An Interview with Carol Lee Flinders

by Kim Allen

As a reviewer, I think it's a special treat to have the opportunity to speak directly to the author of a book. Inevitably, the book is a simplified condensation-- or even a subset-- of the total ideas that guided its inception and creation. Probing more deeply into the person behind the words can help you see more in their text.

In the case of "At the Root of This Longing," I admit freely that I opened the book with some trepidation: I don't consider myself spiritual. I have the gut feeling that religion is mostly used to control people, and I can't see the appeal of ceremonies, at least not with other people. But I suppose all of that is a reaction against religion, not spirituality as such, which the book helped me realize. When I finished reading, and was busy digesting, I had a few questions for Flinders:


My questions
Flinders' replies

My followup comments, scattered here and there.

In your case, spirituality was linked to having a teacher and practicing meditation. What other options are there for women who want to explore their spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion? (Many women may not know where to start).

I think that the starting point I'd suggest is just to block out a half hour a day and promise that to oneself and that nothing is going to interfere with it -- ideally, early in the morning, when the phone won't ring and nobody else is up to disturb you -- and even identify a corner of your home or apartment where you go during that time. In the beginning, it might just be a time for spiritual reading, and eventually it will be a time for experimenting with some form of meditation or prayer.

The first step, that is, is just to acknowledge to yourself that you really want to nourish your own interior life. Be there for yourself. It's true that the array of choices these days -- the spiritual smorgasbord -- can be overwhelming. But once you really put your antennae out there you'll find yourself increasingly able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Talk to friends, accompany them to lectures or services, go to a good bookstore and spend serious time looking at some of the books that are available. Don't jump into anything. Nobody legitimate -- no teacher, no organization -- will be pressing you for commitments or money. Take your time, and draw your own conclusions. My own teacher has always said one should be able to look at a teacher's whole life, and at the people around him or her. . .

But making time for the search is imperative. And that probably means making some hard choices about how you're spending your free time right now -- it certainly did for me.

I agreed wholeheartedly with your analysis of why feminism has avoided spirituality like the plague, and also with the notion that such avoidance is unnecessary (and indeed unhealthy in the long run). But my Gen-X nature balked at some of the conclusions you drew, primarily the anti-capitalist ones. The implication seemed to be that the very nature of capitalist economics was inimical to human warmth, that competition opposes caring. I don't want to start a fruitless debate on economic theory-- what I really want is to note that the materialist version of capitalism we endured through the 1980's is no longer present, so it seemed these concerns were misplaced. I would argue that we are moving toward a capitalism of wealth that is not necessarily material or monetary. "Quality of life" is as valid a demand from a valued employee as a pay raise. People want less ridiculous hours, shorter commutes, onsite childcare, a desk by the window, a personal space that's more than a cubicle, and no need to "check half their personality at the door."

I don't actually have a problem with capitalist economics in its basic form. As long as it's operating on a human scale, and is rooted in a place -- has some commitment to "place" and the people who live there. It's the behemoths that scare me -- the transnational corporations -- whose only commitment -- or absolutely highest commitment -- is not to its workers or to its customers or to the people who live around its plants and factories -- but to its stockholders. Now that education and healthcare have been or are being corporatiized, I'm seeing the same indifference to students and patients on the one hand, and professors and health care providers on the other. Which is only to be expected given that the magnitude of these enterprises really lifts the decision makers to a kind of empyrean realm where they really aren't even intimately conscious of how their decisions are affecting lives and the natural world itself.

No, I think competition is healthy and normal. I think that women's involvement in competitive sports is terrific and one of the most liberating elements in the lives of girls today.

You know, Gandhi wasn't a socialist at all. I'm not either, attractive as certain elements of socialism are. But for capitalism to function in a way that's healthy for everybody concerned, there need to be sturdy "balancing" or offsetting elemetns in the surrounding culture. A powerful culture-wide sense that workers matter, and students, and patients -- and the environment -- so that the impulse toward expanding profits will be buffered and checked. . . in the absence of these "higher impulses," the scoundrels just make hay -- they take their businesses to where the labor's cheapest and there are no laws to protect the environment, and we all suffer. And those values, traditional in some cases, and newer in others (environmentalism e.g. and feminism) are being eroded powerfully. And some of the most powerful agents of erosion are the deeply materialist messages we get from -- that's right, unfortunately -- Madison Avenue on the one hand, and the entertainment industry on the other, which are at this point profoundly intermingled.

I don't have answers to these problems -- just a deep, deep wariness.

I agree for the most part. I, too, like some aspects of socialism, but the situations where I've seen socialism work always involve smaller numbers of people-- and less diversity-- than we have in the US. China and the USSR showed us how challenging large-scale socialism is even with a fairly homogenous population.

There is a curious parallel between the corporate planners of the "behemoths" you mention, who sit in their corner offices and make decisions about workers they've never met, and social planners like the formulators of the Soviet 5-Year Plans. Both spelled disaster for ordinary workers, although one hails from the political Right and the other from the political Left. My "deep wariness" is for too much structure and inflexibility. (But... this must be balanced against our human need for sociocultural norms, shared values, and some stability).

That, and a lack of experience of the kind of capitalism you're talking about. Which is just a function of my age and demographics, I suppose. For instance,... [t]he publishing industry is being eaten alive by behemoth corporations and the effect has been to diminish profoundly the number of places my agent can take a manuscript (for anything but a token advance). So, no, I do believe in capitalism as long as its thrust for profit is "contained" -- and I suppose my problem is that I don't see the counterbalancing forces as particularly strong right now.

Yes, I see your point.

Perhaps this is naive, but I find myself thinking this way: capitalism seeks profit above all else, which can in fact be used as the weapon to "contain" it. How do you get behemoths to care about workers? Make it unprofitable not to. That's why I am encouraged by the recent trend toward recognizing competent individuals working in pleasant conditions as the key to large corporations' success. Management is having to "soften" its approach because if they don't, workers will go to another company that treats them better. (The flip side is that people have to change jobs a lot, and the concept of a "lifetime career" is all but dead. It seems that you can never have everything all at once :-)).

As you encourage women to seek an inner "quality of life" through spirituality, would it not make sense to encourage them to demand respect for their pursuits more publicly? What is gained by turning away from the very economic system that is just now starting to open up to workers' personal needs? Too often women have been encouraged to resist silently and pursue their "freedom" outside the mainstream. Sometimes we are even told that participating in the mainstream can never lead to freedom, but I suspect that the opposite is true.

I agree with you -- I don't think women need to turn away from any kind of work that satisfies them and gives free rein to their gifts . . . The women playing basketball today in the WNBA aren't having to "demand respect" either -- they're winning it on account of the sheer splendor of their play. No, if I created the impression that I want women to withdraw from the workaday world or public life, it certainly wasn't intended. But I am very glad when I see women carrying into that workaday world a sharp critical sensibility -- a refusal to believe that just because "the guys" have been doing things in a certain way that that's necessarily the best way. I love when women demonstrate that there are alternative ways of going about business, law, science, medicine, etc. . . I think it is very telling, too, when women who have reached the CEO level look around and say "this is disgusting," and walk out to carve out a way of life and business that is more deeply satisfying. It sends "the guys" a message that many are quite ready to second.

Yes! This is how we will make the changes. By getting in there and doing things differently, then showing that the world doesn't collapse because of it. My main concern is that women aren't raised to have the self-confidence to "do things differently." (Most men aren't either, by the way-- but it's more critical that we increase the number of innovative, confident women right now).

What do you say to women who are already deeply involved in organized religion? Do you think it will be possible to make changes in patriarchal Western churches from the inside out? How?

Yes, I do think some of those changes can be made -- and one of the reasons I think so is that the men within those churches aren't faring so very well and are beginning to realize it. In Catholicism, for instance, priestly vocations are down so far that lay ministry is on the rise, and a huge number of those involved in the lay ministry are women. That's just one example -- But you know, I'm not a member of an organized religion and probaably never would be. It wouldn't be right for me to advise women who are and who love those faiths. But I do know a great many women who are drawing upon the methods of interior prayer and meditation they've learned outside their inherited faith to strengthen them in ways that make it possible for them to challenge church authorities . . . and I find this wonderfully interesting.

Indeed. I really hadn't thought much about spirituality until reading your book-- except to reject both organized religion and the New-Age junk that's gaining popularity. And yet, I know intellectually that spirituality is very important to people and cannot be left out of the picture if one really wants to understand social conditions. We live in a curious time now when feminism and religion are simultaneously on the rise-- undoubtedly, there will be some clashes and some reorganization. (And some clue phones ringing for the willfully ignorant Perpetuators of the Old Ways). I think there is potential for some positive changes if women have the strength to just make them. (But I, too, have no idea as a religious outsider what to say to these women). The coming years could be interesting ones for the evolution of spirituality. Your book may be quite prescient!

Just another afterthought. I guess what I want to emphasize is that very distinction you picked up on between spirituality and organized religion. I think any time we replace disconnection with connection between human beings we are living spiritually.

Thanks again for the opportunity to review your book and chat a bit "in person"!

Enduring Grace : Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger with a Feminist Thirst

Copyright 1998 Kim Allen.