06-Lent: Encounter the Real

If it is not tempered by compassion, and empathy, reason
can lead men and women into a moral void.
- Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

The church often likes the poor but doesn’t like the smell of the poor.
- Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists


Dear fellow wanderers,

For the past year or so, ever since moving to Winnipeg, I’ve been inhaling works of non-fiction. It hasn’t mattered if they’ve been in the form of print, audiobook, or a PDF. Reading – or in some cases, listening – has become my primary hobby, almost an addiction. Why? Because I wanted to solidify my understanding of the world before acting in it. The likes of Naomi Klein, Malcolm X, and Emma Goldman could help me figure that out. Praxis without theory is useless, right?

But over the past few months – thanks to the writings of Neil Postman and John Ralston Saul, oddly enough – I’ve become uneasy about that idea. Information has not led me to action. If anything, my reclusion has shaped my character in an inverse relationship to my alleged beliefs. I might be a self-described communist who’s in solidarity with the exploited members of society, but I still refuse to give a few quarters to the beggar outside my local liquor store (I don’t want to support his habit, right?). It seems I have embodied the triumph of Cartesian dualism.

That’s why the season of Lent is such a significant opportunity for radicals who come from traditions of faith. It is a chance to collectively re-imagine what it means to actually embody the teachings of Jesus in the 21st century. This activity isn’t a rational one; it doesn’t come down to memorization or debates or correct theology. That’s a very good thing. Humans aren’t exclusively logical creatures; we often won’t be argued into action and are far more driven by ideology than we acknowledge. In other words, if we seek to grow in selflessness, compassion, and peace, we need to actually embody such values.

A great majority of the transformations I’ve undergone have come as a result of personal relationships. My recent transitions to a meat-less diet, reduced technology use, and walking for transportation (as opposed to driving) have all occurred because of the examples provided by close friends. Of course, books have augmented the in-person conversations – for example, in the case of abandoning my religious beliefs, I was pushed over the edge by Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great – but change in my life has come throughout the influence and examples of friends.

Ultimately, I think facts are given too much credit. There are far too many bits of data in the world to make coherent sense of even a tiny selection. More often than not, they leave us immobilized; specialization leads to many experts in very small areas. As Postman wrote in Technopoly, “information is dangerous when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies, no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves.” That’s what an event like Lent – featuring a rich tradition, collective dedication, and sacred motivation – can resolve.

The Occupy movement was a terrific example of this philosophy. The encampments, in many respects, were theoretically jumbled and occasionally troublesome, but one thing is sure: Occupiers cared deeply about the manifestation of morality As Judy Rebick, the founder of rabble.ca, demonstrated in her short e-book Occupy This!, the beauty of the movement was that rather than attempting to argue people into agreement, they lived out the society they wanted to see, complete with the inclusion of exploited peoples, the free distribution of food, and minimal impact on the environment.

Douglas Rushkoff, in his recent book Present Shock, argued that “Occupy Wall Street is not a movement that wins and ends; it is meant more as a way of life that spreads through contagion and creates as many questions as it answers. The urban survival camps they set up around the world were a bit more like showpieces, congresses, and beta tests of new ideas or revivals of old ones.” Of course, such a concept enraged pundits of the mainstream media who claimed an absence of agenda. But the movement was concerned with incarnation of beliefs, not just ideas for rhetoric’s sake.

To be clear, this post isn’t intended to deny the obvious influence that thought has upon action. But it is an attempt to challenge readers to take this Lenten season to a new level. We’re petitioning that social change won’t simply come through the readings of texts, whether they’re radical tracts handed out at protests or a 2,000-year-old account of a prophet’s desert wanderings. It’s an annoyingly overused quote, but it’s the whole be-the-change-you-want-see-in-the-world thing. Realize the power of community.

Lent, as with so many other religious observances, is as important in form as in content. As social creatures, we require group interactions. It’s through such events, I believe, that some semblance of change might come. Reading books and ingesting other forms of information might assist in such a task, but we’re more than rational beings. Remember, as you go throughout your week, that personal example matters. For many of us, it might harken back to the uncomfortable evangelical circles of yesteryear, but it’s possible to be a beacon to others of what tomorrow may look like.

On that note, it’s probably a good thing that these writings comes to a close. Here are some ideas for your Lenten adventures (although, as mentioned, it’s better to look to your local community for suggestions):

– Give money to the beggar. Perhaps say “hello” to them. We need to increase our proximity to economically oppressed peoples if we have any hope of developing empathy. Knowing someone’s name matters.
– Do some snow shovelling or yard work for an elderly or less-mobile neighbour. It’s good to get the blood pumping and connections fostered. Be willing to listen.
– Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Such an activity has been plenty ridiculed by leftists for perpetuating the charity model, which is an excellent example of talk leading to inaction. Wake up a few hours earlier and serve some food to the exploited people of your community. What’s the downside?
– Reduce your consumption of factory-farmed meat (which, as Jonathan Safran Foer points out in Eating Animals, is over 99 percent of meat in the United States). Tofu is tastier than you think.
– If possible, stop driving. Leave the roads and the dwindling supplies of petroleum to those who actually need it. Throw the Harry Potter audiobooks on your music player and enjoy the stroll.
– Engage – or re-engage if you’re no longer part of one – with some sort of community, whether it’s faith-based or not. Specifically search out groups concerned with real-world interaction. Re-discover the value of long-term, deep-rooted relationships.
– Be open to having your mind changed. It’s a dangerous place to be in when everything makes sense. Pursue friendships with people who think differently to you. If you’re having trouble finding such people, at least read authors with contrasting opinions.
– Attempt to discover truth rather than facts. As suggested in this message, that’s more likely to come through interactions with people, or works of fiction, than through a constant inundation of data. Realize that you can’t know everything in the world but can surely encounter authenticity.

That’s it for now. As always, feel free to get in touch with us at lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org

Remain unhurried,

James, and your friends at Geez magazine

Return to Lent index page
Editor of Lent for Skeptics: lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org

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