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Roddy O'Neil Cleary/"Despair: A Luxury

Despair: A Luxury

Roddy O’Neil Cleary

Why would anyone turn down the chance to have the final word? Especially a person who grew up as the youngest of a large family and who did not speak (my parents told me) until she was three years old because everyone else did. She would not turn down the chance. It gives her the opportunity of a lifetime to connect with cherished friends.

When I asked one of those very friends what this piece should be about, she reminded me of what I have frequently said to others. That is, having worked with many of you, the best and the brightest, during my 15 years in Campus Ministry, one thing became increasingly clear. HESA graduate students essentially do the work of ministry on campus. It seemed to me that your ministry was as encompassing as that of any person ordained to create an environment in which persons are valued, encouraged to grow, and helped to become fully alive.

Given the breadth and depth of this kind of work, it feels more like a calling than a career. A calling is much more interesting than a career. As rewarding as it may be, a calling can be costly in terms of the time and commitment it often requires of you. You might even be tempted to look for what is less interesting, a career.

Am I giving myself away? Is this beginning to sound like the voice of experience? Hopefully. The meaning of our own experience is the only thing that any of us can speak about with authority. This is why I have chosen to have the final word be about despair. It touches my own life. I believe that despair is a luxury for the privileged who do not have to struggle for survival. It is not an option for those whose survival is at risk, and those who are in solidarity with them.

Why did I feel that in preparation for writing this I had to re-read an article by bell hooks entitled The Wisdom of Helplessness: Changing the World, One Moment at a Time?

The simple answer is because I am haunted by helplessness, partially paralyzed whenever I undertake any significant project. If I tell you that this feeling can even extend to something as ordinary as preparing a holiday meal, you might think that I am exaggerating or you could begin to worry about me.

For most women, and happily today for more and more men, meal preparation is not a formidable task. It is for me—because as many of you know, I was institutionalized until age 37. In other words, as a nun, I lived in an unusually supportive religious community where I never had to cook. During these years, I probably spent more time in the Confessional than I did in the kitchen. It would have been healthier the other way around.

The Wisdom of Helplessness involves an interview hooks did with Pema Chodron. Some of you may have read the article in the Utne Reader, May/June 1997. I found this conversation between hooks—an African/American author and activist—and Chodron—a Buddhist nun, author, and teacher—particularly provocative and fruitful.

The conversation was mostly about Chodron’s most recent book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. In a nutshell, Chodron’s book is about making friends with fear—and that is why I intend to read it. Fear plays a big role in my life; not just anxiety, but naked fear.

I’ll just tell you briefly how I became clear about the major role that this emotion plays in my life. It was through the Enneagram, a spiritual, psychological tool that is rooted in Sufism, Ignatian spirituality, and Jungian psychology.

According to the Enneagram, one of three emotions is more or less prominent in our lives. We are more prone to either fear, anxiety, or anger depending on whether our source of energy is located in our head, our heart, or our gut. There are, of course, multiple variations and nuances within this basic framework, too many to cover responsibly within the context of one brief article.

Suffice it to say that this spiritual/psychological tool has given me a handle on my own fear. It has helped me to develop a counterphobic way of being, which is another way of making friends with fear. In writing this, I am being counterphobic. Even though you are my friends, I still have to counter my fear of writing for publication, or my fear of not being an adequate vehicle of the spirit. So whenever I do, it takes a huge leap of faith and hours of preparation.

I suspect that one of the reasons that we are tempted to despair is because we are afraid; we fear our own inadequacy. We do not believe that we can make a difference. We do not believe that the world can be changed one moment at a time.

Robert Muller once said, "No human being should shirk the call of prophecy." When I first read that quote on a 1998 calendar, a calendar entitled Dance Your Dreams Awake, I thought, who is Robert Muller, some kind of dreamer? I was delighted to discover that Dr. Muller is the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. He wrote an unpublished work entitled The Art of Living. Inspired by a 14-year old girl, Muller installed a "Bench of Dreams" in the beautiful hills of the University of Peace in Costa Rica. A "Bench of Dreams" is described as a special place of quiet and beauty, a place to sit and be still and listen to your own heart, to your dreams for yourself, for your family, and the whole world.

Within the context of this "Bench of Dreams," I can better appreciate Muller’s idea that no human being should shirk the call of prophecy. It resonates with what Meister Eckhart, a 13th century mystic, wrote about each creature being a word of God and a whole book about God. Eckhart also wrote, in the same mystical vein, "We are all meant to be Mothers of God... for God is always needing to be born."

Even as I write down these words, I cringe, wondering if I am giving my readers and myself further cause for despair. After all, what does a 13th century mystic or an Assistant Secretary General of the UN know about real life? What do they know about having to prepare a holiday dinner or supervise a residence hall? Does real life have anything to do with the call of prophecy or giving birth to God?

One thing they do have in common: all three (real life, prophecy, and giving birth) involve pain. Remember, they stoned the prophets. That may be one reason why human beings are given to shirking the call. Another reason may be simply not hearing the call for lack of a "Bench" or a place to be still and listen to our own heart, our dreams for ourselves, and the world.

Buddhism is all about being still and listening, the practice of mindfulness, or insight meditation. The first Noble Truth of the Buddha, Pema Chodron reminds us, is that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last, that they do not disintegrate, and that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security.

This is an important teaching for a security addict like myself. What caught me in the interview with bell hooks was when Chodron says, "We can stop looking for some idealized moment when everything is simple and secure. This second of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it."

These words helped me to relate in a different way to the desk where I was writing this final word. I realized how often I want it to be clear of un-filed papers, of unread books, and of unanswered cards and letters. I am always looking for the idealized moment when everything is simple and secure.

I am grateful to bell hooks for steering her dialogue with Pema Chodron in the direction of hooks’ own work to end racism and sexism. In regard to these issues, Chodron says, "I give up the hope that something is going to change and [I give up] the fear that it isn’t." Chodron asks hooks if she sees the balance between the desire to end suffering and the paralysis that comes from being too goal-oriented.

To this hooks responds, "Yet it seems very hard for people to fight this racism and sexism without hope for an end to it. There is so much despair and apathy because of the feeling we’ve struggled and struggled and not enough has changed." Chodron acknowledges that a lot of people who have good intentions still "get very angry, depressed, and resentful." In their attempt to alleviate suffering, the suffering is increased because of their aggression toward their oppressor.

Then hooks confesses to becoming overwhelmed even as she tours the country talking about her book on ending racism. She goes from feeling irritable toward those who say, "Don’t you think we’ve already dealt with that?" to collapsing into sorrow and tears.

Chodron’s response is not definitive but it does shed some light. She says that basically:

We are all the same . . . , and we just get stuck in different ways. Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. So if you can keep your heart and your mind open to those people—in other words, work with any tendency to close down toward them—isn’t that how racism and cruelty start to de-escalate? The thing is, once we get into this kind of work, we are opening ourselves for all our own unresolved misery to come floating up and block our compassion. It’s difficult and challenging to keep your heart and mind open...But when you see how you feel toward these people, you can begin to understand why there is racism and cruelty, because everyone has those same thoughts and emotions. Everyone feels that irritability, and then it escalates.

During this conversation, Chodron and hooks offer us an experience of the truth that can emerge from dialogue. They are two women who have not shirked the call of prophecy. They are speaking with authority. In being true to their calling, they bring light out of darkness. They are not giving in to the luxury of despair. Their connection to the web of all being will not allow them.

Another woman whose work has brought light out of darkness, and who has countered a cause for despair in the world is Jody Williams. Who among us did not take special pride that this winner of the Nobel peace prize is Vermont born and bred, and that she graduated from The University of Vermont? The movement to ban land mines that Williams coordinates began with a sense of despair and desperation. It grew out of the frustration of activists and their work with the mutilated victims of land mines.

This international campaign estimates 100 million land mines are in the ground of more than 70 countries, injuring 25,000 people a year. In early December, 1997, a treaty was signed by more than 120 countries to ban anti-personnel land mines.

What is particularly thrilling is that the land mine effort represents a whole new way of making peace. People came together and created a momentum of their own. They put pressure on structures of government, and bent them toward the will of the people.

Foreign policy experts report that the treaty was the result of creative, ground-breaking diplomacy that made citizens partners with governments in addressing a huge and agonizing humanitarian problem. In its announcement that the peace prize was going to the campaign and its coordinator from Putney, Vermont, the Nobel Committee emphasized how the campaign created and harnessed a broad wave of popular commitment in an unprecedented way.

In her acceptance speech Williams heralded a new era. She said that a new norm has been established. For the first time in history, a weapon in widespread use has been taken out of the arsenals of the world.

We are all painfully aware that our own country’s leader was intransigent and refused to sign the treaty, despite the compelling humanitarian, economic, and environmental evidence that anti-personnel mines should be banned.

Still there is hope. The United States has until December of l998 to achieve a legally binding ban. Jody Williams put her arrogant country in its place when she said that the countries that signed the treaty and the humanitarian groups that pushed them represented a new definition of a superpower. It is not one. It is everybody.

Jody Williams and the campaign that she coordinates forces us as a country to face up to the ravages of the weapons that our taxes help to mass-produce. We are the number one producer of land mines and all other weapons systems in the world.

In the newspaper photo of Williams accepting her prize in Oslo, we also see the young man with whom she shared the prize, a Cambodian who lost both his legs to mines. The stumps of his legs are clearly visible as he sits in a wheelchair and bows after receiving his medal. It is a heart-wrenching historical photograph.

This is also how I would describe a film that I saw recently. I do not ordinarily go to Montreal to see a movie—maybe an art exhibit or a musical, not a movie, especially not in the middle of a snowstorm.

I went to the film despite the storm for two reasons. First, I knew that it was about what I wanted to address in this article, and secondly it was highly recommended by Leon Lawrence, UVM’s Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, who was going to see it for the second time, and who is not put off by a little snow.

By now you are probably all quite familiar with the history of the film Amistad. It is about a real-life 1837 slave rebellion, about 53 West Africans who mutinied on a Spanish ship bound for America. It would be unfortunate to let the film’s legal battles, or the fact that Stephen Spielberg is the white director of a film dealing with Black history, distract us from the powerful message of this story.

Cinque, the leader of the mutiny, is a heroic figure. Bound in chains beneath the deck of a slave ship, he does not despair. Until only recently, American history has been strangely silent about the success of the rebellion he led.

As the story unfolds, we discover how the case of these West Africans both exposes the evil of slavery and calls forth the best in American democracy. Amistad is a parable for our times—which is still wrestling with the socio-economic consequences of slavery. The fact of racial inequality in our country is starkly clear. As William Raspberry, an African/American columnist for the Washington Post, writes, "By virtually any measure, black Americans lag behind whites—in health and income and life chances. Black people die sooner and with fewer assets, and Black children are discouraged nearly to the point of clinical depression" (January, 1998).

We cannot deny this reality any more than we can deny the stumps of a young Cambodian’s legs. And, we can’t afford the luxury of despair. Our liberation is bound up with the liberation of the oppressed, with those whose survival is at risk. A wise Aborigine woman once said, "If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together."

Working together is what gives meaning to life. We cannot afford to shirk our human calling to struggle for justice. We can try to be open to the call to change the world, one moment at a time, one word at a time, and so, become the word that each of us is meant to be.

Happily mine is not the final word. How often have you heard me say "It takes many to be intelligent"? I look forward to our ongoing conversation with each other. Thank you for the inspiration, witness, and joy that your lives have given to me. Working with so many of you enriched my time at UVM a hundredfold. My memories of you are the best and the brightest. Let’s stay in touch. (

Roddy O'Neil Cleary is the Affiliate Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington and an adjunct faculty member in Women's Studies at UVM. She served as an interfaith campus minister at UVM from 1982-1997.

Last modified May 26 2010 02:39 PM

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