Sunday, January 22, 2017

Inauguration Rumination

This piece was written as a Lay Liturgy reflection for the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg PA Jan 22, 2017
©JD Stillwater

Five minutes into my morning meditation on Friday, I became aware that my mouth was working furiously, mindlessly. All on its own. My tongue was on a self-assigned search-and-destroy mission to find and swallow every tiny scrap of breakfast still lurking between and behind my teeth. 

I am not a veteran meditator. Thoughts pass through like Oregon-trail wagons, some full of manure, some gold. As I got my tongue to settle down, I mused again about my mouth having an autopilot, so much like a cow’s, or a dog’s hind leg when you scratch her belly. I felt myself to be very much an animal. 

The next thought-wagon to pass brought a line from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. 

You do not have to be good.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

The soft animal of my body. Young children I’ve asked are pretty insistent that we are not animals. Such is the early influence of myth, and the language that enforces it. Of course, scientists have known for many years that we are animals, not only by biological definition but also by direct kinship. 82% of my genes are traceable to my cousin your pet dog, and there is 80% genetic overlap with those cud-chewing relatives I was mindlessly imitating Friday morning. 

The stories we tell ourselves profoundly affect our outlook. Here I was on the morning of a presidential inauguration, musing about the soft animal of my body derailing my search for higher spiritual attainment. My next thought came like a proverbial revelation from God. 

I imagined billions of walking monkeys trying to manage a global technological civilization. Animals that scratch their armpits, bite their fingernails, pick their noses, lash out at each other; animals that are sometimes completely out of control in the rut of mating season. Animals that can’t even manage to still their own tongues for five minutes. We are “planet of the apes.”

No wonder we take three steps forward and two steps back. No wonder we get scared and lash out. Of course we make stupid, short-sighted choices. I became filled with compassion for us. How can I have anything but patience, tenderness, and amusement for these creatures, these apes, who struggle so mightily to reconcile our instinct-driven nature as evolving mammals with our highest aspirations for a global commonwealth of enlightenment and purpose? 

We get impatient with ourselves and each other because the story, the myth we tell ourselves, is that we are civilized human beings, so we should “know better.” 

We should do a better job thinking ahead seven generations. We should use evidence-based reasoning, should care more about this or that, should, should, should. As my older brother is fond of saying: “JD, you always talk about what should be, and I’m telling you what is.” 

Sitting in my chair Friday morning thinking about chimpanzees driving trains and sitting at desks, all my political anxieties and frustrations melted away. We are the rats that sign weapons-control treaties. We are the millions of monkeys banging away on keyboards, that actually created the complete works of Shakespeare! And Wikipedia. And Mary Oliver’s poem. We are the squid that go into space, the hyenas that care for the helpless, the vulnerable, the homeless. We are the ants that vote. 

Let the compassionate story we tell ourselves be about animals that evolve and struggle and fail, zig-zagging our way towards our own lofty aspirations. We are animals, with soft animal bodies and some really hard animal instincts. Of course we do embarrassing things in public. But we’re doing pretty darn well, considering. 

1 comment:

  1. I like that! So true, but I've never thought about it that way!