An Ash Valentine’s Day

It’s an odd year.  This hasn’t happened since 1945.  Things were different then.  But it’s happening again:  Ash Wednesday falls on February 14 — Valentine’s Day.

While there are lots of jokes being made about the coincidence online, I look at this unique happenstance of dates to be worth considering.  After all, both observances are about one’s heart.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is a day of romance.  It’s a day set aside to focus on the love of one’s life, to express that warmth and commitment with flowers, candy, special meals, and a sense of renewed commitment.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Often, our day to day lives are cluttered with routine responsibilities and we can easily take each other for granted.  Valentine’s Day is the chance to pause and say, “Yes.  You truly are important to me even though many days I forget to tell you.”

The real St. Valentine was a very devoted man.  He lived in the third century CE and refused to follow the emperor’s edict which forbade Christian couples from marrying.  He was accused of presiding at weddings and became a martyr in early Christian history.  Unlike others martyrs of his day, he was sentenced to a three-part execution. He was beaten to death, his body stoned and then decapitated. Out of this grisly death-sentence, he became known as the patron of lovers.  He gave his life for the cause of love.

While it’s often obscured in Christian practice today, Ash Wednesday is also a day about love.  Our images of Ash Wednesday are sorrowful and drab, but the foundation of Ash Wednesday is the invitation to return to our hearts and return to love.

Ash Wednesday is the reminder that, well, our day to day lives are cluttered with responsibilities and we easily take each other — and the spiritual dimension of life — for granted.  Ash Wednesday provides us with the opportunity to return to our heart, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to look again to see goodness and grace in ourselves and others.  Ash Wednesday draws us toward the heart of who we are: beings created to reflect infinite love and goodness.

On both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, we say in various ways that the only things that really matter are the matters of the heart.  As St. Valentine knew, it was all about love.  He gave his life for the sake of love.

As Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall in sync together, perhaps it’s best for us to simply reflect on how love shapes us and our lives together.  The works of the Sufi mystic poet, Hafiz, capture it well for me.

 

Faithful Lover

The moon came to me last night
With a sweet question.

She said,

“The sun has been my faithful lover
For millions of years.

Whenever I offer my body to him
Brilliant light pours from his heart.

Thousands then notice my happiness
And delight in pointing
Toward my beauty.

Hafiz,
Is it true that our destiny
Is to turn into Light
Itself?”

And I replied,

Dear moon,
Now that your love is maturing,
We need to sit together
Close like this more often

So I might instruct you
How to become
Who you
Are!

 

 

Photo source: Source: pixabay.com

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Deception of Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance.  It’s a popular concept.  Many business magazines and other publications have lists of recommendations to improve a person’s work-life balance.  The idea is that the time and effort put into work has to be balanced with life.  It’s a strategy to avoid becoming what used to be called a “workaholic.” It sounds positive.  But the concept is fundamentally flawed.

What the concept of work-life balance misses is that work is part of one’s life.  The work we do has the potential for providing fulfillment in our lives and provide us with a sense of meaning.  Even when we hate our jobs or find them boring and routine, the work we do or the people with whom we work may enhance our lives in other ways.  Work-life balance is based on a dualism that assumes work is negative and life is positive.  The concept misses that work is a part of life and can be fulfilling in itself.

At the same time, many workplaces view employees not as individuals but as something like drones fulfilling tasks for the benefit of the company.  In this situation, workers are interchangeable widgets who perform tasks.  There’s been a substantial amount of press about warehouse supply centers for mail-order products, call centers, and even major chains of stores having this approach to employees.  This same critique can be made throughout the service industry today as well as among professional workplaces.  The value of the person is obscured for the sake of corporate profit.  This occurs despite years of research which shows that people are more motivated by an intrinsic sense of value than by external motivators like rewards.

When the work we do is given nothing more than utilitarian value, the result is a deadening of the human spirit.  It increases our sense of life’s futility, the experience of boredom, and feelings that life — our individual lives — are worthless.  Rather than attempting to change the workplace ethos, the concept of work-life balance reinforces it by insisting that a person’s sense of value needs to come on “their own time” outside of the workplace.

The predicament of people finding that the value assigned to them is merely utilitarian is not new.  It’s as old as the stories found in the Hebrew Scriptures — stories collected about four thousand years ago.

The paradigmatic story of the Hebrew Scripture is the exodus of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land.  One dimension of the story speaks to human dignity and work.  As the Biblical story recounts, the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt.  In their enslavement, their task was to make bricks from mud and straw.  These people, a minority group, only had value for their utility: making bricks.  When the government sought to increase repression, they did so by restricting the supplies needed to make bricks while maintaining the workers’ quota.

It’s into this context that Moses was sent to convince the Hebrew people that they had worth and value not because of their work but because of who they were.  Because of who they were, they would be delivered to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  But to enter that Promised Land, they needed to understand their identity in a different way.  They needed to move from a self-understanding of having value only for utilitarian work to a self-understanding of personal worth and value as the chosen people of God.  Coming to this new self-understanding didn’t come easily for them.  The stories of the Exodus convey many instances of the people wanting to return to Egypt, both literally and in their mindset.  The identity they developed in Egypt was so ingrained that it took two generations of wandering in the desert to come to a new sense of identity.

What does this ancient story have to say about work today?  Indeed, workers have always been reduced in value to the utilitarian functions they perform.  Today, there are ways it is more pronounced.  With policies on intellectual property, copyright, and patent ownership all remaining with corporations, even the creativity of employees is not their own.  Personal value is lost for the sake of corporate profits.

The sacred story of Exodus stands as a reminder that our worth as individuals is far greater than we usually imagine.  There is something Divine in us that sparks creativity and engages us in ways that touch our spirits deeply.  This can be experienced through work.  Rather than focusing on work-life balance which implies that work should be unfulfilling, we need to reimagine how work can be an expression of human dignity and worth.  After all, when people lead fulfilling lives, the quality of work improves.  Work that inspires us with meaning and purpose leads us to more balanced and whole lives….as well as better work and greater productivity.

 

Photo by Digitalnative on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Problem of Ego in Spiritual Growth

The advice comes in different forms.  It’s very pronounced in the Christian tradition.  The New Testament letter to the ancient church in Philippi (chapter 2, verse 3) says it this way: “Think of others as better than yourself.” Throughout the letter to the ancient church in Rome, Paul writes repeatedly about dying to self to be alive in Christ.

In various Eastern religions and philosophical traditions, a similar concept is presented.  Sun Tzu’s Art of War is clear that ego prevents success.  I suspect that it’s from this work that the concept of “the war with the ego” developed.  But more properly in Zen Buddhism, the ego is to be transcended.  From this perspective, spiritual growth is understood as moving beyond the limitations of self as an individual consciousness to understand that consciousness is part of all sentient beings.  This is similar to the Pagan concept of our being drops of water in the ocean.

Each of these traditions conveys in various ways that importance of not allowing our sense of self, our goals, and our desires to be the center of our lives.  Instead, a healthy, balanced, and spiritually whole individual lives with the awareness of the interconnections that form the web of life.  As individuals and as the whole of humanity, we are merely a part of that great web.

But there’s also a problem with the wisdom that calls us to transcend our egos, to think of others as better than ourselves, to count self as nothing more than a part of the whole.  The problem is simply this:  in order to transcend the ego, one needs to have a sense of one’s own ego.

Many people today have a broken ego, a shattered sense of self.  Rates of addiction, domestic and societal violence, conditions like PTSD, and many other societal realities like entrenched poverty and malnutrition prevent people from developing a healthy sense of self.  Appropriate ego development requires the ability to understand oneself as a unique individual, to be able to regulate challenging emotions like fear and anger and to live with a sense of internal security.  Let’s be honest:  many people can’t do this.  Further, competition and consumerism impede people from having a sense of internal security because they push us to be and to have more than we already do.

When spiritual or religious teachers insist that people transcend ego when their sense of self is fractured or shattered, the result is spiritual abuse.  Such abuse is prevalent in both organized religion and among a variety of practices invoked by spiritual teachers.

In terms of ego, how can one make sense of spiritual growth and development?  Like any other aspect of our lives, spiritual growth and development is a process.  It starts at the beginning and evolves forward over time much like learning to play a musical instrument, becoming a chef, or living a healthy lifestyle.  Within my own Christian tradition, the beginning point is conveyed in the sacred story of the Hebrew book of Genesis.  The sacred story conveys that all creation is good and that humanity is profoundly good.  The very breath of the Creator animates us and we have been made in the Divine image.  When the essence of that sacred story becomes part of who we are in a deep way, then we are able to affirm our own existence as individuals with dignity.  That’s a healthy sense of ego.  The sacred story continues to show how those with a healthy sense of ego transcended that limited sense of self for others and for the life of the world.  This is a process which takes time.  For most of us, it takes at least a lifetime.

Perhaps it’s from this perspective that the Tibetan Buddhists are insistent that the beginning of compassion is self-compassion rather than compassion for others.  That’s really not different from the teaching of Jesus:  to love others as you love yourself.

 

Photo by arno gourdol on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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