Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Makes Us Squirm

Last week, I was caught off guard by something that made me cringe just a little. 

I was making a sandwich in my kitchen while listening to a video conversation between Anne Lamott and Oprah Winfrey. I love Anne’s writing and humour, her spirit and her honesty. At one point Oprah read a line from Anne's book Help, Thanks, Wow:

"Prayer is a chance that against all odds and past history, we are all loved and chosen." 

Anne responded, "Yes, we are all loved and chosen."

Her words made me freeze, knife poised mid-air, mayonnaise jar in hand, suspended, not breathing for a few moments.

I knew right away what the problem was: it was my discomfort with the word “chosen.” I often experience feeling held in the love of something larger than myself. But chosen?

I sat with my reaction to the word, started to contemplate some questions: What would it mean to be chosen? By whom? For what? Suddenly I remember standing awkwardly at school dances, hoping and dreading both possibilities- of being chosen and of not being chosen.

In the context of spirituality, is everyone chosen, and if so, does that make being chosen meaningless? Is it like giving everyone in the class a blue ribbon for participating when they didn’t really have any choice? And is being chosen always a good thing? I learned early to do well (at school, household chores etc.) as a way of not getting singled out, not being "chosen" for special attention in my family.

If I’m chosen does that mean someone else was not chosen? And won’t they be upset, envious, angry? Does that mean those that are chosen will now have to take care of those who were not?

Yes, leave it to me to see the spectre of unlimited responsibility lurking beneath any potential blessing.

I am pretty sure that Anne Lamott would say we are all chosen, and we know this because we are here, alive, living life on this spectacular planet. If that’s what she means- and that's my guess- I would agree.

And yet, the word makes me uncomfortable. So I pay attention. Because I have discovered that what makes me squirm a little for no apparent reason often offers me insight into who I am, helps me bring to consciousness that which is unconscious. I’m not talking about things that create anguish. I’m talking about  ideas, words, people, and situations that stir a little anxiety, create a bearable discomfort. In these places I resist the urge to move away instantly, choosing to just hang out a little, wondering what might be revealed.

So, I invite you to stir the pot of contemplation by sharing your own responses to the word “chosen” here. Does it sit well with you? Does it have any meaning for you? Do feel chosen in any sense? Are others chosen?

For me, it's a word that asks me to stretch, to consider where my discomfort comes from, to play with the possibilities for a good, life-deepening understanding of being "chosen ".

Oriah (c) 2013

24 comments:

  1. The first thing I think of is being in Sunday School as a child and learning that the Jews of the Old Testament were God's chosen people. I had two thoughts: Why were they preferred over other ancient peoples? And, more importantly, how could chosen people end up being horribly persecuted? (I knew about the Holocaust, though I wasn't yet aware of the longer history of anti-Semitism.)

    Being "chosen" is a difficult concept. It does imply being singled out, for good or ill. Personally, I would have preferred Anne to say "we are all loved and we all matter."

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    1. Yes, these are all part of my history with the word also. But I wonder if Annie wasn't pointing toward something else- toward a need we all have at times to feel that we are specifically "chosen." Or perhaps it speaks to a need to "belong" - although that has a less exclusionary feel to it.

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  2. Dear Oriah
    Oh how we amuse our brains. I am glad I am not the only one that gets stuck on a word or a phrase. It is a way of saying to myself that this does not sit right for me. Chosen is like the word special, which I wrestle to understand living in a first world country. Do others living in a third world country also feel chosen or special?

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    1. For me this kind of contemplation is about more than amusing my brain- it's about noticing where there is discomfort and staying with it to explore what that is about in an effort to bring to consciousness an unconscious belief or feeling. I suspect that wherever there are human beings, regardless of material circumstances, there are those who are told or who feel they are "chosen" or "special" (perhaps according to gender or birth order or some task that is seen as theirs.) And there is of course, in some places, a "culture of the chosen"- for those who are highly privileged -which may or may not involve attendant sense of responsibility for use of that privilege on behalf of the world.

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    2. and there in lies all our woos, it is them and us as opposed to we are all one teachings. We have a long ways to go were we are all well enough without mental baggage to consider the beggar on the street to be as special or chosen as the one who sits comfortably in their home with adequate food. There does not seem to be an answer for me except that it makes me momentarily sad to see anyone suffer. That is also what makes me do what I can to help whomever I come in contact with in my day. And that keeps me sane.

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    3. Choose is not a word that I use in theological discourse. It is filled with a history of pain and abuse. Where the Canaanites chosen to be slaughtered when the Israelites entered the "promised" land? Where the judges in witch trials chosen ones while the witches burned? How does one speak of chosen to a person with cancer, an amputee after a terror attack, a widow, or in my case to loose the life of my son, my only child? One chooses between an apple or an orange or both out of hunger or greed. But a spirituality based on concepts of chosen is flawed and exposes a capricious God. Some would argue it exposes a mean God. And some would say that it provides one the best arguments against any kind of God. I prefer to use the word choose and chosen related to conscious thought of doing good, loving, helping, healing, forgiving, and self control.

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  3. I too, Oriah, had a visceral reaction to that word 'chosen'. I came out of a religous group in the late 90's that believed they were "chosen" and were the "head not the tail." So for me, to say you are 'chosen' implies immediately that there can be those who are not. I wish Anne would have used another word.

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    1. yes- although if she had I would not be having the enjoyment of mulling this outloud with all the wise folks here and on Facebook :-)

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  4. For me it gave comfort and warmth... that we're all chosen... to be aware of each other and connected, chosen by our connectedness.

    AJ

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    1. AJ, I think that is probably how Anne was using it. But isn't it fascinating how much history and how many different responses it evokes in different people.

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  5. I think the discomfort with the word "chosen" comes from our assumption that something external to us chose us, perhaps someone who had authority and entitlement that exceeded ours. But if we think of ourselves as conscious selves embedded in an evolving universe, a universe whose groping toward ever more complexity and beauty, produced choices, then by the very fact that you are alive, you can say you were chosen; the result of choices that started 14 billion years ago. Everything that has been moving since that flaring forth has now come to fruition in you. In me. In the tree in my backyard and the mountain I can see from my window. I'm not the end, but the current culmination. In other words, chosen.

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    1. "I'm not the end, but the current culmination."- or at least one of the current culminations :-) Lovely Sharon.

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  6. Hmmm. Thank you as always, Oriah. Yes, I have exactly the same reaction as you, and the same response to it, just about word for word.

    And I also resonate with your commentator above in questioning what our introjected collective beliefs are that allow us to say that. While there is something in it no doubt that it's useful for me to explore, personally, there are also too many echoes of the absolute certainties that formal religions, such as the Judeo-Christian, bring that determine who is chosen, and why.

    So it also, for me, smacks of a kind of closed-down smugness, certainty, complacency; this is not *just* my own stuff, but a response to the brutality we see in the world, and have seen historically, where those who believe they are special and chosen, an 'in group', have meted out various cruelties on 'out groups', human and non-human.

    Then, for me, there's a kind of sickly-sweet New Age certainty, too, in feeling 'chosen', that helps us avoid looking at our own shadows. (I have the same response to book-titles like 'Guide for the Advanced Soul' – what arrogance, to assume oneself to be such.)

    Most of all, perhaps, there is an implicit sense that there is someONE is the big sense who 'chooses us': some great and good Other who, father-figure like, is looking after us all. While I do believe in some connecting spirit that holds us all in the web of life, I'm wary of statements that seem to underpin a monotheistic view, myself (perhaps that's to do with having been brought up a Catholic).

    So I agree with Anon that I too would have preferred 'we are all loved and we all matter'.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tease this out this morning (while I avoid writing my new book!).

    All autumn blessings to you, Oriah

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  7. I share your hesitation about "being chosen", Oriah. I can only guess what it might mean, and if I agree or not I cannot say. It would be a great thing for my ego (!!!) to feel chosen, but what will be the consequences? What does it mean for me in relationship to others (chosen or not-chosen, and why?)? I'm not comfortable with this notion, I'm afraid.

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    1. Nora, I'm with you- but I wonder if we don't all, at times, want to be chosen- by a lover or a friend, by the person hiring. . . . and perhaps that is just a desire to be seen.

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  8. I do not and would not use the word choose because of years of pastoral work. Chosen to have cancer? Chosen to have a spouse have an affair? Chosen to loose a job? Chosen to be in a terrible accident? Chosen to be raped? Or in my wife and my case, chosen to have our only child die suddenly? Chosen is a lovely concept when you are prom queen or king or a CEO of a major corporation. Chosen theology cheape

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    1. Dennis, ah yes- when I was exploring this for myself one of the shadows of my own upbringing surfaced around the feeling (not the belief and certainly not the rational thought) that I was "chosen" in the sense of being punished for something when something truly difficult and beyond my control happened. Not healing or helpful. And I am so sorry to hear what you and your wife have endured.

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  9. Oriah, I am in total agreement with your squirmy response to being dubbed 'chosen.' I would far prefer 'cherished,' whose meaning is a little different from 'loved.' "Chosen" makes me feel very uneasy, as someone else must be left out for me to be the object of choice. The big oddity here is that I have always longed to be 'special' in some distinctive way, yet cannot tolerate the thought that if I am part of a chosen Group, 'we' are rejecting others.If I am cherished, though, it's for being myself, and others may be equally cherished for their individual value. Maybe 'chosen' reveals a preference that distinguishes extroverts from introverts? Don't know. Please, Universe, cherish me and I shall bloom, but please do not 'choose' me -- that pointing finger makes me shudder and long to run for cover.

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    1. Merrikate- oooo, I like cherished. Lovely.

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  10. I find the whole religious thing Annie does, and I love Annie, annoying. Why do we have to set ourself up for the absolutes? Why can't we just be simple and have our life reflect what is true for us and not try to induct the world into some heightened sense of euphoria? The word ' chosen', is just so ... childish. Why would anyone need to think of that? I can live my life quite wonderfully, beautifully, magically, in love, by looking at the rain outside my window, the yellow leaves, feel the warmth of the fire, the cold air as it circles around in drafts, and know all my emotions, advantages, disadvantages, parts and mysteries and not have to tell myself I am chosen or special or loved by some obscure reference. I prefer to extend my love and take joy from that, than to sit and think about myself too much. I am afraid all this ' religious preaching' is some kind of defense from the primal fear. I like what you are saying here Oriah, about knowing ourself, through reactions to things. I think that is the way to be at peace, ultimately.

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  11. Oriah,

    Interesting, my reaction was a bit different. It made me realize how much I have integrated the belief that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. I immediately thought about how relatively few 'spirits' are here right now having a human experience. I think that there are billions and billions (conservative estimate here) of spiritual beings all in different phases of growth in endless dimensions and it is we, who are a few that were given the opportunity (good or bad) to use the crude human experience with all it's limitations and frustrations to develop our wonderful eternally live and dynamic spirits more completely and fully.
    Kind of the equivalent of being given the choice of one and only one tool for every project in the house. I think the goal is we learn how to adapt or figuring out if the project really needs to be done. Some discernment on what's really necessary and important.
    My question is why so few are chosen to get this human experience.
    Maybe all spiritual beings have had a human experience, I don't know, but that feels a bit vain to me. My ego is right up there with the best of them, but the math just doesn't make sense to me.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me ramble.

    Cheers, Ann

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  12. I'm not sure what GK Chesterton mean when he said: HOW ODD OF GOD TO CHOOSE THE JEWS...Let's leave this hang while I go and try and find out if he too was uncomfortable with the word CHOSEN.

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  13. .....Uh..Ohh!!! I'll have to take my comment back. It is Hilaire Belloc who is supposed by some to have said, HOW ODD OF GOD TO CHOOSE the Jews. But I found a blog by a Jeff Weintraub who says it was not, indeed Hilaire Belloc, nor still less GK Chesteron (as I mistakenly said) but a certain, I "think" William Ewer. It was certainly anti semetic at a time when being
    anti semetic was tolerated as it is NOT today. So let me just say that my take on it is that...YES...We are indeed ALL chosen,born, created to be, to create, to enhance BEAUTY in this world. As someone who works with and for many undocumented immigrint people I too, as you Oriah, squirm, when I hear of ill treatment of them..By the way I found my way to this blog because someone I love very much sent me your INVITATION and I know its ideas are blessing and strengthening them in many struggles to follow the details that are offered in your poem

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