Control the future?

Tennis player Naomi Osaka currently appears in a television commercial for Citizen watches in which she says, “I can control my future.”

No, Naomi, you can’t. None of us can, an we have a collection of lovely (and sometimes trite) pieces of folk wisdom and spiritual teachings to remind us that we can’t. Even wearing an expensive watch while playing tennis won’t let us control the future. If you really believe you can, I am afraid you have some rude awakenings in your future.

The only thing we can impact is the present moment. Living in the present moment is our best chance of happiness. Living for the future is our best chance of dying having never really loved. Take off the watch.

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Why are my religious friends jerks?

osteen megaIt’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.

As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth westboroyear studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?

The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s trivial eventsperfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.

Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a depression surrounded by assholesspiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.

The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are.  To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.

Ego

If you cannot explain theological concepts in clear, everyday language either you do not understand the principle or you are engaging in a religiously sanctioned form of public masturbation. Either way, the practice leaves no one better for having witnessed it.

From what do you hide?

I happened to be out in the country the other day, about forty minutes west of downtown Milwaukee. It’s beautiful out there in what’s known as the Kettle Moraine part of Wisconsin. It is here that the glaciers did some of their most beautiful work during the ice age, and the countryside rolls in a way that would make you forget you were in the Midwest. It’s the part of southeastern Wisconsin where people own horses and their yards almost look as if they are part of a pine forest. Some of the homes are modest, some far from it, and one in particular was a festival of excess larger than a small office building.

I started to reflect on who might need that much space. I wondered if the escape into such space might be an attempt to isolate themselves from a world they is afraid of, yet from which they extract a rather exorbitant living. Then I happened to stopped at a home with a rather large American flag, under which flew an equally large Trump 2020 flag, making America great again by flying in a yard so protected by tall pine trees that nobody could possibly see it, an insulation against the intrusion of a far less idyllic but far more real world that contains a diversity the home’s owner simply cannot tolerate. MAGA is a prison of its adherents’ own construction, and with it comes only the illusion of freedom. An ironic prison is still a prison.

It is easier to understand moats and draw bridges when you see homes like this – homes with slightly more subtle but no less real barriers to intrusion by those perceived to be the enemy. The acquisition of material goods has not brought happiness but rather fear that someone will come along and take those goods. The god of materialism then compels the construction of a fortress to protect the goods, which itself requires even more materialism to pay for the protection,resulting in more anxiety for fear the protection will fail. When will the condom of materialism burst, and rather than semen mad hordes who want our stuff will come rushing in? This is the picture of the contemporary American dream, a dream that if someone is not careful leads to early departure at their own hand.

Change

If you want your circumstances to change, you are going to have to take the first step and change how you relate and react to what is happening. If you are not willing to do that, the only one you have to blame is yourself. Nothing can change if everything stays the same.

Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Every generation seems to feel compelled to say the next generation is doing everything wrong and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Despite that, the world goes on. If we examine things objectively, we see that what changes are the circumstances and details, not the outcomes. The world moves along and new problems do arise, but the ones left over from the previous generation get solved by the next.

What if the real issue is twofold? What if we complain about the next generation because (1) we don’t want to admit we didn’t have all the answers, either, and (2) we just don’t like change?

Controling the Uncontrolable

Most people’s idea of the goal of religion and spirituality is an attempt to control what cannot be controled. They wear their beliefs and practices like some sort of talisman that [they believe] will divert all danger and unsatisfactoriness that lies in their path. In fact, an overly simplistic reading of Buddhism promises just that – an end to suffering. Kindergarden Christianity posits a “little buddy” Jesus who follows us around (unless we are Kindergarden Roman Catholic Christians, in which case we have a Guardian Angel who does this*) like a cosmic Wonder Woman, deflecting adversity with gold wrist bracelets. We have no idea what we are asking for when we ask to avoid problems, challenges, and suffering. In asking for these things, we are in effect checking out of the game, refusing to grow, and wishing for a life that holds still right where we are, which is no life at all. Forget about growth, forget about friendship, and surely forget about love when we are in this space.

Here’s the truth: we don’t grow in any way without adversity. From the physical growing pains we experience as children to the emotional growing pains of loss and failure as adults, growth isn’t smooth sailing. Honest religion and spirituality tells us that, and prepares us for the great adventure that is a fully engaged life. We all would do well to let go of our control issues and live life fully, experiencing all it has to offer – including the not so fun parts!

*to be fair, far better to assign such a nonsensical duty to an angel than to Jesus

Not My Stuff

I frequently encounter situations where someone has taken on the developmental or recovery work of a friend or loved one. They mean well, and they want to help their loved one in their process, but somewhere along the way a line gets crossed and their efforts turn from helping the individual in question to hurting everyone. Again, this is all with the best of intentions, but with terrible results.

We quite simply can’t do other people’s work for them. It may seem loving to try, but it’s anything but. The result is quite often the we inhibit their already overdue growth process. Housing the perpetually unemployed or the addicted person, tolerating inappropriate interpersonal behaviors of a loved one working through a trauma history, or allowing people to repeatedly overstay their welcome not only hurts them, it hurts the members of your family who are entitled to your attention and affection. Your partner and your minor children deserve to be the object of your love and support. Other adults quite simply need to grow up and figure life out. Their issues are not your issues.

Morality is not a Popularity Contest

I have noticed that, quite often, when an organization determines that a certain course of action is the right course of action their next step is to enter into a long process to determine how to best implement that course of action. What they really seem to be doing is determining how to implement their decision in the way that will create the least amount of public relations damage possible. While I agree with the old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, there are some problems that require action sooner rather than later. If your house catches fire, you want the fire department to arrive as soon as they can rather than wait until they determine the route that will offend the fewest people with their sirens and horns. The humanitarian crisis at our borders is a house on fire, but the issue is being referred to committees at a frantic pace.

second-guessingI understand that everybody wants to afford everybody else the illusion of empowerment (God help us all), but in some situations the reason we have placed leaders in  position is to take action while some well meaning soul forms committees in hopes that nobody gets offended. We have so battered many of our leaders that they are afraid to take action because they don’t want to weather the second guesses of their constituents, and so they fail to take action when required. We have a lot of damage to repair!

We might start that repair by learning to trust our gut. I believe there are many ways in which we communicate with one another that we can’t see or measure, but they exist nevertheless. Whether we call it intuition, a hunch, or trusting our gut, we respond to that information that is subtly communicated. How many times have each of us ignored our hunches only to later discover we should have listened to them? Sometimes we just need to take action. If we lose our position for doing the right thing, or the best thing we could, we need to ask ourselves if we would have wanted to remain in a place that confuses popularity with right action. I hope not.

Asexual Dating

There is an article currently on Huffington Post that details the dating difficulties of a person who identifies as asexual. I mention it because the issue can be generalized to a number of relationship questions. The author of the article was bemoaning the fact that, while there are asexual dating sites, they aren’t very well populated and some of the people on them she finds strange. It’s also difficult to identify asexual people in daily life who might be prospective dating partners. Her solution has been to date non-asexual people, both men and women, but that hasn’t really worked out because they are looking for sexual relationships. Go figure.

asexual makeoutsWhile we might be tempted to roll our eyes at the fact that she is baffled by all of this, many people enter into relationships where they know from the outset that some of their prospective partner’s strongest needs are something they just aren’t interested in. Foe example, perhaps one partner loves spending many of their weekends at Civil War reenactments, and the other finds them silly. This couple would need to ask themselves if they could tolerate spending many weekends apart. If not, there isn’t much point in continuing the relationship.

No relationship is going to feature two people who meet all of each other’s needs. Each partner is ultimately responsible for getting their own needs met. If we are talking about finding a tennis partner or someone to go to craft fairs with, there shouldn’t be a problem. If we are talking about finding someone else as a sexual partner, there is likely to be some question as to why we are in a romantic relationship rather than just remaining friends. If an asexual person is looking for a life partner, their best bet is probably another asexual person. If they chose to try to date sexual people, it seems to me they lose the right to be surprised when it doesn’t work out.

Other times, it can be a problem of mistaken definitions. I worked with a woman several years ago who told me she was bisexual. By this she meant she was attracted to gay men. It turned out that she had an extensive history of sexual abuse as a child, and she felt attracted to gay men because she could be fairly certain they wouldn’t want to be sexual with her. She didn’t understand why gay men didn’t want to date her. I referred her to a therapist. No matter the context, it’s good to know when you are in over your head!