Dr. Dungan taught in the religious studies department at the University of Tennessee for years. Everyone knew his classes were tough. In the middle of what I lovingly call, “the buckle of the Bible belt”, he created discussion, dialogue, and thought, about Christianity. Though I new in advance that his classes were difficult, I took three.
There were no easy answers. Preconceived ideas were shattered. He was fair with grading projects and papers, but also strict. Nothing about anything he said gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
He also had entire classes over to his house for potluck dinners. He also offered encouraging words at unexpected times. If you had the chance to know him in these ways, you were a little confused about his teaching methods. He taught me to think outside of the proverbial box, gave me advice when I needed it most, and literally played a part in saving my life after my graduation.
Perhaps selfishly, I considered him a friend until his passing. Even more bizarre, I consider him a friend to this day. He is no resurrected guru and I have not seen him appear before me, but he has transformed into what surrounds me each second of the day. I owe a great debt to his memory and legacy.
One day in class, a fundamentalist follower of Jesus, took issue with Dr. Dungan’s perspective (the one being taught at the time) of Christ. The student met with Dr. Dungan and he allowed the student to speak during the next class. There were tales of addiction, trouble, saving grace, and what sounded like some weird altar call at the end of his speech.
I struggled to understand why the student was allowed to speak on such things. It sounded like a sermon from the 1970’s Billy Graham crusades.
When I approached Dr. Dungan about what had happened, he grinned. When I asked him how he could listen to an obviously biased vignette on only one religion, he grinned an even bigger grin. What he said to me next shocked me, but has informed every discussion I have had since.
“I just tried to find some common ground.”
My spare time had been spent lapping up John Cobb’s dialogue discussions with Buddhist philosophers. Considering what parts of “us” we bring into discussions with “them”. For the record, I do not remember one line from any of the texts I read which were written by Cobb, but Dungan’s words have been with me for thirty years. Life is funny that way.
What I am about to say may seem controversial. My words are either one step ahead, or light years behind, their time. With all that is going on in the world, it is hard not to comment on at least the method of dialogue. Even if it seems like all is lost in the streets of America and around the globe.
We may never have common goals. We may never work together to achieve mutual concessions. While some feel compelled to ask, and others feel compelled to offer, nothing of any significance will come from our struggles. My fear is that we will sweep issues under the rug, once again, when the latest pair of shoes or new iPhone become available.
It seems the first step in any conversation about social justice, workplace disruption, or even in customer service, needs to be gratitude. We all owe a debt to those who came before us. Also, we owe a debt to those who stand before us. We are all interconnected on many levels.
Any good thing we have in our lives is a result, in some way, to the people we have chosen to experience this life with. This is not mushy “karmic debt” talk. This is not Joel Olsteen “look at the bright side” thinking. I believe it is the only thing we have in common.
Whatever we are now, we owe to those around the world. Whatever we have now, we owe to those around the world. If the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Seattle might create a tsunami in Japan, then the good things that have come to us were also caused by other events. Who would you thank for the cup of water you drank today?
Think of all the people involved in one cup of water. Imagine the Source of that water. Without regard for who paid who, for what, consider all it took for the cup to end up in your hands. If you really want to get deep, research the odds of you being here and now in the first place.
This is not to say that we should all be passive. This is not to say that we should never demand respect or better wages. We are not obligated to bow to authority or to defy authority. All of that is what your brain decides you need to do.
Should the military thank the peace movement? Yes. Should the peace movement appreciate the military? Yes.
Where it all begins is within. Any change worth occurring is worth individual effort first. In the words of Marcus Garvey, we must “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, none but us can free our minds.”
Simply put, the best way to free your mind, is to understand that gratitude for what is given is the starting point for any conversation.
For what should we be grateful? What is given?
And this is our common ground. We are not self made. None of what we have has been earned based only on our individual efforts. We can all want better, but we all have been given much.
Before you get all worked up and start complaining and comment on this or that cause… consider your breath. How many times today have you consciously made your body breathe? If you do not want to be thankful for those you are in opposition with, or for those with whom you have conversation, at least be grateful for something.
It makes a difference.
Why not consume your thoughts with goodness and not troubles? Troubles will come and demand our attention only for a little while. What exists in the middle of misery and fortune is thought. There is much more thought in the world than misery or fortune.
Personally, I am grateful to get to play with the universe. To consider things and to co-create our world. And maybe that is the common ground. Didn’t John Lennon say, “We all want to change the world?”
As I consider John Lennon, Dr. Dungan, and others that have passed, I consider also my immortality. Bob Dylan, who my son only thought was dead, sang, “just remember, death is not the end.”
No matter who said what, or what is real or an illusion, we all have more skin in this game than we think. We all also have more to be thankful for, than we have time to be thankful.
I am thankful for you.