* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Numbers 11: Replacing the Lesson that Complaining Will Get You Killed with Something More Useful

Chapters 7-10 of the book of Numbers recount more of the details of sacred paraphernalia, offerings made by different bloodlines, and the roles of different tribes within the Israelite community.  It may be useful to organize a society by predetermining what duties each person will have according to heredity.  All of the necessary tasks are covered and everyone knows what is expected of them.  This isn't how most civilizations work in the twenty-first century.  We've given up the idea that a deity has prescribed what our contributions to society will be based on our parentage.  Some people still believe that God has a plan for their lives.  People are just more free to individually interpret what that plan is in a well-established society which holds personal freedom as an ideal.

People still like to complain, however.  Even though our lot in life is not nearly as restrictively defined as the Israelites', we still find things to complain about.  One of the advantages of belief in an all-knowing deity who has a plan for your life is that you have someone to complain to when you don't enjoy the direction your life is taking.  In Numbers 11, when people complained to God, he took umbrage to the extent that he doled out poisonous food.  Nowadays, not many people seem to think that complaining to God will get them killed, but maybe the God in the story also had a valid point.

First, let's look at what the people were complaining about.  If we just assume the truth of the biblical story and leave archaeological research out of it, the Israelites had left what appeared to be a fairly cushy existence in slavery, with all the fish and cucumbers they could eat.  Life had been stable, even if they weren't as respected as the native Egyptians.  The human race still hasn't outgrown its propensity for looking down on foreigners, so before we think too ill of the Egyptians we might take a hard look at our modern sensibilities.  Once they left Egypt, the Israelites were not living the high life, but they also didn't take much personal responsibility for their predicament. They blamed Moses for convincing them to leave, and since Moses was God's spokesman, they blamed God too.  Never mind that they proudly looted the Egyptians as they willingly crossed the border into a barren wasteland which turned out to have no reliable food source and little water.

They discovered a substance that was edible.  It was there on the ground every morning, and they could grind it up and make little cakes out of it.  Since they didn't know what it was, they called it "what is it?", and since they didn't know where it came from, they quickly determined that it came from their god.  People trying to identify manna today have theorized various possibilities, from plant lice (what plants?) to hallucinogenic fungus.  The Israelites knew it as bread from heaven.  Their god was taking care of them.  But that's all there was.  Eating the same thing day after day, living as tent-dwelling nomads, not knowing where there would be another source of potable water -- it understandably wore on people who were used to a stable life and a stable diet.  Personal responsibility wasn't on their minds, though.  According to the biblical narrative, they didn't put their heads together and come up with viable solutions.  They complained.  Moses was the one in charge, so they complained to Moses.  God was the one responsible for guiding Moses, so they complained to God.

Moses complains to God, too.  In a mirror of an earlier passage from Exodus, Moses complains that God has made him the nurse maid of the Israelite multitude and asks how he is supposed to feed them.  Perhaps it was his way of goading God into action.  God's first response was to have Moses appoint elders to assist him.  Now, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, had given this advice back in Exodus, and elders got appointed, so it's likely that this is simply a different version of the story about how the first elders got appointed.  God gets all the credit for the idea in this one.  Sorry, Jethro -- your part's been cut.

God's other reactions to the Israelites are quite hostile, though.  When he first hears them complaining, he gets angry.  So angry that he burns part of their community.  Then, a "wind from the Lord" brings flocks of quail to the Israelites, and "while the meat was still in their teeth" he sends a plague among them and kills off a bunch of the complainers.  What!?  He gives them meat (which was obviously within his power to provide) and then punishes them for eating it.  The underlying messages to this are manifold, but among them are: Don't make God angry.  Don't complain.  Don't trust gifts from a divine source.  Appreciate what you have...

That last one's not actually a bad thing to remember.  While we may not like the way the Israelite god taught the lesson, the lesson is still valuable.  Even when we want to see some things improve in our lives, the place to start is by appreciating what we have.  What we have may just be a fabric roof over our heads, a meager water supply, and bushels of insect residue, but that's still food and shelter.  It's worth appreciating what we have, even when we aren't willing to settle for it.  When we utterly reject our circumstances, we waste energy on denying reality.  It's hard to find a way forward if you won't even accept where you are.

The rest of the story is frankly ludicrous.  A fire gets started, maliciously or by accident, and some people get sick because they didn't cook their food properly.  Because these things happened on the heels of some rampant complaining, the events get connected.  It's understandable that the human mind works that way, but it's nonsense.  The divine characteristics we all possess are not out to get us or punish us.  More to the point, the divine is personal -- it's not capable of wiping out communities of people or burning outposts.  There may be other parts of a person's psyche that contrive punishment, but the divine is simply the sense of deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we all possess.  So, it's not going to punish us for complaining.  Our divine self may actually be the source of some complaints, especially when we are complaining about a real injustice taking place around us.  How we deal with our complaints is the real issue.

We could sit on a bar stool and tell the guy pouring us drinks all of our problems.  We may call a friend and gripe for hours.  We might write angry letters or emails just to vent our frustrations.  There are so many unproductive things we can do with our complaints.  When we have a complaint about something, though, we also have the ability to evaluate our complaint.  If we are willing to start by really appreciating what we already have, our evaluation will be more accurate.

A complaint always arises from a desire.  So, instead of just declaring the wrongness of a situation, identify what it is that you want.  This may be coming from a very shallow part of your personality, or it may be a very deep-seated need that you've been ignoring.  If all of the Israelites did this, they might come up with hundreds of different actual desires underneath their complaints.  Some of them may have just wanted to find a spice plant to add some flavor variety to their hallucinogenic fungus.  Some of them may have wanted to wander closer to a larger body of water so they could fish.  Their solutions would not be universal.  Knowing the desire underneath the complaint is crucial to creating a solution.

Once you know what it is that you actually want, you can assess that desire based on reality and your core beliefs, which emerge from that divine character we've been talking about.  If what you realize you want is a more reliable vehicle, buying a new car may not be within the reality of your current finances.  In that case, you'll need to create a plan that will be a little more involved that going down to the dealership and throwing down your credit card.  If what you realize you want is to do bodily harm to another human being, you aren't done defining what you actually want.  When you are honestly tapping into your inner sense of truth, beauty, and creativity, it affects the way you see other people.  You may be so angry that you don't want to think of another person as a vulnerable, beautiful, inspiring human being.  That anger has a deeper desire beneath it.  What is it that you actually want?

This takes practice for anyone who isn't accustomed to defining their desires so precisely.  The good news is that there is no actual punishment for complaining to yourself, and you are the only person who can ultimately determine what desire is behind the complaint.  Once you have clearly defined that desire, and it matches with your deepest sense of truth and beauty with no indignation or machismo or emotional buffers, you can use your own personal creativity to determine a course of action.  You create the solutions to your complaints, and you have a capacity to do so in a way that is honors reality and honors the other people around you.  Some solutions are simple changes in your own behavior.  Some solutions may involve organizing other people, or becoming more involved in an existing organization, in a campaign against a larger injustice.  When you keep yourself grounded in the character of the divine, you'll be able to make adjustments to your plan whenever it veers away from reality or threatens to ignore the beauty and value of other people.

So, complain away.  Your complaints are most likely valid expressions of something you truly want.  Just be sure to complain to the one person who can actually do something about your complaint.  Ultimately, you are personally responsible for defining what you want, even if thousands of other people seem to have the same complaint as you.  When you respond from a place of deep truth, beauty, and creativity often enough, you may find that you skip over the complaining and cut straight to defining what you want.  That's alright, too.

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