The Truth about ‘Preaching to the Choir’

Having been invited to speak at a university on the subject of men’s violence against women, my heart sank when I found myself standing behind a podium at the front of an enormous auditorium—it must have held a thousand seats—in which was scattered an audience of maybe thirty people in all.

I could blame my host’s lack of skill at turning out an audience, but there was still the struggle not to take it personally, and then the challenge of filling so large a space with the energy of so few, the bulk of it expected to come from me. And then, of course, there was that old feeling of here we go again, another audience of the dedicated, the ones who always show up.

And those stalwart few will complain that the ones who ‘really need’ to be there, the ones you’d give your eyeteeth to change their minds, are not.

“You realize, of course, you’re preaching to the choir.”

I’m glad to say there are frequent exceptions—the crowd of more than a thousand in Milwaukee, when the subject was race, and standing-room-only in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maryland. But, still, it is a challenge getting people into the room to focus on difficult things.

Except, of course, for those who are drawn to sing.

I used to share their disappointment and frustration, but lately I’ve come to change my tune.

I’ve been considering, for example, the longing for all those people who ‘need it most’ to show up. I think it’s based on a misplaced belief in the power of conversion, that can suddenly persuade someone into a completely different point of view. I suppose it does happen, but if I tried to recall a time when someone just sat me down and talked me out of a reality I was invested in, I don’t think I could.

My worldview, of course, has gone through many changes over the years, but it’s usually a slow and messy business—two steps forward, one back, sometimes three—and it needs something to shake things up enough to loosen my death grip on old ways of seeing.

That something is rarely a speech in an auditorium, unless much else has happened to prepare the way, which leads me not to count on persuading those with no interest in being persuaded. At best I will insert a grain of sand into the oyster, that may someday down the road irritate it just enough to produce a pearl.

But, for that, they must be in the room, and I suspect the disappointment I detect in members of the choir, is that more people do not manage on their own to overcome their shyness or disbelief or fear or whatever else it is that keeps them away. But this is not the kind of species we are, in my experience. Generally speaking, we are not that visionary or brave. We need someone to help bring us along.

Let’s be optimistic anyway, and imagine that we draw not only the choir, but a small group of wannabes and the sufficiently curious. A somewhat larger choir, perhaps, but still, the choir.

What I’m coming to see that I haven’t before, is that this amounts to more than we may think. In fact, most of the time it may be exactly how it’s supposed to go.

That those who most need to be there, and are most needed, are the ones in the room.

The choir, after all, shows up when it’s not convenient, when they have other things to do, make time to rehearse and do the singing, whether the tune is testimony and persuasion or argument, protest, and demand. The choir does the heavy lifting and takes the risks, to speak what others will not, to stand their ground and block the door or fill the hall, staying up into the night to analyze and strategize and organize.

To do that, they must be fed and inspired. They need to hear their voices joined together to remind them who they are and that they’re not alone. They need to learn and practice new ways of understanding both the world and themselves that they have not imagined before. To be encouraged by example.

Because they are walking into a stiff wind as they sing toward a world that does not yet exist.

A while ago, I came to speak at a large university, and the evening before, I met with a group of faculty and grad students and activists from the community. In the room was a young black woman who spoke of her anger and frustration, every day coming up against the wall of white racism, inertia, and indifference. She did not know what to do with all that anger, and was afraid of what she might do that she’d regret.

As I listened, I could feel how young she was, struggling to form and contain and direct the power and intelligence so evident as she spoke. Afterward, as people lingered in knots of conversation, she came up to me and we talked for quite a while, brainstorming things she might do in those difficult moments, such as with the white professor who is clueless on the subject of race, but convinced that he is not.

The conversation was lively and I remember her smiling and even laughing as we strategized and fantasized our way from one thing to another.

And, I think, in the lightening of her spirit, she was beginning to see not a particular solution, but a range of possibilities, that she was not helpless after all, that her anger was a form of power that she could harness and measure for effect, and I remember how energized she became, not because of me, but what was happening between us, the old man in the choir and the newly emerging voice.

I think you could say we had a good time.

And yet, at the start of that meeting, there had been the familiar sight of people looking around to note the friends and colleagues who had not shown up in spite of being invited.

But, in a way, I realize, it did not matter, because whatever she got, it will be multiplied many times over in the course of her life. And for me there was one more reminder of why we go on.

She makes me think of the young woman boldly challenging the president of the University of Missouri to define systematic racism, an exchange that not only led to his undoing, but, more important, created another opening for the kind of larger, critical questions that writers and activists have been working for so many years to bring to a culture that cannot see past the individual.

I ask myself, how did she come to that moment? To know what she knew? To have the courage to speak, to focus the power of her anger with such clarity and purpose? What were those times when she decided to show up, to engage in the conversation, to come to the event or enroll in the course or read the book someone mentioned the other day?

There she is, fifth row back, sitting with a friend she persuaded to come. And while others might be wondering about the empty seats, that’s not what’s on her mind.

I think about her and that moment when she confronted the president of a university and, then, in such a loud, clear voice, how she did sing.

Mondo Bizzarro: Choosing Sanity in an Insane World

I remember the day, teaching about race, halfway through the term, the student coming into class, shaking her head.

“This is nuts,” she says. “Race doesn’t make any sense. Racism is crazy.”

What could I say?

Except to wonder, with her and the rest of the class, who, in their right mind, would dream up such a thing.

Oh, this is a good idea—let’s pretend you can tell who someone is, what they’re worth, their intelligence, their morality, by the color of their skin! And let’s have a story where God creates different kinds of human beings just so one can feel superior and treat the other like shit . . . .

I could go with ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts,’ although delusional also comes to mind. Anyway, it is worrying because there’s so much of it going around.

Like telling ourselves that across the vast cosmos and billions upon billions of years, we, the human beings, riding our infinitesimal speck of dust, are the point of it all.

Now, tell me this, if I can’t claim to be Napoleon or Jesus or Janis Joplin without coming under serious professional care, how do we get away with that?

Or the idea that we know what we’re doing, that we’re in charge, that we can control the earth, not to mention death. That we can frack and drill and change the climate, blow off the tops of mountains, drive species to extinction, but, hey, don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, it’ll be okay because, worst case, we’ll figure something out.

Or we’ll just keep growing, because growth is always good and there’s no such thing as too much of it, whether it’s the human population or the GDP. Did we miss the part in Alice in Wonderland where she eats the little cake and winds up wearing the house?

How do we imagine a divinely ordained natural order by which we are meant to convert the earth’s biosphere, bit by bit, into human beings. And all the rest is nothing more than fuel or ‘raw’ material. For us. And we think this will work. That we should teach it to our kids.

Come to think of it, ‘delusional’ may be a bit too tame. How about wacko, bananas, bonkers, mondo bizzarro.

Speaking of bizarre, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said just the other day that the economy is doing pretty well. He didn’t mention that our infrastructure is falling apart, including schools, or that, at any given time, upwards of half the population either has nothing to lose or lives in chronic anxiety over losing what little they have. But ‘we’ are doing fine because somewhere else ‘they’ are doing worse.

What stood out to me was that the interviewer didn’t swallow his gum or burst out laughing. The telephone switchboard didn’t light up. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it’s not as though Mr. Bernanke said something that was crazy meshugena off the wall. You know, divorced from reality.

Like the idea that prisons actually work, that punishment and fear and putting someone in solitary confinement for decades, even teenagers, is how you get people to act more like human beings. This is why we encourage parents to lock their children in dark closets for as long as it takes to make them good.

Because violence, we know, works. And it is good. Which is why we celebrate men’s capacity for violence as a mark of true and virtuous manhood, from football to war, and, somehow, miraculously, we think we can do that without bringing abuse and murder on ourselves and our children, because that would not be good.

Did you know that in World War II, widely considered a ‘good war,’ waged and fought by the ‘greatest’ generation, 50 million people lost their lives? Not to mention the uncounted millions, no, billions, of non-human lives that were blown, burned, and starved into oblivion.

This we call success. Victory. Triumph. Our finest hour. To this we make speeches and erect monuments.

I tried explaining that to my dog, Roxie, but she kept looking at me funny, cocking her head, pulling back her ears, then burying her nose in her paws and making little moans. I think she may have been a little worried.

Actually, come to think of it, it wasn’t the only time it’s occurred to me that she was wondering why it is that humans are in charge. At least in our current condition. As in, is it safe to depend on a species that, to judge by what they do, are, quite simply, by any reasonable standard, out of their minds.

Who do we imagine that we are? By what mass psychosis do we think these things we do are not insane? Stark raving mad.

I’m not kidding. These are not mere figures of speech. I am not being metaphorical.

We may think that to be crazy you have to scream and foam at the mouth and bang your head against the wall, but if you consider the results, hands down the worst kind of insanity has a calm and collected demeanor and speaks in measured tones with a good vocabulary while they tell you about the ‘real’ world and what is ‘normal’ and right, and aren’t you a little strange for thinking otherwise.

We have inherited, we are living in, we are reproducing as we go, a form of collective insanity. And part of that is having no idea. In fact, we think we are the peak of evolution, the gold standard for intelligence and reason. Dogs should be so lucky to be us.

Not to mention those ‘primitive’ indigenous peoples who actually believe that to be human is to be embedded in a world of relation, without which we do not exist. And that the cultural ideal of the autonomous, self-sufficient ‘individual,’ contained inside their little ego, may be the loneliest, not to mention the craziest, idea of all time.

Well, we do have some idea of our condition. If we did not, we wouldn’t go around shaking our heads and muttering what a crazy world it is, with that way we have of rolling our eyes so as not to look it square in the face and know that we’re not talking ‘crazy’ as in ‘go figure’ or ‘wild and crazy,’ but the kind of insanity that would freak us out for sure if we considered for a moment that’s what it really is.

Instead, we talk about it like the weird uncle you just gotta love because, well, he’s your uncle.

You might be thinking I’m one of those pessimistic malcontents who hates humanity, but I’m not. It isn’t that I’d rather be a dog. All I want is to understand what it means to be a human being, and to live by that among the humans.

But the norm of insanity is to be absorbed into a kind of collective autism, a state of isolation and disconnection that comes of an inability to live in relation to other beings, to the earth, to the consequences of what we do. It is to sit in the corner and rock back and forth, humming to ourselves in our obsessive, almost frantic preoccupation with things that do not matter, while being oblivious to where we are, the texture of the ground, the color of the sky, the expression on the face of the person across the way, the fact that someday we really really are going to die.

No wonder we’re so crazy afraid of death. As if it’s not supposed to happen. As if life would be possible without it. We might as well be afraid of food, or water, or touch, or the ground. Or sleep. Afraid of life itself, that, without death, has no meaning, makes no sense at all.

Martin Luther King once claimed it as a point of pride to be maladjusted to a world that creates so much injustice and destruction and suffering. He didn’t mention insanity, but I doubt he would have minded my adding it to the list. He went on to propose an international association “for the advancement of creative maladjustment.”* I’d like to know where to sign up for that. Then again, maybe I already have. Perhaps the belonging is in the doing.

Because to choose sanity in an insane world is to maladjust ourselves. It is, in its fullest expression, an act not only of self-preservation, but of conscience, of resistance, a withdrawal of consent. And to be sane in the midst of insanity is also a radical act of love. Love in affirming our humanity and the worth of every being, and radical in daring to challenge the power of systems whose insanity is driving us toward extinction and oblivion.

But in mondo bizzarro, sanity does not happen on its own. Not that I have an antidote to our condition, only what aids my creative maladjustment.

Like trying to minimize my exposure to the toxic flow of mindless stimulation—email, the internet, the ‘news.’ And rush-hour traffic and big box stores where I monitor myself to get out before it’s too late, like those horror movies where I want to yell to the unsuspecting hero, “Run! Run!” Except it’s not a movie, and it’s me.

Because sanity loves company, I read a lot, especially Native Americans working to regain the sanity that was taken from their people, whose traditional ways of thinking have much to teach us about what it means to be a human being.

Including that sanity can be surprisingly simple, even when it takes a lot of work.

I spend time with other maladjusts, who remind me that it isn’t crazy to be sane, which is easy to forget.

I create pockets of silence that draw sanity from the stillness, like water from a well, moments to sit quietly and do nothing.

I go with Roxie into the woods, to visit with the trees and the water in the stream, to watch the sun breaking above the ridge. As it has for billions of years, for trillions of beings. Roxie wants me to throw a stick. She stamps her feet. She knows what matters. And when I forget, she will remind me. That it’s not the stick, it’s the game.

I write. And when I’m in the world, I do my best to not be crazy, which includes not to worry about what people think of what I say and write. And when I encounter the insanity, I try to remember what it is, what it can do, and with compassion, and knowing when to engage and when to give it a wide berth, like I would a raccoon cantering sideways in the middle of the day.

Through it all, I try not to fall into the trap of thinking myself superior. As sane. Because among my sanest moments are those when I’m most aware that I’m not. Which is not as easy as it sounds.

It snowed last night. Awhile ago Roxie came in from Nora throwing the frisbee and the ball and then came down to keep me company while I write, as she does every day. She sleeps on a little bed beside my chair, her paws twitching as she runs through a dream. Or at least that’s what I think it is. She doesn’t say.

She opens an eye to look up at me. I think she knows when I’m writing about her. Then again, maybe not. Maybe she just wants to be sure of me.

*From a speech Dr. King gave in London in 1964, on his way to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. You can listen and read at Democracy Now.

Collecting Silence

It was in college classrooms that I began to be aware of the power and variety of silence. I would pose a question for discussion and then for a while no one would speak. I would wait it out, which is how I thought of it at first, giving them a chance to respond without my stepping in. But then one day I realized it was something more, that I was making room for a particular kind of silence, the sound of thought, with a texture you can feel if you close your eyes, which I sometimes did, or look out the window, sensing the charge in the air, almost electric, I can hear you thinking from way over here.

Gordon Hempton, an acoustical ecologist, describes silence as something other than the absence of sound. Otherwise, there would be no silence except in the farthest reaches of outer space, beyond the reach of solar wind. Even there, I imagine, there would be the sound of my brain running at idle.

Silence, he says, is an absence of all sound that intrudes, that might draw our attention. For me, then, there can be silence with the sound of wind, but not a cell phone going off. Hempton believes the silence of large spaces measured in square miles is not only becoming harder to find, but is endangered, like animals being driven to extinction.

Very different from the silence of thought is the silence of someone sleeping, with its unmistakable weight, like a stone dropped in the water and sinking to the bottom to rest until lifted up again, brought to the surface.

Or the silence beneath a wind moving through the trees, the leaves drifting softly to the ground.

In meditation, there is always sound to be noted above the silence—bird calls outside the window, a plane passing by high overhead, the ticking of the heater against the wall, breath moving in and out, Nora shifting on her bench, Roxie standing up on the cushion we put down for her, lying down again with a sigh, the silence in a quality of stillness in which sound does not intrude even as it moves the air.

Sometimes the silence of meditation can take on a weight like sleep, especially in the company of others. I have experienced this in a Buddhist meditation retreat and in traditional Quaker Meetings where silence can go on for an hour or more. It is a remarkable experience and exceedingly rare. I cannot think of any other place where it is possible to be in the company of forty or fifty people who are both awake and in silence for so long a time.

Such silence can feel like a presence, which is why I would sometimes open my eyes just to see what is there, so strong was the feeling. I looked at people’s faces reflecting the inner stillness they brought into the room, now added to my own, a palpable sense of ease and calm that can wrap around and hold you, an embrace.

Other silence bears a different weight, an absence not of intrusive sound, but of someone who was there and now is gone, the silence that carves a hole in the middle of a room at the moment when someone dies. I was just turning into the doorway of my mother’s room when I knew without looking that she was gone. Her body was there, wasted by the cancer, her face, her hands, but she was not, as if there had been an evacuation so hurried and complete that it left a kind of vacuum in its wake, an absence of air to carry the all but inaudible pulsation of a living being.

In the time after a death, there is the silence of stepping into an empty house and closing the door behind as you pause to listen for what is missing, expecting to hear the familiar timeworn sounds that do not come, your mind and body sinking down over weeks and months into the quiet knowing that some things are both forever and never again. It is the silence of waking in the middle of the night to a room that feels empty even though you are there, the furniture where it was before but now an absence, empty and still, beside you in the bed.

There is the silence of death and there is the silence that comes in the instant before the dying, a moment always there and yet strangely not until it comes. When my father died I was sitting beside his hospital bed after spending the night on a cot between his bed and the window. It was just before 6:00a.m. on a Friday morning in December, and I was watching him breathe slowly in and out. He had congestive heart failure and had been unconscious since before I arrived the night before.

For 93 years—almost 34,000 days, more than 800,000 hours—he had taken a breath and let it out at least every four or five seconds in an unbroken string of almost 600 million consecutive respirations. Until this moment as I watched and listened to him breath out one more time, a breath like any other, and then there was the beat of silence that always comes before the next one coming in, except this was to be the first and last time in his long life that another breath would not come, as death entered in so softly, not unexpected and yet unannounced, for no particular reason, why not now? and I sat back in the chair and looked at his face as the silence grew long and deep, gathering up my father to carry him away.

The silence between breaths is like the silence between notes, on which the music rests.

Which is similar to the silence between people who know each other so well that words may only detract from what passes between them as they look in each other’s eyes or gaze out the window, together.

Of course not all silence is peaceful.

There is the awkward silence of not knowing what to say, the lull in the conversation when you cannot escape that it really is just the two of you sitting there, as you are, the insecurities, the doubts, the nervous smile, the glance away, the clearing of the throat. Why are we not enough just as we are?

There is the silence of bad news undelivered, hanging in the air with nowhere to go; or the awful secret shared by all but one; or what both of you know but neither will say.

There is the almost suffocating silence of fear and dread and worry in the middle of the night.

There is the silence of mendacity, the slippery beat following the practiced lie and the sad little pause just before it’s taken in as true.

There is the silence of tiptoeing around the truth, of denial and complicity and consent, of injustice and suffering left unnamed and unremarked. The silence of what goes unasked and unreported on the news, what is not covered in the history class. The silence of saying nothing while the woman is being raped down the hall or beaten next door.

No matter what kind of silence it is, it always contains an opening for something unknown or even unknowable to enter in, which may be why some will work so hard to avoid it while others go out of their way in its pursuit.

When Nora and I were first together thirty-some years ago, we lived on a busy corner in the West End neighborhood of Hartford, just a block from an exit off I-84. I once sat on the front porch and counted the cars going by, estimating an average of ten thousand a day. Across the street was a fire station, whose bone jarring horns could go off in the middle of the night.

After a few years we moved to the next town over. Across the street was an elementary school which was quiet by comparison, but within a few years we were yearning for real silence, the kind where you can hear yourself think most of the time or have moments where thought stops altogether.

This last move took us to the house we had built twenty-odd years ago in the middle of the woods, far from city lights and sounds, where silence can be so palpable and deep that I am sometimes compelled to stop and listen, realizing where I am,

1234567890 sitting in the middle of perfect

silence knitting everything together, seamless and whole, into the stillness beneath our lives, from which we come, to which we all return, softly, to be known at last, oh, yes, this is who you are.


Gordon Hempton interview, On Being, National Public Radio, July 4, 2013 available at http://www.onbeing.org/program/last-quiet-places/4557

The lines, “sitting in the middle of perfect/possibility” are from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Afternoon in the House” in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996), p.47.


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