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Michael Penn: The Nature of Hope

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Nuggets From Michael Penn's Call

We had the privilege of hosting a remarkable Awakin Call with Michael Penn this past weekend. Dr. Penn's extraordinary life's journey as well his life's work embody the nature of hope, the theme of the call. Please forgive the extensive notes from the call, but there were just so many wisdom nuggets to savor and capture!

By way of background – around the age of twenty-two, a near death experience transformed Dr. Michael Penn into a seeker. Following this profound encounter with his own mortality, he began an extensive study of sacred texts and the works of the founders of the world’s religions. Today, following a remarkable life's journey growing up in an abandoned school bus to seemingly miraculous and coincidental opportunities, Professor Penn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. His research interests and publications include works in the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness, the epidemiology of gender-based violence, and human dignity and human rights. He teaches a course called The Nature of Hope, which explores the biological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions of hope. Many of his students maintain that one gains not only intellectual knowledge from Professor Penn, but also priceless wisdom from his powerful life story.

We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets from an extraordinary life journey that stood out from the call ...

  • Dr. Penn was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and lived on property that had been given to his grandmother by her mother (who had been slave). "The land was not fertile, so couldn't grow anything. And we didn't have kind of employment that allowed us to make a life. So we were eking out an existence until we had the 'great fortune' that a school bus crashed on the property -- my mother asked my uncles to remove seats so she could make it our home." So his mother was able to "extend the reach of the house beyond my grandmother's house so we could live as family together." After 3-4 years, the City came by and said that the bus was not fit for human habitation, and told them to move. So his mother moved the family to Brooklyn (leaving the South with $4, after the tickets for transit had been purchased, along with chicken sandwiches made by his grandmother). The family arrived in Brooklyn when Michael was 4 years old.
  • Michael’s mother was African-American, and his father was Cherokee. His family had a direct connection with slavery, as his great-grandmother was a former slave. As Michael said, many slaves remained essentially indentured servants for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation because they had no where to go (including his great grandmother). His encounter with her as a young boy at the end of her life was a very powerful influence on him. He recalls that his great-grandmother used to recount a poem that was sung in her Church – the poem points up the survival instincts and hopefulness of generations of oppressed African Americans: "A charge to keep I have,/A God to glorify, who gave his love/My soul to save,/And fit it for the sky./To serve the present age,/My calling to fulfill/O may it all my powers engage/To do my Master's will!"
  • About his great-grandmother: Michael said that the poem underscored for him that “Nothing could prevent her from achieving her destiny on earth. She was living on earth for a very brief period of time. Whatever might befall her – she had to somehow find how she could pluck the fruit of life on earth. She had every confidence that if she conducted herself with highest dignity possible, she would in fact harvest the fruit of this life on earth. She was a philosopher even though she was a former slave.
  • From his Cherokee father, for whom he had great admiration and respect, Michael said he learned the Native American view that an excess of speech was unwise: “Native Americans took seriously the idea that to speak into the world is to transform the world, for good or ill. So whatever words we utter we should choose carefully and deliver them to the best of our ability – always with desire to manifest the great Spirit in the world.” This view of speech recalled for Michael a Baha’i writing: "For every land, we have a prescribed portion; for every occasion, an allotted share; for every pronouncement, an appointed time; and for every situation, an apt remark."
  • Then began a unique pattern of meaningful “coincidences” and key figures in Michael’s life (the full details of which were riveting on our call, and for which a brief summary cannot do justice): an 8th grade teacher in Brooklyn began teaching Michael and his friend vocabulary after school, and then told them they could each go to prestigious boarding schools for high school (Michael attended an elite boarding school in Massachusetts); while in the Navy after high school, a Commander directed Michael to go to college because of his high promise; and then while studying in Brandeis University and working as a janitor in a synagogue at the same time, Michael felt that “one night I had strong sense I was dying of loneliness – and I’m not speaking metaphorically. I thought I could not make it through night. I didn't think I could go on. The very next morning, someone knocked on door; a young woman said she had strong feeling last night that she should come and meet me.” Michael and Katinka, his Dutch visitor, became fast friends – traveling to Europe and then West Africa. While in West Africa, Michael had a near-death experience after eating a bad meal, and yet another meaningful coincidence occurred: a mysterious healer happened to be passing through and literally cradled Michael’s head (as if with a newborn), “almost as if I was child again being nurtured for another phase of my life. I survived.” And if you think all of that is mystical, at the end of the call, Michael relayed a wild story about how he met his remarkable wife of 33 years – on the precise day he intuited he would meet his partner!
  • His belief in spiritual unity: Michael recounted his journey to seeing unity among the world’s religions and becoming a member of Baha’i faith: After 2 years at Brandeis University, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied psychology, history and religion. Because of his life experiences, including the near-death experience in West Africa, he had developed an intense interest in spiritual matters, and became enchanted with the founder of the world’s great religions. So he read intensively the Koran, the Gita, the Bible, and the life and teachings of the Buddha. He already had read the Jewish prophets while working in the synagogue. “Whenever I read of the life of the Buddha, I am reminded of the life of the Christ. Whenever I read of the life of Christ, I am reminded of the life of Krishna. When I read the life of Krishna, it causes me to think of the profound wisdom of Lao Tse.” Where he saw unity, others told him to read more carefully to see the distinctions, and this led to a kind of further searching for him. “In this context I encountered the Baha’i idea of progressive revelation, which posits that once about every 1000 years, the great creator of the universe sends forth a wise one to edify the souls of human beings and to usher forth a new civilization, that lasts about 1000 years and then has to be renewed and so another great one appears and testifies to the truth of the one who preceded him but also foretells the one that will follow him.... The great line of prophets/messengers is what the Baha’is regard as religion. I was enchanted by that and became a Baha’i. … Though the social teachings [of the prophets] differ from age to age, because each holy one speaks to a particular time and a particular people, the spiritual teachings are universal and reiterated and renewed.”
  • On his life and study as a clinical psychologist: As he began his doctorate in clinical psychology, he felt that studying in the lab was confining. So he started studying trauma more broadly outside the lab. He became interested in the long-term development of helplessness and hopelessness, and saw patients and clients in clinic who were suffering from trauma-related disorders even as he conducted research. Many clients were women – so he became interested in the impact of violence against women and girls on their well-being and development (of themselves and their families more broadly). He looked especially at the conditions whereby many women of the world were having their capacities destroyed by various forms of violence, and completed the first global epidemiologic study on violence against women and girls.
  • In his clinical work, he realized that the power of a great clinician is “to reawaken the power to reimagine. Trauma smothers the power of the imagination. Power of imagination is critical for us to see or envision a life that's different from the life we're living. Traumatized people have their visions of possibility diminished or shortened. Clinicians that are good can reawaken sense of vision/imagined possibilities into which people who are traumatized can begin to build a new life if they are out of the situation causing the trauma.” And he shared a remarkable interaction he had with a young man who was committed to killing himself on his 21st birthday, but because of Dr. Penn’s skillful work with the client in the three months preceding that birthday, Dr. Penn was able to awaken in his client a new vision of himself.
  • In understanding how people can acquire a new vision of the future, Dr. Penn is inspired by the work of Karl Jaspers – who lived in the time of Nazi Germany and saw colleagues turn to Nazism. Jaspers wanted to know how it could be that a well-trained mind could give itself to an ideology “so squalid and empty.” So Jaspers began to study history and discovered the period in history he called the Axial Age, in which humanity as a species acquired a new mind. There appeared in various parts of world different philosophers who were articulating the philosophical idea of transcendence – Confucius and Lao Tse in China, Buddha in India, the prophets of Israel in Mesopotamia, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in Greece, Zarathustra in Persia – all around a 300 year period. These thinkers helped develop a “new mind” around that 300 year period; through their influence, they transformed human thinking/consciousness. Because the mind is a reservoir from which civilization flows – these thinkers gave birth to new forms of civilization, relationship, governance, science, art, architecture…
  • Dr. Penn is in the process of writing a book with his former student (and ServiceSpace volunteer, former ServiceSpace intern) Sophie Wu to describe our current period as a kind of Second Axial Age. “There is a world that is dying, and a new world struggling to be born - grounded in recognition of oneness and interdependence of humankind. Civilized life on earth has to be organized around this fundamental spiritual, moral, and practical truth – that we constitute one human family and that our systems of governance/economics have to reflect this essential truth. At the foundation of this truth is life and the development of the human spirit. Humanity has to develop consciousness of the human spirit which makes it (its protection and well-being) the highest value.”
  • In describing his own remarkable life journey of hope and opportunity, Dr. Penn did not shy away from describing the difficult periods – of loneliness and feelings of shame, unworthiness and being lost – and commented on the critical role that meditation played in his journey. “I have come to rely a lot on sacred arts of prayer and meditation. I think meditation is greatly underestimated as a human power. Even as young teenager, I would spend lots of time in states of meditation. Meditation helped me to metabolize the anxiety I was experiencing – it would allow me to go for a few more hours or few more days. I often had to just hold on, even though I didn’t know how I would find release from my perplexity. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to keep yourself going until a new dawn arises in your life, or new opportunity appears. In my own life, because of my own ancestors (African Americans who had endured tremendous difficulty and a Native American father who was alcoholic but who remained calm), I felt assured that this life is mysteriously organized in such a way as to bring out the best in us if we allow it to do that. It can – through tremendous stress and tremendous difficulty – mine the inner virtues/qualities that we have that we don’t even know about. And the holy ones, the prophets – founders of the great religions – seers/prophets – their words have a tremendously inspiring influence on the human heart, so I often turn to them. …We have to draw on these vast spiritual resources."
  • Dr. Penn also spoke about the remarkable work of physicist Arthur Zajonc, who in Project Eureka ("Catching a Light"), created a box full of light. But when one looked into the box, one could see only darkness (one can’t see pure light unless there are objects). Without an object on which light can fall, one sees only darkness. Light itself is invisible. Dr. Penn sees in this experiment an extraordinary metaphoric device to remind us that “some things important to human life cannot be known directly (spiritual qualities/capacities) – these can only be known through the instrument of a vehicle.” So a spiritual quality “requires a vehicle for its expression. For example, intelligence, creativity, and love cannot be known through direct sense perception. We know them by the sign that is produced.” For Dr. Penn, the human spirit cannot be known directly. “We come to know it by the signs it has produced - eg civilization itself (which is a sign of development and efflorescence of human spirit). The capacity to love, see truth, to will – these are reflected in life of society. Scientific truth can inform spiritual truth. They support, illuminate, inform one another.”
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

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