ON BEING AND DOING
by Women's Theological Center Staff
(From Newsletter Vol. 15 #1, March 1997)
My faith in my People comes from the fact that I know them and am a product of them as the Afrocentric saying goes "I am because we are." Our being together is the foundation of our Peoplehood. Doing together does not make a people that comes from being together, honoring your connections and equality before God, and deciding what you will or must do to celebrate and uphold that connection, then doing it. It involves a constant recommitting to each other's survival.
Black people soar highest and grapple most deeply with our issues when we move out of our best habits of self/community-care and then extend that generosity and the Spirit it generates to others. Most people will admit that the spirit of Black community provided much of the fuel for the movements of the 60's. The thing that was the power of these communities was the ability to "be together" in deepest values or God. All doing came out of that grounding. Those women and men so neatly dressed getting hosed down with fire hoses or attacked by police dogs were not activists looking for something to do. Nor was Fannie Lou Hamer or Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Diane Nash. They were beings who lived a history together and who God moved brilliantly from one perfect moment to the next. Faith made that clear.
Spirit said to them as it says to us: you can either attach to each experience as an identity and get lost in ego or you can see it holistically as part of the many things that find you and demand your commitment. With the second, it becomes simply a part of the quest to figure out how to live as God (however we name or image that) would have us live. If we are really prepared to surrender, we may even be conscious of when we find the very work we were sent here to do.
The places that our Peoplehood has been most dangerously sabotaged the last two decades have been the places where we just are together. The rest of a doing culture is not the same as the holding space of a being culture. Too often instead of being with our deepest selves, we have found ourselves lost: in ridiculous TV shows, drugs and emotions to escape into, shallow notions of love, endless possibilities for consumption and date books for meetings and third jobs needed to make a living wage, the plethora of indignities to react to. Often these are the things that make us neglect to tune in to God among and within us to find out what we need to be and thus to do next. We can really fool ourselves into thinking the answer is in our feeble reactions to the world out there and not in the sacred spaces we create within ourselves and for each other just to be.
There is a lot of work for Black people have done in this country and not gotten compensated for, but the biggest is in our ministering to this country. We have washed it, cried for it, felt for it, dreamed for it, held it to its highest ideals. We have prayed for it, sung to it, preached daily, insisted it consult its own Bible which is the truth of its history and (no offense) allowed ourselves to be hung on many a cross. What good ministers know and walk us through is how arduous it is to be a decent human being. In our ministry as a People, we have become a living monument to that very fact. But the stress of the job is starting to show.
My Dad told me about a minister we know who overspent himself and was out of control in the church. The Church "sat him down" demanded he take a break to get back to God. And that's what we need to have a mechanism of doing for ourselves and each other. So many things are screaming at Black people and other people of color to sit ourselves down and bring our energy back to our selves. You can't do effectively until you can be effectively. It's like that Black feminist slogan "We cannot live without our lives." We only get them back by taking them.
I am not in any way advocating idleness or a shirking from duty. But sitting in stillness as a people to discern what this time is trying to say to us. Where will be put our collective energy and where are we just throwing good energy after bad? This is what I think Loves Herself. Regardless. models in its work.
The only time I can remember my paternal grandmother using physical force to control me was once when I was about 13 years old. I was running around screaming, playing and trying to get away from my cousin during a thunder storm. Suddenly, with a force she had never used against me, Nana grabbed me, pulled me to a seat and said, "Sit down! The Lord is talking!" Maturity was having the sense to listen to storms, listen deeply and to hear.
Of course, many in our community have had the good sense to continually tune into the storms of our lives or our political reality. Not just think and analyze but really sit with what could otherwise be terrifying or off-centering to listen to a deeper wisdom. But the challenge to us when we get away from ourselves and the Spirit of true liberation is to learn again that powerful and love-inspired movements are born out of a centered presence like my Nana's and not from reacting or acting out or denial of the fear and anxiety lurking just beneath the next clap of thunder. A big part of that is supporting or re-creating and then, maintaining places for us to just be. As we do that, the "action" will surely heat up and we will get a new movement not through our will but the same way any that have lasted have come to us.
The theme of being as a way of doing the work has come up recently at the WTC. The idea raises many conflicts and tensions in our work and in our everyday lives. I think the being side of our work is grounded in our spiritual side. How are we present in the moment? How are we being in the experience, being in the emotion? What do we bring to the work? How are we in our work?
I want to use agendas to show the tension between being and doing. For most of our meetings, we prepare an agenda. That is a doing activity. How we implement or carry out the agenda is the being part. The prep is the do; the carrying it out the doing. The work is the doing, the product. How we are in the meeting is the being.
The meetings that we allow to unfold, that are not structured to the minute, the meetings in which we allow our creativity to flow, the meetings in which we use reflection these meetings have a different feel and expectation. Paying attention to our being side can be done by reflection, meditation, silence, letting the process flow from the group. Center or grounding ourselves before we begin our work, assessing where we are and being flexible enough to adjust if necessary are some ways to recognize our being side.
At these kinds of meetings we often feel or express dissatisfaction that we didn't produce more, that we don't have a product, an end result. I do not advocate this process for all our meetings, but I use this as an example of one of the many ways being is difficult to hold. Because I doesn't feel like work, it does not have value.
Even thinking about being as a way raises my anxiety to another level. I'm in the process of learning about letting go, trusting my instincts. This way bumps up against my Enneagram Two self that has to help, to fix it, to make it work. Being with my being self is difficult because I am out of touch with my fellings. I'm learning to be quiet, to use silence as a teaching, and a way, and lastly, getting in touch with my feelings.
I'm moving to a place of advocating for the inclusion of more ways of being in our everyday work. I see this as a way of getting in touch with our spiritual selves as we do the work.
For some reason, I thought it would be easy to reflect on being and doing. The more I think about them, though, the more I can't make out the differencer between them. I think I know something about how dominant culture categorizes activities into these two. Doing is associated with action: working, moving, teaching, organizing, fighting. Masculine stuff. Being is associated with passivity: waiting, preparing, resting, playing, learning, healing, nurturing. Feminine stuff. Spending time with the children, for example. Unless you get paid to do that, in which case the being becomes doing. Doing is what counts. It's what we get paid for. Sometimes even waiting I doing (as in "they also serve who only stand and wait.") Sometimes preparing is doing if the results are tangible (a dinner, for example, or a report).
I have never give nthis much thought before, but it seems to me that every doing has a being, and every being has a doing. We do things with care, for example. Or we do them carelessly. With care or without care is the being part. How are we in our being when we do?
In learning t'ai chi I am learning a great deal about the balance of passive or yin energy and active or yang energy. Yang energy is the energy of motion. Yin energy is the energy of holding. When you kick with one leg, the other leg holds you. If there is only yin energy, nothing moves. If there is only yang energy, you fall over. Yin. Yang. Being. Doing.
I grew up in a working class Dutch community that valued the ability to "see work." It was considered a serious flaw if someone couldn't see, for example, that the table needed to be cleared or that the floor needed sweeping. We were trained to look out for work and do it as we noticed it needing to be done. Not only that, but we were trained to do everything with as much speed and efficiency as possible. From childhood, we were trained to be good workers, worth the wages we would some day earn.
I am only beginning to see what effect this scoping for work and doing it quickly has on a person. Since there is in fact always something to do, one never really rests. Everything is always moving forward. One is always thinking ahead. Planning. Noticing. As far in advance and as quickly as possible. Even on vacation.
A friend told me that the worst example of this in her family came on the day of her mother's funeral. The car her partner was in had taken a different route to the cemetery and they'd gotten lost. My friend's family waited for a while, but it was clear that "we needed to hurry up and bury Mom." Her partner and friend had better show up soon.
What is this lunacy?
What is so important that we can't do it calmly and mindfully? What is so important that we are willing to sacrifice relationships in order to get it done?
I consider this craziness a product of white/European culture, where product is more important than process, where ego is more important than spirit, where value is counted in dollars and cents.
I worry about our collective efforts as white people at what we consider "alternative" politics and "alternative" agendas. "Alternative." "Left." "Progressive." Whatever. We seem so intent on fighting the enemy. In these circles, trying to convince someone who disagrees with you is considered work and therefore valued. Trying to nurture someone who may agree with you or not is not valued and is therefore not considered work. "Organizing" people,, "mobilizing" them. That's work. That's doing something. It's the "against" work. Working against war. Working against poverty. Working against racism. This is masculine work, and even white feminists are very determined to be engaged in it. We thrive on actively reacting to things. We don't have an identity when we don't work against something. We are lost when it isn't clear who the enemy is.
The Dorchester Women' s Committee, of which I am a member, recently hosted its 20th annual International Women's Day Celebration. We did a 20 year retrospective of organizing for social change in the Boston area. The first half of the history seemed to be about building organizations and coalitions. The second half of the story seemed to be about their disappearance.
Most of us are tremendously disturbed by this pattern and we try to think of what we can do to fix this problem. We hear the line in our head: "Don't just sit there, DO something!" But what do we do when we don't know what to do or how or with whom? What do we do when it's apparent that we can't take on the issues alone, yet we don't have sisters and brothers to call on to help us because everyone's feeling overwhelmed and exhausted? We haven't learned how to regroup in ways that sustain and hearten us. And we haven't even really grieved our losses, most probably because we think we don't have time. But we haven't taken the time. Nor have we taken the time to work through the knots in our relationships with each other as individuals, as groups, as organizations, as communities. Alice Walker writes, "The patriarchal world meaning the white man, basically deals with knots by just cutting through them which never teaches you anything. Whereas untying a knot teaches you because you really have to work at it."
This is not an easy time to keep an organization such as the Women's Theological Center going. Not just because of money that has always been a shaky proposition but because our work is so invisible, often even to us. WTC board and staff, as participants in WTC programs and projects, we sit around a lot. Processing. Documenting. Untangling. Nurturing. Encouraging. Listening. We do women's work. Invisible. Unrecognized.
The question is, can we support each other in this work? Do we dare counter all the dominant culture's messages to be active, rushed, pushed. Do we dare become centered, balanced, grounded?
It is especially hard for white people to hold onto the importance of whatever we do not immediately associate with doing. There is a white fear tha we'll get stuck in Zen time and nothing will again be accomplished. It is better not to appear idle. Better not to be caught thinking or waiting. Better not to be wondering where we go from here, just keep moving. But where are we going to go?
 Citd in Susan Shaughnessy, Walking on Alligators: a book of meditations for writers (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), p. 50.