Complexity and Confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

What is “Normal”?

It seems to me we tend to confuse “normal” with “what we are used to,” and I don’t believe that always serves us well. If you are like me, during the summer months you get pretty used to not having to worry about wearing a jacket or boots, but when autumn comes around and temperatures drop you get out heavier clothes. We don’t say, “this isn’t normal, so I’m not going to do it!” The reason we don’t object is that the change of seasons is normal, even though it’s not what we are used to come the onset of the falling leaves.

Given the onset of worldwide pandemic, we are all experiencing a new normal. People resist wearing masks, claiming it’s not normal, but anyone who has ever worked in healthcare knows that in that setting masks are quite normal. It’s more accurate to say that for many of us wearing masks isn’t something to which we are accustomed. Masks are, for people in the midst of a highly contagious illness, quite normal. What would be abnormal is refusing to do the things we need to do to protect one another. Sadly, we are seeing abnormal all around us claiming to be a reaction to what isn’t “normal.”

Back in biblical times normal was understood to be majority practice. People who were outside majority practice were defined as evil, which didn’t bode well for left handed people, people who could float, and a host of others. Many of us thought we had evolved beyond such a distorted view of normal, but we are learning that may not be the case among a significant segment of our population. Don’t confuse the two. What we are used to may have no relationship to normal. Normal may not be a reasonable response to current circumstances. Since circumstances change all the time, so does normal – and that really is normal!

Happy Interdependence Day

On this 4th of July we don’t need any more independence. Americans are obsessed with independence, to the point where it has become a hindrance. We have so perverted the idea of independence that it has come to mean that I can do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, and everybody else has to deal with it. What we fail to see in all of that is the truth that we need each other. If we didn’t live in a society, we wouldn’t have jobs on Monday because our employers would have no customers. If we didn’t live in a society our trash would simply sit at the curb because we couldn’t come to an agreement with all the other “independent” jackasses to get it collected. The truth is that our “fierce independence” is quite selective and overblown.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a global era. That means we have a global economy. Our businesses have customers around the world, not only around the corner. We all depend on each other, and what we do impacts people way beyond our line of sight. When we act out in ways that hurt those people, we hurt our own best interests. If the corona virus has taught us anything, it should be the truth of interconnectedness. The choices I make and the actions I take during this pandemic may infect other people, who in turn may unwittingly infect others while they are still asymptomatic. Those people may further spread the virus before they become symptomatic. Since very few people are sociopaths who spread this virus intentionally, the process I just described is how we developed a worldwide pandemic – and still Americans want to talk about independence.

We need to wake up. We need to stop championing independence on the one hand and on the other engage in spittle-filled screaming episodes trying to impose our distorted view of reality on other people. As a nation we need to make healthier choices, and we cannot allow people who cannot or will not see the wisdom of those choices to hold us back. In any relationship, as one partner becomes more healthy the other partner or partners are called by the healthy example to do the same. No explicit persuasion is necessary. It’s time for us to grow up as a nation.

Do Values Still Exist?

Remember values? They were those old fashioned things that gave us a somewhat consistent outline of what we would and wouldn’t do. Most people would say, for example, that killing other human beings is wrong. Other values included the idea that it was a good thing to be honest, to avoid cheating, to act with integrity, to be a reliable friend and a good parent. Most people would agree that stealing is a bad thing and that fairness is good. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse was frowned upon, even if it was a value to which we didn’t universally adhere. A man’s word was his bond, and a oral agreement was binding.

Back in the days when we had values, conservatives generally held forth against what they called relativism or situational ethics. Something that was wrong was always wrong, no matter the circumstances. Of course, that proves a rather immature ethical stance that doesn’t hold up, but they tried. You may hold that it’s wrong to go into another person’s home unless invited, but going into a burning house to save someone doesn’t require an invitation. Today those same conservatives seem to have no problem with deceit and outright lying. All you have to do is listen to a politician to know that neither conservatives nor liberals have any problem with selling the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again. What would be the consequence of acting that way in our own workplace? I suppose that depends on where you work and who your customers are.

One thing is certain. A society without values cannot survive long because a lack of values erodes trust. If we cannot trust one another we will not long be able to live in proximity to one another. In America, our society is polarized as never before, and some would counsel learning to get along no matter the cost. I disagree. It simply isn’t possible to get along with valueless, deceitful fools. What we need to do is rise above this nonsense and vote. Those of us with integrity need to reassert our influence in society and speak truth to power and deceit, reemphasizing the value of character. Nothing less will do.