reform? This is the point I resonate with the contemplation Coates began waking up to. Palmer defines contemplation as “any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks.”
Removing the mask is never easy, yet once it is down, we can’t forget the faces we now see both before us nor the one in the mirror. For me, the illusion of a safe world, a safe community, and a safe spiritual journey quickly dissolved as I entered my teen years. The truth of the matter is I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks but received an expensive private Christian education. I ran in so many different tribes, I often felt like a chameleon as I would transform and morph into whatever a group expected from me to be accepted. I could walk the walk, speak the language, participate in the rituals, and often go against my moral compass to ensure no one outed me from the perceived community of the tribe. But the hypocrisy of this double life was astounding. Within my church walls, grace was taught but rarely shown. And while I could walk a few short blocks to arrive at the “safety” of my Christian school and church, I did not have to look too far out my front door to see the prostitute, the drug dealer, the thief, the alcoholic, the neighborhood bully, and all manner of “other” that my church said was sinful and immoral. Yet “the others” were the ones who accepted me with no strings attached. Tragically, they were also the ones who introduced me to a world I could not fully comprehend – one that was riddled with abuse and addictions and all manner of evil I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Conversely and in much hindsight, I now realize the “Christian” tribe was as equally as damaging to me and “the others” with the hypocrisy and judgment raining down like an angry volcano. Being stuck between heaven and hell is no easy task, and you wonder if you will ever be able to reconcile everything in your heart, mind, soul, and body.
While I cannot relate to Coates’ experience of being in a black body, I can relate to being in the body of a white female that males have dominated, used, and discarded over and over again for their pleasure. I also cannot relate to Coates’ experience of being raised outside the Church and in a godless home. However, I can relate to his feelings of being in a system that forces both the body and the will to bow low and that uses fear and shame to guilt one into staying in one’s place. That system claimed to be God, yet sometimes I wonder which god they were referring to. Perhaps I can relate to Coates’ conclusion that the wounds and old codes that sheltered us in one world showed up as chains in the next.
I am convinced these wounds and old codes are simply illusions meant to be what Palmer refers to as a societal function that keeps us in place. I also believe our great arch-enemy of the underworld wants to keep us so trapped in the illusion that we always perceive ourselves in a perpetual state of failure unable to fully wake up to be healed or offer healing. During the 2008 Harvard Commencement, J.K. Rowling spoke of failure. She stated, “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” Some of us end up so numb and so disconnected from the wounds and old codes we believe this state to be normal – and it’s the normalcy of this that is the illusion. The great quest then becomes to move from contemplation to action so that we might once again move about in creative, caring ways to do the good work of being present in other people’s pain without marginalizing, patronizing, or saving them.
The good work, however, must not become insidious labors of activism or advocacy in that it results in consuming and devouring us all the while leading us away from the heart of creativity and caring. As Palmer explains “work is action driven by external necessity or demand…creativity [on the other hand] gives birth to something new [while care’s aim is] nurturing, protecting, guiding, healing, or empowering something that already has life.”
I have been on the side of working to achieve many forms of accolades. The end result was always lacking. Once you climb the next rung, there is always another one just out of reach. Once you build a network of people, the demands can often be unbearable. The dizzying pace of the hustle and grind leaves you exhausted as pieces of your heart and soul eventually become disengaged and disjointed and so fragmented that you finally collapse in a heap on your floor wondering what the hell just happened. The stress builds; the illness lingers; the scales move up or down, and you sit staring out the window listless and emotionless and bone-weary tired. And that is just the work side of things to pay the bills and put your kids through school. Never mind the soul work one must accomplish to be sane and healthy and productive in a world that needs Jesus’ hands and feet to be in action.
But what of the draining capacities of trying to always be the subject matter expert with all the answers and solutions to everyone’s dilemmas? What happens when our child is being bullied or when the national tension rises to levels that are at decibels we wish we could turn off, and we genuinely begin to fear our business is going to be burned down simply because we are white (or a person of color)? What happens when we turn to binge-worthy activities that we think will alleviate the stress, when in fact they simply continue to deplete us of the life-giving nurture and energy we need to carry on doing the good work we thought we were involved in. We started with good intentions. Truly, we did. But then we wake up and realize as Coates states, it was just a “hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” When we begin to hear the rumblings of “systemic racism” on every news station and social media outlet creep up again, and when the election turns out record voters as never before seen in history with a pretty good chance a woman of color will hold the second-highest position in the White House, then we find ourselves either rejoicing and dancing in the streets or sitting back with bated breath waiting for the hammer to fall. In some cases, we feel rage against the machine, and at that point, we must decide to either participate in the dehumanization of another human being who we vehemently disagree with or cling to the fact that as Christians we are not of this world and we must always be about Kingdom business realizing and fully resting in the sovereignty of God.
Ironically, Coates uses religious metaphors for the good work of addressing the racism that still exists in our world. While not a praying man himself, he encourages his black brothers and sisters to pray (if so moved) for “the Dreamers” (aka privileged people who identify as white), but not to make conversion the goal but rather to be awed by one’s human remarkableness and to respect every human as such. I find this a charge – a challenge if you will – to ponder if I will allow myself to receive those prayers. Will I look to the black people for how to struggle well as Dave Chapelle so stated in one of the Saturday Night Lives after the 2020 election? Will I seek to understand? Will I continue seeking peace and bringing people together for the sake of creating a space where those with opposing ideas can begin learning from and listening to each other? Will I allow the oppressed and the abused to patiently, painfully lead me away from my privilege and ignorance? Will I humble myself?
My mind returns to “there was so much terrible out there, even among us.” I have followed Jesus since I was five years old, and 45 years later it feels as if the Church’s secrets have been exposed and she is just as terrible as the godless, except in many cases, I have witnessed the godless show more care and concern for human life and the environment than she does. She is too busy judging, being right, playing the Pharisee, standing in her high court looking down on the rest of the world thanking God she is not the sinner they are. I sometimes wonder is that really the active, abundant life Jesus planned for her? When will we take time to reflect and contemplate our own prejudices and sins against ourselves and others? When will we do the necessary work to drop our own armor? Oh, we have it for sure. It may not be the bling and extravagant clothing Coates referred to from his boys in the hood, but you can see it in the polished faces, nails, hair, jewelry, and Sunday morning attire. It’s evident in the manicured lawns, SUVs, PTAs, and neighborhood association meetings in the suburbs. The stained-glass windows of our churches have many stories to tell, yet I fear we do not listen well anymore as we are almost insidiously listening to reply rather than listening to learn and understand.
Yet we cannot emerge from this deceptive realm until we first are willing to drop everything we have ever known and enter into a deep desert, a long, dark night of the soul. Whether forced or a willing participant, we will all enter there at various junctures in our lives. For me, my dark night started in 2010 when a deep betrayal literally destroyed pieces of my heart, mind, body, and soul. The word shattered comes to mind. The next decade was riddled with more betrayal, divorce, and death – the kind of death that leaves one alone and wanting in the world – the kind of death where you feel like you have just collided with an oncoming train and you have been admitted to a hospital and rehabilitation for the next several years.
Those years were a turning point for me marked by hard choices, lines being drawn in the sand, memorials being set, and a time to press into facing every demon I had ever fought head-on. It was a time to mourn all the loss I had experienced throughout my life and a time to find for and chase after beauty in all its forms. It was during this dark night I found Jesus in a whole new light. He was my only beacon of hope, and He reached into the deepest recesses of my soul and poured love into every single cracked, broken, and shattered piece.
For the first time in my life, I began to understand I no longer needed to defend my existence or as Palmer described it – prove my identity. Just as Coates tried to explain to his son that he must find a way to live within the totality of his body, I too began to realize I must own and live within the totality of mine. Jesus did too. 40 days is a long time to go without food or water so to have a devil tempting His very identity when all His senses were raw and bare and screaming for relief must have made him feel as if He was going mad. Yet with whatever lucidity He still had, He was able to shut down the illusion and emerge from the echo chamber to remind Lucifer and remember for Himself that man truly does not live on bread alone, and that there is spiritual food that provides higher nourishment and sustenance with which to fill our ever-craving bellies.
I relate to Coates on so many levels as my entire life up until this point has been lived in defense mode (and I can still be trapped to enter into that behavior if I am not careful). From defending my ability to think for myself to defending my gender and whiteness to an entire patriarchal, misogynistic system that reduced my female attributes to obeying and honoring men who clearly did not celebrate me as a beautiful, independent, thoughtful, reflective, creative energy, but rather an obstinate, stubborn, black sheep who was always bucking the system. I had become cynical and could not find beauty in anything I put my hand to. For the last four years, I have lived in celibacy on many levels – far removed from the things I thought pleased me and made me feel human. I found beauty and healing in the solace, in slowing down, in taking a work Sabbatical without apology, in traveling and indulging in over-neglected self-care.
As we begin to wrap-up 2020, I find myself so curious and wanting. As I engage with the words of Coates and Palmer and Rowling and West and many others, I am starting to close gaps and find more opportunities to change my mind and enter into deeper, respectful conversations. I am called to make peace with myself, my community, and the world at large. I too want to be a part of this amazing active life Palmer unfolds for us in the form of stories from different traditions of thought and wisdom. It is only in the listening of entirely different experiences and perspectives that we can enter into a fuller picture – a more complete story – that God is fully alive and active in. He is the Great Storyteller. He is the Master Woodcarver of our lives. We need only be willing.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: One World, 2015
Palmer J. Parker, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.)
Rowling, J.K. “Harvard Commencement Address.” Jkrowling.Com, June 5, 2008. https://www.jkrowling.com/harvard-commencement-address/
West, Mark. “Exit Your Echo Chamber to Make a Difference.” Awaketofreedom.Com, November 22, 2016. https://www.awaketofreedom.com/exit-echo-chamber-make-difference)
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: One World, 2015), 52.
 Palmer J. Parker, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.)
 West, Mark. “Exit Your Echo Chamber to Make a Difference.” Awaketofreedom.Com, November 22, 2016. https://www.awaketofreedom.com/exit-echo-chamber-make-difference)
 West, Mark.
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi.
 Palmer, Parker J., 17
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 Rowling, J.K. “Harvard Commencement Address.” Jkrowling.Com, June 5, 2008. https://www.jkrowling.com/harvard-commencement-address
 Palmer, Parker J., 9
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, 33
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