I remember a class in Theological School in the early 90’s. We were studying Liberal Pastoral Care, an orientation to the soul rooted in liberal theologies of relationship, mutuality, and creative engagement with the other. It was a radical approach echoed in Parker Palmer’s assertion that a soul is not a problem to fixed, but a mystery to be embraced. He wrote that the soul is shy, like an animal in the wild, and while tough, resilient and savvy, we cannot approach it by crashing through the woods, shouting for it to come out. Rather, he suggests that “we walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree. Then, perhaps, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” (Palmer, Let your Life Speak, pp. 8-9)
This came back to me the other day. I was talking to a man possessed by the despair of the political situation in the United States and its global implications. He was educated, well-travelled, and well-respected. He was in pain. Everything he had worked for was now in question, his hopelessness and powerlessness was palpable. It was hard to listen to him, difficult to sit with his spiraling into darkness. But he had a good point. Everywhere he turned, twitter, facebook, CNN, you name it, the news was bad: Gag rules, walls, Muslim registers, shutting down information, cleaving to alternative facts, the incredulity of a world turned upside down in such a short time followed him. A person could get lost in this.
He almost did. As so many do when gripped by a collective, his ability to see options, possibilities, choices, was narrowed and occluded. All he could see was horror and it was taking him down. The definition of a complex is that it is a quanta of energy organized around a particular theme. It can swamp an ego or it can fund the energy needed to move through life. While I could see that his ego was caught by the complex, it was more poignant than that. I was witnessing a soul immobilized, like a wild animal caught in a trap. To run in and attempt a rescue would only cause more agitation.
So I sat. Slowly, the conversation wound round and round. Did I know that Lincoln was despised as a president? Did I know that history shows that those who are innovators are systematically marginalized and unrewarded? Did I know that … the litany of despair unfolded. And I sat. I resisted the pull to nihilism. After some time, I said, “Actually, I’m curiously hopeful.”
“Tell me how you got there, I want to be there. What did you do? I can’t go on like this.”
I told him. I went back to dance. Yes, at my age. And I went back to my stones, carving hearts for the women I love best. I refused to allow any images to enter my psyche that would contaminate this feeling that life is worth living. I would keep informed, but limit my exposure. I would write checks as possible and sign petitions. But mostly, I would dance.
I remembered my Hebrew Scriptures class then. This is not something new. What did Miriam do when the people went from the narrow place of oppression into the unknown and sure to be dangerous world? She gathered the women, told them to take out their timbrels and dance! She bid them sing. Before setting off into the desert, before anything else: She danced and she sang in the community of women.
That is stunning. Yes. But even more stunning than that image, is to know the story. As the Hebrews were getting ready to leave Egypt, land of slavery, God commanded the women to ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold and silver, all that was of value. The Hebrews were to take only what they needed to survive their sojourn, to bake bread on their backs. Where did the timbrels come from? Why take something so supposedly unessential? That is the beauty of this story. Miriam knew that of greater value than silver and gold is the ability to dance, to sing, to celebrate, to gather together and amass energy in wild abandon. That energy would fund the treacherous journey. It’s not that all would be well, but that by dancing and singing they touched something numinous that would help them survive the long haul, the many obstacles to liberation.
That is where I got my hope. Not a pie in the sky denial of the fearsome reality we face, nor a let’s dance it all away cause the dance will magically make it disappear hope. It is a firm hope rooted in the knowledge that millennia of oppressive regimes have existed, and so has the thrumming dance of life that will not be quenched. A hope grounded in the creative expression of life, whether in dance, stone, paper, paint, food, family, community, or anything else that gets the juices moving, the blood quickened. That wildness we are seeking needs our quiet attention and then our rousing response. Soul cannot live without this dance.