IDK

Every time I travel somewhere, two Yelp searches happen. The first is for donuts. The second is for used book stores.

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PC: Glen Noble

I have a pretty significant habit of collecting books on my shelves that go unread. For a while, I started feeling guilty about this habit. What a waste! Sometimes, ultimatums get thrown around. “No more buying until you finish this shelf.” That works approximately .2% of the time because lo and behold, another trip comes up, another bookstore appears only blocks from where I stay, and my suitcase fills up with volumes. Especially if the bookstores have a religion section. Or a cookbook section. Or memoir.

I read a delicious article the other day that demanded I stop feeling guilty about acquiring unread books (within limits). It suggested that seeing unread books on shelves makes us eager to keep learning each day, because we know that our knowledge is limited and we can keep expanding it. The unread books serve as a reminder that we don’t know everything.

As a PhD student, this attitude of “not knowing” often translates to poor work. It can be difficult to admit when we don’t know a particular fact, or an entire body of literature. There have been moments in class, in a workshop, even in a meeting when I feel silly asking a question that “I should know the answer to.” But not asking the question breeds further imposter syndrome, no matter how many Google searches one can do to alleviate the feeling of not belonging due to a lack of awareness.

It almost feels comical sometimes, the way we pivot conversations to disguise not knowing for what we do know. Think of the typical politician who somehow always gets their talking points in an interview, without being asked. One of my professors assured me that the longer I do this work, the more I will realize I actually don’t know.

Reframing my work brings some comfort to this awkward admission. Maybe my job isn’t “to know,” but actually to recognize what I don’t know, and to strategize ways to find out. Moreover, maybe it’s about the questions we ask. Why are we fascinated by people of the past? What do their lives mean for us? If I interview 50 chaplains about their work, will they give me similar answers?

Academia’s most exciting aspects rest in the unread section of the bookshelf. In fact, I believe life’s most virtuous moments appear in the form of the unread. Often, the stories we tell deal with surprise and an unexpected turn of events. How we react to our surprises dictates the kind of memory it is.

Perhaps the biggest question we will never know how to answer is what our purpose is, and I think it right that we never cease wondering. We can continue asking, and continue seeking, but in this case, not knowing is the one thing that connects us beyond our towns and counties and states. If only we could celebrate not knowing.

Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

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Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

Full Circle

I don’t have to tell you that the world is funny, that life is not linear, that time is sometimes not a helpful tool for us- and sometimes it is.

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PC: Joey Kyber

Just last week I was writing a short story about stepping outside my comfort zone. I wanted to talk about joining the Interfaith Council at USC after meeting Varun, the Dean of Religious Life. The story of finding Varun is a silly one, it involves pulling a newspaper out of a trash and seeing his name in the headline. “What’s a Dean of Religious Life?” was the first question that popped in my head. The article in the Daily Trojan (our university’s daily paper) described the many experiences Varun lived that led him to this role. Living in Nepal as a Buddhist Monk, finishing both a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA, hosting a radio show, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even being an avid sports fan- all of these influenced the person he is today. Reading about them, I thought, “I want to live like this person. I should probably meet him.”

Nine years (!) later, I’m sitting at my desk at Northeastern University in Boston, where I have served in a chaplain role for almost two years. First I see the text messages from my mom and dad: “Did you see the LA Times article about Varun? I think he mentioned you.” Friends are sharing on Facebook. Varun himself emails me a link to a stunning story about his trajectory at USC, as a non-ordained Hindu attorney. It sounds just like the article I read as a lost sophomore at USC, at a time when I knew I loved studying religion, but had no idea what to do about it. This was the article that pushed me to email him in that chilly office on the second floor of the business school, that for the first time showed me I could live a life full of passion like Varun, combining so many different interests. And it’s my last week here, which feels as though a circle has been completed.

I think it’s really important to experience nostalgia sometimes, as a reminder to feel gratitude for the people who have been a constant support in our lives. I was going to post a bunch of vignettes this morning from my time at Northeastern, because there are so many wonderful and hilarious moments from these two years. I only got to tell a handful at my lovely going away party. This morning I took a Lyft to work because I baked too many treats to take on the T, and as we inched along on the 93 toward Roxbury, I looked out at the Boston skyline centered on the Prudential Center, its windows shimmering in the sunlight, and realized today is my last Monday here. Only two years ago, my mom and I attempted to navigate this ridiculous freeway and street system to move me into my tiny apartment in the North End. I remember sending Varun a picture, knowing I had made him proud. The community here has made me proud, especially after so much hardship. On the wall behind me hangs three simple letters that welcomed me on my first day: J-E-M, my name. I’m taking them with me to hang in my new office (if I get an office).

Link to the story: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-usc-chaplain-20170403-story.html

Keep it Simple, Silly.

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PC: Jeffrey Wegrzyn
Ever heard of the k.i.s.s. principle? Keep it simple, stupid, is how it’s usually read. I’m trying to avoid words that degrade or demean people. Ask me how that’s working out later. Anyway, simplicity. Sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s annoying. I want to make a case for it because right now, there are many things in the world that are so far from simple that everyone feels exhausted. So here’s a story I love that I’ve used often in writings and speeches that is simple, yet meaningful.

There is an ancient Chinese parable about an old man who knew he would die soon. He wanted to know what Heaven and hell were like. He visited a wise man in his village to ask “Can you tell me what Heaven and hell are like?” The wise man led him down a strange path, deep into the countryside. Finally they came upon a large house with many rooms and went inside. Inside they found lots of people and many enormous tables with an incredible array of food. Then the old man noticed a strange thing, the people, all thin and hungry were holding chopsticks 12 feet long. They tried to feed themselves, but of course could not get the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks. The old man then said to the wise man “Now I know what hell looks like, will you please show me what Heaven looks like?” The wise man led him down the same path a little further until they came upon another large house similar to the first. They went inside and saw many people well fed and happy, they too had chopsticks 12 feet long. This puzzled the old man and he asked, “I see all of these people have 12 feet chopsticks too, yet they are well fed and happy, please explain this to me.The wise man replied, “in Heaven we feed each other.”

From wisdomcommons.org

The message is clear, paradise cannot be achieved or maintained alone. We remember parables like this from many different sources of wisdom, including sacred texts because they are simple, yet speak to our humanity in powerful ways.

Last week I admitted something to some of my colleagues: I was not giving interfaith circles enough credit. I lambasted a conference I attended around interreligious dialogue for being too simple, too naive, for patting ourselves on the back when we’ve barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done. I feel silly for saying that today, for not lifting up the everyday miracles that we need now in this time of darkness and uncertainty.

As a scholar it’s my job to complicate concepts and ideas, to dig deeper into beliefs and convictions that many times we accept without further consideration. Yet- the story above reminds me that living in tension and accepting that the world is a complicated place can be a cop-out. How many times have I responded to someone calling me out with, “well, it’s complicated?” Simplicity is powerful and gives us footing. Does that mean we can congratulate ourselves and stop working for justice? Absolutely not. Witnessing milestones along the way pushes us further and allows us to build our teams. As the story shows us so clearly, Heaven and Hell don’t look so different. The difference is simple: in Heaven, we live in the exigency of others, just as we are needed.

PS: Shameless plug. I’m so honored to be part of the Trinity Foundation’s Boston Marathon Team and am asking for support from friends, family, and anyone who digs the mission. Check it out here: https://www.crowdrise.com/TrinityBoston2017/fundraiser/jemjebbia

 

 

Is Gratitude a Privilege?

…the short answer to the above question is yes, insofar as it concerns me and the following response.

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PC: Ian Schneider

I have been feeling a need to express more gratitude lately. Perhaps this is natural, given the climate, or the weather, or just exhaustion beyond explanation. Endorphins? Maybe the fact that Thanksgiving is this week? I’m not sure, but at the same time have been feeling a sense of frozenness, an inability to make decisions or take action. For the longest time, it felt like my perfectionism was acting up and I kept telling myself I would finish certain tasks (including emailing important people back, ehem) once I had drafted a thorough, complete response read over several times. The problem is, what does complete look like? What happens when we are never “ready?”

I was thinking about this question particularly in regard to learning allyship. At my university, we’ve been talking about best practices and how we can support students who are threatened and afraid. Do we wear the safety pins? Do we make public statements? How do we show up for each other in meaningful ways? So many uncertainties and yet, there is no time to seek the answer before something needs to be done. The time is NOW. Attempting perfection inhibits change and has encumbered me from supporting those who need to be held the most. So, as a white woman, I’m going to throw perfection out the window and trying to learn as I go. Is this dangerous? Yes. My “learning opportunities” can certainly be harmful. The damage is real. Taking action can, however, take the pressure off those I’d like to support, because waiting for complete knowledge around the “how” means the oppressed are tasked with figuring it out, and I sit and wait. We, human beings, are not perfect. We are inchoate. We are unfinished. And yet, we love and are loved.

This rambling comes in thinking about gratitude, to return full circle. One of my students challenged me about a month ago to do something every night: name one thing I appreciate about someone who otherwise gives me trouble, and name three things I love about myself. Can you guess which one is harder? In reality, it depends on the day. Every night, she has consistently reminded me to report my 1 and 3 to her, and in turn I ask her back. At first this practice seemed impossible. “He just makes me SO mad!” I thought, “How can I appreciate anything?” Moreover, putting aside self-loathing sounds simple but, of course the loathing is complicated. Slowly but surely, we have made progress together. Sure, some days still seem untenable- you know the ones. This past Friday, this student was in my office and we had a lengthy conversation about gratitude and what it really means.

As I understand now, gratitude requires faith in the imperfect. It means feeling thankful despite the suffering present in the world, in my life. It also requires mindfulness: a sense of feeling genuine in the present. When I feel grateful, I am not taking a backseat and determining that everything “will work itself out.” I am acknowledging that there are in fact slivers of hope, pieces of love to hold as we march into the darkness. I am grateful for the challenges, even if on certain days, they feel insurmountable to address. Gratitude is a call to action, not complacency- this is the difference between ignoring privilege and acknowledging it.

 

A Shattered Thursday

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PC: Jilbert Ebrahimi
Let me tell you about my Thursday.

I got to work around 8 am, carrying a cake for my co-worker’s birthday. I stayed up until 2 am making it. It tasted fantastic, so I heard. The weather was cool, and crisp, and dry. Perfect for caramel apple cake with dulce de leche icing.

After I hid the cake (it was a surprise) and bore witness to an angry student before our center even opened, I guided a meditation. 7 people came. I went back in my office and answered some emails. At 9:30, I heard about a miscommunication escalating to a fight, lawsuits threatened, people’s jobs in question. I fielded phone calls from other offices. I cleared my schedule to attend an urgent meeting. A student worker left early from the office because her grandfather passed away. I sent her a text: “So sorry my love. May everything run smoothly. Let me know what you need.”

At 11 am, I set up for a student affairs colleague meeting. We ate lunch and vegan cookies that I brought for the birthday celebration. We discussed mental health issues on campus. Our students are all over-worked, sleep-deprived, and expected to be happy, productive individuals every moment of every day. We imagined a potential collaborative internship for our students that would focus on an exploration of intersectionality and identity. I texted my partner to see if he was awake. He said he would bring the apples by 1:20. My shoulders relaxed. “Thank you,” I texted back. I scribbled some practically illegible notes.

As our meeting was ending, I texted back and forth with a student leader about which flowers to buy for the birthday girl. We went over the surprise plan. I would stall her until my student sent me the ok, at which point my co-worker and I would head to a “meeting” across the hall.  I said goodbye to my colleagues and walked back into our office, to find a student crying on the phone. My phone buzzed with the text “Come now, hurry!”-birthday time.

The crying student, my co-worker and I each took a deep breath. We processed the student’s anxiety all together. Finally, as suavely as possible, I ushered all three of us across the hall again for the birthday surprise. Everyone shouted. My co-worker sped out of the room for a moment. The students had arranged the cake, caramel apples, and gifts on a beautiful table. “This looks like the Garden of Eden!” My co-worker exclaimed. We watched the videos and messages the students filmed- one included pictures of me and her, one a choreographed dance, and one a Scooby-Doo parody. We laughed, and secretly, my throat began to choke up. Did she enjoy the surprise?

Another serious, tense meeting began just as the party finished. This one included several students- they felt angry and scared, but determined. As I finished cleaning, I gave the student who put all the videos together a massive, shoulder gripping hug. “Thank you so much for doing that,” I looked into her eyes. “I think she loved it.”

Back in my office, I found another distraught student. “What’s going on?” I asked. She didn’t want to talk, just sit in quiet. The sound of new emails sliced through the air several times. I got up to fill my water bottle. Students sat strewn around the front desk, the chairs leading to my office, and everywhere in between. The phone rang at the front. No one answered. “The air is tense in here!” Someone said. “MmmHMMM,” I murmured back with a mouthful of water.

Suddenly, the student who bought flowers for my co-worker appeared. She snapped her fingers. “Can you do something!?” I jolted up, hitting my knee on my desk. My water bottle toppled over.

One of the students in the serious meeting had fainted in the Director’s office. I tried to ask everyone to leave. I closed the door. Clutching his head and slumped over, the student explained, “This is too much. Everyone hates me right now. I have an assignment due tomorrow that I haven’t started and I’ve had two weeks. This meeting was so stressful. It’s too much.” One of his best friends had stayed in the room. She touched his hand. “I’ve been there,” she consoled him. “Sometimes you just have to fall apart. We are your friends. We’ll hold you up.” After a few more minutes, the student seemed stable. I quietly excused myself to continue an email exchange about a scheduling conflict in our Sacred Space. The crying student sobbed again. I took in a breath that filled my whole belly, and let it out slowly, through my teeth. My body instinctively stood up again to refill my water bottle.

Back in our Director’s office, I witnessed something that evaporated all the emotions I was so carefully juggling. The two students were hugging. They were smiling and giggling. They stayed in the embrace for a few moments. A tear silently grazed my left cheek. My lips lengthened into a slight smile.

You see, the student who had fainted is a Muslim, very active in the Islamic Society of Northeastern. He is also a Jordanian-Palestinian American. His friend, holding the fragility, channeling her empathy and care into the shattered young man before her, is Jewish. Their friendship exists in tension with the wider world. In other places, perhaps even in the same city, these two people could negate the humanity of the other. They could ignore each others’ existence. But they don’t. Instead, they choose friendship, they seek connection.

Sometimes we need to shatter for our souls to be assured that we are connected, we are seen, we are loved. In the midst of the pain, violence, and terror our world faces, maybe love cannot save us from breaking into a million pieces. Love makes the tiny slivers, the shattered pieces, sparkle like stained glass that is kissed by the sun.

Why I Wouldn’t Share the Cure for Cancer

This past week I have been blissfully writing and recharging at the Kenyon Institute’s Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Program. We have focused on four broad genres of writing, including Midrash, the personal essay, the Op-Ed, and the blog. Every session has been insightful, and through the prompts and practices, I have found myself in tears more than once. The healing and learning we can do for ourselves through writing is nothing short of amazing.

I have been struggling for a while to use my voice in a way that is helpful and not harmful. Every day my Facebook feed is filled with violent, destructive articles and pictures that demonstrate just how unjust (and downright painful) this world can be. Liberating the marginalized from this system feels impossible. My mind and heart ache with emotion, with empathy and a calling to reach out and rise up. I want to validate the anger, fear, and unspeakable pain so many feel. Is adding my voice harmful, is it stifling to those who historically have never had a voice? Most definitely, I believe.

In our session centered around the Op-Ed, we played a game. Our facilitator posed the question, “If you knew the cure for cancer, would you tell the room full of cancer patients before you?” Most everyone responded that they would. “Absolutely not,” I thought. The systems and institutions would still fail these patients, would demand payment after unpaid bills, would privilege insurance, citizenship, able-bodied, and urban dwellers. What good is a cure when it is inaccessible?

The world has always been broken. I am acutely aware of this as I consume article after blog after facebook status stating how this is true, what the problem is. I see some forms of solutions- what allies can do, how to provide self-care, who to call when threatened. But the large vision of equality or peace in a world in which racism and sexism and oppression don’t exist at all doesn’t seem to be an option. I have been longing for a picture of this utopia and fallen short, perhaps because I believed once that my goal as a Zen Buddhist was to attempt to end the suffering of all human beings in order to end my own. As I see it now, the world will always include suffering. My objective is to create slivers of joy in a time of unbearable pain.

Last night we all traced our foot on a blank piece of paper. We filled the foot with words, describing how we feel “stuck.” I wrote about feeling trapped in silence, but that I know silence to be siding with oppression. Justice needs voices and words. We each drafted a question that would help us escape our “stuckness.”

This morning I shared my question with two new colleagues, both women Episcopal Priests. They paused. One answered, “When I talk with people who I know have thoughts and ideas but don’t feel they can speak, I ask them questions. I ask them to respond.” The other said, “This sounds like something Jesus wondered about.”

Jesus?

Jesus.

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PC: Rob Bye

As she explained her answer, I realized that the Jesus I knew as a young Catholic is not the only side to the teacher. I always knew Jesus to be a humble son of a carpenter, gentle, someone who spent time with the people others ignored or cast out. But Jesus was also a very influential leader by the time he died. He built a strong, active ministry that brought people together across classes and tribes. He spoke with authority and commitment. In his work, he included the poor, the hungry, the lepers, society’s “ills” because people listened to him. Jesus was the voice when the voiceless needed sound.

I do not believe myself to be a prophet or Messiah. I am a teacher and am moved by the sacredness in every single person. The struggle to know when and how to speak my truths will stay with me as I hold Jesus’ famous beatitudes in my heart. Blessed are the voiceless.