Conspiracies and Monsters Under the Bed

When I was a child my brother had a toy robot that would walk a few steps, its chest would fly open, laser machine guns would pop out, and lights would start flashing as it fired at you. After about five seconds the doors would close and the cycle would begin again. It was actually a pretty neat toy, especially for the early 1970s. At night I would have nightmares that Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows lived in our basement and would send that robot toy up the steps. When it fired at me I couldn’t move, and it would walk up to me, lift up its robot arms and grab my calves, inflicting excruciating pain. For those too young to remember, Barnabas Collins was a vampire on a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows. I’m not aware of any Barnabas Collins conspiracy theories, but if Dark Shadows was on television today I am quite sure more than a few lunatics would think he was real and determined to influence the next presidential election through voter fraud.

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

As a younger child I believed there were monsters under the bed. My paternal grandmother always used to tell me “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and since I had no idea what a bedbug was I was pretty sure they emerged from under the bed looking more or less like a lobster. The belief that monsters live under the bed is normal and age appropriate for healthy children, but if a person reached thirty years old and still was afraid to look under the bed that would indicate some serious issues that would require professional help. Imagination is wonderful as long as it is voluntary. If we find ourselves sliding into imagination and fantasy in an involuntary way it can become not very wonderful at all. In fact, it is one of the hallmarks of a delusional state and quite possibly serious mental illness. Imagination can be a very effective way to hide from reality, but that escape comes at a cost. When we find ourselves slipping into delusion involuntarily, we may be in deep trouble.

Over the last few decades, unscrupulous people in the media have sought to take advantage of those inclined to dwell in fantasy, whether voluntarily or not. Most of them have been discredited, but that doesn’t damage their credibility among their followers. To the paranoid, the fact that one of their icons has been discredited actually adds to their credibility. While these people believe their spokespeople are the victims, the real victims are their patsies and those who have been impacted by true tragedy and so are targeted by the Alex Joneses of the world. While to you and me these hucksters and their message are obviously false, to someone who yearns to feel wise and accepted or for whom the world as it is structured isn’t working out for them, the most outrageous nonsense seems an opportunity for them to finally know more than everyone around them. These people need the monsters under their beds to be real. While we might be tempted to reason with them, it won’t work – it will only reinforce their paranoid delusions.

I mention all this because we have a President who preys on these people as well. He is already attempting to lay doubt about the integrity of the upcoming election, despite the fact that the evidence is clear that his election was in part the result of interference from Russia. Of course, the people to whom he appeals will believe him, and won’t change their mind about him (or Sandy Hook) because he makes them feel wise and insightful. Our job isn’t to change people’s minds. That can’t be done because most people’s minds are shut. Our job is to vote anyone who would take advantage of others the way this President seeks to do out of office and to do our best to ensure people like him never find their way to public office again – no matter their party affiliation. That task is so crucial that the future of our republic depends on it.

Maybe it’s just me…

I find myself put off by overly aggressive appeals to get me to join a cause, and it doesn’t really matter what that cause is. When people start pitching their cause by saying it’s the most important cause that ever was or ever will be, I start to feel as if I am at a corner used car lot listening to a guy in a loud plaid sport coat try to sell me a car. It’s not that I don’t think that the cause people are trying to sell me is worthy, anymore than I think the guy at the corner car lot has nothing but lemons on that lot. What is happening is that I hate that hard sell.

The hard sell makes me feel that there is something you are hoping I will overlook under pressure. Back in the old days car salesmen would take your keys if you wanted to test drive a vehicle. Getting those keys back without buying a car often required threats to call the police and charge the dealership with unlawful detention and grand theft auto. (I actually did that once.) That is bad business and it is bad advocacy. Make your case and allow me to decide. Don’t try to tell me that supporting your cause is the only way to prove that I am a good person, because that is nonsense and discredits your cause. Don’t tell me that your cause is the only valid one that exists, because any thinking person knows that is not true. In short, if you can’t dazzle me with the brilliance of your cause, spare me the attempt to baffle with bullshit. I have been around too long for that to work. All it will do is make me take back my keys and walk out.

Somewhere along the way we fell in love with hyperbole as the primary tool of persuasion. In fact, it should be a tool of last resort. It is often based in a poverty mentality – the idea that there isn’t enough. The poverty mentality says there aren’t enough resources, enough potential supporters, enough time to accomplish our goals. That’s simply not true, but if you convince yourself it is you set up a self fulfilling prophecy. You will drive resources away with your false sense of urgency, and then there really won’t be enough – but it will be a situation you created.

Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!

What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

Moving Beyond Fear

Fear isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when it pops up appropriately it serves an important function – it keeps us safe. When you are crossing the street and hear the sound of a bus bearing down on you, fear arises and helps kick your body into action to avoid becoming road kill. That’s good fear. When you are driving down the street and notice a flooded intersection, good fear tells you to turn around rather than try to drive through. False bravado encourages you to forge ahead into the intersection and the sink hole hidden under the water. Even if we could banish fear from our lives, it would be unwise. Many of us, however, experience fear that isn’t helpful. One of those is fear of the unknown.

We live in a time unlike any other in our lifetime, unless we happen to be over one hundred years old. Our lifestyles have been suspended by a world-wide pandemic. It seems like nothing about our lives is the same as it was just six months ago. We don’t know what life will be like once the corona virus is under control, but there is at least a chance that there will be a new normal. We have seen that Americans are poorly equipped to respond to this kind of a crisis. Our obsession with what we incorrectly assume is independence – it’s really selfishness – leads us to make awful choices because we don’t seem to realize we live in a society and selfishness is maladaptive. To cite but one example, people in other parts of the world have worn face masks for years. In those cultures they understand that not wearing a mask is rude and inconsiderate. In America some of us believe being rude and inconsiderate is something to wear like a badge of honor.

So many of our maladaptive behaviors emerge from fear. In uncertain times, fear lurks around every corner. It can help, when we feel fear arising, to ask ourselves about that fear. Is it present to alert us to danger, or is it the result of uncertainty? If it’s uncertainty that is the issue, can we recall other times when uncertainty arose and everything worked out well? Can we see that only rarely does uncertainty lead to problems that can’t be resolved? Even more importantly, can we see that quite often what lies beyond uncertainty is an opportunity for growth? The truth is that uncertainty and growth can help us to move beyond fear into opportunity. We may need that ability now more than ever.

What is “Normal”?

It seems to me we tend to confuse “normal” with “what we are used to,” and I don’t believe that always serves us well. If you are like me, during the summer months you get pretty used to not having to worry about wearing a jacket or boots, but when autumn comes around and temperatures drop you get out heavier clothes. We don’t say, “this isn’t normal, so I’m not going to do it!” The reason we don’t object is that the change of seasons is normal, even though it’s not what we are used to come the onset of the falling leaves.

Given the onset of worldwide pandemic, we are all experiencing a new normal. People resist wearing masks, claiming it’s not normal, but anyone who has ever worked in healthcare knows that in that setting masks are quite normal. It’s more accurate to say that for many of us wearing masks isn’t something to which we are accustomed. Masks are, for people in the midst of a highly contagious illness, quite normal. What would be abnormal is refusing to do the things we need to do to protect one another. Sadly, we are seeing abnormal all around us claiming to be a reaction to what isn’t “normal.”

Back in biblical times normal was understood to be majority practice. People who were outside majority practice were defined as evil, which didn’t bode well for left handed people, people who could float, and a host of others. Many of us thought we had evolved beyond such a distorted view of normal, but we are learning that may not be the case among a significant segment of our population. Don’t confuse the two. What we are used to may have no relationship to normal. Normal may not be a reasonable response to current circumstances. Since circumstances change all the time, so does normal – and that really is normal!

Why “Working on Myself” Isn’t Enough

Meditation in all of its various forms is great. I am a practitioner myself and can attest it has brought wonderful change to my life. Mindfulness meditation has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and I would recent stay at home orders in some communities have afforded a wonderful opportunity to start or build a practice. After all, you can only reorganize your closets so many times!

It’s great to “work on ourselves,” particularly since so many of us are over committed, work too many hours for too little pay and spend much of the time that is left shuttling kids and grandkids to various activities, sporting events, classes, and meetings with friends. Then there are our various classes, personal meetings and involvements. Whether we enjoy these things or not, sooner or later our bodies and minds need a break. This is where self care comes in and practices like meditation can be an immense benefit. We should take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. The truth is, however, that working on myself is not enough.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism. Americans love to look inward, but it can easily become an exercise in avoidance. Several years ago a clergyman I knew said, “all that matters is my meditation.” At that point, I knew we had lost him. In those six words he summed up the profoundly selfish life quite succinctly. The reason we do inner work is to make us better functioning members of a society. If we never engage that society, all our work is little more than an exercise in masturbation.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism.

Craig Bergland

If we are engaging in spiritual and wellness practices in their appropriate framework, the needs in our environment will become apparent. In fact, our practices will help us see those needs. Practice causes our compassion to grow, but compassion that doesn’t lead us to action is quite shallow, indeed. I fear that many Americans use Eastern spiritual practices as an reason to avoid life. That’s a corruption of the practice. Our time looking inward should always lead us to look outward!

This is not a political post

This is not a political post, though it does involve people in politics. Think of it this way – if I wrote about the personal choices of a football player, that post wouldn’t be about football. I wouldn’t be saying that I like the team the person plays for more than another team. The same is true when I write about politicians. Writing about the choices and attitudes of a politician does not constitute a judgment on their political party. Now that we have established what should be a self evident point, we can continue.

Across party lines, we are facing corruption and cowardice in government like at no point in American history. A would-be dictator occupies the White House surrounded by yes men and women on a scale that would make Nixon blush. Politicians of all stripes are loathe to stand up against the nonsense that passes for leadership in Washington, making them complicit in the largest threat to democracy America has seen. The great unwashed have elected one of their own. Should we be surprised the whole thing stinks?

Remember when character mattered? Remember when John Kennedy wanted to sleep with every woman in sight but had the decency to know that it was wrong, and so had them slipped in the back door of the White House while Jackie slept and the press looked the other way? Remember when Nixon was regularly too drunk to function and so others ran the country? Remember Teapot Dome during the Harding administration, the corrective for which the current administration has undone?

Okay, maybe it has only been the appearance of character that has mattered. Still, qualifications did matter. The old adage that any boy could grow up to be President of the United States simply wasn’t true. Candidates for President and even Congress were expected to have a certain pedigree that suggested the educational and experiential foundations to effectively serve. We have a man who has made his living deceiving the public now in the highest office in the land, a massively unqualified con man who has very little idea of what he is doing – and was elected on that basis!

Not surprisingly, we now hear that there is nothing more important that pretending everything is normal during the worst mismanagement of a pandemic imaginable. We are told that if only we create the appearance of normalcy, everything will be fine. It doesn’t matter if grandma and grandpa die to create a lie; it doesn’t matter how many workers – most often in poorly paying jobs – risk their lives to open restaurants, bars, and beaches; it doesn’t matter how many teachers and students will get sick and die to reopen schools. This is true not because it will change anything, it will only change the appearance of our circumstances. It will seem like everything is normal if we can just slip the bodies out the back door in the middle of the night and send them to the mortuary without anyone noticing.

Does that make any sense to you?

Good Lord, I hope not. I hope there is enough decency and intelligence left in this county to know that, whether we like it or not, what happens to one of us impacts all of us. We have failed at education and are reaping the rewards of that folly. We have failed at morality and in exchange made money our God. Our politicians worship that God, and we are reaping the rewards of that folly as well. We have taken a deep dive into selfishness from which we may never emerge as a nation.

These days it seems like everyone with a cause wants us to believe that their cause is the only one that matters. Nonsense. There are many, many causes that matter, so many that if they all are the only one that matters we will never make any progress. The way out of this morass is for each of us to find a cause that matters to us and dedicate ourselves to it in the way that best uses our unique sets of skills and abilities. This will take both time and persistence. There are no magic bullets, there are no overnight fixes, but that makes it even more imperative that we start today. Rest assured we will encounter criticism in a country with no shortage of do-nothing armchair quarterbacks. Everyone has an opinion, but that doesn’t mean we need to take their opinion to heart. Don’t read your reviews, solve the problem.

Behavior and Spiritual Credibility

To be completely honest, I have struggled with this issue for years. Living, as we do, in an era where a constant procession of spiritual leaders of all stripes have been outed as serial abusers of those in their charge, I don’t see how we can avoid dealing with the issue and asking the question:

At what point does the abusive misbehavior of a spiritual leader render their teachings invalid?

Craig Bergland

Suppose we attempted to construct a spectrum of abuse that started with a spiritual leader having an adulterous affair with someone not involved with his ministry in any way and progressing to whatever the most horrific offenses we might imagine. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say up front that consensual sex between non-married adults is perfectly fine. What transgressions are redeemable and what transgressions invalidate a person’s spiritual teachings? It may help to establish some categories of offense for sorting purposes.

Can we agree that any sexual activity involving minors should preclude that individual being allowed to teach? Would it render their teachings null and void? Catholic priests involved in the pedophilia crisis would fall into this category, but so would Rumi due to his pederasty. Many of Rumi’s supposed love poems to God weren’t written to God at all but to Shams, his adolescent protege. To be honest, that turns my stomach more than a little.

Can we agree that teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students have crossed a line? Buddhism in particular seems to struggle with teachers who can’t keep their hands to themselves, assaulting female students during spiritual interviews. Others overtly create situations wherein sleeping with the teacher is presented as being spiritually advantageous, even when the student is married. Perhaps the most notorious example of this in Buddhism is Chogyam Trungpa, who established an entire lineage replete with sexual misconduct. Only recently has anything been done or said about this, but it has been an open secret for almost fifty years. Despite that truth, there is no shortage of former students of Trungpa who still speak effusively about his teachings. What are we to make of that? In the interest of candor, for me, Trungpa’s behavior does invalidate his teaching.

What about with colleagues or the parish secretary? We talk about imbalance of power as being an important factor in determining if a relationship is appropriate, but I suspect that power is much more complicated. There is power in hierarchies, but there are all sorts of power structures in social and cultural settings that muddy the waters. When Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, there were surely multiple psychological factors at play. It’s hard to know who was being manipulated more, but I suspect there was mutual manipulation at work. Then again, since Bakker’s teachings were vacuous at best, perhaps he is a bad example.

Complicating all of this is the truth that nobody is perfect. All of us make mistakes on a regular basis. That being said, abuse is a mistake of a different stripe. I am not concerned about clergy who fall in love with the parish secretary. I would be concerned about clergy who fell in love with every parish secretary they ever had. I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about a spiritual teacher who once fell in love with a student. I would be very concerned about a teacher who slept with many or most of his students. These issues are important because we all share a responsibility in ensuring those seeking to develop their spiritual life can do so free from harassment. They are also important because they speak to the character of the teacher, which has a direct impact on the teacher’s ministry and teachings.

How Many Balls…

…can we keep in the air at once? We are currently besieged with change on many different planes. On the one hand, we continue to battle a worldwide pandemic and everything that comes with it, including massive unemployment and economic shutdown. On another hand, we are in the midst of a long overdue assessment of our horrific legacy of racism and discrimination. We are also suffering through what may be at least a partial return to the Dark Ages in the form of the exultation of foolishness at the expense of rationality. Many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between opinion and fact, while others deride science in favor of superstition.

Meanwhile, those advocating for change are demanding that we all get involved in their cause the way they would have us get involved. Most all causes believe theirs is the only one that should receive our attention, an attitude that is bound to backfire. After all, if the only help you will accept from me is complete full time dedication, then the odds are you will get nothing. If you don’t understand that, please reread the first paragraph of this post. Many of us are experiencing our coping ability wearing thin. Having multiple causes vie for our attention, all of them asserting they are the only cause, isn’t helping – especially when many of us are struggling to put food on the table or secure the non-corona virus medical care we desperately need. What’s a poor boy or girl to do?

The first thing to do is recognize that we are all in charge of our own decisions. At times such as these there tends to be no shortage of people volunteering to be in charge of everyone else’s life. While we may or may not appreciate their service, we don’t have to partake of it. You are still the only person who gets to make decisions about how your time and energy are allocated. Don’t let anyone pressure you into surrendering your autonomy! When Sally from down the street starts paying your bills, you might give her some input. Until then, send her packing.

The second thing to do is to recognize our own need for nurturing and understanding. Take time to do the things you enjoy. Be aware that those things may look a bit different now than they did a year ago, but they can still happen. Your gym might be closed or you may not be comfortable going there, but the outdoors are still open for business. Get outside, get exercise, eat as healthily as you can, get sleep, and socialize – even if only virtually. Take regular breaks from screens and especially the news cycle. They will be there when you need them. Stimulate your mind with something healthy. Read a book, watch a documentary, sit in a park and observe nature. If you are tired, take a nap. Listen to your body.

Finally, insert a sacred pause before every substantial action or commitment. I used to be an Oblate of a monastery that had a policy of never responding to email communication the same day. We have all had the experience of hitting “send” and regretting it. They never did. Before agreeing to something, ponder it overnight. This also helps put requests in their proper perspective and thereby reduces stress. Everybody wants our answer now, but it is seldom needed now. A sacred pause helps us see the truth of that. Unless a request begins with words like “look out,” “duck!”, “fire!”, or “get out of the water!” the request can wait.

By taking some simple, concrete steps we will better be able to navigate these unknown waters in these confusing times. If we will trust ourselves and care for ourselves and each other, things will get easier. Don’t confuse how things used to be with the only way things can be. A new normal will emerge. Who knows, it could be much better than the old normal in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine!