Like A Hunter Foraging For Words

June 4th, 2009  |   

You will find no camouflage clothing in my wardrobe.

There are no hunting rifles or knives in my closet.

You may see me walking in the woods, but I’ll not be tracking down a covey of quail for supper.

There are no antlered deer heads mounted on my office wall.

I do not have a photo album with a picture of me sitting next to a dead bear I’ve hunted down in the West Virginia woods.

I have no plans for an African safari in Botswana to kill a lion or an elephant. 

That said, I’ll add that I am not in the business of demonizing hunters. In fact, I prize their passion and, at some level, understand and even appreciate why they do what they do, beyond tracking meat to eat.

Hunting is actually a marvelous metaphor for the human enterprise. From our entry into this world and our departure out of it, we are all hunting for something. The hunt can be as mundane as searching for a pair of shoes. It can be as profound as what Viktor Frankl labeled “man’s search for meaning.” 

Today, here in Charleston, West Virginia, the sun is playing hide-and-seek amidst the clouds. Outside my window I see a man on a ladder cleaning windows. My overhead fan whirrs away. The phone is silent, at least for the moment. Judy is at the farmers market hunting for a geranium for a friend and some local strawberries for our table.

Today I will also be hunting. I’ll be hunting for words, foraging in the thicket of my own soul, like a hunter trying to bag a wild turkey. That means I’ll be writing these Notes.

Understand, if you will, that writing is my way of praying and meditating. It’s a hunt I go on out of my personal longing for revelation, soul-satisfying truth, and direction. It’s that time and place where words connect my different and often conflicting daily experiences.

Words, like wild game in the woods, often pop up like a covey of quail that surprises and electrifies me. When they do, I try to bag them. At times the words, like a fox running from a hound, flee and hide from sight. And, as strange as it might sound, there are times when the words target and capture me. How strange and mysterious is the game I track.

I love to hunt-and-peck, and, like any hunter, I am pleased to bring home and share what I bag with family and friends.

Hunting A Target At A Church In Wichita

Last Sunday, Scott Roeder went hunting, not in the Kansas woodlands but at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. His target was Dr. George Tiller, who had a long history of performing late-term abortions.

I’ve written more than once about my own views regarding abortion and its place in the overall picture of a woman’s reproductive health, and her rights associated with that health, so I won’t belabor the issue here.

It is enough to say, blurring intentionally the categories of pro-life and pro-choice, that I am in every sense pro-life by being pro-choice.

I support Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, and contribute to WV Free—an organization “dedicated to reproductive justice and reproductive options.” And, obviously, when anyone who espouses a pro-life position, without the qualification of choice, picks up a gun and shoots a doctor or a health care provider I see that act as both immoral and illegal.

Of particular concern to me are the hot, incendiary words used by the opponents of abortion in this ongoing cultural, religious and legal battle over abortion. Do they contribute and even incite the violence we witnessed in Wichita?

What better place to examine this issue than Fox Network’s own commentator, Bill O’Reilly who, along with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and a host of local talk-show clones, epitomizes the right-wing political attack team. O’Reilly is the master of hot, incendiary talk and one must ask the question, has he gone over the free speech line and in effect yelled fire in a theater, thus causing a death in a church?

While never advocating the killing of anyone, O’Reilly’s words have been turgidly explosive.  Bill O’Reilly has attacked Dr. Tiller over two dozen times by calling him a baby killer, linked him to rapist and child abuse, and compared Tiller’s work to “the kind of stuff that happened in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union.” Tiller, says O’Reilly, is the moral equivalent of al-Qaida.

God knows, I am a First Amendment freak and not in favor of barring O’Reilly or any other talking mouth from radio or television. I believe rather strongly, however, that folks should either talk back to them on the air (hard to do since they interrupt, shout and verbally abuse people who challenge their opinions) or turn them off at home, or request a channel change in the multitude of public places where someone else decides what channel gets aired.

St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as having said: “Preach the Gospel, and if you have to, use words.” In other words, start preaching what you believe by living it. That’s well and good, but like the blacksmith who forges iron, I too am a smithy—a wordsmith who can’t shun using words. Even St. Francis fashioned words to reinforce the truth of the message he lived.

Like any wordsmith, I have a responsibility to exercise care with words, particularly when speaking spontaneously and passionately, as I so often do.

However, of this I am sure, no matter how careful I am in forging words, no matter how well I know my audience, I cannot ultimately be responsible for what people hear when I speak or write. Nor can I be responsible for what others do with my words. I can hope for the best, but I may have to live with the worst.

Anyone venturing into speech, however, would do well to recognize that words can inspire people as well as ignite them—again, for better or for worse.

What we know about communication is that there may very well be some folks on the receiving end of speech ready, as individuals or as part of an organization, to pounce on a speaker’s passionate words and hammer them into violent behavior. Zealots and people who are mentally unstable (I believe Mr. Roeder’s act was rooted in both) can be found in political, religious and ideological circles. A polluted word that drips into a deep well of hatred can poison very quickly a person and a community.

When a community is polluted with hateful, overheated language, the temperature of honest debate will inevitably rise and surely boil over, as we saw with Mr. Roeder.

There’s no need to make scapegoats of people like Bill O’Reilly, but I can’t help but believe that he, along with others, have gone to the community well and deposed a vial of poison, heaped full and overflowing, that has left all of us more vulnerable to violence.


Bill O’Reilly often concludes his show by introducing listeners to an unfamiliar or rarely used word, like panjandrum. Get a jolly out of that one. The word means “self-important, overbearing, or a pompous person.” This Bill-the-professor moment comes just before his final reminder that the spin stops with him and that he is looking out for us.

Have you ever heard such malarkey? What a pestiferous (a Bill word) bag-of-wind.

I’d like to inject another word—one that seems to be getting a lot of play these days.

The word is empathy.

The subject of empathy is being bantered about as a result of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayer for the Supreme Court. 

Prior to her appointment, Obama made it clear what he wanted in a nominee. He wouldn’t choose someone who thought that justice was “about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook.” He would look for someone, he said, who would understand “about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.”

And then came the “E” word—empathy. “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. The nominee should not only be qualified by legal standards. The person should embody empathy.”

President Obama wrote about empathy in his book, The Audacity of Hope: “It is at the heart of my moral code and it is how I understand the Golden Rule - not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”

It seems strange that I should have to articulate a case against the evil of torture, as I have done many times in these Notes, and now have to argue a case on behalf of empathy as a valued virtue and critical qualification for a public official.

Since when did torture require a prosecutor to argue against a government’s defense? And when did empathy need an advocate to argue for her existence as a critical component for a democratic government?

As Puck, the little elf in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Nights Dream, says, “What fools we mortals be.”

I suspect empathy requires an advocate when a nation’s atmosphere is polluted with fear. And let me tell you, the good old boys fear this gutsy Hispanic woman. She has them projecting their own racist feelings onto her. On top of that, they can’t bear the fact that her life experiences might translate into legal opinions that could very well threaten their privileged way of life.

President Obama’s words echo Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes words and they certainly ring true to me: “The life of the law,” Holmes says, “has not been logic; it has been experience.”

Judy and I frequent a local Chinese restaurant where we go through the ritual at the end of the meal of cracking open the Chinese fortune cookie. On our last outing there, the little piece of paper stuffed inside my twisted cookie read: “In order to discover who you are, first learn who everybody else is. You’re what’s left.”

My experience leaves me with the conclusion that I can never step into someone else’s shoes no matter how hard I try. It’s takes a psychic shoehorn to get into my own experience. I can, however, at least attempt to discover who these other people are who live outside my skin, outside my experiences, and outside my limited vision.

I can sit down to a Puerto Rican meal—a whole plate of fried plantains, a big serving of pollo en fricase, topped off with a slice of piña colada cake, but that will not in any way guarantee me the ability to know what a woman of Puerto Rican descent, raised in the Bronx by a mother after her father’s death, knows. I speak, of course, of Judge Sotomayer. What I can do is pray for a dose of empathy and perhaps I’ll find it by listening to Puerto Ricans at the table.

A number of years ago, I was a part of a church delegation that went to Puerto Rico to listen to the testimony of native Puerto Ricans who were suffering under years of United States colonial domination. Days of testimony provided personal evidence about the poverty and the dependency felt by the people willing to step forward and put their experiences into words. The record of those hearings was later presented to the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations.

The church has now entered the season of Pentecost—that time when Christians remember that an ineffable God is somehow readily available to mysteriously and graciously bless human beings with an empathetic spirit. It is an indescribable spirit capable of overcoming the limits of logic, and the lonely isolation that plagues people separated over differing life experiences.  It is a spirit which drives a person to listen to and discover other people through their experiences so as to better understand oneself.

Like the Chinese fortune cookie says: “In order to discover who you are, first learn who everybody else is. You’re what’s left.”

Perhaps what’s left is a person blessed with an empathetic spirit—an enquiring and discerning spirit. And, I might add, the kind of empathy crucial for our survival as a nation.

President Obama’s concern for empathy is evidenced by his selection of Ms, Sotomayor. It is also on display right now as he travels through the Middle East reaching out to the Muslim world. Empathy and hope always walk hand in hand in search of justice and peace.

Distracted By The Marshmallows In Our Life

Here’s a final word on a rather light subject, with serious implications. It’s about children and marshmallows.

In the May 18 issue of The New Yorker, an article by Jonah Lehrer tells the story of a scientific study done in the late nineteen-sixties at the Bing Nursery School on the campus of Stanford University. It involved a group of four-year-olds and marshmallows.

The children were allowed to pick a marshmallow from a plate of goodies and were told they could eat now or wait while the instructor left the room and receive two when she returned.

The point of the exercise had to do with delayed gratification. The results indicated that about thirty percent of the kids were able to exercise self-control and resist eating the marshmallow. In follow-up studies, it was shown that giving in to the temptation and indulging in instant gratification led to adult problems associated with distraction.

The crucial skill for self-control was identified as “strategic allocation of attention.” Which means that the children capable of diverting their attention somewhere else, such as singing a song or covering their eyes or pretending to play hide-and-seek, were able to resist short-term gratification for long-term rewards.

The professor in charge of the experiment says this: ‘Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.” An adult lesson taught by the behavior of children.

Which means that when I resist a trip to Ellen’s to purchase ice cream, in order to keep focused while banging out these Notes, I’ve done something worthwhile with my time. 

I sure hope that’s not a lot of malarkey. And if it is, please cut me some slack and show me a little empathy.

Entry Filed under: Fig Tree Notes Archives

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4