Sticky, Messy Emotions

I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.

germanwwiisaluteMy parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.

Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.

Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As helenkellercatwe learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.

People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.

 

Compelled to Castrate

It used to be called “inclusive language,” now more and more it’s being called “genderless language.” If genderless language is anything like inclusive language, it will fast become an idol. Allow me to explain…

My first church valued inclusive language to the point where if something wasn’t written that way – even things written long before the advent of inclusive language – they couldn’t hear it and wanted to exclude it from gatherings of the church. They would alter it when they could, and all of our songs were castrated for our protection, but there were ken dolltimes it just didn’t work. If you waltz into a piece of poetry, for example, and set about changing the language to remove the penises (penii?), you change the rhyme and the meter and effectively destroy the work of the artist in service to your own ego. Genderless language, whatever else it might do, does the same thing. Becoming a proponent of it often leads one to look at every piece of writing or speech they encounter with an eye toward gender first. Since in all likelihood the writer didn’t have gender on their mind when they wrote whatever it is you are sanitizing, keeping the world safe from gender is an exercise in missing the point.

Many of us know someone who feels compelled to mention gender or sexuality in nearly every conversation. Statements like, “As a queer woman, I like green beans,” are simply nonsense, yet some people will go to rather cumbersome lengths to ensure we don’t forget their sexuality. To be completely honest, I find such practices profoundly boring. I occasionally listen to a podcast where in more episodes than not one host mentions being a queer woman, another mentions teaching theology in a university setting, and the third mentions having worked in a lay capacity for a religious order for many years. They are more or less equivalent expressions of their unmet ego needs, not all that different from insisting on genderless language. Such practices are extremely boring and obtrusive to me. Go ahead, use whatever language you care to use and find your identity wherever you need to find it. Just get on with it, already, and perhaps we can talk about something of substance!

Let’s Get Real

surrounded by assholesCan I be honest for just a minute? I am talking about being brutally honest and pulling no punches. If this corona virus has taught us anything, it has taught us that we are surrounded by ego maniacal, delusional, narcissistic assholes. There really is no other way to put it that does justice to the level of dysfunction in this country from the White House to the last hillbilly loading his weapons and heading to their Statehouse wearing a mask because they are a curious blend of bravado and cowardice.

You see, normal healthy individuals don’t just decide they don’t give a care about other coronavirus-protest-denver-colorado-getty-200420_hpMain_20200420-043502_16x9_992people’s health and lives, knowingly putting them in jeopardy. Make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what these assholes are doing. They have been presented with the evidence repeatedly yet they choose to ignore it. Healthy, psychologically intact people simply don’t do that. If you need more evidence for the large number of narcissists among us, just look at the ratings of Fox News. Despite encouraging their own employees to do the right things – social distance, stay at home if they are sick, frequent hand washing – their personality-less personalities go on the air and preach the exact opposite. Significantly, their narcissistic audience responds in an overwhelmingly positive fashion. Why? Well, because they are narcissists for whom facts don’t apply. They are people who honestly believe that whatever little nonsense bangs around their twisted narcissistbrains is more reliable than science, more reliable than fact. My question is, if they are so sure they are right then why are they wearing masks? Shouldn’t they be proud, bravely showing their faces? Surely they can’t be covering their faces because of the virus, because the virus isn’t anything to worry about, right? So what is the issue?

Some well meaning but blissfully ignorant people tell us we need to heal the political divide in America. They say we can’t go on with the status quo, but anyone who was raised by a narcissist or married to one knows that they aren’t interested in coming to an understanding but rather expect the world to see the brilliance of their bullshit and fall in line. Much like trying to debate a drunk, trying to reconcile with a narcissist is a fool’s errand. Absent extensive psychological intervention, they aren’t going to be able to change, much less be interested in changing. Instead of trying to rope the wind, what those of us who have contact with reality need to do is mobilize. We need to mobilize to get out the vote, mobilize to pressure our elected officials to make responsible decisions rather than pander to narcissists, and actively protests those individuals and companies that do not comply. It is the only way we will ever see change.

 

We Choose

These days we hear many people complaining about negativity in the news. This person acts out, the media pick the story up, we read it, and we complain. The place to break the cycle is in what we choose to read, what we choose to click on to learn more. Is it any surprise that politicians say outrageous things? Of course not. Why do they say outrageous things? They say outrageous things for the same reason that toddlers misbehave – to get attention. Worst of all, it works! Every day on social media people are outraged because of the horrible things someone else has said, but we read the article!

personatlaptopOn the other hand, when people do good things or say good things we find it boring and so we don’t read the article, we don’t click on the link, and then we wonder why we don’t see positive news! If we want to change this, we need to think like a news producer or a webmaster. Clicks sell. If you want to change what you see, change your choices. Do we really need to read another article to learn that the man occupying the white house is a horrible human being? Of course not – so stop reading about his antics. Are those stories about people doing good things boring? If you want to change what you see, it doesn’t really matter – click on them anyway. Nobody can tell whether you read the article at the other end of that link or not, but advertising is sold based on how many people visit the site.

We need to recognize that in a consumer driven society like ours we really do have a voice. Very often, the power of that voice is driven by the choices we make every day. These are choices about what we read, what we watch, what links we click. Those choices have more immediate impact than a boycott ever could, and they are much easier to organize. Just click!

$2.49 a Gallon!

mitt-pumping-his-own-gasSo declared the man on the other side of the gas pump last night. The amount represented at least a twenty cent increase from the day before. It was late, and although I am usually more diplomatic than this I responded, “Assassination is expensive!” He looked rather shocked, and I surmised that we didn’t share the same political perspective – or the same perspective on reality. I wished him well and put my hose away.

One of the key principles of Buddhism is known as dependent co-arising. It’s the idea that everything that happens is caused by a number of other factors. On a simple level, when you plant seeds in the ground in the spring they will need good soil, rain, and sunshine in the right amounts for the seed to grow. If you reverse the process, you can surmise that if you water good soil and the sun shines on it, if there is anything in the soil waiting to grow, it will. This is the origin of the weeds that cause people like me to stop gardening!

Whether we are national leaders or just trying to manage our lives, we need to recognize dog crappingthat everything we do has a kind of ripple effect and generates consequences. Let your dog crap on the neighbors lawn and the odds are you won’t have a friendly relationship with that neighbor. Parking your car in front of your neighbor’s garage will have the same effect. Grab women by their genitals and you might end up being President of the United States. These things don’t always make a whole lot of sense, but we do know without a doubt that since none of us lives in a vacuum, actions do have consequences – intended and otherwise.

Before we act, and before we support potential actions of our leaders, we should consider the realities of dependent co-arising. Oh, and gas at that same station today is $2.35, reminding us of another truth of Buddhism – Impermanence.

Doing the Same Thing…

There is a very human tendency to, when we find one approach to a problem doesn’t work, do the same thing over and over and hope for a different result. That’s known as insanity, and we seem to excel at it. We might change our approach ever so slightly, but in truth we don’t change it substantially. Then we sit around, throw our hands up in disgust, and wonder why we can’t seem to change anything. We might even feel sorry for ourselves. I believe a great deal of this repeated pattern exists because it’s easier to repeatedly try the same approach than to come up with a new approach and implement it. I don’t believe that we are consciously aware that is what we are doing, but we do it nonetheless.

sewing frustrationImagine that you were trying to sew something with a sewing machine but didn’t have any thread. Imagine that a few years ago you had thread and everything worked out just fine, but now you are out of thread and nothing you “sew” seems to hold together. You read an article a few weeks ago that said you don’t really need thread, so you keep on trying but nothing changes. Would you run out to the store and get some thread, or just keep poking tiny holes in fabric? Many of us would end up with very artistic renderings of Swiss cheese made of fabric.

In the early part of the last century, despite the fact that there was plenty of land, we tended to build homes right next to one another. Then, after the second World War, we decided we liked yards around our homes and so small, postage stamp lots became the nosy neighborsnorm. Kids played in the yard and we still had regular contact with our neighbors. We put up three foot picket fences to keep the kids and pets in the yard, but we still socialized over and around the fences. Then bigger lots became a status symbol, as did homes with attached garages. Privacy fences went up, because we were sure our neighbors had nothing better to do than monitor our behavior. Soon it was possible to avoid our neighbors completely by coming and going through our attached garages, retrieving our mail from the car, and wearing huge hearing protection headsets on our riding mowers or hiring a landscaping service. We retreated behind those privacy fences, not recognizing that we had become imprisoned in a fort of our own construction.

friends we don't need noWe sacrificed community on the altar of privacy, not realizing that all people need community. The Church started to shrink, as did service and fraternal organizations. We disassembled community piece by piece. We didn’t know the neighbors, we didn’t like or couldn’t trust our coworkers, and we didn’t get out enough to meet people we wanted to associate with away from the context in which we met them. We sat in our castles behind our moats and were lonely but didn’t understand why. We might talk with the other parents at our kids’ soccer game, but that was more to pass the time than to build relationship. The more we retreated the unhappier we were and so we retreated even more.

Most if not all problems have multiple causes, but I would like to suggest a remedy to the isolation we all seem to feel. Say “hi” to the neighbors. Walk to your mailbox to retrieve the mail and greet everyone you see. When you do to the grocery store, greet people that you recognize, even if you don’t know them well. Practice being social again, and encourage your family to do the same. Stop isolating. You will be amazed at the difference it makes! Oh, and yes, you do need stinking friends! Well, at least friends who smell nice!

 

Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.

rage

Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.

Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!

Are there similar things that leave you mystified?

Who are “They,” Anyway?

I am sure you know. We all encounter them in our chosen fields. They are the experts, the ones who supposedly are in the know and who may, if we are extremely lucky, deign to share their vast knowledge with we commoners.

They have a lot to say about you. They say you have a fractured attention span, that you prefer a short, Twitter-ish message length, and that you won’t take the time to read anything more than a few paragraphs long because you are unwilling and unable to do so. They tell me that means I should write in snippets so that you won’t pass me by and every day so you won’t forget me. I should be the written equivalent of a gnat, buzzing at your ear regularly but not long enough to get slapped.

I reject those interpretations of the people that read my work as insulting and unworthy of either of us. If I am wrong, if some of my readers are so impaired from participation in our fragmented culture, there are plenty of options out there for you. On the other hand, if what you are interested in is a relatively intelligent, relatively insightful exploration and conversation around what’s going on in our world then we are both in luck, because that’s what I feel led to write.

Moving forward, starting on Monday, I will be posting one to two times a week on topics that I think are important. There will be observations of popular culture, spirituality, religion, and contemporary life. I will do my best not to write eight hundred page essays, but I will also try not to give a topic short shrift. I invite you to join the discussion by commenting, and I will do my best to respond to all of your comments. Together, we can build something worth reading. I hope you will join me!

Becoming Comfortable with Change

My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!

We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?

It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.