Friday, September 7, 2012

Wolf at the Table

The other day, as I was having lunch with a couple of friends, my conversation got infected by the conversation at the next table. A young man was describing his views on government spending to his female companion. I say “infected” because so much of his viewpoint was so contrary to mine, that I began to react emotionally and was distracted from catching up with my friends by listening to his arguments and coming up with my own counter-arguments. I found it difficult to give my companions the attention they deserved, and had  a noticeably less-enjoyable lunch than I might have otherwise. 

The young man’s core point seemed to be that he did not want to pay taxes to take care of the needs of others, who in his view deserved to suffer the consequences of whatever bad decisions or lack of motivation caused their suffering. Now, my experience has been that stories of suffering are varied and often complex, and rarely attributable solely to the sufferer’s own actions, but the debate I was imagining was not about karma. When our neighbors’ conversation turned to healthcare, I could feel my stomach twisting into knots.

Just the night before, I had been discussing with friends a news article about the escalators for our local subway system , BART, breaking down due to damage caused by human waste. It seemed clear to me that this was a natural consequence of our collective failure to provide access to public restrooms – our refusal to allow people to “go” in our businesses, or to fund and share space with working public toilets, does not change the function of human bodies. One of the realities of living together in community is we cannot escape the consequences of failing to look out for one another’s needs. As I left the restaurant, I begged the pardon of my neighbors at the next table as I interrupted their conversation.

“I couldn’t help but notice how your conversation about healthcare infected the conversation at my table,” I said, “and it got me thinking about how if I were sick with tuberculosis or some other infectious disease and coughing at my table, you would be at risk of getting infected with something possibly very dangerous. If, by your refusing to contribute to my healthcare, I am unable to afford to seek treatment, you in fact are making a decision that puts your own health in jeopardy.  Our lives are too connected to not look our for one another.”
The simple truth that we care for ourselves by caring for each other does not address the complexities that enter in once we actually start doing it. Actually helping each other is a life-long learning process, one full of missteps and foibles, as well as successes and gratification. One of the tools I’ve used for reflecting on the difficulties of living in community is the story of the the Wolf of Gubbio.  In the original version of this myth, a ravenous wolf marauds the town of Gubbio, eating its sheep and sometimes its shepherds. St Francis, who speaks wolf, brokers a deal where the villagers feed the wolf, who then lives tamely among them - happily ever after. Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, wrote a version based on his own understanding of human nature and wolf nature called “Los Motivos del Lobo” (“The Motives of the Wolf”), which the Faithful Fools perform as an interactive play in churches, conventions, community groups, and streets around the world.  

This version looks at what happens when the saint leaves the community and the people begin acting once again like people – fighting each other, and eventually beating the wolf – and the wolf goes back to acting like a wolf – poaching the herds and frightening the villagers. In our play, having heard the wolf’s story, St Francis leaves the villagers and wolf to decide where to go from there.  Without the saint mediating, the villagers (audience) and the wolf begin to see each other, and themselves, in a new light. Violence, greed, and hunger are both wolf and human characteristics, as are fear and the tendency to distrust those who are different. Meeting the other face to face allows villager and wolf to see past their prejudices and really get to know one another – this moment of seeing honestly our commonalities alongside our differences is the beginning of working together to meet our common needs, and to help each other. 

We performed “Los Motivos del Lobo”  last month for an audience at Our Saviour’s Lutheran church in Minneapolis, as well as at a conference in Rochester, MN for Catholic educators. The “villagers” offered food and shelter to the wolf, and to protect him from violence from other humans. They asked the wolf to protect them from other wolves, and offered to pray with him. They all sang together. Each time we perform the play, the ending is different. Each “village” finds a new set of solutions in relationship with the wolf. This is the value of the play – it has no answers, it raises questions we can reflect on again and again.

The process of caring for one another can hold this same sort of value – to start with meeting the immediate needs of another, and then to extend the value of the experience by reflecting on what it is we offer, how it fits into another’s needs, and how it meets our own needs. The Faithful Fools strive to provide opportunities for people to come together across the boundaries of our ideas about who the other is, so we can learn together.  At our purple building in the Tenderloin, you can join us for one of our arts programs, or sit in meditation or at bible study. If you care to join us in making a meal, sitting for conversation, or feeding your body as well as your need for human connection, come find us at Welcome at Old First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday afternoons or the 2nd and 4th Saturday of every month. See you there!

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