At Some Point, You Must Decide

What do we do when our values and our beliefs are in conflict with the decisions our government makes? If we are honest with ourselves and aware of what is going on around us, we will start to notice how often this happens with greater frequency. When we see those situations, we will begin to feel uncomfortable. As I see it, we are faced with three choices at that time. The first is that we can ignore the conflict and pretend it doesn’t exist. As anyone who has tried to solve a problem with denial can tell you, this isn’t a very effective solution to anything. The second is that we can fragment our world and our awareness by saying that our values are one thing and the government is another, with the two never meeting. That’s a false distinction, because government supposedly represents the people. This is little more than another kind of denial, as ineffective as pretending there isn’t a problem. The third is that we can choose sides, either saying that our government is always right or that we trust our own values to guide us toward what is right, regardless of what the government says.

What about when our values conflict with themselves? What do we do in these cases? Suppose we consider ourselves pro-life and one of our friends points out that our support of the death penalty conflicts with a pro-life identity. How do we resolve that conflict? Many people, unwilling to honestly examine their values and beliefs in any but the most superficial way, decide to forego resolving the conflict and insist that those are two completely different questions. The problem is that they aren’t different questions at all, and if we hope to be a moral person of integrity we need to resolve that inconsistency. What about someone who considers themselves pro-life but is opposed to offering free pre-natal care and well baby check ups to all mothers and children who can’t afford them?

Here is the hard part. You will likely never convince someone who doesn’t want to look at the inconsistencies in their values to do so. Nor is it our job to get them to look. Our job is to look at our own values and check their consistency, and then get on with the important work of implementing those values, period. If we waste our time and energy trying to convince people of the error of their ways, we won’t have the time and energy needed to work for the change we hope to see in the world. There will always be people who choose not to deal with reality as you and I understand it. Trying to convert the deluded is a fool’s errand that depletes the energy of the converter and leads to burn out. There is nothing that says we need to reach consensus with the rest of the world before working for change. In fact, striving for consensus only assures that nothing will change, because consensus is very difficult to achieve. Is it ever acceptable for a child to starve while we try to achieve consensus on a feeding program? Is it okay for someone to die of a preventable illness because we can’t agree on how to ship the vaccine? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem and allow those who are predisposed to meaningless debate sort things out after the fact?

Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Have a Body!

It seems like a silly title, doesn’t it? Despite that, to one degree or another, most spirituality and religion has encouraged adherents to deny that they are embodied and refuse to acknowledge the needs that come with embodiment. Whether it’s fasting, sleep deprivation, celibacy, dietary restrictions, self-inflicted abuse of different kinds, human sacrifice, or any of a number of so-called ascetical practices, religion and spirituality have sought to convince us to deny our physical selves. Some of that was rooted in a particularly perverse dualism that insisted the spirit was good and the physical evil.

I once knew a Pentecostal preacher who told the story of checking into a hotel to fast for forty days and forty nights. He recounted dreams and visions and all manner of spiritual experiences during this time. Delirium, whether caused by low blood sugar or something else, will do that to you but that doesn’t mean delirium is a desired or spiritual state. I have often reflected on the truth that there is little difference between his story and the account of someone on a crack binge beyond a difference in social acceptability. Being out of touch with reality, regardless of the reason, is never an exalted spiritual state.

So why the rejection of the body? For some people, rejecting the body is rejecting experiences that cannot be controlled. For others it is a mistaken association of pleasure with evil. Still others reject the body in search of transcendence, feeling that the body cannot be transcended in this life. I have long suspected that many people become preoccupied with their bodies to avoid facing their shadow, the part of themselves they would rather reject and push away, even deny. That’s as true of people who abuse their bodies as it is those who worship them and can’t seem to leave the gym. If I worry about whether I will inadvertently encounter pleasure today, I likely won’t pay attention to the pain I cause others.

To be human is to be embodied. Denying that truth or wishing it were otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything healthy. A life giving spirituality will offer ways for us to accept the realities of life rather than seek to deny or avoid them. An unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances is a curious kind of self-preoccupation that masquerades as spiritual accomplishment. In truth, the spiritual life is better served by increasing the time spent concerned about others and reducing our obsession with ourselves!

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!

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!

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

The old black and white Superman television program’s opening informed us that Superman stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” I’m not quite sure who is to blame, but Superman seems to have dropped the ball because now we have “Alternative Truths, Lack of Justice, and the Autocratic Corporate Way.”

The above photo is obviously of a different time. Superman could stand to put in a little time at the gym, and Jimmy Olson appears to be getting ready to cop a feel from Lois Lane. It’s a reminder that even the good old days were far from perfect, and getting lost in visions of a idyllic past are little more than indulging in self-deception and delusion. Still, there were some values back then that are worth reclaiming – and doing a better job of living them out while we are at it. Not the least of them is truth. In Superman’s world, people were embarrassed if they were caught in a lie. People still lied of course – it’s hard to overcome human nature – but it wasn’t seen as a virtue. Someone who was caught compulsively lying would have problems finding a job, whereas today they earn a promotion.

Integrity may be old fashioned, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a virtue. In fact, it has been so ignored by our culture that it has become counter-cultural to tell the truth. It’s ironic that the Republican Party in America, which used to hold itself up as the party of virtue and values, now has a President in the White House who wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped on his head like a ton of bricks. How to reclaim integrity and truth? We reclaim it by practicing it in a grassroots movement that starts with each one of us. What’s holding you back?

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.

Morality and Your Genitals

The Puritan streak that remains deeply embedded in American culture would have you believe that morality and your genitals are intimately connected. The resulting attitudes are perhaps among the most unhealthy ones possible. They lead us to see the physical as bad, as somehow distinct from the spiritual and the holy. This view has caused more damage to the American psyche than any other allegedly religious truth, and it is a lie. After all, if it weren’t for genitals, none of us would be here.

Reproduction aside, the problem with a morality that has as its primary focus human sexuality is that it creates a disconnect between human and their bodies. They have a name for people without bodies: dead. We suffer a kind of death when we become disconnected from our bodies. When we start feeling bad about the truth that we need our bodies, we ignore signs and symptoms of illness and disease or – worse – come to see illness as a punishment for being embodied. Many of us were taught there are certain parts of our bodies we should never touch. That kind of teaching leads to some serious hygiene deficits, to say the least.

The truth is that our bodies are a blessing and not a curse. So is our sexuality. Unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies and our sexuality destroy relationships at a frantic pace. Quite simply, there is nothing you can do with your body that is morally wrong as long as any other people who might be involved are able to consent and do so. Those who would rail against “premarital” sex need to realize that marriage as we understand it in America today (as a legal institution in which the State is involved) began in 1913 CE. That means that everyone who has sex prior to 1913 had, by definition, premarital sex. Do you see the problem here?

If your idea of morality is completely defined by your genitals, you have a mighty tiny morality. The things that really damage society and its members aren’t done in the consensual bedroom. War, violence, poverty, hunger, lack of the basic necessities of life, neglect, abuse, pollution, selfishness, greed, hatred, exclusion – these are among the great harms that humans inflict on one another. All of these things become much easier to do when we are disconnected from our bodies and spend most of our time in our often rather distorted thoughts. When we live at a distance from our feelings it can be very difficult to act in a compassionate way. Selfishness follows close behind, and before we know it “genital morality” becomes a very efficient way to distract others from the awful things we do to one another with our clothes on.

The next time you hear someone (even yourself) being critical of our embodied nature, ask yourself what they are trying to hide. Ask why they are so uncomfortable with the bodies we all live life through. Peek into their closets – literal and metaphorical – but step back as you open the door. The odds are that some skeletons will come tumbling out, and you don’t want to get hurt.

This is not a political post

This is not a political post, though it does involve people in politics. Think of it this way – if I wrote about the personal choices of a football player, that post wouldn’t be about football. I wouldn’t be saying that I like the team the person plays for more than another team. The same is true when I write about politicians. Writing about the choices and attitudes of a politician does not constitute a judgment on their political party. Now that we have established what should be a self evident point, we can continue.

Across party lines, we are facing corruption and cowardice in government like at no point in American history. A would-be dictator occupies the White House surrounded by yes men and women on a scale that would make Nixon blush. Politicians of all stripes are loathe to stand up against the nonsense that passes for leadership in Washington, making them complicit in the largest threat to democracy America has seen. The great unwashed have elected one of their own. Should we be surprised the whole thing stinks?

Remember when character mattered? Remember when John Kennedy wanted to sleep with every woman in sight but had the decency to know that it was wrong, and so had them slipped in the back door of the White House while Jackie slept and the press looked the other way? Remember when Nixon was regularly too drunk to function and so others ran the country? Remember Teapot Dome during the Harding administration, the corrective for which the current administration has undone?

Okay, maybe it has only been the appearance of character that has mattered. Still, qualifications did matter. The old adage that any boy could grow up to be President of the United States simply wasn’t true. Candidates for President and even Congress were expected to have a certain pedigree that suggested the educational and experiential foundations to effectively serve. We have a man who has made his living deceiving the public now in the highest office in the land, a massively unqualified con man who has very little idea of what he is doing – and was elected on that basis!

Not surprisingly, we now hear that there is nothing more important that pretending everything is normal during the worst mismanagement of a pandemic imaginable. We are told that if only we create the appearance of normalcy, everything will be fine. It doesn’t matter if grandma and grandpa die to create a lie; it doesn’t matter how many workers – most often in poorly paying jobs – risk their lives to open restaurants, bars, and beaches; it doesn’t matter how many teachers and students will get sick and die to reopen schools. This is true not because it will change anything, it will only change the appearance of our circumstances. It will seem like everything is normal if we can just slip the bodies out the back door in the middle of the night and send them to the mortuary without anyone noticing.

Does that make any sense to you?

Good Lord, I hope not. I hope there is enough decency and intelligence left in this county to know that, whether we like it or not, what happens to one of us impacts all of us. We have failed at education and are reaping the rewards of that folly. We have failed at morality and in exchange made money our God. Our politicians worship that God, and we are reaping the rewards of that folly as well. We have taken a deep dive into selfishness from which we may never emerge as a nation.

These days it seems like everyone with a cause wants us to believe that their cause is the only one that matters. Nonsense. There are many, many causes that matter, so many that if they all are the only one that matters we will never make any progress. The way out of this morass is for each of us to find a cause that matters to us and dedicate ourselves to it in the way that best uses our unique sets of skills and abilities. This will take both time and persistence. There are no magic bullets, there are no overnight fixes, but that makes it even more imperative that we start today. Rest assured we will encounter criticism in a country with no shortage of do-nothing armchair quarterbacks. Everyone has an opinion, but that doesn’t mean we need to take their opinion to heart. Don’t read your reviews, solve the problem.

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.

Faith and Racism

racism cloudThere are only a few hard and fast rules in the life of faith. One of them is that you cannot be a person of faith and a racist. The two are mutually exclusive. You can be a person of faith who is working earnestly to eliminate the vestiges of racism in your life. The standard here is not perfection, the standard is progress. If you are in a church on Sunday while believing that some races are inferior to others, you are a hypocrite. Period. No exceptions. Your best course of action would be to skip church and spend your time getting education and attending workshops around racism and issues of diversity.

Some would argue that this kind of absolute statement is inappropriate because it will cause people to stop engaging in discussion. I beg to differ. There are some issues in which there is no middle ground. The majority of issues do have a number of valid viewpoints inherent in them, but some are so important that a middle ground simply doesn’t exist. We have allowed for a middle ground in issues of race in the hopes that people would come around, but in truth the middle ground has been used as a place to hide for far too long. Church leaders may be afraid that if they speak out on issues like racism they will lose members. The truth is that they never had those people to begin racism handswith.

Until we are willing to take a strong stand on issues that frankly cost people their lives every day, we aren’t people of faith. If we aren’t willing to make a meaningful commitment to our spiritual lives, then our spiritual lives have no meaning. If we aren’t willing to say to friends, family members, acquaintances, coworkers, even strangers we encounter on the street or in the grocery store that racist attitude and action are not acceptable, then our faith is gossamer thin and more illusion than substance. If these statements bother you, it’s a pretty strong indication you have some work to do.