On the Ability to be Surprised

"I am outraged but failing at activism." Roxanne Gay responded today to a  query that sounds all too familiar. To paraphrase the problem: The world is a mess and I am exhausted. No doubt about it. Every day brings fresh outrages and many caring people fear they will soon be incapable of mustering a response, so wearied are they in body and soul by these alarming times. Gay had some good suggestions for staying in the fight, including limiting consumption of news, an idea with which I usually agree.

But not always...

This February, I was on the treadmill at my gym, gazing up every few minutes to look at the bank of television sets airing the evening news. Since the news is usually so disheartening, I was multitasking with a podcast about yoga. Across the screen came images of  a school shooting.

I was not surprised. Indeed, I kept my eyes on the screen just long enough to read the closed caption reporting that 17 had died in a high school in South Florida.

I returned to my podcast, confident of what would unfold in the next few days. I knew what to expect: Human interest interviews with survivors and reports of tearful funerals. I could already hear the solemn pronouncements from politicians, followed by recycled editorials by those who had been arguing for gun control for decades. More thoughts and prayers.

And then… a surprise.

We all know about the remarkable activism of a group of  survivors of the mass shooting, teenagers who emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to say “we want ours to be the last school shooting in this country.” In fact, many of the activists knew each other already from drama and other activities. They were articulate, empowered individuals who seemed to have the self esteem to find their voices in a moment of crisis. . We learned that one of the leaders was prepared to advocate for gun-law reform, having worked on a fifty-page project about gun control for her A.P. composition-and-rhetoric class a couple of months before.” (Would that all students had these resources and support.)

That said, these students became our teachers. They were dealt a very harsh decree. In the words of the Jewish High Holiday liturgy, the harshness of the decree can be lessened by three things: prayer, repentance and acts of justice. Our country has been generous with prayers and not so good on following up with repentance. But these young people showed us what it means to respond with activism toward justice. And they reminded me of something important:  I am still capable of being surprised.

It had been awhile since I had looked to the public square for openings to transcendence. But watching something unfold that was new and unanticipated revived my spirit.  I thought of our foundational narratives in the “Abrahamic” traditions, each capturing a moment that was contrary to every expectation, moments carried into the future by people who chose to believe they held a truth about human life worth preserving.

Moses, having fled his native Egypt and living as a foreigner in Midian, encounters a burning bush. For unknown reasons, he stays riveted long enough to hear a voice telling him to confront Pharaoh. The words "let my people go" echo through millennia. Jesus dies on the cross as a convicted criminal of Rome; billions pray daily in his name. An illiterate man, Muhammad, retires to a cave to meditate and emerges with a message for the entire world.

We still don’t know if the flurry of attention the students  have created with their activism will result in actual changes in legislation. Perhaps by next February, we will be back to business as usual. But isn’t it the work of religious folks to keep those stories alive?

In our daily morning liturgy, Jews bless God for creating light and for "renewing each day the work of creation."  The idea that creation is ongoing is one that should fill us with a sense of possibility, including the possibility that the day may hold something new.

“I have just one talent,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel,  “and that is the ability to be tremendously surprised.” Perhaps spiritual practice, among its other important byproducts, can help us cultivate that talent.