To the Stars and Back – Our Quest for Connection / Part 6 of 7

Another aspect of our connectedness is that we share with each other our need for each other. We can try to live “off the grid,” but it is not really in our genes to do so. Like those ants, we are social creatures. To live totally independently of all other human beings is not how we are programmed, and it takes a yeomen effort to make it happen. Just going to live in the woods isn’t truly getting away from others, not if we take even the smallest item with us or at any point in our seclusion need something we cannot find in the woods around us, for surely someone else helped to make the item. And if we make an item ourselves, did we learn to do so totally by ourselves, or are we bringing learning with us, learning that came from another member of our species?

Parker Palmer speaks of the need “to hold solitude and community together as true paradox…Solitude … means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people—it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community … means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people—it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”[1] Going out into the woods to live alone may be about deep listening, but it may also be about the solitude that is about the absence of people. It is a way to try to create stringent boundaries between ourselves and all other people. To set ourselves apart.

We all have and we all need boundaries. Our skin is our first boundary. Andrea Jones, in her essay about skin, begins with disconnection: “skin is the membrane that distinguishes self from world. Inside its margins: you. Beyond its flexy surface: everything else.” But, she ends with connection: “Skin differentiates but does not isolate…[it] does not hold the universe at bay. Instead it marks the seam that joins your existence to everything else.”[2]Or, in the words of Francis Moore Lappe, “Separateness is…the illusion…Mutually created and every changing – that is the reality.”[3] The reality of solitude that is connection to ourselves and community that is the awareness of connection to others – these are the details and the Big Picture, or perhaps the Big Picture and the details, or, most likely, both.

In the same way that our skin both separates us and connects us, religion is also a paradox of connection and disconnection. It helps us to connect to those who share a similar spiritual pathway, but it can disconnect us from those who are different – to the point that we may wage war on each other. So, too, our language, our culture, our foods, and our neighborhoods, both connect us and disconnect us. But one of the amazing gifts of being human is that we can learn new languages, we can open our minds to differences in cultures, we can try new foods, and we can travel out of our neighborhoods. So, too, can we reach across the boundaries of faith. Some of the most powerful moments of prayer I have experienced have been with people of different faith traditions, at the moments when together in letting go, we have touched a deep common well of strength and courage and connection.

Places such as religious institutions, have skin, too, usually known as walls. I went to a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary. At the Academy for Jewish Religion, we share our common connection to Judaism, but we practice our religion in many ways, and as we study together and struggle to find ways to gather in prayer that will meet all of our needs, we name and acknowledge that fact. And yet, when we leave this learning environment and go out to serve in the world, there are limits to the ways in which we can be pluralistic. In our synagogues and other institutions, we build a community, we make decisions, for we can’t do everything, and our decisions determine who we are. Our communities have boundaries that define who and what they are and how they do things. They have a skin that distinguishes them from the rest of the world. The question becomes, does an institution or a community use its skin to isolate itself, or to join itself to all that is around it?

[1] Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, 2009, Wiley and Sons, p. 55.

[2] Jones, Andrea, “Identity’s Edge,” Orion Magazine, January-February, 2007.

[3] Lappe, Francis Moore, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, Nation Books, 2011, p. 16.

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