I hate TV commercials, so I tape the programs I like and watch them at leisure, fast-forwarding through the ads. Last night, I watched a “West Wing” from November that focused in part on an alternative energy summit convened in the fictional Bartlett White House. One by one, the president’s advisor dismisses the offerings of the representatives of various alternative energy sources: to meet the nation’s needs through solar power would require 300 square miles of solar panels installed in the desert, and where would be get that much real estate, that many panels? Wind generators can affect the weather; hydrogren is explosive; ethanol a drop in the bucket….
In the face of all this discouragement, President Bartlett (O, the good, wise president with a brain and a heart, may we someday see him — or her — outside our dreams!) says that while none of the alternatives is perfect, each represents a positive step. Our task is to take these small steps while we keep searching.
Yesterday, it was “The West Wing,” but regardless of the proximate cause, almost every day now, something makes me think of a particular prophetic reading, the first part of Chapter 5 of Kings II. To each week and each holiday of the year, the Hebrew calendar assigns readings from the first five books of the Old Testament and the prophetic books that follow. According to the calendar, this particular story comes up in the spring. But for me, it comes up constantly.
Naaman was a great man, a brave and victorious captain of the army of the king of Aram, but also a leper. In battle, he captured a young Israelite girl who became his house servant. She told Naaman’s wife that Elisha the prophet, living in Samaria, would heal her husband. Naaman gets to Elisha the long way, but eventually he comes with horses and chariots to Elisha’s house, asking for healing. Elisha sends him a message: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
Naaman is pissed. He expected a much bigger production: “I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the afflicted place, and cure the leper.” But bathing in the Jordan? “Are not Amana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean?” Naaman storms off, furious.
His servant follows him to ask a question: “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more should you do it when he has only said to you, Wash, and be clean?” Naaman dips himself seven times in the Jordan, the story tells us, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
How often do we do this: reject the simple, sensible, doable suggestion because it does not seem worthy of the self-important weight we have assigned to our problems? The principle obtains on every level of human endeavor. Education, culture, health care, and housing programs are being cut because tax revenues do not pay for necessary social goods, yet the overwhelming majority of Congress members keep paying for pointless studies and approving transfers of wealth from public to private interests. If they are prepared to spend our resources on these expensively doomed schemes, how much more should they be willing to try the simple solution of equitable taxation? People spend untold sums on miracle weight-loss cures and plastic surgery to correct perceived physical imperfections. How much more should they be willing to try eating well and exercising, the simple (if gradual) solutions that lack only one’s own determination to implement them?
Almost every spiritual and psychological path prescribes the same steps to breaking destructive patterns: quiet ourselves, bring our awareness to the pattern, notice when it is activated, and begin choosing away from it. It occurred to me that perhaps the story of Naaman keeps popping into my mind for a reason, so I decided to do the simple thing and share it with you. May we all learn from his example, never to be too puffed-up with our own importance and complexity to resist trying the simple thing.