What the Neighbors Think

I suspect there are more of us out there than we might expect who grew up with parents who had one level or another of preoccupation with what the neighbors might think. There are any number of reasons that happens. None of them are legitimate. Whatever the real reason for neighborly preoccupation was – narcissism, competitiveness, or a convenient way to control the kids – I can assure you that the neighbors really had no healthy reason to be concerned with what you and your family were up to. You didn’t know that, however, and despite the fact that you know that now you still probably have lingering corners of your mind where that message hides.

The key to the freedom we all deserve as adults is to stop caring what other people think. Part of getting to that point may be realizing that nobody is watching, anyway. As kids it was reasonable to think that others were watching us, even if it was only the crabby old guy down the street waiting for us to step on his lawn so he could jump out and start yelling at us. We are adults now, and the old guy is long dead. Nobody is going to scream at us about stepping on their lawn, and even if they do we can handle it. Unless we are sacrificing virgins in the backyard or sword fighting naked with the boys from the golf club, nobody cares.

If you catch yourself with that old feeling of disapproval, I have found the best practice is to refuse to yield to it. If you want to practice your tuba in the front yard but hesitate because you worry about what people think, blow anyway. If you want to go jogging with your shirt off but worry that your belly looks like claymation animation singing the alphabet song, jog anyway. If you want to tell your beads on the front porch but worry someone might think you are a member of the religious secret police, pray anyway. Each time you do it anyway, it will get easier. I promise.

Let’s Be Honest About Religion

I know this is asking a lot, but I wonder if we might have an honest discussion about religion. This project will require laying aside our sacred cows for just a moment and electing to suspend knee-jerk reactions for a bit. I know those things are difficult for just about everyone, but the potential reward is huge.

infinite godBoth God and the universe are infinite. If you don’t believe in God, consider this discussion to be about the Universe. In truth, the two terms might be understood as interchangeable in many ways. We know that the universe is constantly expanding and traditional understandings of God have included the idea that God is infinite. The problem we run into is that the human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around either concept. We might know to answer “constantly expanding” and “infinite” when asked the right questions, but that is a far different thing than being able to conceptualize either idea. For example, when we consider that one-half of infinity is still infinity our minds really can’t conceive what that looks like even if we can recite the correct answer.

Traditionally, we have chosen a religion to attempt to understand God or find meaning in our lives. The problem is that religions are finite and so represent only one view of God. Religions are also more than a little territorial and almost all of them have asserted that they have the only correct view of God. This may have made some sense when the best humans could do in conceiving of God was to posit a very small God existing in a very small universe with only one inhabited planet. We now know that the universe is ever expanding, and so our little regional God with whom we all have a personal relationship, frequently inviting Jesus over for Cheerios (if I were Jesus, I would think bacon and eggs would be the least you could do) is an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating. In fact, if that’s your view then you, too, may be an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating.

let my people go 10 commandWe need to realize that if we are serious about developing a view of God that resembles the reality of God in any way, confining ourselves to one religious or spiritual perspective just won’t get the job done. I have heard people argue that we need to confine ourselves to one religion because the root meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” We have been bound back by religion since religion was developed. Maybe what needs to happen is for humankind to develop a spirituality that will set us free! If you like to be bound, I can recommend a good dungeon in your neighborhood, but if you want to draw closer to transcendence you might need to consider ask your religious dominatrix to “let my people go,” Moses!

Imagine you had a doctor who decided the only perspective he was going to adopt is that of colds and flu. No matter what your symptoms were, your doctor would diagnose a cold or the flu and send you on your way. How long would you remain their patient? I hope not long! What if your grocery store decided only to sell canned sardines, pickled eggs, and creamed herring while insisting you shop exclusively at their store. Would you listen to them? Why does religion seem to be one of the few areas of life that couples a limited perspective with a demand of exclusivity and manage to stay in business?

The reason is that institutional religion has excelled in thought and behavior control served with a large dose of guilt. For most of history humanity bought into this distorted vision, but the mass exodus of people from houses of worship of all stripes tells us that sales are sharply down and not likely to recover anytime soon. In response, people trying to make sense of their lives have often randomly tried new perspectives, many of which are heavy on flashing lights but short on substance. If you want to believe that you can attract wealth by thinking the right thoughts, for example, you might want to first ask why everyone following those teachings isn’t a millionaire. You would be better off to reject any spiritual or religious system that is constructed to reward greed.

The truth is that if we want to develop a spiritual perspective that works for us, the important first step is to be determined to explore aspects of whatever systems of belief interest you and not allow anyone to try to restrict your exploration. Unless you are a mushroom, those who would keep you in the dark and feed you manure don’t have your best interest at heart. The next step is to allow yourself to make mistakes, change your mind, and change direction. Exploration of every sort involves all of those things. Perfection isn’t the goal, in fact it probably isn’t even possible. Be gentle with yourself and you will be amazed at what you learn! Be bold, you are in charge of your own spiritual life and need answer to no one.

Doing the Same Thing…

There is a very human tendency to, when we find one approach to a problem doesn’t work, do the same thing over and over and hope for a different result. That’s known as insanity, and we seem to excel at it. We might change our approach ever so slightly, but in truth we don’t change it substantially. Then we sit around, throw our hands up in disgust, and wonder why we can’t seem to change anything. We might even feel sorry for ourselves. I believe a great deal of this repeated pattern exists because it’s easier to repeatedly try the same approach than to come up with a new approach and implement it. I don’t believe that we are consciously aware that is what we are doing, but we do it nonetheless.

sewing frustrationImagine that you were trying to sew something with a sewing machine but didn’t have any thread. Imagine that a few years ago you had thread and everything worked out just fine, but now you are out of thread and nothing you “sew” seems to hold together. You read an article a few weeks ago that said you don’t really need thread, so you keep on trying but nothing changes. Would you run out to the store and get some thread, or just keep poking tiny holes in fabric? Many of us would end up with very artistic renderings of Swiss cheese made of fabric.

In the early part of the last century, despite the fact that there was plenty of land, we tended to build homes right next to one another. Then, after the second World War, we decided we liked yards around our homes and so small, postage stamp lots became the nosy neighborsnorm. Kids played in the yard and we still had regular contact with our neighbors. We put up three foot picket fences to keep the kids and pets in the yard, but we still socialized over and around the fences. Then bigger lots became a status symbol, as did homes with attached garages. Privacy fences went up, because we were sure our neighbors had nothing better to do than monitor our behavior. Soon it was possible to avoid our neighbors completely by coming and going through our attached garages, retrieving our mail from the car, and wearing huge hearing protection headsets on our riding mowers or hiring a landscaping service. We retreated behind those privacy fences, not recognizing that we had become imprisoned in a fort of our own construction.

friends we don't need noWe sacrificed community on the altar of privacy, not realizing that all people need community. The Church started to shrink, as did service and fraternal organizations. We disassembled community piece by piece. We didn’t know the neighbors, we didn’t like or couldn’t trust our coworkers, and we didn’t get out enough to meet people we wanted to associate with away from the context in which we met them. We sat in our castles behind our moats and were lonely but didn’t understand why. We might talk with the other parents at our kids’ soccer game, but that was more to pass the time than to build relationship. The more we retreated the unhappier we were and so we retreated even more.

Most if not all problems have multiple causes, but I would like to suggest a remedy to the isolation we all seem to feel. Say “hi” to the neighbors. Walk to your mailbox to retrieve the mail and greet everyone you see. When you do to the grocery store, greet people that you recognize, even if you don’t know them well. Practice being social again, and encourage your family to do the same. Stop isolating. You will be amazed at the difference it makes! Oh, and yes, you do need stinking friends! Well, at least friends who smell nice!

 

Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.

rage

Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.

Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!

Are there similar things that leave you mystified?

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Becoming Comfortable with Change

My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!

We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?

It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.

Wounds

Life hands us all a variety of wounds. These wounds are of different sizes and depths, different intensities and duration, even of different quantity and quality. Our task is not to avoid them, but work through them; not to pass them on to others or try to ignore them, but to understand and heal them.

These important parts of life aren’t always fun. Quite often they cause pain and struggle. This important work is, in part, what our spirituality should equip us to undertake. Doing this work constitutes enlightenment, salvation, awakening – whatever your word for the goal of life may be. We do this work best in community, which is why friends, colleagues, and groups to which we belong are so important.

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?

No More Crusades

As I wrote the title of this post, it occurred to me that the word “crusade” has three uses in contemporary spiritual culture, and so my title might lead to some confusion. I’m not beyond using a little confusion to attract readers, so rather than change it I thought I might explain it.

black knightThe historical sense of “crusade” hearkens back to medieval times and the unfortunate wars undertaken by the Church in an attempt to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslin powers that held it. While there were a few jewels in the rough during these times, from a contemporary perspective they were horrific, genocidal undertakings by a Church more concerned with temporal power that spiritual concerns. These are not the crusades to which I refer.

Then there are crusades of the type that Billy Graham and others undertook. While thereCrusade-Cities-Featured isn’t anything wrong with this sort of crusade (if you’re into that sort of thing), I never have and never will set out on one.

The crusades to which I refer are the ones to right what’s wrong, to challenge the status quo, to get the [metaphorical] troops fired up to do [metaphorical] battle in the great arena of social justice. Mind you, I still believe in these crusades and I will still occasionally write about these topics, but not with the zeal of a younger man who perhaps foolishly believes he can change the world. These past few years have taught me that the world may well be fucked up beyond my ability to help it recover in an activist sort of way.

Many years ago when I worked as a field service engineer on diagnostic ultrasound equipment, a very insightful man named Dick Cline summed up the difference between sales and service people in this way. He said that when a sales person hears, “no,” they get excited and see it as a challenge. When a service person hears, “no,” they pack up their stuff and leave. As he spoke those words, I knew that I was a service person. I don’t like wasting a lot of time trying to convince people to do the right thing. I will happily identify the right thing, explain why it’s the right thing, and offer suggestions about how best to implement it. If you want to argue with me about why the wrong thing is the right thing, I’m just going to pack up my stuff and go home. There are other people who will be more than happy to fight the good fight, and I will leave it to them.

angry (1)Why? There are two reasons I feel this way. The first is that crusades simply don’t work in a country already profoundly divided and profoundly angry. The result is that campaigns and crusades end up preaching to the choir, reinforcing the views of those who already agree with the crusade but causing those with differing views to simply become more entrenched. The second is that, from a spiritual perspective, I feel our time is much better spent by trying to rebuild fractured relationships and thereby start a much needed healing process. That will in turn provide the foundation for the change that is needed. Of course, you can feel free to disagree – just don’t expect me to debate it with you.