Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gene Burkhardt and the importance of deepening friendships

One of the classmates from my year in Vienna (1970) was Gene Burkhardt, from Holy Cross.  Gene lived in Waltham Mass.;  and was a great person--  phenomenally well-educated and ethically insightful,  and a lawyer.  His family and friends have produced a small book of his insights and writings, collected over the years. It is called "Bearing Witness, " published by Back Pages books.  Sadly, he died in 2012.    He wrote a column for the local paper, and he wrote with clarity and depth about everyday things which really DO affect how we see our world.  One of his Holy Cross classmates, Bill Connors,  sent me this little book.  I am so glad, because I have been feeling angry, betrayed and bewildered by our society, and Gene has helped me see the reasons why I feel this way.
     He speaks about the ways people engage in community life, and about valuing our interconnectedness.  One of the things which was said about him in the introduction is that he winnowed down the lessons from Ivan Illyich (and also with a touchstone from the Gospels),  to the formation and deepening of friendships.  He was a very beloved and dear friend to many many people, and it seems to me an important insight which he has given us, to deepen our mastery of being friends.  This also spilled over into what he says about politics, that we engage as voluntary participants, not as paid supporters of some cause which will actually bring profits to one side.  The fact of wanting to do things impelled by our attention to the common good, and for the public weal, is a big part of what he attends to.
   When we attend to being friends, there are some things we will see differently, and some things that we will learn from each other.  But for many of us, it is a lesson of friendship that we do not have 100% agreement on things-- which stretches us, makes us want to understand the viewpoint of the other person, and teaches us to be "cultured" in the best sense.  Wisdom grows when we learn to balance our self-interest by considering the good of our neighborhoods, and the needs of our friends.  But also, Gene points out that it is wonderful to be known, and addressed by name, in our daily activities;  whether going to a local farmer's market, participating in the life of our children's school, or any of the ways in which we voluntarily participate in local activities.  Becoming friends to our neighbors, recognizing their needs as well as our own, and trying to work with our friends to accomplish mutually important goals, is a very healthy way to be human!
     He gives a wonderful example of an inner city park which was blighted, and full of graffiti and drug-selling.  Local people decided they wanted to have an annual Hispanic picnic, and that this park was the best location for it.  And so, local people began pooling their attention and resources toward refurbishing, painting, and fixing up the park.  It was not something imposed from the city ordinances, or the mayor's office.  There was not an official budget.  People all chipped in, with community volunteers doing the labor.  The loving attention to the park paid off, and the celebration was a success. And it got better as the years went by.  What he says about this is that instead of seeing the needs and the deficits, people were counting on the possibilities, and the talents and abilities in the people who live in the neighborhood.  I love this, concentrating on the potential for good, and the abilities instead of the lacks. I also love that the community was able to reclaim this park from abusive people who had defaced it, and were making it uninhabitable and frightening.  That local families were caring enough and able to do this together, is a great sign of health!
     In a similar way, he talks about how economic power can be used to impoverish people, and aim more and more at corporate profits, which are often not reinvested in local communities;  or to share,  to attend to needs and limits,  and find ways to make do with what we have.  This fundamental economy, of recognizing that we cannot grow like cancer, and keep making more profits;  we sometimes need to shrink, to conserve, to forego things in order to be good stewards of the land, the resources in our care---- all of this is such helpful and true thinking!   I highly recommend this book to everyone, like vitamins, it will help fortify your soul, and help focus your thinking about how to be both a good steward and a good friend.  To me, the insight that becoming a deeper and better friend is a major and helpful tool for sorting through the issues of "first things first".