Sunday, January 23, 2011

Purpose and Voice

This essay, written on January 1, 2011 serves as a marking of significance in my life as it was part of my application package for the renowned Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding MA at Eastern Mennonite University.  I received my notice of acceptance to this graduate program on January 19, 2011 at a difficult moment as my first and only wife, Sarah Elizabeth Morton Hartman (we'd been divorced since 2008) had passed away on January 15, 2011.  I sense that this will mark a turning point in my life's progression.

One of the most courageous things we can do is question the very foundations upon which our lives our built.  Some sociologists and existentialist philosophers have cautioned us that through this kind of questioning, we might find our entire world unraveling, with nothing but pure consciousness to show for it; meaning that consciousness is the ending point.  However, I take their thinking (which I’ve found to contain elements of truth) and go further with it, believing that the consciousness/soul/Atman is where we touch the divine; I extend the consciousness towards the universal or God.  The inclusion of the divine leads to other questions.  If I am to acknowledge the divine as the ultimate foundation of my being, what does that mean practically?  What have I been searching for in this process of discovery?  The easy answer would be that I’m looking for self-identity.  But I think that through self-identity, human nature inevitably looks to find purpose and voice. 

Purpose and voice brings in a host of other elements.  There must be someone to recognize this purpose and voice, whether that someone or something is transcendent or in the here and now.  I believe it should be both, but one cannot exist without the other.  In order to have voice, there must be a validation of that voice.  In order to have purpose, one’s validated voice must be combined with a community that recognizes the unique gifts of the individual.  This community must be filled with a spirit of mutuality and equanimity that can only come from the self-recognition of the universal in one’s self and the other on the part of each member of that community. 

 I fully believe that the lack of voice is one way to describe the hopelessness of the human condition.  Validation is a gift to others that cannot be obtained unless the givers know themselves.  When self-discovery happens, we see ourselves reflected in the other, and can eliminate the threat that comes from the unknowns of the external differences between us.  Conflict happens when we do not recognize the other as one of our own.  Therefore, when there is no validation, it can be observed that there are various methods with which people use to discover their voice.  From my viewpoint, it seems that much of this is a useless groping for externals in the various ways with which we try to “shout” through forms of power.  That power can be expressed in such areas as materialism, status, career, politics, war and violence. 

For me, I hoped to find my purpose and voice through the gifts that I’d been given in broadcasting.  I discovered at the young age of 15 that I was a natural behind the radio microphone, and I turned that gift into a career that spanned nearly 20 years.  However, there was an ever present restlessness at the heart of my being that never left me satisfied.  I was playing a role; I was an actor for the sake of a career and entertainment.  Playing that part for nearly 20 years turned life into an illusion.  Eventually the illusion started to chip away at my soul, and eventually led to the question of: “Is this all there is?”

The older I’ve become, the more I’m convinced that everyone goes through a crisis of some form.  This can be a trying period of external adversity in life that causes a forced re-direction, or it can be internal in the form of an existential anguish as to the meaning of it all.  For me, it was both. 

I’d begun to question my path in life during my time living amongst the excesses of Las Vegas.  I spent 10 years there as a radio personality, but all the while I was looking around me and couldn’t help but see the pain and despair of the lifestyle with which I’d immersed myself.  At first I recognized it in others, but more and more I began to recognize it in myself.  Everywhere I looked, there were people hurting and in need of purpose and fulfillment.  This was not to be found in such a superficial environment where there was a total void of empathy, compassion and love.  I quit full-time radio, quickly went back, and then quit again.  I knew that I hadn’t discovered myself, but I had no idea from where to begin to look.  The fast-paced life which I was forced to live through my career allowed no time for reflection, and the questioning that the reflection would have required could have led to answers that would have cost me my livelihood.  This was my reality, and it quite possibly is the reality of many in our world, although I’m not narrow-minded enough to think that “livelihood” is universally equivalent to the Western career model.  Everyone has their own externalities which give them false identities.  However, I believe the problem is in fact universal.  We have no proper structure for people to reflect and discover their true purpose without the terrifying prospect of giving up everything that they’ve come to value, and that allows them to subsist.  We need validation through supportive communities, we need more peacemakers, and we need people who know themselves enough to practice the principles of empathy and justice.   

On July 21st of 2009, I experienced the final event in my personal external crisis.  In the year prior to that date, I had suffered a morbid financial collapse from the declining real estate market, a loss of opportunities in the increasingly homogenized radio industry, and a divorce.  That July day brought me closer to eternity than at any previous point in my life.  I inexplicably blacked out while driving at around 8 am that morning, and awoke 45 minutes later to the sound of paramedics and firefighters working as I was suspended upside down in excruciating pain from a shattered knee, right foot, and massive blood loss. 

That accident led to a 6 month recovery period that stripped away the attachments keeping me from discovery of myself.  Prior to that time, I had always known that I had a passion for human rights, but I never fully realized how to apply that to my life and broadcasting career.  I did some volunteer work at a mission in Las Vegas, and joined a non-violent Socialist organization after leaving Vegas, but none of those contexts provided the answers or meaning that I was looking for because I wasn’t starting at the beginning or immersing myself deeply enough in the mode of discovery.  The near-death experience changed all that. 

Now there was a degree of clarity that I’d never had before, because I had nothing to lose by asking the tough questions.  Certainty in the form of knowledge began to take shape in my mind as I read and reflected to the degree that I had subconsciously always wanted to.  I read challenging books about philosophy, nonviolence, equality, politics, social justice, comparative religion, the great scriptures of the world, and novels that gave insight into the human condition.  I reflected on my heritage; on the great work that my uncle Dr. Vernon Jantzi has done and is doing at Eastern Mennonite University; on the work of my cousin Dr. Terry Jantzi at EMU; on the work of my mother, Virginia Hartman, in clinical pastoral care and nursing and on the work of her sister Sharon Kraybill and my uncle Herb Kraybill through two decades of peacebuilding in Ethiopia.  I thought about my Anabaptist past and what that might mean for me in the form of a newly redeemed life developing out of a knowledge of where I’d come from.  

Through all of this, I have discovered that there is a common thread that unites.  We often hear that kind of terminology when discussing hermeneutics or canonical interpretation, but I have come to see that no religion has a corner on the truth.  Love is universal, and a love ethic cannot be truly practiced except through a life narrative that is congruent with that ethic in all dimensions.  Whether my role is a student, son, friend, peacebuilder, worker, mentor, intellectual, writer, broadcaster or activist for social justice, I must hold that role up against the universal standard of love, and must be consistent in practicing that standard in all areas of my life.  

This revelation has brought me to the place where I am now.  I have discovered a passion that I can only interpret as a calling to serve others.  I am grateful to the mentorship of Vernon in helping to guide me through this process.  He is just one of many who have been there for me over the past couple of years, but it is partly through his insight and encouragement that I’ve found myself at Eastern Mennonite University.  EMU has been a perfect place to continue my intellectual and personal development as it is consistent with the principles I’ve discovered through my own trial by adversity.  The more I learn, the more I see how everything ties together, and the more I believe that a life of helping to establish peace on this earth is one of the most noble and honorable professions that one can have. 

As I think about my future direction, I am drawn towards the reconciliation amongst believers of various faiths.  I see our world as one which is discovering new forms of identity and new ways of clinging to the familiar.  We have been in the midst of an unprecedented cultural and global reorganization, and many ways people are now relating (in my view) is through religion versus the brief historical sidetracking of nationalistic identity.  What saddens me is that I see these religious identities as being one, if not the main source of conflict.  This has perhaps been the case to some extent all throughout history (at the very least religion is just the latest version of tribalism), and it completely goes against the grain of what these various religions stand for.  There is a commonality amongst the believers of the world’s great traditions, and those commonalities are the highest principles of love, justice and peace. 

So, it is obvious to me that the foundation is there for us to build upon to establish greater unity in our world.  Through places like The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, there are effective practical methods being taught as to how to engage in giving people appropriate avenues to find their voice and purpose in order to avoid the conflicts that plague our time. 

I am particularly interested in the area of Western-Islamic relations as one of my initial introductions to human rights issues was the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Furthermore, I have watched with great despair the development of Islamophobia in the Western world since 9/11.  I have worked at developing friendships with Muslims from around the world, and I have acquired a deep empathetic desire to facilitate dialogue in the process of allowing their voices, and all voices to be heard.  It remains to be seen what pragmatic application this desire and calling might have for my future, but I know that the next step is to obtain my MA Degree through the Conflict Transformation Program at CJP. 

Everything that has happened in my life has pointed me in this direction.  I am grateful for the adversity and for all that I’ve experienced as it’s not only given me incredible clarity, but it has brought me back from agnosticism and given me a degree of happiness that I’ve never had before.  I want to use the time I have left on this earth in the service of others, as that is the best way I know to honor the divine unity that I’ve found in myself and that is reflected in everyone I see in the world around me.