When Does Appeasement Embolden?

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

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

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

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

What does “good enough” mean?

Most of us hear the expression “good enough” as rather negative. We tend to associate it with not being good enough. We hear the expression in almost every corner of our lives. We can be “not good enough” to get the job we want, the relationship we crave, to win a competition we are in, to understand a complicated issue or concept – all of which represent failure on some level. If we hear those messages long enough, we start to believe them. In truth, and in a very specific sense, especially early in life there are things we aren’t good enough to effectively engage, either because we lack knowledge, or skills, or experience in a particular area. We will always have areas where we aren’t good enough to do something. Running a four minute mile is something most of us will never do. Then again, most of us aren’t losing a whole lot of sleep over that fact!

There’s another “good enough” that we often ignore. Even worse, we may be blind to it! American Tibetan Buddhist Lama Surya Das, when asked if he was enlightened, responded, “I am enlightened enough.” Since enlightenment is seen as a kind of perfection, we might paraphrase this exchange as someone asking if we are perfect and our response being that we are perfect enough. In this way we see that, in common thought, being good enough has come to mean that we are perfect, able to handle anything that may arise, never hesitant or doubting. Can you see that for the distortion it is? None of us are perfect, and so if someone comes along and asks if we are perfect the best response may be laughter.

Imagine if we stopped beating ourselves up for not being something nobody is! We don’t feel bad about being less than eight feet tall. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound and we aren’t faster than a speeding locomotive, but we don’t feel bad about not being Superman. If we are asked if we are Superman, slightly disguised in the “good enough” language, we shouldn’t feel bad about answering “no” to that question, either. What would happen if we came to understand that we are all good enough to put forth our best effort, and that is the only good enough that mattered? What would happen if we stopped looking for the things we cannot accomplish and instead started focusing on the things we can do? What if we extended the same courtesy to others?

What would happen is that we would shift our current cultural focus on what is lacking to what is present, from the impossible to the possible, from the ugly to the beautiful that dwells in each of us. We should be aware that our minds are programmed from Neanderthal days to look for the things that are different or lacking and so might be threatening. Given that most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by sabre tooth tigers, maybe we could start to surrender all of our Neanderthal practices. If we don’t, we are putting an artificial cap on our potential, our progress, and our happiness.

Living in Mystery

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

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

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

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

Chronic Pain and Spiritual Life

It’s estimated that just over twenty percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain. I find that to be a frightening number, and I am among them. There is no shortage of theories about why people suffer from chronic pain, and the theories transcend physical ressons. In truth, above the age of fifty most people have pretty rough looking spines on MRI exam, but a chunk of those people don’t have pain while others are in nearly constant pain – and nobody knows what determines which group a person falls into.

Medical interventions for chronic pain are primitive and ineffective. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) often seems so preoccupied with finding some drug they can actually effectively interdict that they don’t really care what the impact of their restrictions are on the patients who legitimately need and don’t abuse pain medications. Consider that, having had some success making Opioids harder to get for both legitimate users and illegal abusers, the DEA is now interested in other, non-narcotic pain medications that addicts misuse for their sedating qualities. This means that patients who don’t abuse these medications (which were formerly viewed as “safe” and more effective alternatives to Opioids) have to jump through hoops to get and fill prescriptions. This is not because these medicines are controlled substances, but rather because they might be one day.

If it’s not a medication issue, it is the issue of so-called pain clinics staffed by interventional anesthesiologists. Generally speaking, patients have to go to these clinics to get narcotic pain medication prescriptions written, but the clinics make their real money by doing “procedures” such as epidural steroid injections. These injections used to be administered in a physiatrist’s office on an exam table for little more than the cost of the medication. Now they are administered at your pain clinic’s “operating room,” with x-ray guidance and multiple staff members in the room, as well as a “pre-op” check in area and a post-procedure “recovery” area. As you might imagine, the move from the exam table to the operating room means these are now relatively high ticket outpatient procedures. Unfortunately, to be effective a patient most often needs two or three injections and the injections are temporarily effective treatments rather than cures. Pain clinics are profitable to the extent that they convince patients to get on the procedure treadmill. Some studies have found that simply putting the needle into the affected area provides the same relief even if medication isn’t injected. Of course, insurance companies won’t pay for an injection that isn’t an injection, so patients are often injected needlessly.

There are other dehumanizing elements to pain clinic culture. While it’s understandable that a certain amount of controlling behavior on the part of clinic staff is necessary since some of the medications prescribed are controlled substances, most patients are made to feel like addicts even if they don’t abuse medications. For example, even medications in the same class as aspirin and ibuprofen are prescribed precisely thirty, or ninety, days from the last refill. Since most patients are on multiple medications, this means that the patient has to make multiple trips to the pharmacy each month to refill medications that have no abuse potential at all. If the patient is on a narcotic pain medication, they sign a pain medication contract annually, which is fine, but then at each appointment they are given a form to fill out asking if they are aware they signed a pain contract. We are in pain, not stupid or memory impaired. If these procedures are questioned, there is no opportunity for discussion but plenty of opportunity for suspicion that the patient is trying to get away with something.

There is no question that pain has a profound psychological component. Nearly all pain doctors will tell you that is true, yet most pain clinics do not have any psychological component to their treatment team. Why not? Could it be that the income per square foot of office space for a support group is minuscule compared with the income for an “operating room?” The other, likely unintentional, consequence of not having therapists on staff is that there isn’t a place to process the impact of the controlling environment on the patient, nor is there anyone on staff who is likely to recognize that it could be a problem and raise the issue at staff meetings.

When we have discussions in this country about our healthcare system and the out of control expenses therein, we need to talk about places like pain clinics. They aren’t the only place in American medicine charging exorbitant fees for (at best) temporary relief. Nor are they the only soul crushing places in the medical community that lack psychological or spiritual support systems. The pain treatment industry generates in excess of three hundred billion dollars for itself each year, and these procedure mills are a big part of the problem. Presently there isn’t an alternative, but with that kind of money rolling in there isn’t much incentive to develop one, is there?

Staying Present

It has been rightly said that the only moment we have is the present moment. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has not yet arrived and so is beyond our reach. It seems so obvious, so simple, yet how much time do we spend fixating on the past or dreaming of the future? How often does “if only I had…” cause us to completely miss new opportunity when it arises? Certainly there are things to be learned from past mistakes, but those learning opportunities aren’t a bottomless well. Most mistakes we make are relatively small and so offer a paucity of learning. Even our major mistakes only offer a few lessons. If we find ourselves ruminating about something months or even years after it has happened, we aren’t trying to learn, we are trying to avoid something.

I find it helpful when I am stuck to remember that the “why?” question is most often not very helpful. Most often we cannot know with any degree of certainty why things happen. When we allow ourselves to get stuck there, it may well be that we are actually trying to avoid moving forward. Why something happened or why someone did something is much less important that what we will do next given what has happened. What is the lesson in our experience? What is it trying to teach us? How can we avoid whatever mistakes we made in the future? We need to ask these questions not to berate or otherwise punish ourselves, but to learn. Once we have learned, it is time to move on.

The truth is that, no matter what a perfectionist might tell you, mistakes are a normal part of life. I believe that every experience, positive or negative, arises to teach us something. Our goal shouldn’t be perfection, it should be learning and growth. There are very few activities in which a mistake means we don’t get to try again, and most of those can be avoided. Mistakes are much less critical outside the arenas of sky diving and bungee jumping! Learn, and then move on. Don’t let life pass you by as you seek a perfection that doesn’t exist!

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.

Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!

What if bad isn’t bad?

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Bergland

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

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

How Many Balls…

…can we keep in the air at once? We are currently besieged with change on many different planes. On the one hand, we continue to battle a worldwide pandemic and everything that comes with it, including massive unemployment and economic shutdown. On another hand, we are in the midst of a long overdue assessment of our horrific legacy of racism and discrimination. We are also suffering through what may be at least a partial return to the Dark Ages in the form of the exultation of foolishness at the expense of rationality. Many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between opinion and fact, while others deride science in favor of superstition.

Meanwhile, those advocating for change are demanding that we all get involved in their cause the way they would have us get involved. Most all causes believe theirs is the only one that should receive our attention, an attitude that is bound to backfire. After all, if the only help you will accept from me is complete full time dedication, then the odds are you will get nothing. If you don’t understand that, please reread the first paragraph of this post. Many of us are experiencing our coping ability wearing thin. Having multiple causes vie for our attention, all of them asserting they are the only cause, isn’t helping – especially when many of us are struggling to put food on the table or secure the non-corona virus medical care we desperately need. What’s a poor boy or girl to do?

The first thing to do is recognize that we are all in charge of our own decisions. At times such as these there tends to be no shortage of people volunteering to be in charge of everyone else’s life. While we may or may not appreciate their service, we don’t have to partake of it. You are still the only person who gets to make decisions about how your time and energy are allocated. Don’t let anyone pressure you into surrendering your autonomy! When Sally from down the street starts paying your bills, you might give her some input. Until then, send her packing.

The second thing to do is to recognize our own need for nurturing and understanding. Take time to do the things you enjoy. Be aware that those things may look a bit different now than they did a year ago, but they can still happen. Your gym might be closed or you may not be comfortable going there, but the outdoors are still open for business. Get outside, get exercise, eat as healthily as you can, get sleep, and socialize – even if only virtually. Take regular breaks from screens and especially the news cycle. They will be there when you need them. Stimulate your mind with something healthy. Read a book, watch a documentary, sit in a park and observe nature. If you are tired, take a nap. Listen to your body.

Finally, insert a sacred pause before every substantial action or commitment. I used to be an Oblate of a monastery that had a policy of never responding to email communication the same day. We have all had the experience of hitting “send” and regretting it. They never did. Before agreeing to something, ponder it overnight. This also helps put requests in their proper perspective and thereby reduces stress. Everybody wants our answer now, but it is seldom needed now. A sacred pause helps us see the truth of that. Unless a request begins with words like “look out,” “duck!”, “fire!”, or “get out of the water!” the request can wait.

By taking some simple, concrete steps we will better be able to navigate these unknown waters in these confusing times. If we will trust ourselves and care for ourselves and each other, things will get easier. Don’t confuse how things used to be with the only way things can be. A new normal will emerge. Who knows, it could be much better than the old normal in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine!

I am a strong person?

I have noticed something in the midst of pandemic life. I have seen many people interviewed who have expressed surprise they have contracted the corona virus. They often say some version of “I am a strong man/woman, I am really active, I keep really busy, and still I got this virus.” I find the number of folks who say some version of this to be quite intriguing. I started reflecting on the sentiment and have some suggestions.

Our culture equates busyness with strength. If we are constantly on the go, involved in many different things, dashing from here to there, we are strong. We confuse endurance with strength, but if you compare the physiques of marathon runners and power lifters it’s easy to see there is a difference. More importantly, there are important differences between physical strength and endurance and psychological strength and endurance. We really need to consider both kinds of strength to assess what constitutes a strong person – and then remember that a virus is no respecter of strength. All it respects is immunity, and we don’t have much when dealing with a new virus.

I am interested in why we are so busy. Could it be that we are busy because we are hiding or running from something? My father once counseled me that if you have problems the best solution is twelve to sixteen hours a day of hard work and a twelve pack of beer. That’s terrible advice, but it revealed his strategy of not solving his problems but instead being too busy and too intoxicated or hung over to think about them. That strategy isn’t unique to him. When I hear people with corona virus saying the worst part is having to sit in their hospital room, I can’t relate. When I am sick all I want to do is rest, I have no problem sitting still. What is going on with these people?

What’s going on, I suggest, is that sitting still allows all of the issues they have been running from to catch up with them. Those issues, even when ignored and repressed, increase our stress levels which in turn decreases our immune system’s ability to fight off illness. There are real physical consequences to our avoidance. We need to come to see that frenetic activity isn’t a measure of strength at all. We need to practice spending some time each day sitting still. When we do so, if we feel compelled to get up and dash around it might be time to sit longer – and consider finding a spiritual companion and a good therapist. Your health depends on it!