As one born in the United States (specifically a small city
in southern Ohio), the influence of various rich traditions,
and being someone who is fairly open-minded and respectful of the vast diversity that
is all around me in the world, I have grown to find objectionable the notion of
exceptional-ism as it is conventionally attached to the United States. Much has
happened since Alexis de Tocquevill (Democracy
in America, 1840) first attached this term to describe the America he witnessed.
Much has changed since Whitman’s Democratic
Vistas, which read, “Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but
we have it in the bulk of our people.”
Our democracy is weakened, especially on the over-bearing federal
level, where it seems to be boiled down to a vote of two rascals every four
years who have their coffers filled from the real power, the corporations that embody
the few and reap the most (i.e., a plutocracy). Our political culture has declined into a massive
pit, far from the rich tradition and ideas of America’s past, e.g., liberty, egalitarian,
individualism, republicanism, populism and laissez-faire. The
problem is not solely government; it is government in the
hands of corporations
Marx warned about capitalism at its worst and unchecked. The
higher return on capital means that the share of profits rises and the share of
wages falls, and soon the mass of the population is not earning enough to buy
the goods capitalism produces. And that’s exactly what’s been happening over
the past years: ever increasing income inequality, leading to ever weaker
aggregate demand – temporarily disguised by an unsustainable credit binge –
leading to collapse. You don’t have to be a communist to see that this is so.
We should all be Marxists today.
Of course, the argumentum
ad ignorantiam is the “belief” that American is exceptional because it’s
the “most powerful” nation on earth with reference to its military. I guess so,
when you spend 10 times more than the second highest spending nation, China. The
US is like the small king in the movie Shrek
with the super-sized castle, “over-compensating for something.” Since 9/11/2001
it has been apparent that the US is exceptional in its anxiety. Of course, we
cannot see this. Case in point is the recent revelations about the NSA who have
steeped so low as to gain access to almost all digital communication of its own
citizens—that’s pretty desperate—outright neuroses. Will we ever come to terms
with the fact the world has always been dangerous. We must grow up.
One way to take back America is by one kind of purchasing
power at a time. Dump the corporation; realize advertisements are deceptive (typically
propping superficial motivations such as image and convenience)—at what price? A
good place to start is growing your own food and/or buying local. Another is
using alternative transportation, especially in urban/city trips. The U.S is
the least exceptional country when it comes to the percent of all urban trips
by type of transportation and probably one of the most exceptionally overweight
and unhealthy counties in the world.
Source: John Pulcher,
“Public Transportation”, in Susan Hanson and
Genevieve Giuliano, The
Geography of Urban Transportation, third
edition. (New York: The
Guilford Press, 2004). p.216. Data are from 1995
cover all trip purposes
Of course, it is more dangerous to ride a bicycle when our
communities are filled with cars that are lethal weapons. Turning the tide on
the decline of our democracy means taking control one purchase, one step, one
pedal at a time. It requires doing the harder thing, which in the long run is
the “better” thing. Walking verses driving means breathing “better”. Riding the
bus to work means “better” relaxation (e.g., time to read or to talk to
someone). Riding a bicycle means “better” time (think about it). Taking such bold
steps mean changing our practices so that we have more power over our lives and
the corporations less.
Tocqueville was right, “The health of a democratic society
may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens. . . The
greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,
but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
"Respond intelligently even to unintelligent
treatment." ~ Lao Tzu
To respond thoughtfully takes
intentionality and time, e.g., to calm, find rest, or the
collecting of ourselves so as to move beyond reactivity or
What might this look like in every-day life?
·The cultivation of full human capacity vs.
patterns of emotive arousal and reaction (such as dependence on technology, retaliation and war). ·Being reflectively thoughtful and collaborative
with others ·Openness to ambiguity, mystery, and uncertainty resulting in mindfulness and imagination opening up the way to serendipity and hope vs.
fixation on concreteness ·Acknowledgement of human and systemic fragility,
rigidity, anxiety; ergo self-differentiation resulting in compassion
The US being thoughtful via Just War Theory is like a
functional alcoholic using the 12-Step process. Its addiction to war makes it
almost impossible to consider the "12" other strategies that make
more sense. Before you know it, it will head to the store (consumer militarism)
and open the bottle.
The just war tradition is based on a series of arguments to
be tested before using force against another population. Legitimate and
competent authorities must logically argue that the use of force will end or
limit the suffering of a people and these forceful actions are the last options
after all diplomatic, social, political, and economic measures have been
exhausted. (Stanley Hauerwas)
My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical
attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria
already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the
world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But
there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there
are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack. (Rev.
From a moral perspective, it appears that observers see
killing civilians with chemical weapons as somehow different from killing
civilians with conventional weapons. I don’t know why there would be any
distinction. Egyptians who are killed are just as dead as the Syrians who were
killed, and though it appears that dying of a chemical weapons attack is an
awful experience, frankly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to your chest
or stepping on a mine that blows off your leg is equally awful. So anyone who
makes an argument that there’s a moral obligation to act has to address that
question: Why here and not there? (Andrew J. Bacevich)
“ . . . By taking technology that the state employs to manufacture secrets
and using it to make state secrecy Iran’s
nuclear program. Forget the rise of China.
Manning and Snowden confront Washington
with something far more worrisome. They threaten the power the state had
carefully accrued amid recurring wars and the incessant preparation for war. In
effect, they place in jeopardy the state’s very authority — while inviting the
American people to consider the possibility that less militaristic and more
democratic approaches to national security might exist.
impossible, they put the machine itself at
risk. Forget al-Qaeda. Forget
In the eyes of the state, Manning and Snowden — and others
who may carry on their work — can never be other than traitors. Whether the country
eventually views them as patriots depends on what Americans do with the
opportunity these two men have handed us.”
Here's a reflective, connective story and personality that helps us to see the need for leakers when democracy at large is asleep.
'Daniel Ellsberg, the military
analyst who in 1971 leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers detailing the history
of U.S. policy in Vietnam, tells NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday that
unlike Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, he "did it the wrong way"
by trying first to go through proper channels — a delay that he says cost
thousands of lives.
. . . Asked whether he thinks Manning and Snowden, the CIA
contractor who leaked details of secret U.S. electronic surveillance activities
to The Guardian newspaper, had been discerning in what they chose to
release publicly: "Yes, that's obvious with Snowden," he says.
. . . Since The
Guardian's exposés, based on information obtained from Snowden, first
broke in June, "the whole focus has been on the risks of truth telling,
the risks of openness, which are the risks of democracy, of separation of
powers," Ellsberg says.
"I've really heard nothing at all about the
risks of closed society, of silence, of lies," he says.”'
following poem “Growing Hope” was written in May of 2013 at the point of the
emerging reality of my mother’s death (my father died nearly 10 years ago) and the reality that I would be the next living generation that would be remembered by the
succeeding generation. The poem is for me a marker and celebration of my family
while reflecting on growing up having left home at 18 years of age. Its
language and images are loosely a narrative that tells of my journey grappling with
the early and ongoing influences of family and others and some nameable elements
that have supported finding my way.
From birth we have struggled
against a specter of
which has its subtle ways
of sucking air out of Hope.
As a child, I was endowed
with the practice of breathing:
walking down a dirt road
along a canal
being led to the edge of my
Playing in a grandfather’s
collectingraw materials, 10
creating things methodically—
Two branches helped unite
my avocation and vocation as
one industrious, oriented
around systems and design—
imagination and art
The other, vibrant with
assembled around meals,
we received attention,
an awareness of belonging, acceptance.
The parish church shaped
a space of strange mystery
where the body broken and
preveniently imbued abundance and Hope.
Mythic ventures of
riding bikes hours at a time,
primitive camping, building
climbing spires of nature—
training the senses to find
one’s way. 30
I traveled through the
offering woeful happiness,
thin answers capable of merely
the women lazily reclined in
Gazing at her home just above
Whilst beholding her world
of riven things, the harsh
of vulnerability, and
What seemed a retreating
I turned through long silence 40
working alongside, hearing
the poor, the fatherless,
Convention’s sway began to
like autumn leaves in the
breeze of time.
Her brokenness called out—
the unsealed sky reached out
To prophesy against what
and blinds—binding faith and
joy and sorrow, bending
transforming the norms and
forms of life. 50
I witnessed my mother in her
walking, hoping for better
weakened by her deep loss,
waiting the beloved of her
The browning of her days
like blades of the feather
outside my den, which
bend and weaken each winter
Were clipped early spring.
Now new blades rise up: 60
their ascension repeat the
to the next generation.
Hope has become a growing theme in my
practice for some time while seeing increasingly how it has potential to evolve
in our lives through self and connective nurturing. Nurturing hope with the
awareness of my vulnerabilities has added much new value and teeming life into
my own consciousness. With hope one more clearly can conceive goals, identify
pathways and change thoughts leading to new ways of existence.I am indebted to Brene Brown whose wonderful
research and teaching on the subjects of shame and vulnerability are teaching
me that "our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our
willingness to be broken-hearted." She gives witness to the reality that hope
is a function of struggle (L1).The idea of wholeheartedness speaks of the
nature of connection for which the poem does in its formation, i.e., to be able
to see myself and hear myself and learn more about myself in the stories that
are told from other’s experiences.
“Struggled” also recalls a birth story handed down by my mother. I was told
that giving birth required surgical assistance due to my large shoulders (over 10 lbs infant) and my mother being of small stature. This
deliverance led to more chaos when I had to be resuscitated due to an
allergenic reaction to Penicillin. While this might be seen as a miracle of
sorts, I view it as a motif for reflecting on a pattern of life, viz. chaos and
“a specter of Possibility” alludes to the fragile nature of hope (or
ancient Hebrew text reads, “I set before you life and death, blessing and
curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents might live.” Deuteronomy
There is a fragility of hope, the tension that remains
in a person even as hope strengthens him/her. The possibility of good
necessarily entails the possibility for alienation as well. While possibility
must be sought out, yet possibility itself is ambivalent. In exploring new
possibilities for the self, one runs the risk of not recognizing oneself. Even
having been bolstered by hope and prospects of new possibilities, a person can
have to wait for the outcome of her actions to be made manifest. She may have
hoped for something far from shameful, but must still remain in the state of
expectation, waiting to see what happens. The freedom made possible by hope can
be a blessing or a curse: I can find myself free to serve or free to determine
my own destiny, or I can find myself paralyzed by choice and the possible
outcomes of my decisions.
We are called to move toward an ever retreating
horizon, wanting to rejoice in the progress we make, but also feeling
frustration at times because we never reach the final goal. Hope (as a virtue)
does not reconcile, but rather consoles.
It is this reason that anguish is never far from hope. In other words, hope
does not result in an ultimate sense of completion, a sense of resolution of
all our desires, but rather compels
us to move forward even when our desires are not met. Hope heals our wounds and
comforts when reconciliation is not possible. (An essay having closely read
Paul Ricoeur, philosopher, over the past decade on the topics of hermeneutics
and the masters of suspicion and hope).
opening stanza reminds me that I can say what I am naming here, for I have come
to appreciate the necessity of having a hermeneutic of suspicion, i.e., a
capacity to suspend interpretation and attitudes, refusing to take the declared
motives or conventional scripts of practitioners and subjects at face value. On
an intellectual level, I prefer to listen to historical and philosophical forms
of explanation that suggest that apparent moral positions of e.g., political,
economic, ethics, psychology, religious dogma which often cover up more insidious phenomena
or act to cloak ulterior motives. On a more personal, interior level, I seek to
step back and reflect on my own interior motives and functioning in relationships,
interpretation of events and texts I read and study, and the human need to penetrate
illusions and touch reality.
The italicized terms are meant to highlight
virtues and practices that continue to make a difference in terms of becoming
more fully human and less burdened by a draining emptiness,
the harsh reality, and forthcoming bitterness of a fragmented world.
Breathing refers to the
practice of walking and biking (my preferred forms of movement) that provide a space to allay the anxious cadence in the
day-to-day living as well as meditative methods that induce calming and
“Contented” sums up my way of moving from the thin idea of “happiness” to
the classical pursuit of Eudaimonia. Being
contented involves an awareness of and connection with the surrounding nature
which results in a growing capacity to nurture human flourishing.
The “two branches” in Part ii convey the family streams with stanza 4
being the Seifert stream and the next being the Jones family.
“Unite my avocation and vocation” while a normal part of the way I think
about meaningful work, it is an echo from Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” The
conjunction of avocation and vocation additionally conveys in part the concept
of bi-vocational service to one’s community. This is also become my vision of how “church”
works in society, i.e., as an alternative society that faithfully serves the
world (for which it exists) vocationally resulting in people and organizations
investing in others via cultivated gifts, talents, skills that benefit the
“preveniently” is used in its theological sense of “coming before” in the
sense that God acts and the human person responds. “Abundance”
is a cultivated awareness and antithesis to a scarcity illusion (scarcity is anxiety driven while abundance is sought and found via
While “riding bikes hours at a time” may well portray a childhood pastime,
today it is relived in the practice of choosing personally to live without an
automobile. For nearly six years, I have cultivated a routine of commuting by
bicycle to most places around town (work, shopping, appointments and trips as
far as a 20 mile ratios). I also seek out lengthy segments of time
including overnight stays when I enjoy bike touring. Some recent trips and my
touring bike can be viewed at http://pinterest.com/seidj/touring-roads-trips/Bike touring has proven to be simple way of
leaving behind the study and office to reflect, rest mentally and listen to
nature speak poetry.
“climbing spires of nature” hints
at my past love of flying and later practice of hiking various mountains in the
region of the Shenandoah
Valley where I currently live.
Hiking became an entry point for developing a contemplative capacity in the mid 90’s
Like T. S. Elliot, the “wasteland” refers to modern society at large, which
lacks a vital sense of community and a spiritual center that breeds authentic
grounding. While a spiritual or universal grounding cannot be necessarily
received from a secular society, if one is to transcend, he/she must
differentiate via relinquishment of the dominant script(s) that no longer exists
and indeed never did exist, and via embracing an alternative text of sorts via
the essence or wisdom; e.g., of a religious tradition (rich practices—not dogma—that
develop virtues in a peoplein
community) which over time provides vital meaning and substance that becomes a
counter narrative to the dominant scripting in our society that can be summed
up (today in America) as a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that
socializes us all, liberal and conservative. For example, if a people are to
become less violent, people in community must undertake nonviolent practices (e.g.,
dialogue, mediation, guns for money) that over time instill virtues (e.g.,
equity patience, justice, forgiveness). Like the Aristotelian tradition
(ethics), this kind of work at living becomes excellence at being human,
helping people to survive, thrive, form meaningful relationships, and find
L34-35 “the women lazily
reclined in a field / gazing at her home just above a hill” describes the scene
in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.
I have benefited deeply from Wyeth’s work of interconnected themes of life and
death, and time and eternity. His ‘”pure” unpeopled landscapes’ take on
profound human presence where he portrayed the physical lives and intense
feelings of people, such as his work surrounding the Olson family and their
which includes his famous Christina’s World,
a scene which appears to be a young, thin women reclining in a field while
looking up at her home just above the hill; when actually it portrays an aging
women who had a disability that left her unable to walk; proudly refusing a
wheelchair, she resorted to dragging her body around when her legs became
Wyeth’s numerous works seek to speak into harsh
realities and embrace the complexities of life—the humorous, beautiful,
painful, simple and tragic—while reflecting on the mystery and seasons of life,
much of which have become a part of my rhythm of reflection as I am sent into a
world filled with harsh realities and complexities (see L36-38).
“riven”, torn, split apart, distressed, here used in a connoted sense of
broken and disrupted
“turned” is poetic for the Greek idea of metanoia, a rich concept denoting radical change: change in one’s consciousness
that follows new perceptions, cognition and behavior. While this term has biblical/theological
roots, in psychology it refers to an attempt of the psyche to heal itself of
unbearable conflict by melting down and then being reborn in a more adaptive
form. The outcome is on an existential level might well be named “transformation.”
Below is a poem I wrote when consciously entering the middle years which led to
dynamic change in internal focus, mindfulness, and new practices assisting with
negotiating or re-orienting self to new and strange territory. The poem incorporates
language from James E. Loder’s Transforming
Moment and James Fowler’s research in faith development (2002).
past is filled with various turns, a course
rough and shifting currents, changing times
passing seasons having ushered gain
young who sees such plot and myst’ry,
when self-absorbed constructing one’s own world
mythic venture, group observance swayed
bare adults our world expands
assumptions, rooted prototypes,
symbols through traumatic doubt and self’s
when the day comes having grappled truth
one’s self-world reality,
paradox: conjunctive faith ushers
L42 is both a reverence to the
crowing pronouncement on things as they are in Job 29. Humanity at its best
pays attention to and cares for the vulnerable. Job in his final and longest
speech, describes in a beautiful retrospect his past life, from his ‘autumn
days’ when the friendship of God was over his tent and he was a counselor and
benefactor among the vulnerable (“I delivered/rescued) the poor one crying for
help, and the orphan/fatherless who had no helper . . . ). As his days drew
consciously near the grave, he in the ancient story recounts in solemn review the
principles and virtues that have guided his conduct—a noble summary of the
highest Hebrew ideas of character. This language too speaks into the work I have
been doing, which has been both challenging and meaningful: providing pastoral
care and social work among adolescent and young adults who have experienced
trauma and abandonment by family.
L43“Convention’s sway” refers to the
meta-narrative or dominant scripts (see note for L31) such as national and
religious myths in society which are rarely questioned and which many never
take time to decipher. Convention’s sway is a result of taking on a story when
you have no story. Reading ecumenical and inter-faith theology has been a strong voice in my journey, as well as other writers and artist who have
helped me to self-differentiate from the herding and domination that breeds
anxiety in our family and societal systems.
“Autumn leaves” name the kairos or
season I identify with as I embrace the death of my parents and take on the
challenge of living into the next living generation that too shall die. I wish to
live more fully as this poem depicts and the autumn season speaks its wisdom.
The following poem is a product of riding long hours this autumn along the foot
of the MassanuttenMountain range (2012).
in me hidden surprise.
across open fields
my senses alive.
secret ministry of frost”
me in silent emprise.
lie down, demystify.
to the ground,
me how to die.
iii of the poem contains some language from my definition of a practice I have
self-named “gentle cynicism.” Gentle cynicism has been a way of moving through
(not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of
easy-to-get-to thin practices, answers and ideals on one side; while on the
other, profound thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent
souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.
While “her brokenness” refers back to the woman (L34-35 ), it also
cast forth an inward awareness of the brokenness that we all carry as
vulnerable human beings.Moreover, it alludes
to my mother, who carried with her a grief and longing that often (from my observation and now trained eye in the field of clinical counseling) was evidenced by levels of depression. Having experienced depression
myself, I have grappled with its causations and sought ways to walk through and
even embrace depression as a full-body experience and a full-body immersion in
the darkness. I learned at some level to not look upon depression as the hand
of an enemy trying to crush me, but rather to see it instead as the hand of a
friend pressing me down onto ground on which it is safe to stand.
Maria Rilke's Book of Hours has been a
companion providing carved out language and space for the soul of depression.
are not surprised at the force of the storm—
have seen it growing.
trees flee. Their flight
the boulevards streaming. And you know:
whom they flee is the one
move toward. All your senses
him, as you stand at the window.
weeks stood still in summer.
trees' blood rose. Now you feel
wants to sink back
the source of everything. You thought
could trust that power when you plucked the fruit;
it becomes a riddle again,
you again a stranger.
was like your house: you knew
each thing stood.
you must go out into your heart
onto a vast plain. Now
immense loneliness begins.
days go numb, the wind
the world from your senses like withered leaves.
the empty branches the sky remains.
is what you have.
earth now, and evensong.
the ground lying under that sky.
now, like a thing
until it is real,
that he who began it all
feel you when he reaches for you.
“binding faith and doubt” is a veritable re-texting of the dominant script
which identifies doubt as the opposite of faith. Faith and doubt are akin to
one-another, while the opposite of faith is certainty. Much of my religious
experience in the “wasteland” has been multitudes becoming increasingly
uncomfortable with certitude (primarily out of deep-seated interior and systemic
anxiety). Having experienced and embraced the reality of brokenness and
vulnerability, I have received (like some prophets, mystics, artist, poets,
writers, journalist, philosophers, musicians, and theologians who have found the
disorienting language/images of lament and complaint and discovered
language/images of re-orientation, emerging into something new and perhaps
radically different) over time and continue to become intrinsically empowered
and whole-hearted by the rich tradition of doubt across the ages. From JenniferHecht’s Doubt: A History and from my
reading of various ancient text, I have come to realize that it is only in
modern times that doubt has been equated narrowly with a rejection of faith. In
the words of a post-modern theologian, “To believe is human, to doubt divine.”
The ancient Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) reads (3.10-11)
"I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.He has made everything
beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one
can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."
The “eternity” which God has set in the human
heart, is not an accurate translation; it speaks of the illimitable or
boundless nature of time and space, futurity that includes darkness and what is
not known. This marks our expansive yet limited plain of consciousness. Human
beings (perhaps unlike the animal kingdom), are endowed with the faculty to
step back from immediate situations and particular events that vie for our
attention to catch a glimpse of the totality of existence, including our own
(self-consciousness). Yet we remain ignorant of any purposeful providence that
may underlie the totality, “from beginning to the end.” We are thus caught
between self-transcendence and stifling and ignorance. We are both in time and
out of time. Thus “At Our Best” . . . (2012)
receives, reads, interprets ancient texts;
the unknown; are baffled by existence;
before, name objects; doubt and apply silence . . .
by the sun, we find our way with reverence.
The final part iv is a
reflection out of the current season of time, reflecting on my mother’s dying
and inevitable death. I choose to view her from my last visit with her in Cleveland. It encapsulates her functioning from my observation.
While the image of the feather reed grass is clear and telling, it is related
to the biblical image of withering grass and flower (Isaiah 40).
voice said, “Call out.”
he answered, “What shall I call out?”
flesh is grass, and all the loveliness is like the flower of the field.