The Humanities, Finger Prayers, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

During my coming of age years, I developed some habits that continue to enrich my understanding of human behaviour, especially my own. One of these habits took hold and blossomed when I began my literature studies.  Because I chose to become a literature teacher when I was younger, and because I continue to reference literature’s store of insights and deep wisdom in my coaching practice, my storytelling studies continue with no end in sight. In my early days as a literature teacher, I discovered the value of history, a subject I didn’t take to in high school or university, through great novelists’ narratives exploring war, greed, elitism, and the role ordinary people play in vital social evolution unfolding within a specific time and place. Reading these novels allowed me to knit together previously disconnected impressions I had of the world.

Thomas Hardy’s novels, for example, helped me to understand how early industrialization dehumanized its owners and labourers as it efficiently set about developing the extractive mechanization practices that have led to human alienation from the natural world, constant over-production, the delusion of growth without limits, and our current climate crises.  Through Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novels I learned about the evils of totalitarianism and its black/white. right/wrong ideology supporting the supremacy of a state run by a so-called ‘strong man,’ ideology currently on the prowl in our own tumultuous times. Reading Doris Lessing’s work validated my experiences of women’s ‘less-than’ lives during one of history’s more recent patriarchal strangleholds. Toni Morrison’s novels allowed me to climb into the skin of disenfranchised men and women sentenced to a slave class created by white supremacists so cunning that its descendants continue to be disenfranchised and devalued by systems and practices embedded in what we believe to be democratic institutions.  Perhaps most decorously of all, Jane Austen, introduced me to a time when girls and women were considered chattel and entirely without the legally and socially sanctioned rights and privileges of men, and further, were separated from the embodied freedoms and pleasures enjoyed by the male sex through constant physical, emotional, educational, and social indoctrination.

There are countless storytellers, the few I’ve mentioned reflecting the academic biases I experienced when I began my studies back in the sixties as well as my early feminist roots.  Happily, vibrant storytelling continues to thrive in spite of formal education’s many narrow curricula. I am convinced this vibrant storytelling activity continues because, in its innumerable revelations, a well told story helps to increase our understanding of and compassion for all caught in the toils of the human condition.  In these times, because of our violent political, racial, and cultural clashes, and because our Earth home is in peril from human beliefs and practices, we need literature’s ability to increase human understanding and compassion more than ever.

Despite literature’s gifts, recognition of its value because of its many windows onto time, place, and culture, has never really been in fashion. Those of us with our noses pressed against this multi-coloured magnifying glass are often considered bookish and exclusive. What is lost in this judgement is the reflection provided by creative storytelling and indeed all studies in the humanities. This category name, The Humanities, speaks for itself. Interest in what makes us human will always reap spiritual, emotional, and ethical rewards. Whether we peer through Margaret Atwood’s prismatic lens or George Orwell’s, novelists create the time and space we require to ponder the issues affecting human behaviour for good or ill.

Currently, news pundits, actual and bogus, are the storytellers we listen to most frequently. Our vastly influencing technologies have empowered these storytellers as never before, and in the glamour of constant attention, many have lost sight of their own biases and wounds to become very good at beguiling listeners with agendas secret even to themselves. A recent novel’s title, News of the World, helps us to understand why we turn to our TV and internet spokespeople so faithfully, and so desperately. Whether we’ve spent a long day on site working with people or machinery, or in a home office because of Covid-19 protocols, or whether we’re collapsing after a rudderless day because our work has disappeared, we find ourselves craving the ‘news of the world’ to end our isolation.  We do this by joining a virtual community that promises to make sense of the explosive events rocking these dangerous times.

Our news storytellers of choice, expressing outrage, disgust, contempt, or calm responsiveness, tell us what each news source considers vital if its adherents are to make sense of our strife-scarred world. We are seldom participants in small gatherings at our local town halls, as are listeners in Paulette Jiles’s News of the World . When we want to know what is happening beyond our homes and communities, we turn to screens large and small, often when we are physically exhausted and emotionally isolated. Because of our corporate-stoked addictions to technology and its countless storytellers, we have windows onto local, regional, and global events beamed to our televisions, computers, and smart devices by satellites circling the Earth to ensure we have access to these stories every moment, day and night.

Because so much of the news these days is about our ongoing conflicts, our sensitive sensory systems register high-alert threats we do not process consciously. Our reactivity is understandable given that we are urged by almost every storyteller to take sides, take umbrage, even take actions that can end the lives of humans who have been charmed by stories different from those we believe tell the ‘true’ news of the world. This polarizing storytelling is infecting us as much as the virus that is at loose in the world. Whether we choose to or not, we find ourselves witnessing and participating in William Butler Yeats’ poetic prediction in “The Second Coming:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

As I feel myself slipping into Yeats’  ‘passionate intensity,’ a state literature and life have taught me can end in harm to another, my emotional sensitivity expands. Rather than add my own incendiary opinions to the flames already consuming our social fabric, I remind myself to say my finger prayers. This simple exercise, an outgrowth of my daily healing practice, allows me to take a breath, call my blood from my fight-or-flight extremities to my humanizing forebrain, to formulate a response to the news of the world rather than simply react to it. My finger-prayer self-regulation habit is simple to learn and to practice.

Touching my thumbs with my index fingers, I say the word Love; touching my index fingers with my thumbs, I say the word Kindness; continuing this prayerful attention, I say Peace as I touch my middle fingers with my thumbs, Healing as I touch my ring fingers, and Joy as I touch my baby fingers. I say these prayers before I rise in the morning and before I let go of the day when I am in bed at night. I say these prayers aloud during moments when I am alone and alarmed, and I do these simple prayerful actions when I am listening to the various storytellers who are broadcasting the news of the fragile world we all help to create with our votes, our habits, our thoughts, and our unhealed traumas.

As I reveal this private habit here, in my public space, a small voice in my sometimes cynical brain scoffs. “So, you think these finger prayers will change the world?” My heart’s answer is a gentle, firm, “No.”  While saying these prayers each day and night may not change the news of a world in chaos, what my prayerful response does change is my potential for adding to the chaos with my reactivity. In the space of a second or two, my silent and uttered finger prayers take me out of Fear and into Love. For those brief moments, my energy and intention mingle with the higher perspectives of our literary storytellers, perspectives represented by intelligent, compassionate questions such as:

Why is this behaviour happening?

What are we/they afraid of?

How are our families, neighbourhoods, and communities able to calm these troubled cultural waters?

Where might I participate in the Love that yearns to be expressed, even when confronted by frightening actions and attitudes of my neighbours and fellow citizens?

My finger prayers do not save the world by providing immediate solutions. Nor do they help me to love those who appear unlovable and malicious. What they do support is my resistance to the mob mentality our electronic storytellers are consciously and unconsciously encouraging. Taking umbrage feels good, after all. My adolescent indignation is always pulsing and ready to react when I witness or experience injustice. However, after decades of self observation, I know that my indignation will not foster my ability to navigate the ambiguity and paradox at the heart of human conflict. Only regulating my emotions and applying a trauma-informed approach to the arguments I may be tempted to escalate will make grace-filled room for a thoughtful response to the emotional pain inflaming each situation and issue.

And so I repeat my finger prayers of Love, Kindness, Peace, Healing, and Joy that I might contribute to the humanizing efforts, most often happening off-camera, by people everywhere. This humanizing process invites each of us to see the world anew. While a shift in perspective may be temporarily eclipsed by the dehumanizing narratives contributing to the news of the world, we can make a choice to self-regulate when tempted to fuel dehumanization with our own passionate intensity. When tempted, we have the wisdom and insights of our higher-purpose storytellers. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind and heart. Whenever we consider indulging our appetite for revenge by reducing another to an epithet,  by dismissing those who think differently as crazy or evil, we can remember Gandhi’s caution against reactivity:

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

There are those who believe human beings are incapable of change, who point to current events to prove how unsuccessful Gandhi and his non-violent activist followers have been in spreading his doctrine of peaceful coexistence, justice, and respect for all.  In their cynicism, these same people see Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Peoples activism as futile.  The views of cynics will always be in opposition to the views of activists because, thanks to Gandhi, a teacher held in high esteem by MLK Jr., and thanks to Dr. King himself, we are learning and relearning a fundamental truth:

Violence begets violence, not because we are inherently violent, but because we have been violated and live daily with our unhealed emotional wounds.

We – every one alive on our planet at this time – are tasked to acknowledge our personal violations, to cleanse and dress them through a tender grieving process, and to help others do likewise.  Coaches and therapists often talk about the importance of doing one’s work.  Perhaps it is time to change this suggestion.  “Learn your story,” may be the more humanizing suggestion. How? Dr. King’s words point the way:

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved [Self and] nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.” 

We are, each of us, capable of answering this call, first, by attending to our own wounds, especially to those activated and reactivated by violence. Because my Finger Prayers remind me that I am so much more than my violent reactivity, their simple reminder makes room for new stories and old that affirm our collective human potential for love, kindness, peace, healing, and joy. Over the decades, I have learned many other humanizing, self-regulation tools to help me return to my forebrain in order to live the story of non-violence and hope in our ability to evolve, but these simple Finger Prayers are among the most effortless and speedy.  As soon as I begin them, their messages act as water to parched ground, especially helpful when the passionate intensity of others threatens to engage my reactivity rather than my responsiveness.  Each of us, I believe, is capable of developing habits to support healing the Self and the World, through the many humanizing influences in our lives. We simply need to open to them.

In this season of Martin Luther King Jr. remembrances, I wish you joy in embracing the higher destiny our greatest teachers call us to live.  

Until next time,