One of my favourite authors when I was a child was E.B White. He is quoted saying ‘I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.’ I’ve found this truth echoed in many other wise words around the world as the years have gone on. It is the reason I have decided to study Diaconal Ministry with the United Church of Canada, and it’s what I love most about being a participant in the Undivided program. Hard to plan the day indeed; I have no idea how our lovely facilitators even begin to find a useful balance of ‘enjoying and improving’, but I leave each gathering feeling challenged and more energized for the days and weeks to come, which is an enormous accomplishment, so I’d say they’re on the right track!
Together we have the opportunity to celebrate and honour the beauty we see all around us. We share stories of the places we come from, the places we’ve travelled to; the landscapes that sustain, shape and inspire us. As someone who tends to experience beauty more readily in rural and remote places, I’ve had much to learn from city-based fellow participants! In addition to the natural world we share stories of role models, mentors and companions on our journey: The moments when life was made dramatically more beautiful by someone’s willingness to teach us. Contemplative practices can be useful tools in becoming more aware of what we are grateful for, more sensitive to the presence of goodness in our lives. That’s something to enjoy for sure!
And what a privilege it is to have some time to focus on trying out familiar and new methods together. Deep gratitude and enjoyment inevitably lead to questions. Now what? What about people who don’t get to have XYZ? What about all the things I don’t enjoy about the world, I can’t just ignore all of that?!?! It’s been oddly inspiring to talk about these things, too. The many intersecting causes and consequences of injustice and suffering in this world become more important when we’re open to what is good in the world. The stakes are raised, one might say; all is not lost and this world is worth improving! BUT HOW! No wonder cynicism and nihilism sprout even among those who care deeply for the world. It can all be too much. For this, too, the contemplative practices can work wonders. Even when the last thing we want to do is sit with a lamentable piece of reality, when we do, we grow in our ability to love even those who keep our problems in place. Our anger is refined. Patience and empathy can take root. The sides of ourselves that are disturbing and less-than-awesome can be seen more clearly, with more kindness and more courage.
In the company of my fellow Undivided participants, I find understanding. I’m not perfect, no one is perfect, we are all working on something (many things!) and we are safe to do that. Our complex emotions in response to this complex world are not bad; they are our constant companions and a starting point for analysis and change. We’re working on how to hold the tensions and struggles of this world and respond to them with the loving ambivalence E.B White’s heroes modeled for me as a child. We’re taking time for those real-life questions that can’t be answered permanently-forever, but are so essential to ask. As a student who is feeling exhausted by the academic process and who has been craving a reminder of why any of the things I learn are important, I’ll end with these three words: Many thanks, team!
By Tif McNaughton