Tuesday, September 6, 2011

ostracizing what is beloved

In the Philippines, a group of villagers snared what is being touted as possibly the biggest crocodile in the world in the wake of attacks on both livestock and human beings. At one ton and 21 feet long, the croc gives New-York-sewer nightmares a whole new dimension. Villagers plan to put it on display.

The biggest, the first, the most distinguished, the most heroic, the most holy ... the pinnacle, the tip-top, the brightest star, the most heinous ... the good, the better and, inevitably, the best.

What a strange habit -- to single out the superlative in any realm. And that superlative is singled out as a means to gauging where we ourselves stand, to encourage or to create a wondrous awe. And yet what occurs to me today is that by singling out what is best, the best is ostracized in our lives, consigned to a distance. What may be most beloved -- the first-est with the best-est -- is deliberately kept at arm's length ... and its longed-for benefits destroyed. A beloved hero ... ostracized in his elevated status.

When my daughter played softball in high school, I would often go to her games an cheer like a parental bandit. I loved seeing the kids throw themselves into things. My daughter belonged to a pretty good team. There were some big strong girls.

But one thing I noticed was that few, if any, hit the ball as far as their stature would allow. They might hit it out of the infield on occasion, but seldom did they smack it over the outfielders' reach. Seldom was there a home run and yet many of the girls were clearly capable of hitting one.

One day, the softball coach from a local college was also there as an observer and I asked her why it was that the girls never seemed to hit in accord with their physical potential. The woman replied, "At their age, it's important not to stand out. They are part of a group. Standing out would set them apart."

Set apart. Marginalized. Ostracized. What may be much beloved is kept at a distance, as if, somehow, what was desirable were undesirable ... keeping a safe distance from that which we claim to wish we could hold close.

Look at the bright lights we turn on in our lives. God, lovers, athletes, soldiers, the 'best of the best' ... all of them anointed, all of them bathed in sweet, jaw-dropping light and all of them held by elevation at a safe and protected distance, as if saying, "I love loving you but don't ask me to look you in the eye. If I looked you in the eye, I would cut myself off. I would stand alone. I would be apart. And that is too frightening."

It is hard to be responsible, to be set apart in our own stand-alone light, to hit whatever version of a homer our very particular lives provide. It may be easy to ostracize others with our praise, but we long not to be ostracized in turn. And standing alone feels like ostracism.

It's important to square off against our own willingness to elevate and praise -- to ostracize what we claim to love, to hold things at a distance and be content to cheer with the crowds. The cheering seems to assert our oneness and lack of separation, but in fact, on closer inspection, it only increases the separation. On closer inspection, there is only the mirror, and somehow we must muster the courage to look in it if we want a little peace. Who is this one who praises with gusto and blames with aplomb? Do the distances of praise and blame really exist?

The Persian poet Rumi wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.

Martin Luther King said approximately

It's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right.

And the Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen wrote

To study Buddhism is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all beings....

No separation. No oneness.

But there is the light.


  1. In baseball is it not the team that wins? If everyone on a team who can hit a home run does not do so does the team in fact stand a good chance of losing? Is not failure to try your best just letting the team down? Is not a failure to try nothing but a fear of a possible future event - one in which you might be held accountable for your choices? Would you want to be on a team where self-ish behaviour is encourage so that a team loss is more likely?

    A good coach might praise personal bests and teamwork. He might praise those who try.

    In business if you want to encourage mediocrity you can do so. If you want to encourage excellence you can do so. Mediocrity is the safe choice. Excellence means standing out. The funny thing is that you can change the definition of mediocrity. One or two strong players with support can encourage everyone else to raise their game. Suddenly, yesterday's mediocrity becomes today's "letting the side down" or "not a team player".

  2. Fortunately, children don't generally burn and die as a result of playing baseball games, nor asked to believe that "everything (includes children burning and dying) is all right". One may accept that things are as they are, but does that make it "all right"?