Practices for Humanity

Kenneth Tanner
4 min readOct 25, 2019


I cannot speak for the rest of humanity but contemporary Americans are caught up in insidious cycles of reaction.

In the absence of contemplation we simply REACT to everything.

And in the absence of time-tested practices and exercises, the plaque of cynicism hardens our hearts and we forget to have mercy.

We cannot listen for the voice of God enmeshed in the reactionary stew of FOX, CNN, MSNBC, talk radio, Twitter feeds, and other social media posts and comments.

The purveyors of TV and radio programs, and the gatekeepers of social media, want to provoke us. It’s not only how they pay the bills but how they make loads of money and set the content, tone, and direction of collective thought.

How do we escape reaction?

Try this:

Meet the needs of a child. Let a child’s imagination and heart take care of you. A child’s world is rarely darkened by fears of the future or past regrets. They inhabit the NOW. Enter their landscape. Play their games. Listen to them. See with their hearts.

Plant a garden. It’s what we were all created to do. Get your hands in the soil. Take your shoes off and feel the earth from which you came. Love where you are planted. Inhabit with gratitude your neck of creation.

Read a book because books require time to produce, usually well more than a year between the time it is begun and when it’s in your hands.

Not all books contain quality but the process — vetting, editing, and the commitment of expense involved in making concrete objects — means books and larger-form essays and articles in magazines are often better than immediate opinion and evaluation.

When time sifts through all the pages we publish, the books that truly matter emerge, and when we read those books — when we read older books — we often encounter vintage, tested reflection on the human condition from cultures, times, and perspectives at a radical distance from our own.

Not all of that older literature is healthy and there are many new voices that need to be heard but the practice is to LISTEN more than we speak.

Sing a song. Sing a song with friends. Sing a song like a fool.

Work hard at anything. Sweat. Make things.

Give yourself the gift of discipline. Do something that you think you cannot do that is good for everyone around you and for the earth but that requires sacrifice.

Disciplines — like watching what you put in your body — are not primarily for your benefit; they are for others.

Make a festive dinner, and invite friends over for conversation with the phones in a basket in another room.

Go for a walk. Play a board game.

Visit somebody. Visit a prisoner. There’s nothing like a prison to dispel all illusions, to help you see things the way they are. Nowhere else is life so clear.

Write a letter on actual paper and send it with a stamp because writing a letter requires a greater investment of yourself. Write a letter to your Senator or Member of Congress.

March for refugees and immigrants and the unborn and women and racial justice and creation.

Go to a mosque and listen to the people who attend it; discover what animates their family and community life.

Sit with some seniors in the lonely places we house them. Listen to their stories. Contemplate human limitation. You will be in their shoes soon enough.

Draw near to someone who is suffering and bear their suffering with them by your presence and ear and heart. You don’t have to have the right words. You probably shouldn’t speak many. Just be there.

Meet someone for coffee who sees the world differently than you — doesn’t share your politics, doesn’t share your experiences, whose life you don’t understand or don’t embrace — and just listen. Listen.

Empathy — hardly anyone needs sympathy — comes from listening. You don’t need to “win” the encounter or the discussion. You do not need to be right. What’s going to help you escape the cycles of reaction is paying genuine attention to others.

All of these things are prayer and all of these things are mercy.

You can also talk to God. But God may be trying to speak to you through all the other forms of listening. This is my experience. God speaks to me through strangers.

God often speaks in the words of the homeless and the prisoner and the hungry and the oppressed and in the words of those no one else is listening to because they have been consigned somewhere outside polite company.

And all of us need a lot more of this and a lot less of mass forms of communication. (Says the priest who is using the internet to communicate this but subversion of this medium and others like it is one of my joys.)



Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)