If the things that most of us wouldn’t think of eating – rattlesnake, scorpion, rodents, all manner of creepy crawly things, endangered species, insects covered in chocolate, and so on – are all said to “taste like chicken,” maybe it’s time to take another look at whether or not we should be eating chicken. If we just flip the equation, we will see that chicken tastes like cockroach, and mouse, and ants, and rats. Why do we continue to eat it?
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!
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.
I find myself put off by overly aggressive appeals to get me to join a cause, and it doesn’t really matter what that cause is. When people start pitching their cause by saying it’s the most important cause that ever was or ever will be, I start to feel as if I am at a corner used car lot listening to a guy in a loud plaid sport coat try to sell me a car. It’s not that I don’t think that the cause people are trying to sell me is worthy, anymore than I think the guy at the corner car lot has nothing but lemons on that lot. What is happening is that I hate that hard sell.
The hard sell makes me feel that there is something you are hoping I will overlook under pressure. Back in the old days car salesmen would take your keys if you wanted to test drive a vehicle. Getting those keys back without buying a car often required threats to call the police and charge the dealership with unlawful detention and grand theft auto. (I actually did that once.) That is bad business and it is bad advocacy. Make your case and allow me to decide. Don’t try to tell me that supporting your cause is the only way to prove that I am a good person, because that is nonsense and discredits your cause. Don’t tell me that your cause is the only valid one that exists, because any thinking person knows that is not true. In short, if you can’t dazzle me with the brilliance of your cause, spare me the attempt to baffle with bullshit. I have been around too long for that to work. All it will do is make me take back my keys and walk out.
Somewhere along the way we fell in love with hyperbole as the primary tool of persuasion. In fact, it should be a tool of last resort. It is often based in a poverty mentality – the idea that there isn’t enough. The poverty mentality says there aren’t enough resources, enough potential supporters, enough time to accomplish our goals. That’s simply not true, but if you convince yourself it is you set up a self fulfilling prophecy. You will drive resources away with your false sense of urgency, and then there really won’t be enough – but it will be a situation you created.
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!
Fear isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when it pops up appropriately it serves an important function – it keeps us safe. When you are crossing the street and hear the sound of a bus bearing down on you, fear arises and helps kick your body into action to avoid becoming road kill. That’s good fear. When you are driving down the street and notice a flooded intersection, good fear tells you to turn around rather than try to drive through. False bravado encourages you to forge ahead into the intersection and the sink hole hidden under the water. Even if we could banish fear from our lives, it would be unwise. Many of us, however, experience fear that isn’t helpful. One of those is fear of the unknown.
We live in a time unlike any other in our lifetime, unless we happen to be over one hundred years old. Our lifestyles have been suspended by a world-wide pandemic. It seems like nothing about our lives is the same as it was just six months ago. We don’t know what life will be like once the corona virus is under control, but there is at least a chance that there will be a new normal. We have seen that Americans are poorly equipped to respond to this kind of a crisis. Our obsession with what we incorrectly assume is independence – it’s really selfishness – leads us to make awful choices because we don’t seem to realize we live in a society and selfishness is maladaptive. To cite but one example, people in other parts of the world have worn face masks for years. In those cultures they understand that not wearing a mask is rude and inconsiderate. In America some of us believe being rude and inconsiderate is something to wear like a badge of honor.
So many of our maladaptive behaviors emerge from fear. In uncertain times, fear lurks around every corner. It can help, when we feel fear arising, to ask ourselves about that fear. Is it present to alert us to danger, or is it the result of uncertainty? If it’s uncertainty that is the issue, can we recall other times when uncertainty arose and everything worked out well? Can we see that only rarely does uncertainty lead to problems that can’t be resolved? Even more importantly, can we see that quite often what lies beyond uncertainty is an opportunity for growth? The truth is that uncertainty and growth can help us to move beyond fear into opportunity. We may need that ability now more than ever.
Meditation in all of its various forms is great. I am a practitioner myself and can attest it has brought wonderful change to my life. Mindfulness meditation has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and I would recent stay at home orders in some communities have afforded a wonderful opportunity to start or build a practice. After all, you can only reorganize your closets so many times!
It’s great to “work on ourselves,” particularly since so many of us are over committed, work too many hours for too little pay and spend much of the time that is left shuttling kids and grandkids to various activities, sporting events, classes, and meetings with friends. Then there are our various classes, personal meetings and involvements. Whether we enjoy these things or not, sooner or later our bodies and minds need a break. This is where self care comes in and practices like meditation can be an immense benefit. We should take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. The truth is, however, that working on myself is not enough.
It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism. Americans love to look inward, but it can easily become an exercise in avoidance. Several years ago a clergyman I knew said, “all that matters is my meditation.” At that point, I knew we had lost him. In those six words he summed up the profoundly selfish life quite succinctly. The reason we do inner work is to make us better functioning members of a society. If we never engage that society, all our work is little more than an exercise in masturbation.
It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism.Craig Bergland
If we are engaging in spiritual and wellness practices in their appropriate framework, the needs in our environment will become apparent. In fact, our practices will help us see those needs. Practice causes our compassion to grow, but compassion that doesn’t lead us to action is quite shallow, indeed. I fear that many Americans use Eastern spiritual practices as an reason to avoid life. That’s a corruption of the practice. Our time looking inward should always lead us to look outward!
One of the things I find fascinating about the experience of safer at home during the last several weeks is the number of people who are struggling with perceived isolation. I don’t refer here to people who live alone and cannot go to work. I refer to the rest of us. We have social contact. Perhaps we go to work, or visit with friends and colleagues virtually, we might work virtually, we go to the grocery store and other essential places, and yet to hear some people tell it you would think they were in solitary confinement!
I would like to suggest that if the above describes how you are feeling you would benefit
from some self examination. If you are partnered, I would ask you to consider that maybe the only reason the two (or more) of you aren’t doing well is because the only time you can tolerate each other is when you are separated most of the time. If that’s the case, it might be time to ask some serious questions about your relationship and consider getting some counseling when this is all over. There are concrete steps you can take to improve things, and at this time you have a great opportunity to begin!
The third possibility is that you are hiding from yourself. There are things about yourself or your history that you don’t want to consider, and all this time with less to do than normal increases the possibility that they will surface. In normal times, you can keep nearly perpetually active, stopping only to collapse into bed at night and hitting the floor running in the morning. Now, however, when you are alone you may be experiencing anxiety and the need to find something, almost anything, to do. The answer is to engage in some grounding practices and just be present to what you are feeling. Running away isn’t going to help, it’s just going to kick the problem further down the road until you have no choice but to face it. That’s always more traumatic that choosing to face it. Don’t waste this valuable time. It may not come again until fall!
My wife and I share a car these days, and when I get to her office early to pick her up I sit in a little vending room on the first floor and write. I let her know I am there by sending her a graphic that indicates I am in detention. Some of the best posts on my blogs start as ideas while “in detention.” There is an office down the hall from my detention room from which regularly emerge two women who head outside, presumably to smoke. One of them almost never talks. Even if she wanted to, I don’t know how she could possibly get a word in because the other one – let’s call her, “Sewer Mouth” – never stops talking. Wait, that’s not fair. She never stops complaining, except when she pauses to launch into a profane tirade that would make a sailor blush. Mind you, I can cuss with the best of them but old Sewer Mouth makes me feel like an Amish beginner. I want to ask her if she eats with that mouth, but she won’t stop talking long enough for me to try.
Leaving aside for a moment how unprofessional it is when going on break to start spewing “motherfucker” before the office door has closed behind you, I have no idea why her coworker wants to be around her. When we constantly ooze negativity, we aren’t much fun to be around. When we blow it out of a fire hose, I have to wonder why this woman even shows up for work. Could her life be even remotely as miserable as her mouth suggests it is? If so, it’s long past time for the people who care about her to get together and mount an intervention.
It’s good practice to listen to ourselves every now and then. By doing so, we can get a feel for our own mental state – or at least the one we present to the world. A good exercise if we find our talking self to be more negative than we might like is to decide to say a certain number of positive things each day. We should work to increase the number of positive things we say week by week. It would be long until we feel like a new person, because that is what we will be!
When I was a freshman in college I worked at Marshall Field’s here in Milwaukee. It was a department store chain based in Chicago. I heard stories from my managers about the main store in Chicago on State Street. The store had a basement, a floor that in many old school department stores held what today we would call clearance or overstock items. There were bargains to be had in the basement floor of every major department store – so much so that many department stores would open separate buildings that they called their basement store. I still remember visiting Filene’s basement store in Boston when I lived there.
Anyway, the main store of Marshall Field’s in Chicago also had sub-basements. These levels weren’t open to the general public. They housed the kind of massive shipping, receiving, and stockrooms that the old eight to twelve story department stores required.
From what the managers at my store told me, the further you descended the sub-basement levels, the stranger things got. Maybe the stories were retail versions of ghost stories, but I suspect not. Just as there are people who feel more than comfortable in subterranean environment there are people who feel called to work at night while the rest of us sleep. Just as likely is that some of these people choose to work at night because they would rather not interact with us.
Whatever our reasons for moving into the night or underground might be, we all would benefit from understanding the primal fear that exists for some of us in those places. It would help us to understand the irrational aspects of our fear that likely are rooted in early human history when going out into the dark exposed caveman to some serious predators. I believe that all of our seemly irrational fears are linked to the desire for self preservation. If we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable but can’t identify the reason, our answer might be hiding in the dark reaches of humanity’s past. Shining a light on those connections may move us past them!