An Economy of...Something

A friend sent me this story about an recently-invented language built on the simplicity of expression, relying on 123 words and good ol' nonverbal communication to carry the tricky thing that is having contact with another human.

I dig this idea. I'm not surprised, as I've always gravitated toward the idea that we can simplify. It's a marvel then, that I somehow ended up studying theology, a field which thrives on complexity and nuance. Still, I can remember doing an architecture project in the 4th grade. We were to study different styles and draw up plans for our own house. I went minimalist, naturally, and scoffed (I was a 4th grader who scoffed, which is why you would have rightfully hated me) at the overwrought, decadent displays my classmates came up. "Why do you want so much stuff in your house?" I'd ask.

I have too much stuff now. I'm still in pursuit of a simpler life. Not just simpler in the new-age, self-help sense. Not in the "let's appropriate Zen Buddhism but where we get to keep capitalism" kind of simple. A real kind of simple. Where I have an economy of language, of thought, of action. Where I'm intentional about each waking moment, but I don't even think about it as it's so fluid and natural. Sounds like a dream. I doubt I'll ever get there.

This is why I find the current political circus infuriating and damaging. It's not new, but we're definitely experiencing a heightened flavor. The rhetoric is bombastic, manic, stark-raving...so many words saying so very little. Not only is it unnecessary, it's damaging, dangerous, menacing. In not seeking together a simpler road forward, we've opened the bag wide to every form of insanity and called it liberty.

Which isn't to say that I don't want a diversity of thought, expression, players and thinkers; I do. I just want that very diverse group to be able to sit together, quietly, and think before they speak. I'd love to hand them 123 words and have them try to communicate their hate or their ignorance or their indifference. And when that became too hard, I'd like them to use 123 words to find a way to be in the presence of the other and marvel at the fact that we can exist together. Ideally, they could get that down without words at all.

Theologically, I drift toward the apophatic and, if I'm being honest, the mystical. In this way, words don't get to the heart of who or what the divine is. But we have to get through all the words before we can realize that we need less of them. Perhaps this is a model for our pursuit of communal life.

This is my dream of the economy of words, deeds, language, thought, and spirit. I'm not naive enough to believe it's how we can conduct ourselves on global, wide stages. It's also important to say that I love words. I love language. I write on a blog, for heaven's sake. Jokes, wordplay, and exposition are my daily tools. I don't want our ability to express to diminish in any way. But I would love some added value on silence and simplicity. I would love us to seek such things out, in any little corner where they might live. Maybe I'll shut up now and listen for how I might do that best.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

Thought and Prayer

Today there have been a lot people turning their ire at the "thoughts and prayers" platitudes that follow an American mass shooting event. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, who are forced to say something after a public event. Annoying.

But a lot of other people say "thoughts and prayers" too. Look, it's a formulation. The words, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families," don't really mean anything regarding the way they were originally arranged. For politicians it's like saying, "I acknowledge this event happened and will now engage in the appropriate way of saying so." For others "thoughts and prayers" means, "This event makes me sad," or, "Oh shit," or, "I wish this wouldn't have happened."

"Thoughts and prayers," as a phrase, does a bunch of heavy lifting we don't necessarily want to do in public. This is especially true when we're limited to 140 characters.

I don't get the ire. Living in a country as violent as the United States and railing against the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is like living next to a coal plant and shouting at the sky about air quality.

Anyway, quiet, contemplative, even conversational prayer is fine. Even good. Posting about it on social media doesn’t effect your reach, though. God don’t care about “likes” and RTs.

Lord, have mercy.