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.

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!

That’s What Friends Are For?

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

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

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

Facts is Facts

I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.

You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.

I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.

The Fiction of Individuality is Killing US[A]!

Rugged American Individualism is a long ago expired truth which today is nothing more than a fiction. Allow me to demonstrate with a few questions…

When you woke up this morning, what woke you up? Was it an alarm clock? Did you make the clock, and did you make solar panels which you installed yourself on the ceiling of the home you built from materials you grew or made? Can you see where this is going? The clothes you put on this morning, I take it you made them yourself from cotton you grew in the back yard, spun on a wheel, and loomed to perfection? Then, after you washed up with water you drew from the well you dug, you probably had breakfast. Coffee? Well, Juan Valdez, I would imagine you grew those beans, harvested and roasted them, too. The eggs were from the chickens in the yard that appeared from nowhere, because only God can make a chicken. I suppose you put the food on plates that you made on your potter’s wheel and fired in your own kiln, right? We aren’t even done with breakfast and your rugged individualism has been blown to hell. We haven’t even gotten to the car you drive that you made all by yourself, fueled with gasoline made from oil you refined from the oil that came from the well you made AND that you drive on the roads you made from the concrete that you mixed using the gravel from your quarry.

So, Daniel Boone, I guess the days of rugged individualism are long gone. They persist today only as a fiction we hang on to in direct proportion to our own ignorance. About the only thing we do today that doesn’t require someone else is go to the toilet in the outhouse we built ourselves in the backyard from wood we got when we cut down trees we planted when we were three years old. You may be thinking that you got much of what you needed from exchanging goods or services with another person, but the key phrase there is “another person.” If another person is involved, it isn’t rugged individualism. If other people are involved it is called living in society and interdependence. The truth is that we need one another and depend on each other nearly every minute of every day. You may not like it, you may wish it was different, but unless you are starting work on that outhouse right now the truth is that you don’t object to it all that much.

By now most of you have seen the video of the jackass in the Costco store who refused to wear a mask. When approached by store employees who explained that Costco requires all employees and shoppers to wear a mask, Jackass announced that he woke up in a free country and wasn’t going to wear a mask. At that point they whisked his cart away, revoked his membership, and escorted him from the store as he stood by slack-jawed. What he missed is that waking up in a free country doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There are restrictions on our freedoms to ensure the common good. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, you can’t run naked down the street, you can’t crap in your neighbor’s outhouse, you can’t kill other people, you can’t just park your car wherever you like, you can’t drive while intoxicated, you can’t rob banks, and a host of other things.

You also have responsibilities when you live in a society. We are responsible for taxes whether we like them or not, we a required to obey laws, when we see something we should say something, we should look out for each other – especially the elderly and infirm, and a host of other things. If you are the kind of person who comes across and old lady trying to cross the street and immediately starts making book on whether or not she will succeed, sooner or later society will put you away. We dispose of our garbage appropriately because to do otherwise creates a public health risk. Similarly, we wear a damn mask during a pandemic. The fact that you may not want to wear the mask is irrelevant. As members of society we have shared responsibilities. If you don’t like that, I’d recommend you prepare to become a very rustic hermit. Those of us who are responsible members of society don’t want you around using our resources any more than Costco does.

Conspiracies and Monsters Under the Bed

When I was a child my brother had a toy robot that would walk a few steps, its chest would fly open, laser machine guns would pop out, and lights would start flashing as it fired at you. After about five seconds the doors would close and the cycle would begin again. It was actually a pretty neat toy, especially for the early 1970s. At night I would have nightmares that Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows lived in our basement and would send that robot toy up the steps. When it fired at me I couldn’t move, and it would walk up to me, lift up its robot arms and grab my calves, inflicting excruciating pain. For those too young to remember, Barnabas Collins was a vampire on a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows. I’m not aware of any Barnabas Collins conspiracy theories, but if Dark Shadows was on television today I am quite sure more than a few lunatics would think he was real and determined to influence the next presidential election through voter fraud.

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

As a younger child I believed there were monsters under the bed. My paternal grandmother always used to tell me “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and since I had no idea what a bedbug was I was pretty sure they emerged from under the bed looking more or less like a lobster. The belief that monsters live under the bed is normal and age appropriate for healthy children, but if a person reached thirty years old and still was afraid to look under the bed that would indicate some serious issues that would require professional help. Imagination is wonderful as long as it is voluntary. If we find ourselves sliding into imagination and fantasy in an involuntary way it can become not very wonderful at all. In fact, it is one of the hallmarks of a delusional state and quite possibly serious mental illness. Imagination can be a very effective way to hide from reality, but that escape comes at a cost. When we find ourselves slipping into delusion involuntarily, we may be in deep trouble.

Over the last few decades, unscrupulous people in the media have sought to take advantage of those inclined to dwell in fantasy, whether voluntarily or not. Most of them have been discredited, but that doesn’t damage their credibility among their followers. To the paranoid, the fact that one of their icons has been discredited actually adds to their credibility. While these people believe their spokespeople are the victims, the real victims are their patsies and those who have been impacted by true tragedy and so are targeted by the Alex Joneses of the world. While to you and me these hucksters and their message are obviously false, to someone who yearns to feel wise and accepted or for whom the world as it is structured isn’t working out for them, the most outrageous nonsense seems an opportunity for them to finally know more than everyone around them. These people need the monsters under their beds to be real. While we might be tempted to reason with them, it won’t work – it will only reinforce their paranoid delusions.

I mention all this because we have a President who preys on these people as well. He is already attempting to lay doubt about the integrity of the upcoming election, despite the fact that the evidence is clear that his election was in part the result of interference from Russia. Of course, the people to whom he appeals will believe him, and won’t change their mind about him (or Sandy Hook) because he makes them feel wise and insightful. Our job isn’t to change people’s minds. That can’t be done because most people’s minds are shut. Our job is to vote anyone who would take advantage of others the way this President seeks to do out of office and to do our best to ensure people like him never find their way to public office again – no matter their party affiliation. That task is so crucial that the future of our republic depends on it.

Why “Working on Myself” Isn’t Enough

Meditation in all of its various forms is great. I am a practitioner myself and can attest it has brought wonderful change to my life. Mindfulness meditation has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and I would recent stay at home orders in some communities have afforded a wonderful opportunity to start or build a practice. After all, you can only reorganize your closets so many times!

It’s great to “work on ourselves,” particularly since so many of us are over committed, work too many hours for too little pay and spend much of the time that is left shuttling kids and grandkids to various activities, sporting events, classes, and meetings with friends. Then there are our various classes, personal meetings and involvements. Whether we enjoy these things or not, sooner or later our bodies and minds need a break. This is where self care comes in and practices like meditation can be an immense benefit. We should take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. The truth is, however, that working on myself is not enough.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism. Americans love to look inward, but it can easily become an exercise in avoidance. Several years ago a clergyman I knew said, “all that matters is my meditation.” At that point, I knew we had lost him. In those six words he summed up the profoundly selfish life quite succinctly. The reason we do inner work is to make us better functioning members of a society. If we never engage that society, all our work is little more than an exercise in masturbation.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism.

Craig Bergland

If we are engaging in spiritual and wellness practices in their appropriate framework, the needs in our environment will become apparent. In fact, our practices will help us see those needs. Practice causes our compassion to grow, but compassion that doesn’t lead us to action is quite shallow, indeed. I fear that many Americans use Eastern spiritual practices as an reason to avoid life. That’s a corruption of the practice. Our time looking inward should always lead us to look outward!