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?

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!