Contemplation and human rights?

We have a wonderful new museum in Canada – The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is remarkable in content and resources, but also remarkable in architecture. I had the opportunity of learning more about this museum today and was struck by the intentionality of the created space in particular. Every single aspect of the building, along with every single display, artifact and interactive media center, carries layers of meaning and shapes the experience, and therefore the learning, of each person entering. The design illustrates so profoundly the interaction between learning and space or form and inspired all of us present with regard to considering how stronger elements of design could be present in our teacher education programs and our learning spaces.

There was one aspect of the architecture that particularly intrigued me. At the heart of the museum you will find a Garden of Contemplation, a beautiful and peaceful and seemingly empty space. What intrigued me was that all of the other images of spaces in the museum were filled with people busy doing and interacting. In fact the museum is highly interactive, incorporating innovative and cutting edge technology. Our presenter spoke at length about how the museum visitors are encouraged to personally engage, explore, discover, transform and then respond with action and commitment. But the contemplative space was empty and only briefly mentioned.

This emptiness didn’t surprise me – I wouldn’t naturally put together contemplative practices with human rights activism. I think that I would also be more drawn to the stories and images and interactive opportunities in the rest of the museum. But as I pondered this emptiness, I began to think about how it was representative of our lives beyond this museum and human rights. We all seem to know that contemplative space, either physical places or internal practices, is necessary, and many of us even long for it. However, when given the option to interact, to do, to be active, or to make what looks like a heroic difference, that space is so often left empty. We are not quite sure why it is even necessary – it seems somewhat wasteful and useless. This uselessness was further illustrated in our conversations around some of the difficult stories told in a museum for human rights and their impact on visiting children and adults. The response to the possible trauma and despair was ensuring they could respond with concrete action. No one suggested a visit to the contemplative garden…

St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to know about this human tendency when he said that we should ‘love stillness more than feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor’, therefore more than activism for any kind of human right, more than changing the world for what we think might be better even though we never really know and are often wrong. He didn’t say not to love these things – we should love to offer ourselves in life-giving ways to others in whatever places of offering we find ourselves. We should just love stillness more.

I am a stillness beginner, but I am starting to understand why it is so important and to value it in my life. I have found that stillness leads us on a different journey, a slower and more patient journey. Stillness orients us to our absolute contingency and corrects our ego’s self-serving and self-protective tendencies. Stillness reminds us we are not God and helps us come to know God and all that is Other than us. Stillness can even convict us that we are complicit in the situation requiring change leading us to a more compassionate rather than judging regard for a situation. Stillness helps us attend/pay attention to reality and others in a way that precludes the possibility of entering into action that is inherently violent in its imposition and carelessness. So often our helping hurts. Stillness brings us quite easily into a place of gratitude and awareness of greater goodness, truth and beauty. Stillness moves us into creative and meaningful responses that are often far more democratic, helpful, meaningful and lasting than the responses that emerge from living our lives as if we are ‘thrown stones’ frantic to rearrange the world. (Lees, 2012)

I am grateful our human rights museum has this place of contemplation and that it is found in the center or heart of the space. May this visible, beautiful and invitational space grow in its presence and impact. I believe it can because I know that stillness creates more longing for stillness. May this contemplative space also grow in the lives of all of us who care about human rights and want to teach others to care.

Lees, H. E. (2012). Silence in schools. London, UK: Institute of Education Press.

http://www.humanrights.ca Canadian Museum for Human Rights Website

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One response

  1. Kim, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts. How often we cause more harm than good when we, motivated by (self?) righteous zeal, try to fix or correct people or situations. If only we could develop the habit of quiet reflection and move out of the humility and with the gentleness such reflections brings.

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