Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paperclips

I worked as a therapist specializing in the treatment of survivors of trauma--mainly poor women--for about twenty years.  And I am seven years into a career of similar length, working as a high school English teacher in a small and chronically underfunded high school in the foothills of the Berkshires.

Both of these careers, and my life in religion, evince a certain level of idealism.  I won't bother to recite the ways that each career has involved hard work and, at times, a degree of selflessness and certainly empathy, because I think most people know that, and I'm not really interested in glamorizing a choice to "make a difference."  These are the jobs I have felt led to do in the world, and it is a nice thing that they do seem to have been lines of work that have some direct impact on making people's lives a bit better, at least some of the time.

What I think is less obvious is the way that, like all meaningful work in the world, they involve an awful lot of attention to seemingly trivial, energy-sucking, ordinary real-world details.  Taking notes.  Returning phone calls.  Paying bills.  Organizing filing, grading homework, keeping a seating chart, and making sure to have enough pencils and worksheets on hand each day.

This is what I think of as the paperclips of my life.  And no matter how much meaning and purpose anyone tries to build into their life, they will never really make a difference anywhere unless they are handling paperclips.

I'm thinking about this today because, like many Quakers, I am examining the tension between faith and works.  Now, Quakers, as most people know, set quite a store on being active in the world.  We are told to
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.
We are to let our lives preach, by living out the values (sometimes summed up by Liberal Quakers as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality, or "SPICE") we hold.

As a client of mine once said, speaking of her own work against domestic violence in the aftermath of her daughter's murder, "Whenever I go to a vigil or a protest or anything like that, there they are--those Quaker people.  Who are they?  They're always there!"

Quakers have a habit of showing up, out of all proportion to our numbers.

On the other hand, Quakers also counsel each other to "test our leadings" and not "outrun our guide," meaning to wait for Spirit to prompt us into our work.  Perhaps one reason Quakers show up and continue to show up for work in the world against violence or injustice is the care we counsel one another to take to keep our work rooted in Spirit, not in ego.

How many of us have seen the phenomenon of the angry activist, feeling so isolated from a society that can seem indifferent to crying needs in the world that they have gotten into the habit, not of persuading others toward change, but ranting at others about their inability to change?  Who, rather than being fed by their work, are consumed by it, leaving a burned-out shell in place of their-once committed selves? Anger wins few converts, and rage and cynicism are lousy fuel for struggles that can take decades.

This, in part, is the reason Quakers work to keep their witness rooted in the inward stirrings of Spirit.  (In part.  In larger part, this is because the purpose of Quaker activism is faithfulness to Spirit, not effectiveness in changing the world, however deeply we do want the world to change.)

This is the theory, at least.  In reality, there is a constant sense of tension, as some Quakers are drawn more toward outward activism and others, to holding a spiritual center for their communities, through eldering, deep listening (to God and to others) and prayer.  Prayerful Quakers sometimes suspect activist Quakers of becoming secular and cut off from the deep well of Spirit that should water everything we do... and activist Quakers sometimes suspect prayerful Quakers of becoming quietist, or worse, self-indulgent navel-gazers.

Both of those fears are of stereotypes, but there is just enough truth in the stereotypes to fuel tension.  And some individual Friends, and some meetings of Friends, do conform closely enough to one or the other stereotypes to make us all worry, sometimes in a pretty counterproductive way.

I worry a lot... about myself, not about Friends as a whole, so much.  I understand, in theory, that I need to be both active and outward in living out a witness in the world, and that I need to simplify my life and carve out "times of retirement" as the old-time Quakers would have said, to become still, center down, and really listen for that Light to guide me.

I'm not so sure I'm very good at either of those things, but I know I worry more that I am complacent--no, lazy.  Sedentary, a home-body.  Does Spirit need a crow bar to so much as get me out my front door?  Do I refuse to even hear leadings, simply because I'm tired, or it's cold outside, or I don't want to get back into the car at the end of a day of work?  I love to go to meeting.  I love to center down, feel the Spirit close to me, like silk on my skin, sunlight on my upturned face... but is that just another form of spiritual sightseeing,  New Age bliss?

"Am I doing enough?" I wonder.

Or is it possible that "Am I doing enough?" is the wrong question?  Should I be asking, "Am I listening?  Am I being faithful?" and releasing the questions about enough and not-enough, lazy or not-lazy, effective or not-effective.

Am I, perhaps, doing just what I am supposed to be doing?  Is it enough (that word again!) to try to teach fifteen year olds something about compassion and listening and a delight in the written word--under the pretense of teaching grammar and vocabulary and Shakespeare--while trying to live a life that is inwardly as well as outwardly consistent with the Spirit of Peace I feel in meeting?

Is my end-of-day, end-of-semester, end-of-school-year exhaustion from grading essays, running off photocopies, not shouting at the provocative teens and listening to the lonely ones perhaps spiritual work after all?

Are my paperclips mere distractions, or are they the shape the Work actually takes in my life?

Quakers set a high bar for action in the world.  I know Quakers who have helped bring clean water to villages in Cambodia and Kenya, who spend many of their weekends in prisons teaching alternatives to violence, teach traumatized survivors of African genocides to become trauma counselors themselves, or who carry a message of forgiveness and compassion in the aftermath of the murders of their own family members.

I know Quakers who are in prisons themselves for their non-violent resistance to torture and war, and who have risked their lives to bring food to hungry people in war zones.  And these are not men and women with trust funds who do this as a hobby, and they are often men and women who must hold down other, paying work (as I do) in addition to their witness in the world.  They, too, must often be tired.  Perhaps they, too, are reluctant to leave their homes behind, get in a car, board a plane, be hot, be cold, be inconvenienced--let alone have cause to be afraid or alone.

One of my Quaker heroes is Eden Grace.  Eden Grace is what, in the old days, would have been called a missionary--and she is fully aware of, and struggles to rise above the the reasons for the negative implications of that word.  Her job is not converting anyone to a religion.  Indeed, her job is one that, were it not for the setting of her work, might be considered to be a fairly prosaic one, in the world of human services: she is a hospital administrator.

She's a hospital administrator for some chronically underfunded hospitals in Kenya, at the heart of an AIDS crisis.  Which is kind of cool, and definitely takes a kind of courage--just the act of uprooting your family, your husband and your two kids, and flying halfway around the world to live takes that.  But I'm sure the job itself involves all the minutiae--the paperclips--of administrative jobs anywhere.  Checking the books.  Figuring out how to meet payroll.  Anticipating what resources will be needed--staffing, supplies, medicines, and so on.  I suspect that, 90% of the time, Eden's work is hard to tell from similar work anywhere in the world.  She just happened to have the right set of skills, and the leading, at a time when this program needed her to do this job, and so she is doing it.  That is not why Eden is my hero.

The reason Eden is my hero is because of one story she tells of one day, when she was at work in her office at the hospital.  She was, as it happened, going over payroll, trying to figure out some way to make the limited resources of the hospital stretch enough to meet it, when she happened to glance out of the window.

Now, in Kenya as in much of the developing world, many small things we take for granted are simply not there, by way of infrastructure.  Most Kenyans dispose of their waste, not by sending it to lined landfills, but in trash pits, where they burn their refuse.  This hospital had such a trash pit; waste from the hospital, including medical waste, is burned on premises.

Eden looked out her window and saw the hard-working hospital custodian at work at the trash pit, burning their waste, compacting it and stamping it down where it needed to go.

In his bare feet.

Remember, this is an AIDS hospital.  (Think, needles.  Think, sharps.  Think, HIV.)

And, of course, her heart fell.  Because there he was, the living, human, individual illustration of the equation she had in front of her on a spreadsheet:  as she struggled to find a way to meet payroll at all, there stood a man whose life was literally endangered by her inability to pay him a wage sufficient for him to afford a pair of boots.

She did buy him a pair of boots. That is not, however, the point.

The takeaway for me is something about those goddamn energy-sucking, time-eating, heart-breaking paperclips: the spreadsheets and budgets and photocopies and worksheets of our world.

They matter.  Matter in a life and death kind of a way, actually, even though it never, ever feels like it.

From the outside, a lot of the things Quakers do, from going to prison for non-violent resistance actions, to bringing clean water to a rural village in Cambodia, look dramatic and sweeping and grand.

But up close, I'm willing to bet it's almost all paperclips, every single day.

And if we are looking to a sense of making a difference in a sweeping and grand kind of a way, for confirmation that we're Doing It Right, we're going to blow it.  Because it's in the details of faithfulness, those everlasting paperclip details of any significant work, that most of what we do really gets accomplished... whether in Kenya, or in small schools in New England.

It doesn't answer the question, "Am I being faithful?" to notice this.  But it is one important way for me to stay sane.  In any meaningful work in the world,  the second-by-second willingness to attend to prosaic details probably matters as much or more than any grand sense of leading, or of purpose.  Yeah, we need those, too, and we need to listen for them when they come.

But then comes the carrying it out.  In actions that are small, patient, and often tiring.  Focusing on the small is also part of the job; it doesn't mean we're doing it wrong.






16 comments:

Lis said...

This post comes at a time when, for me, I am sorting paperclips, deciding which ones to keep. It is this paragraph:

"And if we are looking to a sense of making a difference in a sweeping and grand kind of a way, for confirmation that we're Doing It Right, we're going to blow it. Because it's in the details of faithfulness, those everlasting paperclip details of any significant work, that most of what we do really gets accomplished..."

...that makes me feel that my paperclip chain is leading me to the right place. Thank you.

Mark G said...

I have been questioning my "Quakerism" lately. I am not especially active, I am more Spiritual. My Monthly Meeting is known for its' activism, and that is great. I came back to my Quaker roots to be Spiritually nourished, and I have been. There have been times when I feel persecuted because of the rift in my MM between the two camps, the activists and the Spiritualists. Last week I was talking with a Friend, and she calmly looked at me and said, "someone has to stay home and leave the porch light on", I guess that someone is me.

Will T said...

Hi Cat,
For whatever reason, as I was reading this I was reminded that the Danes and Norwegians used a paperclip slipped onto their shirt pocket as a symbol of solidarity with the Jews and resistance to the Nazis during World War II. As I understand it, the symbolism was that they were sticking together. A teacher in Tennessee was teaching about the Holocaust and her students began collecting 6 million paperclips to represent the Jews killed. There is a book and a film about that project. So sometimes a paperclip is not just a paperclip.

Blessings.

Will T

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I don’t know if I have said this here before, but if not, I definitely feel I should say it here now.

You write, “In reality, there is a constant sense of tension, as some Quakers are drawn more toward outward activism and others, to holding a spiritual center for their communities, through eldering, deep listening (to God and to others) and prayer.

The place of conscience is the place where the spiritual center and the outward activism are one.

I think, then, that if we feel a tension between inward and outward, it is probably either because what we mean by “the spiritual center” does not yet include the place of conscience, or because what we mean by “outward activism” proceeds from something other than the Voice of love and righteousness in the place of our conscience. Or maybe both.

Making peace with that Voice in our conscience is the first task of any Friend.

anj said...

This.."(In part. In larger part, this is because the purpose of Quaker activism is faithfulness to Spirit, not effectiveness in changing the world, however deeply we do want the world to change.)" I think I had forgotten this, thanks for reminding me.

T. Thorn Coyle said...

It feels silly to answer this well crafted, deeply felt essay with one word, but this one word is the best response that I have:

"Yes"

(If I said anymore than that, it would require another essay to answer yours)

Cat C-B said...

@ Lis: Thank you. There is absolutely nothing that means more to me as a writer than to hear that something deeply felt that I have written speaks to someone else's condition.

Thank you--and may your paperclip chain lead you where Spirit is longing for you to go. Blessings.

@ Mark: Not only have I known relatively stay-at-home Friends like myself to feel this challenge, I've been able to watch it while Friends who were previously very active, in that outward, visible way, find themselves led instead to stay home, raise a family, and "keep the porch light on."

I think it's important we don't let ourselves slip into the illusion that the divide is permanent or more than an illusion of how we perceive Spirit's leadings in the world--that we don't buy into exaggerating the tension. Not being rooted in Spirit is probably toxic for activists--and it certainly seems to limit their life expectancies in outward work. But prayer without faithfulness is sterile, too.

What we need to do, I think, is to remember that the early Friends who tended one another's farms , when one Friend with a leading sailed across the Atlantic on a leading, were also faithful. And we need to remember that ministers were typically paired with elders when they traveled: that holding one another in prayer is also service, however invisible it can be to the world.

It maybe takes a lot of Friends tending home fires for each John Woolman, making history.

The hard part is trusting Spirit to show us when it is our place to do one job or the other. We are so ready, we humans, to second-guess God! The hardest thing we ever do is to try to set aside our preconceptions and just listen...

I know some of our meetings have lost their balance one way or another. I know I struggle constantly to keep mine... Bottom line? Friend, your struggle speaks exactly to my condition.

@ Will: Oh, yes. You are so right... Not only is it true, I think, that no faithfulness in the big things is possible without faithfulness in the small ones, but small isn't so small a lot of the time.

In fact, when I looked for an illustration of a paperclip that was in the public domain for use, I found the one on this post immediately. It has a funny story behind it--if you're interested, you might click on it, and see where it goes.

It's like that sign on a mirror: "Objects larger than they seem."

@ Marshall: I am someone who has a hard time distinguishing between that Voice and the thousand conflicting naggings of my own human conscience. God has to be very patient with me, because it is a constant struggle for me to hear Her over the sound of my own inner chatter.

Once I have found that Voice, and sorted it from all my own shoulds and oughts, I've never found anything but deep joy in following it. (Even if, on another level, I sometimes feel frustrated, exhausted, and almost buried under paperclips!)

@ Anj: There are days that this thought is all that keeps me from despair... And despair doesn't help anyone very much. I need meeting for worship, and the presence of that Light, to keep from trying to solve the whole world's problem's in my head every day. It's when I'm caught up in That Spirit, loving God and being her hands in the world, that I am most at rest.

"The yoke is easy, and the burden light."

@ Thorn: But what a good idea! If you wrote another essay, I'd get to read it! How sweet would that be?

Cat C-B said...

(I feel the need to quote from Thorn's latest blog post, around an experience she had leading a workshop at Pantheacon last week:

When talking to people afterwards, one man, wearing leathers and carrying a helmet, said that he was one of the veterans who protects funerals from Westboro Baptist. He had watched the whole class, but sat out on the exercises... In private, [a] reason came out: he was healing broken ribs from his last encounter with Fred Phelp’s people. He had taken the baseball bat wielding man to the ground, and held him until the police came. He then told me, “Both my brothers died in Iraq.” My throwaway comment all of a sudden took on meaning. It was real. It had impact. I hugged and thanked him, wondering yet again at how everything we do matters.

You never know when what you do or say will have a profound effect upon another. Do what you need to do. Say what you need to say. Stand – like the citizens of Wisconsin, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya… – for what your body, mind, heart, and soul inspire you to.

Cat C-B said...

(Thank you, Thorn.)

T. Thorn Coyle said...

Thank *you* Cat, for ever being thoughtful, and for the mention.

As it turns out, my post yesterday - while not a response to yours - could be read as a companion piece, methinks:

http://www.thorncoyle.com/musings/?p=984

The extraordinary from the outside seems ordinary on the inside, because it is just what we do.

Or as Derek Sivers puts it: "Obvious to you. Amazing to others."

Cat C-B said...

Oh, Thorn, very nice! "Service? Yes. Servitude? No."

Or, as I've heard Christ-centered Friends put it, "the yoke is easy and the burden is light." I know--I'm repeating myself. But the good news that real spiritual service is not just practical but joyful seems to me to bear some repeating, though I do keep getting surprised by it.

Thanks for directing me to your post; it definitely spoke to what I have been attempting to say.

Blessed be.

Catrin said...

Cat
Thank you so much for your post, which very much speaks to my condition. God bless.
Catrin

Cat C-B said...

@ Catrin: thank you for the kind words... especially since your own blog has so much to say that I'm thirsty for. (I love your writing; I love your clear eyes.)

Michael said...

To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen aphorisms: "Before enlightenment, the paperclips."

Thank you, Cat.

:-)

Priscilla said...

Cat, I love your image of the paperclips. So small, so annoying, so necessary. I suspect the big rushes of Purpose we may be lucky enough to feel from time to time are really just the juice to keep us dealing with the daily paperclips. Thanks for celebrating the daily practice.

Crow said...

I love your blog. My newest favorite read! Love and Light, ~crow

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