When Does Appeasement Embolden?

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

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

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

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

Living in Mystery

There are things we don’t know. Some of you will feel that I am stating the blatantly obvious. Others will feel that my claim is patently false. Hopefully, the majority of you are willing to consider at least that we as individuals don’t each know everything there is to know. Our culture often seems to treat not knowing as a problem or a deficit to be overcome. Sometimes it’s true that things like not knowing how to cure cancer is a deficit we would very much like to overcome. Few people would disagree when I say that overcoming disease is always a valid goal.

Not knowing drives scientific progress and other legitimate curiosities. We wonder what is at the edge of our current knowledge, just beyond our reach at the moment but perhaps tomorrow’s discovery that changes lives. The quality that drives us in these situations isn’t a discomfort with not knowing but rather curiosity. When we are curious, we don’t feel we need an answer right away because we understand there are things to be learned along the way. When we experience dissatisfaction with not knowing we tend to want answer right now, even if it’s the wrong answer, because we can’t tolerate uncertainty. If what I have described sounds a lot like living in 2020, you are correct! It’s not just 2020 or pandemics that raise these questions, but they do raise them in a more intense fashion that we are used to.

Do you prefer to do things you have done before, things that are known commodities rather than things that may or may not turn out as you expect? When is the last time you tried a new food or a new recipe? How about a new author or a book or movie about a new subject? People who enjoy working large jigsaw puzzles understand that there is a time or varying length between starting and completing a puzzle when they dwell in uncertainty. Gradually, over time, the image starts to come into focus. That place between scattered, seemingly disjointed pieces and completion is a kind of dwelling in the unknown.

Dwelling in the unknown can be a time of great personal and spiritual transformation, but it can also be a time of discomfort and uncertainty. We need to be able to tolerate all of it, but that can be a hard sell in a world of microwave ovens and instapots. “I want it now” is the motto of a very shallow person, indeed, one who will have to settle for the mediocre because they cannot wait for the more complex, nuanced experience. You can yell “I want it now” until you are hoarse, but at the end of 2020 we are waiting for many things and intolerance of the waiting will not shorten it. As long as we are in the middle of waiting, why not explore it? Notice what it feels like. Notice how your choices in the past are challenged by this new future. See again that some things that work quickly, like instant men’s hair coloring, aren’t necessarily of the highest quality. Consider craftsmanship in every human activity, and find places in your life where slowing down and doing things the old way is actually beneficial to the outcome. If you have the courage to take these steps, this time of reduced frenetic activity may surprise you by revealing some appealing new habits!

Thirty-eight Thousand gods and Counting

Every religion and every subdivision of those religions purports to reveal God to us, and all of them fail. What they reveal instead are gods, middle managers at best, what the Hebrew scriptures called demiurges. I say this because, quite frankly, we imagine God should be our personal errand boy, taking care of this and that, allowing us to manipulate him into doing our bidding by virtue of our having obeyed some rather penny ante behavioral restrictions. It’s done in the name of explaining how God cares for us, but would any God worthy of the name be a micromanager?

The reason I say there are thirty-eight thousand gods and counting is that is approximately the number of Protestant denominations of Christianity at the present time. Leaving out other religions and the various catholic denominations for a moment, each of those thirty-eight thousand has their own particular understanding of their god and believe theirs to be the correct understanding. Some of them concede that some other groups come close to being right while other groups claim to be the one true church. Add on to that number all of the other religions and their subsets and we are left with an astronomical number of gods. They cannot all be correct understandings because they all contradict each other in more or less significant ways. They could theoretically all be wrong, but I suspect most of them are more right than wrong. The problem is that they all look at the local area office demiurge in charge of local affairs rather than God.

I am not arguing for a new Orthodoxy – far from it. I am saying that most all of our God imagery is way too small. In fact, all imagery is way too small. Whether we are arguing for the old man in his workshop creating all that is in seven days from leftover parts or something closer to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we are quite simply missing the mark and settling for a god who is domesticated and pasteurized. If God is to be the Source and Sustainer of all that is, God simply cannot be stuffed into a meat bag obsessed with whether or not we are touching ourselves. A better vision of such a God would be much closer to consciousness, energy, potential, spirit, being itself, and other terms that reflect the type of being necessary to accomplish what we might call the work of God.

All of this is more than trivia for those of us who are spiritual practitioners. It has implications for everything from how we practice individually and in community to how we engage in service. Prayer in such a vision moves away from reminding daddy of what we need in case he has forgotten to listen to study, reflecting, becoming still and silent, and engaging in concentration practice. Morality in this vision is less about what we do with our reproductive systems and more about what emerges from our hearts and minds. Church in this vision needs a complete overhaul, including a massive dose of humility and a leadership that journeys with rather than demanding compliance.

This is a huge shift, and some won’t be ready to make the leap. For them, daddy god in a meat bag will continue to serve the purpose they can understand until such time as they are ready for more. If they are never ready, that is just fine. The demiurges do have a purpose because, quite honestly, this broader vision of God is part of a continuum that is built upon that demiurge foundation. What’s more, the lines of demarcation between the demiurge and God aren’t hard and fast. They are a huge, porous border that we cross one section at a time. That is how humans learn and grow, unless they close their minds to a bigger and better vision. Those of us who have come to a place on our journey where the old vision no longer fits and may feel patently absurd need this new vision. In fact, many of us have started to arrive there already, and need a format in which we can engage others at similar stations on the path. Shall we?

Pollyanna Western Christianity

I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.

More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.

A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.

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!

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!

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.

Maybe it’s just me…

I find myself put off by overly aggressive appeals to get me to join a cause, and it doesn’t really matter what that cause is. When people start pitching their cause by saying it’s the most important cause that ever was or ever will be, I start to feel as if I am at a corner used car lot listening to a guy in a loud plaid sport coat try to sell me a car. It’s not that I don’t think that the cause people are trying to sell me is worthy, anymore than I think the guy at the corner car lot has nothing but lemons on that lot. What is happening is that I hate that hard sell.

The hard sell makes me feel that there is something you are hoping I will overlook under pressure. Back in the old days car salesmen would take your keys if you wanted to test drive a vehicle. Getting those keys back without buying a car often required threats to call the police and charge the dealership with unlawful detention and grand theft auto. (I actually did that once.) That is bad business and it is bad advocacy. Make your case and allow me to decide. Don’t try to tell me that supporting your cause is the only way to prove that I am a good person, because that is nonsense and discredits your cause. Don’t tell me that your cause is the only valid one that exists, because any thinking person knows that is not true. In short, if you can’t dazzle me with the brilliance of your cause, spare me the attempt to baffle with bullshit. I have been around too long for that to work. All it will do is make me take back my keys and walk out.

Somewhere along the way we fell in love with hyperbole as the primary tool of persuasion. In fact, it should be a tool of last resort. It is often based in a poverty mentality – the idea that there isn’t enough. The poverty mentality says there aren’t enough resources, enough potential supporters, enough time to accomplish our goals. That’s simply not true, but if you convince yourself it is you set up a self fulfilling prophecy. You will drive resources away with your false sense of urgency, and then there really won’t be enough – but it will be a situation you created.

What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!