How Things Work

At one point in my life, I was very concerned with how things work. I very much wanted explanations for things both knowable and unknowable. I didn’t so much care about why they worked, that was a question that I found much less interesting and at times frankly irritating. Why something works doesn’t really tell us much about how to fix it should it break. How it works is what we need. I suppose I developed that interest in my twenties when I was a field service engineer in the medical field.

windbagWhen I moved on to working in healthcare the question was still how. How was this person’s body or mind supposed to function was the knowledge that would help us to alleviate discomfort. Why it worked that way was in large part irrelevant, a great question for philosophers (perhaps) but an exercise in missing the point to those who wanted to alleviate suffering. Moving to religion and spirituality, my focus was the same. How does the universe work? Why it works as it does was something I found to be above my pay grade.

Now, as I approach sixty, my priorities have shifted. I find most people who like to carry on about how things work – even people I generally like – to be little more than giant wind bags. That’s especially true in spirituality, where the biggest mistake we can make is assuming that we know how things work. What hubris! Just shut up already! What I see now is that neither the how nor the why are all that important. What is important is that things work. Beyond that, I believe we are here to experience them rather than solve them as if they were a problem. Life isn’t a problem! It certainly contains problems, but life is an experience. What’s more, we can’t solve life by explaining it away! The time we spend off in our heads trying to rationalize everything is time we miss out on living. Don’t let fear win the day, and don’t die without having lived!

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!

That Which is Real

In each of us there is an essence that is real. The rest is just an accumulation of life over time that has been caked on top of the real, what some have called the true self. All betruetowhoyouarereligious traditions have found their own way of saying that life is about returning to that essence that is real. The challenge is that the job in front of us is neither obvious nor easy.

The job becomes even more difficult in times of crisis. We want to jump into action, solve the problem, and get on with life. When the problem is invisible to the naked eye and the solution elusive, we become afraid. When we become afraid, we tend to move toward anger pretty quickly. It’s natural, you might even say it’s an instinctive preparation for a fight – and there can be little doubt that right now the world is in a fight.

One of the problems with fighting is that we tend to put on armor in preparation for that trueselffight. Some of that armor is physical, but a lot of it is psychological. As we gird our loins, literally and metaphorically, we move away from our true selves more and more. When it is done, we may not even recognize ourselves. When this is true, we become a casualty of the fight, no matter who won.

During these times of crisis, it is important to be intentional about remaining connected with our true self. If possible, spend some time each day outside – even if it’s just on your porch. Listen to the wind, feel it on your face, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where it’s warm enough take your shoes off and feel the ground under your feet. No matter where you live, you can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and your arms in a comfortable position and take three deep breaths. Repeat as needed. Your true self is what endures. All the rest will pass away.

Higher Education IS Privilege

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and one of the hosts is a woman working toward a PhD in women’s studies. She’s a white woman, though that really doesn’t matter. If you have a collegegradPhD it doesn’t matter if you are white, black, brown, yellow, green, or orange (though if you are orange you might want to get your liver checked). I would also guess she is around thirty-something years old.

Anyway, I was listening to this podcast and the subject of women working in the sex industry came up. With all the zeal of a DKS*, this woman proclaimed that this was bad, bad, bad, always bad and always destructive. The other hosts raised the issue of women who had reported working in the sex industry to pay their tuition at college or because it was the only job they could find to feed their children. Almost predictably, this woman responded that no, no, no; bad, bad, bad, this was a terribly destructive thing. Then it hit me. She doesn’t have the first clue about how privileged she is!

queen-red-dress-sitting-throne-symbol-power-queen-red-dress-sitting-throne-symbol-power-wealth-146335691If you are lucky enough to be skating through college and graduate school in one continuous period of immersion in the academy, good for you. You should recognize that you have had a series of advantages that most people don’t have, including but not limited to financial advantages, class advantages, support of family and friends along your educational path, personal wealth or access to financial aid to pay for your education, and a host of others. You likely don’t know the first thing about worrying where your next meal is coming from, finding a job that will cover your housing expenses, or trying to find a way to feed and care for a child or children as a single parent. You are clueless. Worse yet, you are clueless that you are clueless.

You may ask, “how can she be clueless, she is educated?” The truth is that the academy is full of professors who have never set foot in a working class neighborhood, much less an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Even if they have studied the lives of the average person, the odds are very good that they have not lived that life. They think that economic distress is having to eat Ramen noodles during college, but in truth there was never any danger of them not having a roof over their heads and they could always call home for a quick $100 to tide them over.

Before we pass judgment on what people do to survive, we should be very sure we understand the challenges they are facing. We should get off our thrones and talk to people who have had these experiences. We should recognize how lucky we are to not have been faced with similar challenges and choices, and we should refrain from offering our “wisdom” until we have lived a bit.

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*DKS is a term I coined for new graduates from seminary – and higher education in general. These folks tend to think they know everything, but in reality their knowledge is only theoretical and hasn’t been tested in the waters of reality. Therefore, they Don’t Know Shit. 

Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

Much ado about nothing

The truth is that the divisions we create between Spiritual and political perspectives are most often a way to pump up our own egos and little more. We imagine there is some qualitative difference between a Buddhist and a Christian and theologians on both sides make a very tidy living perpetuating that misperception, but mystics on both sides agree that our commonalities far outnumber our differences. The same could be easily said of republicans and democrats.

If we look closely we will see that underneath every assertion that I am right and you are wrong lies the unspoken belief that I am better than you. That [erroneous] belief is the product of an insecure mind driven by an out of control ego. In truth we are not better and worse, just diverse, and that is really quite lovely – hardly something we should be trying to eliminate!