When Does Appeasement Embolden?

When does appeasement embolden? Anyone who has raised children knows that point exists. Children, as an appropriate task of development, challenge their parents, test limits, and push against the rules. At different ages, different rules are challenged at different levels of intensity, but the challenges happen and those kids are looking for the reassurance that comes from boundaries being in place. A parental strategy of allowing any behavior to pass unchecked is no strategy at all. In fact, it is actually detrimental to the children’s well being. Presumably, with appropriately imperfect parental guidance, children develop the ability to self regulate. They become the adults who have very few, if any, interactions with law enforcement beyond traffic enforcement. Clearly, however, development to the level of self regulation isn’t a given.

We have been encouraged to appease even the most radical Trump supporters. Honesty compels me to confess that I have not been able to do that. People I used to be connected with on social media who insisted on pressing their irrational pro-Trump beliefs have been blocked. To say the least, I didn’t find the cognitive dissonance created by the barrage of lies and conspiracy theories to be edifying. On January 6th, we saw the results of a policy of appeasement played out in Washington D.C.. Despite that, we hear people, including President-elect Biden, advocating a continued policy of appeasement. You cannot fix a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it.

It’s important to emphasize that I am not advocating violence in response to violence. That is a strategy that is doomed to fail no matter where it is tried. What I am advocating is non-violent non-appeasement. There is no reason that any of us should listen to an irrational person blither on about their beliefs. We don’t need to confront them, in fact confrontation isn’t effective with an irrational person. What does work is setting firm boundaries. We need to tell people in our lives who try to engage us on this level that we need them to stop, and if they don’t then we need to terminate the conversation and, if necessary, the relationship. There is nothing wrong about refusing to entertain content that is irrational or upsetting. Those of us with children need to set an example of appropriate boundaries for them, perhaps explaining that Uncle Joe isn’t thinking very clearly right now. We don’t have to denigrate a person to establish effective boundaries.

Politicians adopt positions that are consistent with the goals they hope to achieve. A healthy politician (and I suspect they do exist, in the wild if not in captivity) may set boundaries in their personal lives more tightly than they would in their political lives. Tp that point, I can’t imagine Donald Trump will be receiving many dinner invitations from Congressmen or Congresswomen on either side of the aisle after January 20th. We need to remember, however, that appeasement isn’t an effective strategy for unity. At best it causes the likes of radicalized Trump supporters to go underground, waiting for their next opportunity to emerge and wreak havoc. If we are serious about unity, we will need to engage the process of reconciliation, as was done so effectively in South Africa. People across the political spectrum need the opportunity to be heard. None of us would find all of their grievances reasonable or even realistic, but people deserve to be heard – in the right way and in the right forum. Needless to say, trying to carry out a coup is neither the right method nor the right forum.

What does “good enough” mean?

Most of us hear the expression “good enough” as rather negative. We tend to associate it with not being good enough. We hear the expression in almost every corner of our lives. We can be “not good enough” to get the job we want, the relationship we crave, to win a competition we are in, to understand a complicated issue or concept – all of which represent failure on some level. If we hear those messages long enough, we start to believe them. In truth, and in a very specific sense, especially early in life there are things we aren’t good enough to effectively engage, either because we lack knowledge, or skills, or experience in a particular area. We will always have areas where we aren’t good enough to do something. Running a four minute mile is something most of us will never do. Then again, most of us aren’t losing a whole lot of sleep over that fact!

There’s another “good enough” that we often ignore. Even worse, we may be blind to it! American Tibetan Buddhist Lama Surya Das, when asked if he was enlightened, responded, “I am enlightened enough.” Since enlightenment is seen as a kind of perfection, we might paraphrase this exchange as someone asking if we are perfect and our response being that we are perfect enough. In this way we see that, in common thought, being good enough has come to mean that we are perfect, able to handle anything that may arise, never hesitant or doubting. Can you see that for the distortion it is? None of us are perfect, and so if someone comes along and asks if we are perfect the best response may be laughter.

Imagine if we stopped beating ourselves up for not being something nobody is! We don’t feel bad about being less than eight feet tall. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound and we aren’t faster than a speeding locomotive, but we don’t feel bad about not being Superman. If we are asked if we are Superman, slightly disguised in the “good enough” language, we shouldn’t feel bad about answering “no” to that question, either. What would happen if we came to understand that we are all good enough to put forth our best effort, and that is the only good enough that mattered? What would happen if we stopped looking for the things we cannot accomplish and instead started focusing on the things we can do? What if we extended the same courtesy to others?

What would happen is that we would shift our current cultural focus on what is lacking to what is present, from the impossible to the possible, from the ugly to the beautiful that dwells in each of us. We should be aware that our minds are programmed from Neanderthal days to look for the things that are different or lacking and so might be threatening. Given that most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by sabre tooth tigers, maybe we could start to surrender all of our Neanderthal practices. If we don’t, we are putting an artificial cap on our potential, our progress, and our happiness.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Dick Clark passed and his ball could no longer dropped to commemorate the New Year. What’s the point in even staying up if you can’t see Dick? Then there is the truth that as we age staying up until midnight becomes less a celebration than some kind of bizarre endurance test from which it takes two days to recover even if you don’t drink to excess. On top of all that, given that the year that just passed has been the most challenging of our collective lives, the party seems more like a celebration of a prison break than anything else – except that we haven’t really escaped the prison. We are in the tunnel we dug to escape through and though we haven’t quite gotten to freedom we can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. All of that, taken together, doesn’t seem like much of a party.

I keep coming back to the concept of things we can and cannot control. The list of the former is always much shorter than the latter, much to our chagrin. Unless we are scientists working to develop vaccines, there really isn’t much we can do about the virus. Unless we are qualified to perform lobotomies we can’t do much about conspiracy theorists, virus deniers, or anti-maskers. We have to rely on natural selection to solve that problem. We can’t do much about the political divisiveness in our country, because politicians created that problem and politicians will have to solve it.

The things we can control include how much news we choose to consume. In a 24 hour news cycle, we tend to hear bad news over and over. We are hard wired toward bad new as a remnant of our survival instincts from thousands of years ago. Changing that wiring, if it is possible, takes a very long time. A better solution might be consuming the good to offset the bad. We can start a gratitude journal, take time to enjoy good music, reduce our screen time, and end each day with a list of three things we did well that day. We can practice deep listening, not only to other people but to nature and our own bodies. Helping someone else goes a long way toward improving how we feel about ourselves, so we might find a way to engage in helping. The best part of every one of these things is that they are free, but the return on investment is truly amazing! By shifting our focus, we might impact more than we imagined!

You Can’t Do It That Way!

How often do we hear that from academics, especially in the field of spirituality and religion? I have heard it so often I want to vomit every time yet another insecure academic trying to justify their professional existence announces what does and does not constitute “proper” spiritual practice. Whatever currently popular spiritual trend catches their attention is dismissed either because it doesn’t pass their litmus test of what constitutes proper practice or the practitioners don’t have (in their mind) the proper qualifications to do the practice authentically, or both.

Mind you, I am far from anti-intellectual. I support the Academy and think it has a purpose and does good work. It’s when they try to dismiss everything that comes from anyone who hasn’t spent their lives in higher education as somehow inherently inadequate that I have a problem. When academics suggest that anything that doesn’t come from them or one of their colleagues isn’t “valid,” I feel compelled to point out that it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they aren’t in charge of social graces. I often wonder if when people from the theology department announce that the only people qualified to opine on any scripture are those who can read it in the original languages, the people from the foreign language department become insulted because their translation ability has been besmirched by their colleagues! Do the people from the history and anthropology departments wonder why the theology department disregards the truths that humans were illiterate through most of history and the printing press was invented only five hundred years ago?

Even more importantly, please don’t tell me I can’t do something a particular way when in fact I just did. For example, if you tell me I can’t investigate Celtic spirituality when I just finished reading a book about it I am afraid I already did investigate it. If you insist I cannot read a particular scripture because I am not a polyglot, I must tell you that most people who have read a scripture have read it in translation. While the subtle nuances may be lost in translation, I believe that translators do the best job possible. Unless I am obsessive compulsive, it is close enough for my purposes.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone making pious pronouncements about the validity of your particular practice discourage you. In everybody’s experience there are bound to be more or less useful spiritual practices. What I find helpful, you may find simplistic and foolish. It’s not that the practices themselves are less that perfect, because they all are less than perfect. It’s that we have different needs and are at different places on our journeys, so of course different practices and perspectives will appeal to us. It’s the nature of practices to evolve and adapt to current needs, so we don’t need to feel embarrassed that we don’t do anything the way it was done one thousand years ago. The point of our practice is to move us along on our spiritual journey, not to please anyone else or pay homage to what once was but isn’t any longer.

Picking and Choosing

The truth is that most of us pick and choose the things we feel are important, never stopping to look at the sum total of what garners our support or checking those things for consistency. Consider that people become really energized over the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which they feel (rightly or not) guarantees them the right to own firearms. Generally speaking, people are aware of and favor the Fifth Amendment. The rest of the Amendments we are perhaps minimally aware of or want to see applied very selectively. The same people who hold these positions consider themselves patriotic, but are they really?

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We regularly hear people prattle on about free speech and their rights to a very distorted version of free exercise of religion, but we hardly ever hear much about freedom of the press – among Trumpian Republicans, especially. Instead, we hear a lot about “fake news,” a classic example of Freudian projection if ever there was one. We have seen reporters exiled from press briefings and the rhetoric of the administration lead to death threats toward reporters. We hear about a desire to restrict the press, and the outgoing administration in Washington did everything it could to damage news sources that are at least minimally credible while promoting those that served its propaganda aims.

Here is a principle to consider: the public availability of more information is always better. That’s not to say any of us should or could consume every bit of news that is offered. It is to say that anyone who wants to limit the number of outlets available to the public is trying to manipulate that same public and doesn’t have its best interests in mind. In a time of rising fascism around the world, we would do well to keep the importance of a free press in the front of our minds!

Values

One of the most important things that religion is supposed to do is to teach values. Unfortunately, many of the values western religion has found important are not things that western people find valuable. Worrying about who is sleeping with whom, how often it is permissible to scratch yourself and where (on your body, and whether you are in a public place or not), dietary laws, purity codes, how to avoid anything that gives pleasure, and a host of similar pseudo-values are things that understandably just don’t energize contemporary people. Unfortunately, a large slice of western Christianity has fixated on things that are contrary the proper purview of religion and spirituality, such as nationalism, patriotism, and political power (to name but a few).

Then there are the people who come up with all manner of inventive ways to get around the prohibitions with which they don’t agree. Maybe they are in a system that forbids premarital sex, so they redefine sex to be genital intercourse and become expert at oral and anal sex. There’s nothing wrong with such expertise, but one can’t with any integrity claim to be sexually chaste just because the vagina isn’t penetrated by a penis. Alternately, these people may have certain dietary restrictions in their tradition, so they redefine what certain foods are. If you can’t eat pork, you might decide the problem is with meat with bones in it but boneless ribs are allowed. Humans are very creative, and there seems to be no end to our creativity in bending rules connected to values that we claim to hold but don’t really believe are important. Here are some serious questions – if the values your religion teaches seem silly or irrelevant, why do you listen? Why waste your time? Why not be honest about what you believe?

Religion often gets caught up in silliness and ignores the important. Sometimes that’s an accident, but other times it’s an attempt to avoid issues that really matter but might be controversial or uncomfortable. Are you aware that your pastor is very restricted in terms of the subject matter she brings up with the congregation, whether from the pulpit or in education classes? There are subjects that really should be discussed by adults in a spiritual community, but if bringing those subjects up is going to result in members of the congregation calling for the pastor’s job the odds are they will be buried deeper than crude oil in Siberia. Many if not most congregations elect people to their boards who aren’t qualified to be there because they serve their own interests rather than the interests of the congregation. There also isn’t any guarantee they are spiritually or interpersonally astute. That means we end up with pretty bland, pretty uneducated people of “faith” who are better versed in superstition than ethics populating boards and vestries in churches across America.

In the end, there shouldn’t be a great deal of safety in faith. We should feel challenged and stretched as we consider the implications for our beliefs and how we should interact with the world around us. On the other hand, churches should be safe spaces where honest discussions can occur. If we belong to a church, attend regularly, and never hear anything that stretches or challenges us, then we belong to a country club rather than a church. There isn’t anything wrong with belonging to a country club as long as we are aware that’s what we have joined. On the other hand, if we think we have joined a church but find ourselves at a country club, someone is being less than honest. Above all, the church needs to be honest in all that it does. I’m afraid it fails that goal more often than not.

If you want help in determining whether your Christian church is a country club, all you need to do is read the Sermon on the Mount. You’ll find it in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Are those things taught in your church, or is more time spent on the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, partisan politics, and culture wars? If it’s the latter, you have a country club that follows its own agenda rather than following Jesus. Can you imagine the implications of that? The truth is that there are very few churches in America, but a ton of country clubs. No golf shoes in the Sanctuary, please!

At Some Point, You Must Decide

What do we do when our values and our beliefs are in conflict with the decisions our government makes? If we are honest with ourselves and aware of what is going on around us, we will start to notice how often this happens with greater frequency. When we see those situations, we will begin to feel uncomfortable. As I see it, we are faced with three choices at that time. The first is that we can ignore the conflict and pretend it doesn’t exist. As anyone who has tried to solve a problem with denial can tell you, this isn’t a very effective solution to anything. The second is that we can fragment our world and our awareness by saying that our values are one thing and the government is another, with the two never meeting. That’s a false distinction, because government supposedly represents the people. This is little more than another kind of denial, as ineffective as pretending there isn’t a problem. The third is that we can choose sides, either saying that our government is always right or that we trust our own values to guide us toward what is right, regardless of what the government says.

What about when our values conflict with themselves? What do we do in these cases? Suppose we consider ourselves pro-life and one of our friends points out that our support of the death penalty conflicts with a pro-life identity. How do we resolve that conflict? Many people, unwilling to honestly examine their values and beliefs in any but the most superficial way, decide to forego resolving the conflict and insist that those are two completely different questions. The problem is that they aren’t different questions at all, and if we hope to be a moral person of integrity we need to resolve that inconsistency. What about someone who considers themselves pro-life but is opposed to offering free pre-natal care and well baby check ups to all mothers and children who can’t afford them?

Here is the hard part. You will likely never convince someone who doesn’t want to look at the inconsistencies in their values to do so. Nor is it our job to get them to look. Our job is to look at our own values and check their consistency, and then get on with the important work of implementing those values, period. If we waste our time and energy trying to convince people of the error of their ways, we won’t have the time and energy needed to work for the change we hope to see in the world. There will always be people who choose not to deal with reality as you and I understand it. Trying to convert the deluded is a fool’s errand that depletes the energy of the converter and leads to burn out. There is nothing that says we need to reach consensus with the rest of the world before working for change. In fact, striving for consensus only assures that nothing will change, because consensus is very difficult to achieve. Is it ever acceptable for a child to starve while we try to achieve consensus on a feeding program? Is it okay for someone to die of a preventable illness because we can’t agree on how to ship the vaccine? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem and allow those who are predisposed to meaningless debate sort things out after the fact?

Faith and Obligation?

If something is an obligation, is doing it really faith or rather fear of punishment? Those of us raised in small-c catholic traditions may recall the idea of holy days of obligation. These were days wherein church attendance was considered mandatory, and failure to attend was considered sin unless you had an officially sanctioned reason for not being in attendance. I want to ask, is it really meritorious to do something with a spiritual gun pointed at your head?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee recently reminded parishioners that attendance at Mass, even during this pandemic that puts the demographic that comprises the majority of church goers at greatest mortal danger, is mandatory. In other words, “even if it kills you, Grandma, get to Mass.” Do we really believe that any God worthy of the Name would say something like that? Can we see that such statements are nothing more than coercive attempts to get people to do something they might otherwise not do, and for perfectly valid reasons? Is putting butts in the pews worth dying over? Can the Archbishop really feel good about what he has done at the end of the day with this policy? Might it be that the people’s money is more important to him than anything else about them, including their health and safety? If that’s true, could there be a bigger example of mortal sin?

Remember, as much as your particular tradition, Christian or other, claims to speak for God the truth is that it does not. Ultimately all institutions are about self preservation, even if they are loathe to admit it and so seek to blame a Bigger Authority for their irresponsible actions. If your tradition claims to be pro-life but makes decisions that may sacrifice Grandma on the altar of dead Presidents, it’s neither pro-life nor pro-God. If institutional religion is confused as to why it is breathing a death rattle, perhaps we should simply hand it a mirror.

Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Have a Body!

It seems like a silly title, doesn’t it? Despite that, to one degree or another, most spirituality and religion has encouraged adherents to deny that they are embodied and refuse to acknowledge the needs that come with embodiment. Whether it’s fasting, sleep deprivation, celibacy, dietary restrictions, self-inflicted abuse of different kinds, human sacrifice, or any of a number of so-called ascetical practices, religion and spirituality have sought to convince us to deny our physical selves. Some of that was rooted in a particularly perverse dualism that insisted the spirit was good and the physical evil.

I once knew a Pentecostal preacher who told the story of checking into a hotel to fast for forty days and forty nights. He recounted dreams and visions and all manner of spiritual experiences during this time. Delirium, whether caused by low blood sugar or something else, will do that to you but that doesn’t mean delirium is a desired or spiritual state. I have often reflected on the truth that there is little difference between his story and the account of someone on a crack binge beyond a difference in social acceptability. Being out of touch with reality, regardless of the reason, is never an exalted spiritual state.

So why the rejection of the body? For some people, rejecting the body is rejecting experiences that cannot be controlled. For others it is a mistaken association of pleasure with evil. Still others reject the body in search of transcendence, feeling that the body cannot be transcended in this life. I have long suspected that many people become preoccupied with their bodies to avoid facing their shadow, the part of themselves they would rather reject and push away, even deny. That’s as true of people who abuse their bodies as it is those who worship them and can’t seem to leave the gym. If I worry about whether I will inadvertently encounter pleasure today, I likely won’t pay attention to the pain I cause others.

To be human is to be embodied. Denying that truth or wishing it were otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything healthy. A life giving spirituality will offer ways for us to accept the realities of life rather than seek to deny or avoid them. An unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances is a curious kind of self-preoccupation that masquerades as spiritual accomplishment. In truth, the spiritual life is better served by increasing the time spent concerned about others and reducing our obsession with ourselves!

Joy, much?

One of the worst pastors I ever encountered called the Third Sunday of Advent, in his best Texas accent and completely without regard for the fact that this word is French, “Gaud-ette Sunday.” He was such an oaf, but like most oafs he was oblivious to his oafishness. He affected joy – the theme of this Sunday – quite well as he climbed the church corporate ladder to avoid coping with his severely disabled daughter, but in the end he stepped down from the high position he had coveted for so long and finally achieved. I have always suspected it was because the joy he sought was not hiding where he believed it was. There was no success that could offset the pain of his daughter’s condition that was caused by a forceps delivery that was botched. There was no secret answer or degree of faith that was going to magically heal her, no matter how much he wanted to believe there was. In many ways, his own belief system made joy impossible.

It’s easy to shake our heads at his story, but how many of us do something similar? How many of us are, to paraphrase a country song from back in the day, looking for joy in all the wrong places? How many of us look for cheap joy, the kind of joy that is relatively easy to achieve and therefore short lived? What if real and lasting joy requires sacrifice and loss – and a sacrifice and loss not of our own choosing at that? What if the truth is that if we want to achieve joy, something – and quite likely many somethings – must die?

Joy is hard work. It’s not easily achieved, nor is it for the faint of heart. It’s also, to a certain extent, different for each of us. Is it worth the sacrifice to achieve joy? The truth is that we will not know until we get there, and by then the price will be paid and the question moot. Maybe the real question is whether or not we are willing to settle for joyless lives that we barely tolerate. We see examples of this all the time and all around us. People stay in loveless, stifling relationships because they lack the gravitas to do the work to change the relationship or, failing that, to leave. How many of us know that person who stays in their unfulfilling job because leaving is just too much work (pun intended), and as a result they die a little bit each workday?

Obviously, this scale of shift is a major project. Deciding that the things we have believed would make us happy are not, in fact, the things that will isn’t a quick and easy process. Joy doesn’t mean being blissed out all the time, but it does imply a general sense of well being and of standing on solid ground. It means knowing that life is good even when it is challenging. Joy doesn’t mean we will never feel challenged, but it does mean that we won’t see those challenges as personal attacks from on high – or next door. You won’t get there if you don’t get started!