Begin with Gratitude

Cindy Davidson
“If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations . . . in the cities . . . between neighbors . . . in the home . . . in the heart.” (Lao-Tse, 6th Century BCE)
Centuries of “progress” since Lao-Tse's time, we are not a nation, nor even cities, at peace. Divisive language streams through our media, in our town meetings, and into our private conversations. We hear voices of despair, of concern for those whose wellbeing and lives are most in danger. The words we choose can hurt or heal.

George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and linguistics scholar, explains in detail how and why politics today is more the art of marketing than the art of debating policies. He suggests paying more attention to the words we use, especially in countering hate.
“The first thing to do is to not repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue.” (Lakoff, Huffington Post, 2016 Nov 22)
Each repetition of hateful rhetoric – even if what we intend is a strong rebuttal -- strengthens that hateful message and normalizes that worldview. Instead, Lakoff counsels, choose different language that affirms the positive visions we hold.

It is up to us to model the kind of civil and life-affirming discourse our country needs in our cities, in our media, on our social media, and in our conversations with neighbors and strangers. The words we choose can hurt or heal.

We are not a nation where there is always peace between neighbors. Nor, sadly, where there is always peace in our homes. How many conversations over family and neighborhood get-togethers have been emotionally charged, pitting one political opinion, identity, or value against another? How much hate has been exchanged for hate? How many conversations have heightened rather than lessened our anxiety and fear? The words we choose can hurt or heal.

Lao-Tse counsels that if there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in our hearts. Is there peace these days in your heart?

As the days become progressively shorter and colder, and darkness lingers, my instinct is to take refuge from all the distress of the outer world – to hunker down, to hibernate, and to let ideas gestate. I want to rest in the peace of quiet and await the return of light and spring’s growth and renewal. But I don’t know if our work can wait until spring. We are asked to “wait and see.” We are also tugged by the call to rise and defend our democracy NOW.

Engaging the life of the inner world and the outer world sometimes seems a bit like a dance to me, one leads first and the other follows. It’s easy to slip into a preference for one or the other. Sometimes it takes a vivid wake-up call like a crisis, or a reminder like a tradition, to call us back to a balance. For me, these times are calling me back into faithful spiritual practice.

Intentionally cultivating spiritual practices was not something I grew up with in my Methodist upbringing. I lacked the exposure or resources to augment Biblical literalism with more metaphorical, more expansive interpretations. Some years later, I had discovered Unitarian Universalism and wholeheartedly embraced the uplifting and healing language of religious humanism. In mindfulness meditation groups and my practice of “Morning Pages,” I found calm and centering. Yet I yearned for spiritual exploration and grounding deeper than that.

Fortunately, seminary exposed me to a variety of spiritual practices: yoga, meditation, chanting, prayer, the labyrinth, and observing a Sabbath. Through the contemplative Christian practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, I’ve been able to re-engage with the Biblical language and theology I once rejected. Slowly, new frameworks and a more healing religious and spiritual vocabulary took shape for me. Keeping an evening gratitude practice in the style of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s “Daily Examen” has also helped me to hear and speak a more grateful and compassionate way of being in the world.

Spiritual practices are Things We Practice. And we will fail, I know. And we will need to regroup and come, yet again come, back: back to the mat, the cushion, the breath, the journal, the forest -- back to whatever and wherever it is that we practice being fully human and fully alive.

Even then, we can practice choosing our words well and using language that’s not hurtful or damaging when we talk to or about ourselves.

My piano teacher a number of years ago taught me how to handle mistakes at the keyboard. When I hit the wrong note, instead of getting anxious and inwardly berating myself, she said I should stand up, raise my arms, and say “Whoops!” Then sit back down and resume playing. This lesson today lets me suspend critical self-judgment, jump back in where I left off, and give it another try. Grace and forgiveness embodied.

“Whoops! I’ve fallen out of practice.” Now, back to the mat, the cushion, the journal, the healing and inspiring texts. Gratitude abounds – the feeling, the practice, the learned behavior, and the imperative.

In this Advent season, I gratefully welcome the silence and stillness, the waiting in darkness for the coming light, preparing our hearts for peace.

When the words and thoughts form, may they be ones of gratitude and uplifting visions. When we are ready to speak and act, let hate and oppression not be ours to repeat. Let us speak the good news of our Unitarian Universalist values, principles, and actions. Let us speak kindly, but firmly and courageously, defending what is equitable, fair and just. Let us speak to ourselves with healing words, creating pathways for peace.

Begin with gratitude. It feeds our sense of hope.
Begin with gratitude. At the least, it may bring some peace to our hearts and our homes.
Begin with gratitude. It may be just the thing to give us a fighting chance of creating peace between neighbors, in our cities, in our nation and in the world.

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