What is getting ahead?

Americans tend to view getting ahead as acquiring more stuff. Houses, cars, furniture, appliances, vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and more define where we believe we stand measured against other people. As Roxy and I were taking our walk today we met two little boys and their mother. The boys asked if they could pet Roxy, and I readily agreed. I told them that while she wouldn’t lick them, she would “sniff” them. One of the boys exclaimed, “she blew on me!” His brother told me that they just got a new basement, and it was important for them to clean up their toys every day so that it would stay nice and if they didn’t clean up their toys then it wouldn’t stay nice and so they were going to because they wanted it to stay nice. I told him that my wife made me clean up my toys every night, so I knew it could be hard but that it was important, too. Sensing, I suspect, that more secrets were about to be revealed, their mother told the boys they should let us continue on our walk.

Imagine if we could return to that view of life. What if we decided that the measure of whether or not we were succeeding at life was whether or not we cleaned up our toys before we went to bed at night? We would almost certainly collect less detritus, not wanting to add time to our bedtime cleanup routine. We would either stop being so competitive or the nature of our competition would shift from getting ahead at each others expense to doing the best job possible putting our toys away. That would by much healthier than the current system, because there is nothing about me being the best at cleaning up before bed that could possibly destroy another person’s life.

The problem we have right now is that we tend to see each other as obstacles that stand in the way of our happiness. Seeing each other as an obstacle is very different that seeing each other as human beings. It’s the nature of an obstacle to be overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. Human beings don’t fare very well if they are overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. If we see human beings as obstacles standing in the way of our goals we quickly dehumanize them. After that, we quickly find that we don’t care if they live or die as long as they are moved out of our way in the process. At that point two hundred thousand people dying becomes an abstract concept that we will be incapable of mourning. Imagine having to clean that mess up before bedtime!

What if you died and nobody cared?

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I found out last Thursday, but he died the Friday before that. The only reason I found out is that my brother’s ex-wife lives in Florida a few doors away from someone who used to live in the same town outside Milwaukee where my father and his current wife lived. Somehow this woman heard, and expressed her sympathy to my ex-sister-in-law, who then got in touch with my brother, who told me. As if that wasn’t convoluted enough, my father’s wife died two hospital rooms away from his and within eight hours of his death, but we aren’t sure if he knew she was in the hospital with him.

You might be thinking how sad and tragic this story is, but it isn’t. At least, that’s not why it is sad. It’s sad because, with the possible exception of my father’s sister-in-law, nobody cares.

You can’t live your life running away from every conflict and being concerned only with your addictions to work, booze, cigarettes, and money and expect people to be broken up when you pass away. I have been estranged from my father since I was eighteen years old. On my eighteenth birthday he flew into town, took me out for a drink, and told me he was never coming back. The next morning he told me he wouldn’t trade his travels for work for anything, even his family and children. Since that time I have had less than a dozen interactions with him. The last was especially egregious, but that isn’t really my story to tell. When people I met would occasionally ask if my father was alive, I would honestly say that he might have died and I wouldn’t know. It turns out that was prophetic. If my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t moved to that particular city in Florida, we might still not know.

My father was born to parents in their late thirties at a time when people didn’t have babies that late in life. It’s fair to say they didn’t plan to get pregnant. His mother was domineering and his father was a great man everywhere but at home, where he acquiesced to his wife’s demands at every turn. His father was a football coach and he was not a football player, setting up a dynamic where disappointment was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, my father married a domineering woman. As they sunk deeper and deeper into addiction, she would verbally batter him every night and he would take the beating passively. Finally, he got up the courage to leave and never looked back – at any of us.

He was a man who could be wonderfully social, likely because his career required it, but the moment he left the party he forgot about everyone there. As he got older he developed a slightly paranoid bent, convinced that people were after his money. Perhaps he sensed that was all he really had to offer since he couldn’t feel, relate to others, or allow himself to become vulnerable. He is proof of the hole in the American Dream. He worked hard, made a lot of money, had a lot of toys, and found all of his validation doing those things. In the end, he died alone in a hospital room with nobody knowing he was there. Fitting, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are just like him. I suspect there are more than a few.

Random Thoughts

200722112346-01-pet-chicken-sales-coronavirus-trnd-large-169If the things that most of us wouldn’t think of eating – rattlesnake, scorpion, rodents, all manner of creepy crawly things, endangered species, insects covered in chocolate, and so on – are all said to “taste like chicken,” maybe it’s time to take another look at whether or not we should be eating chicken. If we just flip the equation, we will see that chicken tastes like cockroach, and mouse, and ants, and rats. Why do we continue to eat it?

When Have We Arrived?

I wonder how many of you have had this experience, whatever your vocation might be. When you were younger that you are now (it doesn’t matter how old you are) you thought that you pretty much had locked down the knowledge necessary for your calling. Then every few years after that you would look back and realize how little you knew. In some people, this causes horrible feelings of shame, but it really shouldn’t because this process is completely normal. It’s been said that mastery occurs somewhere around ten thousand hours of practice of anything. If we stop to consider that our vocations are composed of multiple skills, and that ten thousand hours is equal to five years of doing one skill full time, it’s no wonder that progress takes time!

Consider meditation. If you sit twenty minutes a day, mastery may occur after thirty thousand sessions. That’s eighty-two years. Sitting twice a day can reduce the time to forty-one years, but if you increase your sitting with the goal of doing anything it is likely to become ineffective. If that won’t drive you over the edge, you are a much better person than I am! However, if we consider more general categories the truth is that mastery is possible – but not overnight. Those who are motivated to get better at whatever their vocation is frequently search for more information, improved techniques, and new perspectives. What happens when you struggle to find that new information? It can be extremely frustrating. What does it mean?

What it could mean is that you are approaching mastery. That’s not to say that you don’t have anything left to learn. We all learn as long as we are drawing breath. It does mean that a good number of the latest books in your field are going to contain a lot of things you already know. This can be very frustrating. At first you may ask yourself why these authors don’t go deeper. Then it will occur to you that perhaps they can’t go deeper, or if they can they don’t because the books would then be so specialized that although they would appeal to you they wouldn’t have the broad appeal necessary to sell a lot of books. At this point you will likely be better served looking in journals for more insight into your area of expertise. You might start reading fiction, or looking into another area that interests you when looking for a book to read. What have you always wanted to learn about? Now is your opportunity! You should still check in on your field from time you time, but you have spent a lot of time going deep. Now go wide!

Facebook has a Problem

I don’t know if you are a Facebook person or not. I suppose you could say I used to be, and I still have a presence there mostly to promote my work, but the truth is I hate signing on to Facebook. Not only has it become extremely polarized, along with most of American culture, but Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in attempting to remedy the problems that plague Facebook. From Russian and Chinese bots, to Internet trolls, to disreputable sources of disinformation, to faulty algorithms, to advertising overload, Facebook has become like that sleezy dive bar at the edge of town that you might stop at if you had no other reasonable choice but you sure wouldn’t use the restrooms. In short, Facebook is out of control and Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in reining it in.

Remember Tom from Myspace? He of the ubiquitous presence on one of the earliest social media sites? I sometimes wonder what has become of Tom from Myspace. I don’t believe I ever knew his last name, or if his name really was Tom. What I do know is that the people who ran Myspace profoundly misread the public and so their site faded into obscurity. Their site was the largest social media platform from 2005 until 2008, and although it’s still active I wonder how many people know that. They were eclipsed by Facebook, and perhaps the only serious challenger to the Facebook monopoly was Google+ but Google+ is no more.

What I do know is that when a space, whether virtual or physical, becomes Toxic people start looking for alternatives. Facebook used to be a place to connect with people, and although you would occasionally have an unpleasant encounter it was the exception rather than the rule. Now, as in so much of life, greed rules the day at Facebook and the results are clear for all to see. What Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to realize is that if people start leaving his platform his advertisers will follow them – but then it will be too late to save Facebook. Maybe that will be a blessing rather than a curse.

The Fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Many may be tempted to see the fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. to be a tragic, isolated incident of one man gone astray. It’s anything but. This isn’t about Jerry sitting in the corner ‘observing” while the pool boy cum business partner frolics on the bed with Jerry’s wife. (As an aside, since these religious right types preach against masturbation they have apparently taken to calling it “observing?”) The age old attempt by Christian religious types to blame the woman, as old as the story of Adam and Eve, rears its ugly head once again as the event is described as Becki Falwell’s affair with a pool boy. In truth, it’s the three of them engaging in consensual sexual activity. If it was people in your neighborhood you might think, “it’s not my cup of tea, but if it makes them happy who am I to judge?” Or, you might think, “where can I get a pool boy?”

I’m less concerned about the fact that Jerry appears to be a cuck who likes to watch than I am about the wider trend he represents in White Evangelical Christianity. (As an aside, I don’t believe that White Evangelicalism has anything to do with Christianity.) Allow me to explain. Jerry’s father was a founder of the so-called “moral majority” around the time of the Nixon administration. While that group no longer identifies by that name very often, it still exists. You know the type. They tend to believe that if something feels good it must be a sin, which is why they don’t buy Q-tips. Back in the day they crawled into bed with political allies in the Republican Party, gradually increasing their political power in America. On the religious side, they became Televangelists and Megachurch pastors. What this latter group has in common is sexual misconduct of epic proportions. A close second is financial misconduct, and coming in a not too distant third is substance abuse. In case you think I am kidding, here is a short list: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Bill Gothard, Tony Alamo, Bob Coy, Fred Phelps, Dave Reynolds, Robert Tilton, Marc Driscoll, Creflo Dollar, Bill Hybels, and the list goes on and on. Why?

Anything you repress will eventually come out sideways. It’s virtually guaranteed. Basic human needs denied don’t simply go away. If we are convinced that basic needs are abnormal, the shame we feel around them becomes overwhelming. Still they don’t go away. Eventually we act out, and the shame and guilt we feel for acting out intensifies our need to act out, and soon a classic addictive cycle sets in. Maybe the pastor is impregnating most of the Church. Maybe his repressed sexuality emerges in a cocaine induced frenzy with his gay meth dealer. Maybe he finds the only way he can express his sexuality is by flogging little Jerry in the corner while the pool boy bangs his wife – and we keep the pool boy in a diminished, more sexually satisfying state by continuing to refer to him as the pool boy long after he has become our business partner. Maybe the anti-LGBT Bishop is grooming teenage boys in his congregation to become his sex partners on his yacht. Maybe half of the choir tests positive for the pastor’s DNA. If you can imagine it, you can find it.

The problem is this: no spirituality that is based upon a poor understanding of human psychology can possibly be healthy. If our beliefs lead us to try to deny our psyche what it needs, our religion become soul killing. If our religion is constructed in such a way that questions and dissent are not allowed, we (and our religion) are doomed. The products of our religion will be unhealthy at best and outright pathological at worst. In my opinion, the entire prosperity gospel movement is the result of a religion that represses sexuality and pleasure. Those energies get twisted and redirected into the acquisition of wealth, which will never really satisfy the needs that have been repressed, and so there will never be enough money, never be enough external signs of wealth, because inside we are completely impoverished. Pastor needs a mansion, a private jet, a fleet of luxury automobiles, homes around the world, all because these things are justified as necessary to emulate a Jesus who by all accounts was impoverished and homeless. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, perhaps you should stop drinking the Kool-aid.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to a sacred/secular divide, I do believe that it is patently unwise for organizations that claim to be religious to covet power and wealth. In fact, a close, honest, and educated reading of the religious texts of any tradition will reveal that power and wealth are barriers to spiritual attainment, not assets. Wealth and power feed the ego, and the ultimate goal of spirituality and religion is first the development of a healthy ego and then the dismantling of the unhealthy ego. Climbing the career ladder, wealth acquisition, and accumulating power all stand in the way of those crucial spiritual goals. While some segments of the religious landscape believe that setting up their pastor with the trappings of a CEO reflects well on their communities, the truth is that such preoccupations are unhealthy and destructive. We create Jerry Falwells every day through our own skewed priorities and them refuse to look at our role in these tragedies, preferring instead to blame the monster of our own creation. It is time to look a lot closer to home.

Forming my What?

I get a number of emails each day that are sale notices for ebooks. Yesterday I happened to glace at one of the descriptions of a book that read, “…the Church contributes to society by forming the conscience of people.” I almost fell out of my chair! If that’s not a line straight out of medieval theology then I am the Pope. If the Church is going to form the conscience of the people the way she forms the conscience of her clergy, we are all doomed! There are other issues this statement raises that are at least as bad. Are we suggesting that only people who are members of a particular church have a properly functioning conscience, or that only Christians, or religious people, or any specific group are able to have a conscience that works properly?

The truth is that conscience, ethics, morality, and all similar human functions are not in any way dependent on religion, spirituality, or membership in any specific group. There are completely secular people who are quite ethical and very in touch with when they have transgressed their own values. Then there are religious people you wouldn’t want to leave unattended in your home! We need to move beyond the antiquated notion that spending an hour or so in a church building every now and then does anything for us other than perhaps cause callouses to grow on our buttocks. In fact, most churches do a God-awful job of teaching anything that would cause someone to develop a healthy conscience. You would be better to spend your time and money on a good therapist to explore your conscience or lack thereof.

Let’s do away with the notion that being a church member gives you a leg up on anything, any more than joining a golf club makes you a good golfer. In fact, the two are related. You become a better golfer by practicing golf. Your conscience becomes more functional as you practice qualities like empathy, compassion, and generosity. If you don’t put in the work, whether in golf or ethics, you will soon find your balls in a rough patch!

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

The old black and white Superman television program’s opening informed us that Superman stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” I’m not quite sure who is to blame, but Superman seems to have dropped the ball because now we have “Alternative Truths, Lack of Justice, and the Autocratic Corporate Way.”

The above photo is obviously of a different time. Superman could stand to put in a little time at the gym, and Jimmy Olson appears to be getting ready to cop a feel from Lois Lane. It’s a reminder that even the good old days were far from perfect, and getting lost in visions of a idyllic past are little more than indulging in self-deception and delusion. Still, there were some values back then that are worth reclaiming – and doing a better job of living them out while we are at it. Not the least of them is truth. In Superman’s world, people were embarrassed if they were caught in a lie. People still lied of course – it’s hard to overcome human nature – but it wasn’t seen as a virtue. Someone who was caught compulsively lying would have problems finding a job, whereas today they earn a promotion.

Integrity may be old fashioned, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a virtue. In fact, it has been so ignored by our culture that it has become counter-cultural to tell the truth. It’s ironic that the Republican Party in America, which used to hold itself up as the party of virtue and values, now has a President in the White House who wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped on his head like a ton of bricks. How to reclaim integrity and truth? We reclaim it by practicing it in a grassroots movement that starts with each one of us. What’s holding you back?

That’s What Friends Are For?

There seem to be some pretty distorted notions of what constitutes friendship floating around lately. It seems a lot of people have bought into the notion that a friend just approves of every decision you make, no matter the consequences that are clearly going to arise for you from that decision. If you walk out of the house with a big green booger hanging from your nose, your friend will remain silent because apparently that’s what friends do. Do you have half a roll of toilet paper caught in the back of your skirt dragging behind you like a tail? Don’t look to your friends for help. Are you involved in an argument and making a fool out of yourself? Apparently your friend’s job is to enable whatever foolish behavior you wish to display.

I was on Facebook the other day and ran across a discussion that hit on one of my pet peeves. The substance of it was that clergy shouldn’t criticize people, and if they claim to be a friend to all then they really can’t say anything about anything. The first premise is patently absurd and reflects such a profound ignorance about clergy and prophetic voice it would be laughable if it wasn’t so stupid. My concern in this piece is the latter, however, this notion that a friend tolerates whatever nonsense you wish to dish. By extension, it implies that a friend doesn’t have your back and won’t tell you if you have food stuck between your teeth on your way to that first date with your special someone. It says friends should lie to you.

I am not suggesting that we need to bludgeon each other with the truth, but a friendship based on lies is no friendship at all because trust cannot develop in a deceitful environment. If we are going to share our thoughts, feelings, and dreams with our friend, we need to trust they won’t take out a billboard ad tomorrow revealing what we discussed to everyone in the morning rush hour. Is the truth sometimes uncomfortable? Of course it is, but when difficult truth comes from a trusted friend whose motivation is loving it is easier to hear that truth. The benefits of friendship are innumerable, as is the damage that wolf in sheep’s clothing can do in the context of friendship. Let’s be clear about our expectations in all of our relationships. If others can’t meet those expectations, it may be time to cut them loose!

Attachment to Outcomes

Attachment to outcomes is never a good idea, yet in our culture we receive messages from all sides telling us we are absolutely, personally responsible for the success of every movement that we support. The messages quite often are formatted in an “if, then” way. “If our effort doesn’t succeed, then disaster looms and so each of you are responsible!” Nonsense. If a movement or a cause requires a group of people working to achieve it in order to succeed, then no one person can be responsible for the outcome – good or bad. Moreover, believing that we are personally responsible for the outcome increases our stress level, making us more prone to all manner of illness and disease, and decreasing our levels of happiness satisfaction, and well being.

What we can control is our effort. We can do our best, but then to remain well we must learn to let go of how everything works out. When we consider all of the factors that must fall into place we can see that no one person is the fulcrum on which the success of the project rests. Believing that we are is a bit narcissistic, to be honest. Ask yourself, “am I really that powerful?” If you examine the situation closely, you will see that you aren’t (none of us are) and that blaming ourselves is factually inaccurate. When we hear someone say, “only I can fix this,” what we are hearing is the overreach of the narcissist. What is around the corner is that same person blaming everyone else for their failure to deliver on their messianic promises.

In these days of pandemic and isolation, what we can control are the choices each of us make on a daily basis to wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings, and to recognize that our actions do impact others. What none of us, even the best scientists, can do is cure this virus by ourselves or hasten the arrival of the end of the pandemic. All natural phenomena must run their course. In the middle of January we may wish we could hasten the arrival of summer, but winter must run its course. No one accuses another of personal failure for their inability to cause the seasons to change more quickly. Don’t let anyone succeed in making you feel responsible for what you cannot control.