Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Become a Spiritual Arsonist

by Troy Chapman

(published May 06)

One of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard or read is a little verse in the book of Hebrews that says simply: Provoke one another to love and good works.

Ever since I first read this many years ago it has become one of the central mottos of my life. It’s one of those iceberg ideas where you see only 10 percent of its mass while there’s another 90 percent under the surface. It’s a tiny little manifesto that, if taken seriously, can be turned into a form of activism that can transform us and our world.

After all, what did Gandhi do but provoke the British to love and good works? Martin Luther King later did it in America as did Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The extraordinary politics of these people can all be reduced to this one core idea. But it’s not just a political philosophy. Indeed, as a form of activism, provoking one another to love and good works is infinitely adaptable and can be practiced in any situation and on any level we choose. Most of you have provoked me to love and good works many times simply by e-mailing and telling me how something I said was important to you, by encouraging me and telling me not to give up. And I must tell you that I couldn’t keep doing what I do without at least some of that provocation (the more the better, actually).

We all need provocation and encouragement from one another and, therefore, we ought to practice it intentionally. We can do so by talking about goodness, by telling people we admire them when we see them do something kind, by constantly and aggressively rewarding goodness.

The human mind — at least my human mind — tends to focus (obsess?) on the negative things people do and take the positive for granted. People get a lot more attention by doing bad things than they get by doing good things. Yet, we’re creatures who respond powerfully to attention. Most good people I know continue to do good regardless of the fact that no one ever says “thank you” or “I admire you for that.” But they often do so tiredly. Think about how priceless it is when somebody unexpectedly says, “Yes! Keep it up. It matters to me.”

There are countless people and situations in our world that provoke us to anger, apathy, and outright violence, but there is, sadly, a poverty of provocation to love and good works. What if there were more? Who knows the power that might be unleashed? What if there were an army of people speaking out for love and goodness and everywhere we turned we found encouragement? There could be and should be.

We can practice provocation in an organized way, if that suits us, by, say, running a class or bringing a small group together weekly for no other purpose than to uplift goodness. The ethics class I run here is an example of this and I’ll work personally with anyone interested in hosting a small group of friends.

But, if that doesn’t suit you, you can simply do it opportunistically. We’re constantly encountering people who are kind despite the fact that they deal with difficult people all day — waitresses, airport staff, government workers. There are single mothers and fathers who, despite the difficulty of their task, are working hard to do the best they can. Add in educators who get all of our social problems dumped in their lap and are paid half what they’re worth and are attacked by politicians, yet they continue trying to teach the next generation to be decent human beings. The list is endless if we look. How simple it is to tell such people: “I know you have a difficult task and I admire you for doing it so well.”

Become a praiser if you want to make a difference in our world. The power of it is immeasurable.

I believe this power even extends to people who aren’t doing good. If we can find one good thing to say about a person and encourage it — despite the many ways they’re missing the mark in other areas — that one good thing will grow.

I see a lot of negativity here in prison but I try to take advantage of opportunities to encourage goodness. If the food service supervisors make a good meal I try to tell them — no matter how bad the food is most of the time. The same with the officers and other staff who do something right. They’re only human and as such a little encouragement goes a long way.

Try it. You may never see the effect or be able to measure it but do it any way as an act of faith. Do it anonymously if you’re uncomfortable identifying yourself. Do it subtly or overtly, seriously or with humor. Do it as on act of subversion. Every time you do you’re starting a little spiritual fire and there’s nothing better to be in this world than a mad spiritual arsonist. The world might put out most of the fires you start but some of them will burn on. And if there’s enough of us starting them, eventually, the whole planet will be ablaze.