Our Histories are Cyclic

santayana learn from historyWestern culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.

Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the learning_from_historytwo. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.

If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet skeleton closetfigured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!

In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!

Let the Cleansing Begin!

It is almost predictable. Watch the White people scramble to purge the record of racism and White Supremacy in America. Scrub the history books and convince yourselves that you have done something worthwhile. No more “Gone With the Wind,” get it out of here so we can pretend that never happened. For the record, I never watched that movie anyway so I won’t miss it, but that’s not the point. Then there is a sketch from “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” that lampooned racist police practices but is now seen as racist because, after all, we can’t have any record of any racism in America! Oh the liberals gather appearing skynews-gone-with-the-wind_5010033to want to do something about racism, but in truth what is happening is an attempt to remove the evidence of racism so that we can look good without becoming vulnerable enough to effect actual change.

Country group Lady Antebellum has apologized for having “antebellum” in their name because the word refers to the pre-Civil War south in America, a time in which slavery was legal. They are now “Lady A,” something their fans (who may or may not be able to spell “antebellum”) have called them for some time. There is an unfounded rumor that the name “Fucking A” came in a close second in balloting for the new name, both because of doubts about spelling and a desire to avoid being known as “F-n A,” but I digress.

The point is that when we remove every trace of bad behavior from our memories we become complicit in perpetuating them. Ask you kids if they learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in school. You may be shocked to learn they didn’t. Ask them if they really know why Martin Luther King, Jr. is important and you may find out your kids believe it’s because streets and plazas are named after him. It’s vitally important that we work to eliminate racism in our society today, but purging records of racism from the past is counter productive and uses energy that would be much better expended in addressing what is happening in 2020!

A Tightrope We Must Walk

I believe we are living in a crucial, historic time. The opportunity is in front of us to, at long last, address racism in a substantial way. It will require deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and a whole lot of deciding to let the little stuff go.

One thing about language that makes it alive and interesting is that it evolves very quickly. If you don’t believe that, listen to someone forty years older or younger than you are and notice how usage has changed. Notice how the trendy words or phrases they are using are different from the ones you are used to. If they are forty years older than you there is a good chance they seem silly and dated to you. If they are forty years younger ellenthan you there is a good chance you aren’t exactly sure what they are saying. Consider things your parents or grandparents say such as “cool” and how uncool it sounds to you. Consider that your children or grandchildren might say “sick” even when they aren’t. A few weeks ago I heard someone criticizing someone they heard using the term “woke.” They said, “nobody says woke any more!” Well, somebody just did and you just did. As that critic ages they will likely learn that it gets harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge of language.

Ellen DeGeneres was recently harshly criticized for using the expression “people of color,” which is apparently no longer acceptable. George Floyd was Black, so only Black people are the victims of racism? News to me. I must not be on the appropriate email list. I guess Ellen isn’t either, so I don’t feel quite so left out. How many times has the preferred term changed from Black, to African American and back again? On what date, precisely, did those changes occur? Why was I not informed? Where do I write to get the updates? What are we supposed to call people who are not White? Under what circumstances, when talking about racism, can we include everyone who is a victim of racism?

Most of us are well intended and want to say the right thing. I believe that a substantial number of White people want to change racism. If, however, we are going to get bogged down in eviscerating everyone who uses terminology we don’t agree with then we aren’t going to get anywhere. If we can’t say anything for fear we are going to say the wrong thing, then dialogue can’t happen. White people need to engage in deep listening and all people need to cut others a bit of slack. That’s how learning happens.

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.

The Six Dimensions of Everything

We are trained to believe there are three dimensions. I don’t believe that. I believe there George Floydare at least six dimensions to everything. By now you would have to be living in a cave without internet (the nicest caves have WiFi, by the way) to not have heard that the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd. I say the department did it because while the officers on the scene were the direct cause, the culture in the department is the broader cause. The fact that other officers stood around while Derek Chauvin, et. al. knelt on his neck is clear evidence that this isn’t an isolated problem within the Minneapolis Police Department – or any American department. As we assess this incident there is the act of Chauvin, the culture within the department, and the failure of other officers on the scene to overcome those factors and intervene. That’s three dimensions right there.

The fourth dimension is the militarization of the police in America that rendered violent protestwitnesses to the murder powerless to intervene. Even with people capturing video of the murder, Chauvin and his colleagues persisted. Clearly the officers didn’t see anything wrong with their actions. How could bystanders intervene? They wouldn’t have had a chance if they tried to intervene physically. The fifth dimension is the city’s hesitation in arresting Chauvin and his colleagues. The city attorney spoke of wanting to be sure he had all the evidence before making an arrest, but if I go out onto the street and kill someone in front of witnesses who take video of my actions I can promise you I won’t be walking around free for a few days while the city attorney gathers evidence. The sixth dimension is race, and all of its implications.

Now consider the demonstrations and subsequent violence around the country. The first protestsdimension are the peaceful protesters. The second is the presence of outside agitators who appear at these events. They have different agendas – some are anarchists, some just like to incite violence, there are allegations some may be foreign nationals – but their methods are to agitate protesters and increase the likelihood of violence. The third dimension are police, national guard, and others charged with containing the protesters and others on the street. The fourth dimension are the local government officials, the decisions they make and the things they say, wise or foolish. The fifth dimension is the media, their presence for better or worse, and the insights they provide the rest of us into what is happening. Finally, the sixth dimension is each of us at home. How will we respond? How will we interpret what is happening and what will we be called to do?

I mention all of this because when we look for solutions to any problem we tend to over Kaepernick Floydsimplify the problem, reduce it to a single cause and try to find a single solution. The we wonder why our “magic bullet” never works! We can address the officers who participated in the murder of George Floyd, but if we don’t address the culture that allowed it to happen we will be here again in the near future. We can change police departments, but if we don’t address the cultural oppression of people of color all we do is push the anger back under the surface where it will wait for another trigger to bring it to the surface. The truth is that we have a lot of work to do and we have waited far too long to begin.

Sadly, at times like this there is no shortage of people who want to tell us how we should respond. I am amazed at people who want to tell us with great specificity how we should act, not taking into account each of our abilities and aptitudes. Nobody can tell any of us how best to respond. The message we need to hear is that we must respond, we must reach out across the divide that is race in America, that each of us has a stake in this change, and that none of us gets to sit this one out. Start now.

Unseen Casualties

chronic painThe most important casualties of the current pandemic are those with COVID 19. They are the victims and they are receiving most of the attention – as they should. Then there are those who desperately want to be victims, the conspiracy theorists and those who feel their rights are being impinged upon when asked to wear a mask to protect their fellow citizens. They are the infantile cry babies, and should be ignored completely. In the middle are those of us with chronic conditions who have been unable to get treatment during this crisis. Some of us remain unable to get treatment because of irresponsible behavior on the part of our providers.

Consider Advanced Pain Management, a multi-State pain management conglomerate. Closing all their clinics on March 17, they assured patients that it was for everyone’s protection. For profit healthcare rarely does anything to protect anyone other than itself. More than two months later, the vast majority of their clinics remain closed. The exceptions are a few in towns so small they couldn’t even get a bus to stop at the local gas station. Meanwhile, patients in metropolitan areas wait for some movement and cannot get answers. We can get phone appointments, but if we need more than a refill or a phone call we are told to go to our primary care physician or the local emergency chronic pain cycledepartment. Neither of those places will treat someone with chronic pain, of course. They may order imaging or lab tests, but whatever the results we are referred to the still-closed pain clinic for treatment.

You may be thinking we should suck it up, but some of us are risking permanent injury while we wait for our clinics to reopen. In my case, I now have involuntary muscle movement and loss of range of motion. You may be thinking, “find another clinic.” The problem with that is the pain industry has made it very difficult to switch clinics for fear the patient might be trying to get more narcotics – even when your clinic is “temporarily closed.” Further, there is no way for a new provider to get medical records from a clinic that isn’t open. The clinics hold all the cards, and right now some of them aren’t even coming to the table.

Every time I pass a “heroes wear scrubs” yard sign I have to laugh. Yes, some of them do in fact wear scrubs. Others have been withdrawn from the battle by irresponsible employers like Advanced Pain Management, their patients left to fend for themselves. That’s not healthcare, it’s cover your ass behavior by the worst of for-profit medicine. Tell me again that we don’t need healthcare reform, please.

How Things Work

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

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

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

Sticky, Messy Emotions

I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.

germanwwiisaluteMy parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.

Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.

Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As helenkellercatwe learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.

People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.