a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Spirituality: A Loaded Word
Five years ago, when I decided to write a book about the forces that fueled the exceptional accomplishments of 50 influential (though not always well known) Chicagoans, the first important decision I made —or so I thought — was the title of the project. As often happens with a thought you’ve ruminated upon for weeks, it popped into my head (thank you, subconscious state) when I awoke one morning: It was to be called Second City Spirituality: 50 Prominent People Who Are Shaping Chicago, or something along those lines.
My intention was to interview the kinds of people whose spiritual beliefs, journeys and backgrounds had helped direct their trajectories. By no means did I plan or even desire to undertake in-depth conversations only with people who identified themselves as part of a particular religion, denomination, or organized spiritual system. Rather, I sought an assemblage of accomplished Chicagoans to share their spiritual experiences (however they defined them) and influences, and then relate those influences to their life journeys.
I quickly delved into compiling a list of individuals who might comprise “The 50,” as my web designer came to dub these yet-to-be named Chicagoans. A yearning to explore Chicago’s rich, vast, and diverse spiritual and religious traditions and leaders — from astrology to paganism to Buddhism — was glowing inside me. I was excited and couldn’t wait to begin my work. In truth, I was surprised that this book hadn’t already been written. After all, spiritual influences are everywhere.
But then reality kicked in, as it so often does, when you’re preparing to undertake an arduous and uncertain project that will change your life. Although several of the spiritual mentors, writers and other colleagues with whom I’d discussed my book (and its accompanying title) expressed sincere enthusiasm, it slowly became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to attract all of the 50 interview subjects I desired — not as long as my book title featured the word “spirituality.”
I was taken aback by some of the negative responses to the word “spirituality” that a few of my interview hopefuls expressed. One person (let’s call him Robert) flatly told me, “I’d be happy to be part of your book, and I am interested in the ideas you’re exploring, but I can’t have anything to do with a book that contains the word ‘spirituality.’ My parents are strict Roman Catholics, but I am an atheist.”
A caring, considerate son, Robert didn’t want to hurt his parents’ feelings.
After my head ceased spinning, I began rethinking my conundrum. As much as I liked the title “Second City Spirituality,” and the nature I felt it conveyed, I realized how very essential it was that I pay attention to Robert, who had spoken to me with such candor.
After mulling over Robert’s response and the somewhat chilly response I received from some of my prospective interviewees when they heard the proposed title of the book, I was initially upset about the idea that I might well have to change the book title if I were to proceed successfully. It felt wrong to me. Put it his way: Does a pregnant woman change the baby name she’s got her heart set on simply because others don’t love it as she does? Probably not. (I use this analogy because, like you, I’ve heard some pretty wacky baby names in recent years.)
However, when I stripped away my previous thinking, I asked myself what I was really trying to accomplish with my book. I recognized— upon reflection — that the title had become too limiting, much like a dress that no longer reflects one’s style or a political belief that, upon frequent consideration, no longer resonates with one’s point of view.
While there are obviously many definitions of “spirituality,” here’s one that reflects the thinking I associate with my book and, importantly, its title. It’s from a 2008 article titled “Can spirituality be defined? * by Neil Greenberg. He provided several different definitions of spirituality; here’s the one with which I identify:
“Spirituality is that which gives meaning to one’s life and draws one to transcend oneself. Spirituality is a broader concept than religion, although that is one expression of spirituality. Other expressions include prayer, meditation, interactions with others or nature, and relationship with God or a higher power.” (Burkhardt, M. “Spirituality: An Analysis of The Concept,” Holistic Nursing Practice, May 1989:60-77).
As it turned out, “Robert” did me a huge favor by telling me he couldn’t be part of the project unless I changed the title. My decision to alter it far surpassed Robert’s influence, though he was the catalyst. As a realist, I came to accept that the word “spirituality” was a loaded one in the context of a book title. Because it can be interpreted so many ways, the word wields the power to throw up a roadblock when what’s needed, instead, is a friendly hand waving you on through a complex intersection.
This definition of spirituality quoted above dovetails nicely with many of the interviews in Bright Lights. I chose to use the words “passion and purpose” to anchor the subtitle because to my mind they embody, with clear meaning and feeling, the life that many of us long to live — one that’s brimming with meaning. I’m not a student of religion, but I am a faithful churchgoer (who also meditates, has regular astrological readings, and believes in the power of tarot cards, among other practices) who derives a sense of purpose from attending services that motivate me to seek more, do more, feel more, and give more. And in essence, that’s what Bright Lights of the Second City is about.
In the three years since I renamed the book (about halfway through the research/writing process), I’ve come to embrace the new title, simply because it provides the proverbial “big tent” for a wide variety of individuals to discuss and inspire others with their individual passions, senses of purpose, and tales of spirituality development.
Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose — as my book eventually came to be called — includes in-depth interviews with a rich host of luminaries — activists, artists, elected officials, educators, athletes and even an astronaut, a popular midwife, and a leading beekeeper. (Patricia Monaghan, earth spirituality writer and co-founder of the Black Earth Institute, is also featured. She died in November 2012.)
Finally , Bright Lights was published in June 2014. I am satisfied that the book is a historical snapshot of Chicago at the dawn of the early 21st century and remains inspirational. I believe that the ideas of passion and purpose will bring to life spirit in a way that can be broadly inclusive. Among the many valuable lessons that were reiterated for me in undertaking the labor of love that is Bright Lights of the Second City is that each of us needs to listen better, more thoughtfully and with less judgment. Otherwise, how will we learn anything at all?
* “Can Spirituality Be Defined?” Neil Greenberg, University Studies Interdisciplinary Colloquy on Spirituality and Critical inquiry, October 8, 2008, University of Tennessee, University Center room 209
Betsy Storm, a Chicago resident, is the principal of Top Drawer Communications, a Chicago enterprise that helps organizations, businesses and individuals communicate with a variety of audiences to enhance their images, reputations and visibility. She is a lifelong feature writer with a special interest in spirituality, family issues, nonprofit advocacy/volunteerism and all things culinary. Betsy’s work has been featured in The Chicago Tribune, North Shore Magazine, Consumers Digest, and Brides, among other publications. Betsy spent more than 20 years as a writer/editor and public relations professional for a range of organizations, including Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Anixter Center. Her editorial career includes several years in New York City as managing editor of a business magazine. A longtime volunteer in the areas of anti-violence, hunger and poverty, literacy, community mental health, and the Girl Scouts of America, Betsy has a special interest in leadership, spirituality, family issues, and nonprofit organizations.