Global Priors Council 7/25/77
I've spent this past year working in Social Demonstration
in Kawangware. This was the year I discovered that I was finally
not in control. I didn't begin the year intending to discover
my own frailty and finiteness. I began the year intending to do
Social Demonstration and I did do that. Social Demonstration was
done to the point where I thought I could do no more and could
not go another step. In this kind of radical effective engagement,
I discovered what it meant to die, bit by bit, slowly by slowly,
illusion by illusion, and to be given back, how or why I finally
cannot explain, a drive, an energy that knows no limits. It was
also a year where I saw objectively people's lives changed, knowing
that it was through us, not because of us, that humanness happened.
And finally, it was a year of no escape. No escape from the demands
of the community people, from my own exhaustion, from my own ineptness.
It was a greatly annihilating year.
This lecture is going to resemble the other two which have
preceded it and the next nine which will follow. If you're talking
about profound humanness, you are talking about one reality. In
order to get clarity on this phenomena of our time, we need to
pull it apart, peel it away like the skin of an orange, or dissect
it like a frog to examine each part closely for the sake of clarity
and then put it all back together again. The diamond with twelve
facets illustrates this. There is no way to examine one of the
facets without getting the reflection of the other eleven, which
finally give the diamond its brilliance. If you take one of the
facets away, you no longer have the exquisite diamond you began
with. Likely, you have something totally different, something
inferior. By Friday, I am convinced we will emerge with a clarity
we didn't know was possible. And that clarity I intend for an
intern in Kawangware, who is a twenty year old Muslim girl. She
and I have had exciting conversations trying to discover what
all that stuff we do in Daily Office and the Common Meal is about.
This clarity I intend for her. I discovered in living with her
that her experiences of profound humanness are the same as mine.
But she has no way to talk about them. I intend this week to be
one when we discover how to allow every human being to have the
tools to talk about what it means to be human, and to become self-conscious
about one's own profound humanness.
Mystery as profound humanness has happened this year. It is
that which divests you of all you think you know, divests you
of your own will-power, destroys your confidence, tears open and
smashes your idea of self, and replaces it with new energy and
vitality that is unexplainable. That for me is the experience
of profound humanness.
This past year in Kawangware, I became aware of the Unknown
as never before. I think it had to do with working with people
from another culture. Now let me add quickly that this is a humiliating
statement. Once you wake up, you are awake forever, no matter
where you are: in Kawangware, in Japan, sitting with your family
or here in this Council, unless we decisional opt out for unreality.
For you see, to talk about the encounter with another culture
as being that which occasions self-consciousness is ridiculous.
But that is what happened. It would be as appropriate to talk
about my encounter with my husband, or with a colleague, or my
sister, or anyone, as to talk about an encounter with another
culture. When you are awake, the mystery is occasioned at any
time, in any place. Mystery as profound humanness is experienced
when the mundane explodes before your eyes, as in the movie "Dr.
Lao," when you watch the mundane transformed. It throws back
at your visions of the future, linkages with the past, and a great
awareness of the way life really is. It occasions the awareness
of oneness of all creation, for you see that all of life is one
series of interrelatedness. It happens when you least expect it.
I discovered this one time in Kawangware when I was sitting
in the library. My assignment this year has been to type catalogue
cards for the library. A Kawangware colleague is the librarian.
She is a community
woman who was trained at an educational institute to be a librarian.
She is doing a very fine job. She has assigned me to type catalogue
cards because she does not like to type. I was sitting in the
library at 5:00 one afternoon, totally exhausted after a day of
running around the community dealing with one problem after another.
I had sixteen cards to type before 7:00. I was sitting there,
making error after error, not caring so long as I got those sixteen
books out of the way. I glanced up and saw her sitting at the
table, checking out books. At that moment I saw her as a preschool
teacher where she began, when she couldn't even lift her head
to talk to me. I saw her as she went to the Kenya Institute of
Education to be trained as a librarian. I saw her sitting behind
the table at that moment. And then my mind went beyond that. She
was sitting in the library with fifty people checking out books,
and that is an incredible number of people in a community like
Kawangware. Then I saw her as a community person doing the Dewey
Decimal System and understanding it. It flashed before my eyes
that the library has become a sign of permanency for the people
of Kawangware. All this was in one moment, not three hours. It
was as I glanced up from my typewriter and saw her in my state
of absolute exhaustion, that the awareness was there.
The danger in that kind of happening is sentimentalizing it
into something which would be nice to have but can never be. What
puts it in this kind of awareness, the transformation of the mundane,
is you discover that no matter how small the act is, effective
action has repercussions as if it were in a pool reaching wider
and wider than you and I ever dare dream. Even the smallest act
of putting up the decor straight in the preschool, or teaching
the people how to do that, has implications for all mankind. The
smallest act becomes a necessary keystone in the civilizing process.
Mystery, as profound humanness, is acknowledging the existence of the radically unknown. It is not self-depreciation. It's not having done my homework. It's becoming aware that I am radically crippled by my color,
my educational background, my American mindset, and my neuroses.
I have discovered that all my years of university training and
talking about mass education finally taught me nothing about how
to teach 200 preschool children all under the age of five, sitting
on a cement floor row by row in a room 25' by 30' with two teachers
who have a second grade education. I hadn't a clue, not a clue.
It's not that I couldn't find the right book or remember the right
short courses, I hadn't a clue as to how to teach them writing.
Or, if I had a bright idea, I knew I could forget it. Bright ideas
weren't going to get these children pencils and paper to enable
them to write.
This awareness was brought to me startlingly at one of the
preschool meetings. One of the teachers said, "Now, Lela,
I really do not understand how it is we are going to teach these
children writing, let alone health, when it takes us a solid half-hour
just to get them into the classroom." I had no answer. The
great educator had no answer. But, in the midst of that common
awareness, I resolved to figure out what authentic mass education
I'm sure those of you who have been in a place where they
do not speak English can appreciate this. The parents' meetings
in Kawangware are held in Swahili and translated into Kikuyu which
leaves out English. So I sit next to a preschool teacher with
my elbow in her ribs asking, "What did he say?", "What
did she say?", "What just happened?" And that's
not so bad if it's just once. But it's week after week and month
after month. It was a horrifying experience to discover I was
not in control after spending most of my life trying to be in
Another illustration: a colleague in Kawangware came one day
looking for Jim and she was frantic. She caught a hold of me by
the wrist and we went through two floors of the building looking
for somebody to translate. Nobody was there. She didn't know what
to do. She started talking to me in her three words of English
and couldn't communicate what the issue was. She started spouting
at me in Swahili. (She has decided I speak Swahili because I can
say, "good morning," in Swahili.) That didn't work.
She started in Kikuyu and that didn't work. She became more and
more passionate until all of a sudden she stopped, looked at me
square in the face, threw up her hands, turned on her heels, and
walked out. She knows what it means to have the unknown shatter
your very life. When the unknown tears into your life and you
dare to acknowledge its presence, part of you dies. Part of the
wonderful illusion that "I'm indispensable" withers
away and you are left with an overwhelming sense of uselessness.
In the midst of trying to teach preschool teachers how to
build rational models, I spent a long time trying to figure out
what a rationale looks like for the preschool, using the wisdom
that had been gotten out of a brainstorm. Then I spent a long
time figuring out how you would teach it. At the end of presenting
this particular model, I asked, ''Do you have any questions?"
There were no questions. Then I asked a question to isolate what
we were going to teach in the third quarter in history. I got
every answer conceivable. I discovered that they didn't even understand
what I had been talking about. At first I decided that it was
because they were Africans. That's always an easy cop out. Then
I realized that it had nothing to do with the fact that they were
African. It had to do with the fact that I did not understand
how they were approaching the same reality I was approaching.
Finally, you know that you do not know and they know that
you don't know. There's freedom in that. You are free to do what
is necessary and trust that we might have to find another twenty
ways to understand each other.
Mystery as profound humanness is inexplicable fear. It can
either sneak up on you unaware or drop from the sky. You get assaulted,
you know you've encountered the Mystery as the adrenaline starts
to raise. Your heart begins to beat very fast. Every bit of you
becomes paralyzed. I wonder how many cobra strikes around the
globe went awry simply because our fear-filledness paralyzed us.
You can always tell when that happens in a group. In the midst
of the discussion you can feel the defenses when things become
clear. There is a hush and all of a sudden there is a breakloose
of bickering, a way to escape what is happening. This has happened
many times in Kawangware. Once we were talking about getting lights
on the square and someone said, "All right, what is our decision?"
Suddenly, everyone started arguing. What we realized was that
we were fighting against our fearfilledness. We all experienced
the possibility of putting lights in Kawangware for the first
time. When we got that said, we were able to deal with it.
This awareness has nothing to do with understanding a rational
4 x 4. It is not just beyond your grasp like a new idea or difficult
to understand like a theoretical textbook. Nor is it simply being
afraid to walk down the streets at night. Rather, it's like standing
on the top floor of our building in Kawangware, looking over the
blackness of night and hearing a scream for hours. It's like standing
on the porch and watching. This is so horrifying that it paralyzes
you. You're paralyzed not only with the situation, but your own
inability to deal with it. Now, I am not suggesting that when
there's a scream in the night, you run out the door. But the very
fact that you don't run out the door, you can't run out the door
and this is not what you are there to do simply intensifies the
awareness. This also has to do with not being in control.
Finally, Mystery as profound humanness is the experience of
a propelling, driving fascination with all of life. Has it ever
dawned on you that everything you do lately has a powerful effect
on those around you and happens in spite of you. Not only are
you not in charge of your limits or the mundane breaking through
between your eyes, but you are not in charge of your wins either.
This happened in Kawangware often when you are walking along the
road stepping over the sheep and goats and watching people. All
of a sudden you hear, "This is the day we have, this is the
day we have. We can live this day or throw it away. This is the
day we have." It's the preschool children in the village
doing the ritual in English. You realize we did that. Then you
realize we did not do that. It was done.
It's like being on a development call. We went to the Canadian
High Commission, and we were told that it was an in-kind call.
So we got our materials list together and prepared to give him
a proposal. We walked in and discovered that: 1) it was not in-kind
materials that he was giving away, but money; 2) he had never
seen anything written about us at all; and 3) for some reason
that day, I couldn't talk. I was stumbling over my feet, and nothing
went right. At the end of the call, he had me read off the budget
figures required so he could add them on his calculator. He then
said, "I see you are requesting $16,000. Well, I think we
can handle that. "I could see that it had nothing to do with
how we presented the project, how we talked, or what the dynamics
of the call were. It had to do with something Other. When you
realize that your demands are not yours, part of your ego is rendered
up. You know that it is in spite of you that this happens. You
don't have to worry about it. You prepare, but you don't worry.
To begin to worry about my impact on people is to negate and block
the inexplicable power and turn it back onto myself.
In Kawangware a woman speaks the most phenomenal English you
could ever want to hear. You cannot understand it. She has decided
that English is not a problem and therefore, she makes up words
when she doesn't know the words. She talks and talks. If you understand,
that's fine. If not, that's fine too. She comes to all of our
meetings. We had a battle planning session recently where the
community people came for a weekend session. We were talking about
the fact that only they could do replication and go to India Replication
School, even though it cost $4,500 shillings. They were going
to raise the money. I looked at a woman and said, "Who is
going to do Town Meeting in Kenya and who is going to be in the
Replication School?" She sat for a minute and then said,
"I am, me". The whole group applauded. They saw at that
moment radical possibility in being able to do what we had to
do. And we were filled with awe and fascination. These events
happen to us every day as we are radically engaged.
There are those events where the Mystery is so overwhelming
that reality itself is thrown into shadow. That is the most profound.
When I heard that my mother had died from a car accident, I was
in Chicago. I was working on an OEO proposal. In the midst of
this, life was so relativized that in standing before that death,
I saw my own death. The irritating small things became totally
irrelevant. This is a time when we have no personal problems.
Furthermore, the time of standing next to my mother's coffin
was a place of power. This is a time when the category, "A
place of power" is extremely important. Whenever insignificant
little things begin to become major items, I go stand at my mother's
coffin. But it's not just that. Looking in a mirror does that.
I see my mother looking back. Being confronted with my own death
these days has to do with having a birthday, or looking at the
fact that my hair is turning gray. My own death becomes more real
and problemlessness becomes a reality.
I've been a human being a long time, but this awareness only
happened this year. Why? It has to do with engagement, with risk,
with impossibility, with expenditure. If we don't get out and
risk and involve ourselves radically in doing, profound humanness
does not occur. Only when you are up-against your own ineptitude,
the impossibility of doing what you've set out to do is your consciousness
open to the onslaught on your profound depths. When you hide from
life, waste the one life you have in doing rather than effective
action, you are not in the position of being slaughtered time
and time again until as for some of us, your whole being is shattered.
Only after you have spent hours and hours, days and days, into
which sweat, blood, and tears have been poured in a model and
see it turn out totally different than you anticipated, can you
say, "Truly, it was not me."
You become caught in a vortex, a whirlwind of the inexplainable,
driven for no explainable reason, save your concern for suffering,
to create the effective action, or series of effective actions,
which will awaken men to their possibilities, either through Town
Meeting or Global Social Demonstration. Now you've got your infallible
model and are ready to do your action. In the midst of doing your
plan everything shifts out of focus and when refocused, what you
had intended didn't get done, but something totally different.
A January blitz on development raised $9,000., but also grew up
our interns. We didn't do it, we raised money, but it got done.
Not in control, but that gives you radical permission to re-engage.
Do you know why we had the best year of our lives? It's because
we discovered all over again in very practical everyday living
that life itself is that which we cannot understand, is continually
destroying us, not all at once, but day by painful day. If we
had stopped at this awareness this would not be a victory year,
but rather our death knell. But we became aware that that destruction,
that negation, gave rise to the recreation of self - a totally
new being who knows there is nothing that can be depended upon.
And that awareness released in us a power, an energy that we cannot
explain, over which we finally had no control and more importantly,
we said yesyes to our nothingness and yes to
that inexplicable power. We became the people of the mystery.
How do I know this? Because you're here --- that's all --- you
You know why you can't talk about last year? Because you in
your old terms of "my wish, my desire, my dream" did
not do Social Demonstrations, Town Meetings, and ITI''s. Something
happened, as I experience it, in spite of me. How can you then
explain it rationally. Its a weird story we would tell.
I set out this year to do:
Wonders and miracles,
And wonders and miracles got done,
But I didn't do them.
What happened to me this year was:
I was reduced to ashes.
The winds of change scattered those ashes,
Used those ashes
To occasion profound humanness in others.
What spins were set off for you? Where did you get pushed?