We as a community are collectively thinking about voting in the Chicago elections this month and what it means to be an engaged member of a democracy that is still profoundly flawed. One of the concepts that I believe can help us find our place in that democracy is a idea taught by the Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, called “The Tragic Gap.”
The tragic gap, in Palmer’s words, is the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know to be possible among us. Not our fantasies, or what we wish were possible, but things we know to be possible because we’ve seen them with our own eyes. We know what greed looks like, that’s a hard reality around us, but we also know what generosity looks like – we’ve seen that with our own eyes. Every one of us stands in this gap, between the real and the possible.
The problem is, both ends of this gap act like magnets, pulling us to either extreme, and we usually end up on one side or the other. If we get pulled too much toward reality, the result is “corrosive cynicism.” We look around and see the corruption around us, the inability to make any progress, and we say, “Oh, this is how this system works? Forget it – why waste my time and energy here? Nothing ever changes.” On the other end, if we get pulled too much toward “what’s possible,” the we get magnetized toward what Palmer calls “irrelevant idealism.” We spend all our time dreaming, floating above the fray, wishing for alternate realities, and ending up disconnected from the daily struggle of real people’s lives.
Corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism sound like two very different things, but spiritually, they function in the same way. Both of them take us out of the action. And as it turns out, at least in the Torah’s mind, the gap is also where God is.
We’re currently reading the architectural blueprint section of the Torah, the middle of Exodus that describes the construction plans for the original Mishkan, which was the portable sanctuary that the Israelites traveled with in the desert after leaving Egypt. Every single part of the Mishkan has deeper meaning and significance. One of the central features of the Mishkan was the ark that held the tablets with the 10 commandments on them. That ark had a gold cover, and on top of the gold cover, at either end, were two cherubs – k’ruvim – these winged creatures made of pure gold that faced one another. The Torah instructs (in Exodus 25:18-22):
“Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end…They shall confront each other, their faces turned toward the ark… and there I, God, will become known to you, from between the two k’ruvim that are on top of the Ark.”
God’s presence came down to dwell with the Israelites precisely in the space between the k’ruvim. And by pointing this out, the Torah’s helping to direct our attention to what’s most important. It’s saying – I know you want to look at the shiny gold things on either end of the spectrum. It’s so easy to get pulled toward the allure of either end – pure reality, or pure ideals. But that’s not actually what’s most important. What’s important is the space between, where you can stand and see the faces of both sides, the hard reality and the beautiful ideal that we want to embody, and live and act in the gap between the two.
I want us to hold this image of the tragic gap in our minds because in the midst of elections, it is all too easy to become magnetized toward cynicism. All I ever heard about Chicago and Illinois politics before I moved here was that it’s just one big political machine, full of corruption, full of greed and people out for their own interests, and certainly we’ve seen plenty of headlines over the last few months that have reinforced that reality. It is tempting to spend all of our time imagining the world of the ideal – olam haba, the world as it should be, where we imagine a future when our democracy represents our entire city, where it works to bring forth a set of common values and principles and then enact those values into every sector of society.
But, in this election, we have an historic opportunity to act in the gap. To do our homework, to show up and vote our values for aldermanic and mayoral candidates, even though the system as it stands now may not completely represent the world yet as we want it to be.