This summer, I am researching and writing about contemplation and healing. I am also reading, this past week, about rioting across the US.
One phrase that has been grounding my thinking about contemplation and healing is that the connection between the two is about our need for a “compassionate consent to reality.”
There can never be wholeness without an honest facing of what is and an honest acceptance of our emotional/bodily response to what is. A compassionate consent to reality in this season of riots might begin with seeing the truth of George Floyd’s death, which, as I saw it involved a casual and utter disdain of an African American man’s life and suffering, the enjoyment that a white policeman with a history of violence took in his power over this man, and the carelessness (pride?) in doing this in front of many witnesses. Consenting to reality means seeing that this is not a unique act, as we would wish and hope it to be, but a visible reminder of what happens with an insane frequency. Consenting to reality means we remind ourselves that the Derek Chauvins are all around (certainly not only in the US) and that many pieces of what made his actions possible are sprinkled throughout our own spirits.
Contemplation can enable us to stop running away from our anxiety and discomfort. We need not to look away as quickly as we’d like.
Contemplation reminds us that to let ourselves truly see these realities and be affected by them, we need to breathe and be intentional and be silent. Contemplation can enable us to stop running away from our anxiety and discomfort. We need not to look away as quickly as we’d like. We need to know that we can tolerate all the feelings in us that come in response. We see and feel the rage along with the fear of our own rage and the rage of others. We recognize the frustration and shame at our feelings of powerlessness. We breathe again. We feel that part of ourselves that wants so desperately to look away and to simply wish for a peace that buries these facts. We let ourselves hear that question whispered in our spirit, “What would we feel if we were African Americans living in the midst of this ongoing threat?” We consent to facing the reality of our weakness and temptation. We breathe again.
What makes this contemplative courage possible (when it is possible), for many of us, is our experience that the same open-eyed, open-eared consent to painful realities also includes the reality of God’s loving presence with us. That loving presence is/was also present with George Floyd and with Derek Chauvin. We are not separate from either of them – God’s presence draws all of us together.
It is also just as important to consent to the reality of hope. We see the passionate determination of neighbourhood leaders of all races standing together to care for each other, feeding each other, bearing courageous witness by facing up to those trying to incite more violence, trying to exploit the honest rage of the marginalized for demonic purposes. When I feel hate for those Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys and Donald Trump, I remember that there are some among those on the front lines, experiencing more directly than I can imagine, the direct consequences of the evil around them, that are somehow able to respond with a spirit-empowered grace and forgiveness, AND to stand up and protest. I remember that when seen apart from the mobs and the narrative posing, there are individual human beings whose life stories have led them to where they are. I see police chiefs and many ordinary white police officers, with long and complex work histories, with many experiences of fear on the job, with many friends and colleagues just like Derek Chauvin, choosing to kneel and ask for forgiveness. What has been at work to make this possible?
Lament is a necessary part of contemplation in seasons like this. How can I consent to realities like this without expressing the pain? Lament can enable the paradoxical coming to peace with our rage and shame, without immediately squelching the rage and shame. As I lament, I accept and rest while the pain and weakness are still very present, knowing that God hears my cries and feels them.
Finally, there is action. I very much believe that contemplation is the best foundation for action. Certainly, contemplation is not an alternative to action, but the means by which we best discern the incredibly challenging questions of what I can now, must now, do. This includes the way that contemplation enables and shapes our participation in communal discernment about what we do together. May these conversations flourish in the days ahead.