But, is that all there is?

Research is valuable. Anyone who would attempt to draw meaningful conclusions about anything without researching their subject thoroughly is on a fool’s errand. However, with apologies to Brene Brown, data ain’t all there is. Data is what we can measure, what is quantifiable, what can be seen, and it is a huge part of our experience. However, there are also many intangibles that we can’t measure, photograph, or otherwise capture – and I would submit that those are the things that make us human. In other words, “why” is just as important and “what,” and much harder to wrap our measuring tape around.

Complexity and Confusion

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day as I was walking the dog. I have a fair number of epiphanies walking Roxy. My epiphany came in the form of questions: Does the Divine have some sort of communicative disorder? Should we take up a collection for a special education teacher so that the universe can make Itself understood? I feel so bad that we have ignored the special needs of the Source of all that is!

Most religions love to trot out their clergy and theologians with advanced degrees. Here comes The Rev. Dr. Thisandthat to explain it all to us. My aren’t we special! For our part, those of us taking all of this in, we are duly impressed. I am reminded of a story told by a Buddhist teacher about a gathering of spiritual teachers in California some years ago. The gathering was attended by a number of quite respected Insight Meditation teachers, who tend to dress in casual clothing. Also present was a “teacher” who had long, matted hair tied in a knot atop his head and wearing the obligatory robes of an eastern renunciate. In truth he was a westerner who had just come off a months long drug bender. The person telling the story reported that a friend he was with was duly impressed with the externals of the hungover, but payed no attention to the wisdom of the real teachers in the room. That’s human nature, I suppose, but it’s not an effective tendency. Con artists of every stripe are well aware of this tendency and use it to their full advantage. Haven’t we all met that person who looked so good in that dress or suit but turned out to be a huge mistake?

So if the Divine, by whatever name you know It, is the Source of all that exists, why would It require an interpreter with advanced degrees? Does the Divine not know how to make Itself understood? Does God play hide and seek while trying to communicate? How could the Divine overestimate the intelligence of Its intended audience if It is the Source of that same audience? The obvious answer here is that none of those things are possible. We have been convinced by professional clergy and theologians that we need them if we are to understand the deep truths of the Universe. I am here to say that any explanation of anything that comes from God requires no translation. Teachings that do require translation tend to come from humans trying to stay employed. Of course people who study these things are able to tease out nuances that may slip past the nonspecialist, but if someone tries to convince you that they are passing along an as yet undiscovered essential Truth of the Divine, keep your wallet in your pocket.

The principle of parsimony states that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way. It’s a principle that seems to be lost on professional theologians, clergy, and common core math teachers. Violating this principle may be for the most part quite harmless, except when someone tries to tell you that you need them to understand God. To be sure, each of us from time to time comes up with some pretty far fetched ideas. That’s why it is important to be involved in a spiritual community that shares and discusses concepts, beliefs, and claims. These communities keep us from drifting too far afield as well as providing us with essential friendship and companionship. If, however, someone shows up at your community gathering claiming to be your much-needed expert guide, send them packing. They represent a kind of thinking you don’t need.

I am not trying to discredit clergy or theologians. They can be an important part of our communities and often provide much needed leadership, but they aren’t perfect. The good ones help us to develop our understanding by using their considerable skills to tease out new ideas as well as helping us progress along the spiritual path. The bad apples try to take our power away and make us dependent on them. It’s important to know the difference and make good choices both as communities and as individuals.

God is Dead, and I Know Who Did It!

God is dead. At least, one version of God is dead. Do you know how you can tell? Is there anything alive that doesn’t change? Nope. Everything alive is changing all the time. New cells are being made to replace old cells that die. Every living thing ages, even if almost imperceptibly. If a living thing stops changing, it dies. There are no exceptions to this rule, it is universal.

Traditional religion teaches that God doesn’t change. That [mistaken] notion is celebrated in song, scripture, and doctrine. That would mean that God cannot possibly respond, adapt, follow our evolution in any sense of that world, or offer different responses to nuanced situations. They have even killed off Christ in their scriptures. If Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” then Christ must be a mummy. Stand the mummy up in the corner and worship it if you must, but you would be accomplishing the same thing if you put a rock in the corner. Maybe that explains why religion struggles to be relevant.

I was listening to a podcast the other day from some people I respect, so I am not going to call them out here. In it they said that most people get their image of God from their father, or if not their father then their mother. I am afraid not. Over sixty percent of people experience at least one Adverse Childhood Event, many of us more than one. Religion still believes we all grew up in picture perfect families with picture perfect parents and no drunken Uncles. I am afraid that if that picture perfect family ever existed it, too, died long ago. If that is somehow related to your image of God, I am afraid that your God is dead.

If God is to be God, then God is aware that things have changed and that the majority of us cannot look at our families for an image of God – unless God passes out in his mashed potatoes during family gatherings. A God who is alive would be able to change, adapt, and reveal Divinity to each generation in a way that would make sense to them. If the Holy doesn’t evolve and respond to the changing needs of humanity and all of creation, then she is a lot more like a demented relative sitting in the corner drooling on herself than a loving presence who sustains and loves all that is. Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with drooling on yourself. We all do it from time to time. Most of us understand it’s not our finest hour when we do. We certainly hope those moments aren’t eternal…

The truth is that if you want a spirituality that makes sense to someone who actually needs things to make sense, you will have to craft it yourself through a process of trial and error. That may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be fun – and it has the added benefit that if you include something that just doesn’t seem to be working out you can just change it. It’s yours, after all, and that means you are empowered to create something that really works! If you need some tips, just let me know at craig.bergland@gmail.com!

Adversity

Something bad is going to happen to you. It’s a matter of time. Quite possibly, over the course of a lifetime, many bad somethings will happen to you. As I see it, you are faced with a few choices. First and foremost, you need to give yourself time to heal and grieve whatever loss has occurred. This is true even if it doesn’t seem like your “bad thing” is a loss in the traditional sense of the word. In the process of healing or grieving we will be faced with a choice. That choice will make all the difference in how we move forward.

We might choose to feel as if we somehow have been singled out. People choosing this path tend to believe that most people do not encounter similar challenges. It’s something like the notion of the dysfunctional family. It is certainly true that families aren’t supposed to have alcoholic parents, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, mental illness, poverty, or hunger. It’s also true that most families do have at least some part of the whole that is dysfunctional. The truth is that the fully functional family may not exist! While the specifics of your experience may be different that most people, the fact that your experience is adverse is not at all unique. We haven’t all been chased by angry giraffes, but almost all of us has experienced some level of trauma.

Another way to understand these adversities is that while the specifics of the event will likely differ from person to person, the adversity therein is common to most if not all of humanity. In fact, although I have met people who claimed to have lived a charmed life the truth is that all of them were in denial about their lives or lying to me. I believe we all encounter significant adverse experiences. I also believe they serve a purpose. Human beings grow, and ultimately evolve as individuals and as a species, by virtue of working through these challenges. Now, only a masochist would welcome lousy experiences. I am not suggesting we should jump up and down in celebration of an adverse experience. I am suggesting we shouldn’t feel singled out because something bad happens.

If we come to see these experiences as a normal part of a normal life, we will go a long way to moving from feeling like a victim (and everything that goes with it) toward feeling like a competent human being who is in charge of their life. That shift alone will make handling adversity much easier. We are not more competent when we wring our hands and ask,”why me?” In fact, questions like “why me” keep us backward focused at the time when we most need to be looking ahead! So, instead of asking “why me,” ask “what’s next?”

Chronic Pain and Spiritual Life

It’s estimated that just over twenty percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain. I find that to be a frightening number, and I am among them. There is no shortage of theories about why people suffer from chronic pain, and the theories transcend physical ressons. In truth, above the age of fifty most people have pretty rough looking spines on MRI exam, but a chunk of those people don’t have pain while others are in nearly constant pain – and nobody knows what determines which group a person falls into.

Medical interventions for chronic pain are primitive and ineffective. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) often seems so preoccupied with finding some drug they can actually effectively interdict that they don’t really care what the impact of their restrictions are on the patients who legitimately need and don’t abuse pain medications. Consider that, having had some success making Opioids harder to get for both legitimate users and illegal abusers, the DEA is now interested in other, non-narcotic pain medications that addicts misuse for their sedating qualities. This means that patients who don’t abuse these medications (which were formerly viewed as “safe” and more effective alternatives to Opioids) have to jump through hoops to get and fill prescriptions. This is not because these medicines are controlled substances, but rather because they might be one day.

If it’s not a medication issue, it is the issue of so-called pain clinics staffed by interventional anesthesiologists. Generally speaking, patients have to go to these clinics to get narcotic pain medication prescriptions written, but the clinics make their real money by doing “procedures” such as epidural steroid injections. These injections used to be administered in a physiatrist’s office on an exam table for little more than the cost of the medication. Now they are administered at your pain clinic’s “operating room,” with x-ray guidance and multiple staff members in the room, as well as a “pre-op” check in area and a post-procedure “recovery” area. As you might imagine, the move from the exam table to the operating room means these are now relatively high ticket outpatient procedures. Unfortunately, to be effective a patient most often needs two or three injections and the injections are temporarily effective treatments rather than cures. Pain clinics are profitable to the extent that they convince patients to get on the procedure treadmill. Some studies have found that simply putting the needle into the affected area provides the same relief even if medication isn’t injected. Of course, insurance companies won’t pay for an injection that isn’t an injection, so patients are often injected needlessly.

There are other dehumanizing elements to pain clinic culture. While it’s understandable that a certain amount of controlling behavior on the part of clinic staff is necessary since some of the medications prescribed are controlled substances, most patients are made to feel like addicts even if they don’t abuse medications. For example, even medications in the same class as aspirin and ibuprofen are prescribed precisely thirty, or ninety, days from the last refill. Since most patients are on multiple medications, this means that the patient has to make multiple trips to the pharmacy each month to refill medications that have no abuse potential at all. If the patient is on a narcotic pain medication, they sign a pain medication contract annually, which is fine, but then at each appointment they are given a form to fill out asking if they are aware they signed a pain contract. We are in pain, not stupid or memory impaired. If these procedures are questioned, there is no opportunity for discussion but plenty of opportunity for suspicion that the patient is trying to get away with something.

There is no question that pain has a profound psychological component. Nearly all pain doctors will tell you that is true, yet most pain clinics do not have any psychological component to their treatment team. Why not? Could it be that the income per square foot of office space for a support group is minuscule compared with the income for an “operating room?” The other, likely unintentional, consequence of not having therapists on staff is that there isn’t a place to process the impact of the controlling environment on the patient, nor is there anyone on staff who is likely to recognize that it could be a problem and raise the issue at staff meetings.

When we have discussions in this country about our healthcare system and the out of control expenses therein, we need to talk about places like pain clinics. They aren’t the only place in American medicine charging exorbitant fees for (at best) temporary relief. Nor are they the only soul crushing places in the medical community that lack psychological or spiritual support systems. The pain treatment industry generates in excess of three hundred billion dollars for itself each year, and these procedure mills are a big part of the problem. Presently there isn’t an alternative, but with that kind of money rolling in there isn’t much incentive to develop one, is there?

When THAT Guy Shows Up

I suspect we all have had that friend – a good guy at heart but completely lacking in social graces. If you invite him over, the odds are that something will be spilled and something else broken before he leaves. He tends to speak just a little too loudly, act just a bit too impulsively, and not stop to consider how what he is about to say will impact the people who will hear it. If you can get him alone and calm him down, you see a completely different person. The problem is that it’s hard to get him calm and alone, so most often you seem to have a raging jerk on your hands. Your other friends and family may have asked you why you put up with this guy, and a part of your knows it’s a reasonable question. Sooner or later, you are going to have to make a decision about whether or not having him around is worth the cost to your other relationships.

As a child, I found talk of manners and decorum to be about as uninteresting a subject as there was. Who really cared what Miss Manners said? I confess that I do find the obsession certain segments of our society has with completely arbitrary customs and practices, such as which fork is properly picked up first at formal dinners, profoundly boring and inconsequential. Beyond that sort of nonsense, however, I do believe that how we behave and how we treat one another matters. With the advent of reality television, which should really be called contrived television, the display of poor behavior has been elevated and rewarded to the point where participating in these festivals of boorish behavior is celebrated and imitated, to our great detriment across this nation and across the globe.

The truth is that how we treat one another matters, and matters profoundly. When we damage one another, we all suffer. Deriding you diminishes all of us. Human beings are not commodities to be disposed of like so much used Kleenex, regardless of the opinion of corporate America. Whenever we succeed in making another person less that we are, we open the door to all manner of mistreatment. This is the root of racism, of classism, of virtually every -ism we know. The best way to stop this behavior is to call it out. If we see or hear this behavior on television or other media, the best way to stop it is to turn it off. If you have “that friend” described above, the best way to respond is to tell them that while you would love to invite them to your next gathering, they will need to behave in a way that respects the dignity of all present – and respects your property.

These changes may seem slow and less than dramatic. The truth is that most effective change isn’t quick and won’t win an Academy Award for anyone involved. Precisely because change takes time and there is so much to do, we really need to start now. We also need to start in the arenas we can impact. For most of us that will mean starting locally, in our own homes and neighborhoods. If you see a person treating another in a disrespectful way, say something. If you see someone throwing trash around, literally or metaphorically, say something. Treat everyone else the way you would want to be treated, which may be better than they treat you, and remember that your dignity is enhanced by these practices. They aren’t inconsequential. They define our time!

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?