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By Tom Ewell


I recently ran into the old 60’s word “grok” that some of you will recognize. I remember back to the early ‘60s when it was cool to use the verb “grok" to give the impression you had an inside track on something very profound to know about life. The concept was especially important, I think, because those tumultuous 1960s were the beginning of our struggle to make sense of a world turned upside down by assassination, racial unrest, and the Vietnam war, and we needed assurance it was possible at least try to “grok" it all. 

Grok is actually now a generally accepted “Martian" neologism introduced and popularized by writer Robert Heinlein in his 1961science fiction novel Stranger In a Strange Land whose main character is a man born and raised a Martian who comes to earth as a human being, and we follow his plight of trying to understand all the strange parts of the human culture. Miriam Webster defines grok as “understanding something intuitively with empathy.” It can also mean to “empathize so deeply with others that you merge with them.” 

“Grokking” life continues to be a fascinating concept to me as I often consider myself a “stranger in a strange land” who is struggling to understand intuitively and empathetically the meaning of our often bewildering and perilous historical era. I consider myself intuitive and empathetic, so explain “grokking” might be easy for me, but it’s actually quite difficult to explain intuition and empathy in general conversation, and that’s where "grok can be helpful such as in “I think I get (“grok”) what you’re saying; it sounds so important!” I face the similar problem as a Quaker “mystic” who tries to explain what it means to transcend the dualism that assumes things are either good or bad, us or them, right or wrong and instead see life as a unity of wondrous interdependency and mutual support bound by the power of God’s grace and love. And, yes, I do recognize and oppose the destructiveness of evil, and I therefore see our job in life is to heal the evil in life with the creative power of love and reconciliation. 

The “grok” world of the 1960s initiated an era of reckoning with a new level of responsibility to address the growing awareness of the gross inequality and moral challenges thrust upon us. I sense we are especially in a similar plight this week and at this time. I am so deeply horrified daily by the heartless military assaults on the Palestinian people in Gaza and the world’s (US!) failure to effectively impose a cease fire and stop it. But I am also saddened by what’s clearly a lapse in responsible national morality exposed in the Trump trials that include my wariness of the judicial system's capacity to uphold the law. And I again remember our years of witnessing against war and in support of racial equality similar to the new generation of students in the streets now.

“Grokking" life with fleeting personal moments of intuition and empathy will not sufficiently provide the profound moral and spiritual convictions necessary if we were to offer the deep healing and reconciliation the world needs. I want to enrich and expand the original engaging concept of the word “grok” by emphasizing the deep wisdom that is grounded in the ancient literature like the Bible and other historical and spiritual writers who successfully endured and overcame the pain and glory of the human condition   I find Jewish and Black prophetic traditions particularly meaningful in this regard as well as my own long-persecuted Quaker faith that offers a special historical place of refuge and solace.  May you also find in your reading, meditation and prayer a source of wisdom and guidance as we continue to live in, and attempt to “grok," these difficult times.




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Tom is a Quaker living in Washington state with a lifelong commitment to peace and justice issues, especially criminal justice reform and anti-war work. He can be reached at

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