Living in this World

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

#91 Mastery

Dear all,
I missed being in touch in late June, but we had computer problems, and then life intervened... But here I am with a thought about mastery and a poem about food and sacrament and four things that make me genuinely hopeful--even though there's lots that I could be discouraged about. I hope you're making a point to tell others what's making you hopeful as well.


Master seems to be something we as human beings take to naturally. As children we are deeply and innately engaged in mastery--first of our internal functions, then of mobility and speech, and then of whatever else we have access to. In our school years we have the opportunity to master more skills and information. Our entire childhood is one great exercise in self-mastery.

We can see mastery in the history of our species as well. When we learned to plant crops, there came the opportunity to settle down and store a little extra, freeing up some members of the community to engage in activity separate from survival. More and more inquiring minds gathered more and more information about the world, leading to the explosion of knowledge of the scientific revolution, and our current belief that we are infinitely capable of mastering all aspects of life on this planet.

It’s not surprising that a little mastery gives us a taste for more, nor that such a desire can be abused. We see this directly when one person or group exercises mastery over another--in child or spousal abuse, in enslavement, colonization, and dictatorship. We see it more subtly in how advertisers master our emotions to sell us their products, or how spin doctors master the presentation of information to suit their ends. What is natural and benign in an infant’s exploration of self becomes problematic when this power is exercised over another.

Perhaps even more problematic for the future of our species is the idea that we can be masters over the earth itself. As we’ve come close to making our planet uninhabitable in this endless lust for mastery over, we may finally be realizing that stronger forces are at work here, that the earth needs our species less than we need the earth. As we reach that limit of mastery over, we may be in a teachable moment, with the opportunity to learn self-mastery in a whole new way.

An understanding is growing among us that our species is inextricably intertwined with innumerable others that, together with the earth, make up the web of life that supports us all. It that way, we are one body. And like a child that has just been born, advanced western civilization is new to this body. We don’t have much experience with how it works as a single system--and we have much less control than we would wish. It’s hard to figure out all the different parts, how they are connected, and how to make them work together in a way that supports life in the long term.

Now here is a situation crying out for self-mastery--and the good news is that the untapped potential is enormous. So long as we can remember that we’re one body, the likelihood of abuse drops, while endless vistas of opportunities for self-mastery--more than the most adventurous infant could hope for--open up before us.

City Harvest

Graterford Prison
heart of urban despair
old greenhouse brought back to life
Large hands
unused perhaps to nurturing
put seeds in tiny pots
tend sprouts and fresh new growth

Then say goodbye to healthy seedlings
with regret, perhaps
and send them out into the world
where neighbors work in city garden plots
to plant them in good earth
weed, water, watch them grow.

Our garden is among the hosts.
The man who works our City Harvest plot
is finding unexpected joy
in growing food to give away
(I tend the flowerbed in front).

Early on a Saturday
I find him there at work
hoping for an extra hand
and gladly drop my private task to help in harvesting
kale, collards, broccoli.

They’ve grown so big and beautiful
and when I put them in the tub
and gently push the great leaves down
until the water covers them
they shimmer with silvery lights
in beauty that astonishes.
It is a mystery, a sacramental task.

I add a batch of flowers for the alter
and off they go to the little storefront church
where good food will be greeted with delight
and given out to those in need.

A sacrament, in truth, at every step
from their first start as seeds
in gentle hands at Graterford.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:
--The proven potential of early childhood initiatives to play a role in peace-building in the larger community, in places as diverse as Albania, Indonesia, Chad, Columbia, and Bosnia-Herzogovina.
--An older farmer in Ohio who has switched his dairy cattle and chickens to grass feed, and is discovering the joys of improving the soil, increasing water absorption, hearing the birds, and seeing a future for his farm and farm family.
--Libraries, serving people in so many ways and places throughout the world, especially (in my consciousness this week) those in Bogota, Columbia and Philadelphia.
--A growing system of Riverkeepers, community groups who have banded together to clean and protect their watersheds.

NEWLY AVAILABLE: A resource packet on Faith and Economics, which I
developed for my denomination:

Check out:, a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years.

Also: START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to
(If the background is too dark to read, I hope you can get a computer whiz
to help--and let me know what you figured out! When I go there on my Mac
via Safari, it's fine.)