What is getting ahead?

Americans tend to view getting ahead as acquiring more stuff. Houses, cars, furniture, appliances, vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and more define where we believe we stand measured against other people. As Roxy and I were taking our walk today we met two little boys and their mother. The boys asked if they could pet Roxy, and I readily agreed. I told them that while she wouldn’t lick them, she would “sniff” them. One of the boys exclaimed, “she blew on me!” His brother told me that they just got a new basement, and it was important for them to clean up their toys every day so that it would stay nice and if they didn’t clean up their toys then it wouldn’t stay nice and so they were going to because they wanted it to stay nice. I told him that my wife made me clean up my toys every night, so I knew it could be hard but that it was important, too. Sensing, I suspect, that more secrets were about to be revealed, their mother told the boys they should let us continue on our walk.

Imagine if we could return to that view of life. What if we decided that the measure of whether or not we were succeeding at life was whether or not we cleaned up our toys before we went to bed at night? We would almost certainly collect less detritus, not wanting to add time to our bedtime cleanup routine. We would either stop being so competitive or the nature of our competition would shift from getting ahead at each others expense to doing the best job possible putting our toys away. That would by much healthier than the current system, because there is nothing about me being the best at cleaning up before bed that could possibly destroy another person’s life.

The problem we have right now is that we tend to see each other as obstacles that stand in the way of our happiness. Seeing each other as an obstacle is very different that seeing each other as human beings. It’s the nature of an obstacle to be overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. Human beings don’t fare very well if they are overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. If we see human beings as obstacles standing in the way of our goals we quickly dehumanize them. After that, we quickly find that we don’t care if they live or die as long as they are moved out of our way in the process. At that point two hundred thousand people dying becomes an abstract concept that we will be incapable of mourning. Imagine having to clean that mess up before bedtime!

Attachment to Outcomes

Attachment to outcomes is never a good idea, yet in our culture we receive messages from all sides telling us we are absolutely, personally responsible for the success of every movement that we support. The messages quite often are formatted in an “if, then” way. “If our effort doesn’t succeed, then disaster looms and so each of you are responsible!” Nonsense. If a movement or a cause requires a group of people working to achieve it in order to succeed, then no one person can be responsible for the outcome – good or bad. Moreover, believing that we are personally responsible for the outcome increases our stress level, making us more prone to all manner of illness and disease, and decreasing our levels of happiness satisfaction, and well being.

What we can control is our effort. We can do our best, but then to remain well we must learn to let go of how everything works out. When we consider all of the factors that must fall into place we can see that no one person is the fulcrum on which the success of the project rests. Believing that we are is a bit narcissistic, to be honest. Ask yourself, “am I really that powerful?” If you examine the situation closely, you will see that you aren’t (none of us are) and that blaming ourselves is factually inaccurate. When we hear someone say, “only I can fix this,” what we are hearing is the overreach of the narcissist. What is around the corner is that same person blaming everyone else for their failure to deliver on their messianic promises.

In these days of pandemic and isolation, what we can control are the choices each of us make on a daily basis to wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings, and to recognize that our actions do impact others. What none of us, even the best scientists, can do is cure this virus by ourselves or hasten the arrival of the end of the pandemic. All natural phenomena must run their course. In the middle of January we may wish we could hasten the arrival of summer, but winter must run its course. No one accuses another of personal failure for their inability to cause the seasons to change more quickly. Don’t let anyone succeed in making you feel responsible for what you cannot control.

The Fiction of Individuality is Killing US[A]!

Rugged American Individualism is a long ago expired truth which today is nothing more than a fiction. Allow me to demonstrate with a few questions…

When you woke up this morning, what woke you up? Was it an alarm clock? Did you make the clock, and did you make solar panels which you installed yourself on the ceiling of the home you built from materials you grew or made? Can you see where this is going? The clothes you put on this morning, I take it you made them yourself from cotton you grew in the back yard, spun on a wheel, and loomed to perfection? Then, after you washed up with water you drew from the well you dug, you probably had breakfast. Coffee? Well, Juan Valdez, I would imagine you grew those beans, harvested and roasted them, too. The eggs were from the chickens in the yard that appeared from nowhere, because only God can make a chicken. I suppose you put the food on plates that you made on your potter’s wheel and fired in your own kiln, right? We aren’t even done with breakfast and your rugged individualism has been blown to hell. We haven’t even gotten to the car you drive that you made all by yourself, fueled with gasoline made from oil you refined from the oil that came from the well you made AND that you drive on the roads you made from the concrete that you mixed using the gravel from your quarry.

So, Daniel Boone, I guess the days of rugged individualism are long gone. They persist today only as a fiction we hang on to in direct proportion to our own ignorance. About the only thing we do today that doesn’t require someone else is go to the toilet in the outhouse we built ourselves in the backyard from wood we got when we cut down trees we planted when we were three years old. You may be thinking that you got much of what you needed from exchanging goods or services with another person, but the key phrase there is “another person.” If another person is involved, it isn’t rugged individualism. If other people are involved it is called living in society and interdependence. The truth is that we need one another and depend on each other nearly every minute of every day. You may not like it, you may wish it was different, but unless you are starting work on that outhouse right now the truth is that you don’t object to it all that much.

By now most of you have seen the video of the jackass in the Costco store who refused to wear a mask. When approached by store employees who explained that Costco requires all employees and shoppers to wear a mask, Jackass announced that he woke up in a free country and wasn’t going to wear a mask. At that point they whisked his cart away, revoked his membership, and escorted him from the store as he stood by slack-jawed. What he missed is that waking up in a free country doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There are restrictions on our freedoms to ensure the common good. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, you can’t run naked down the street, you can’t crap in your neighbor’s outhouse, you can’t kill other people, you can’t just park your car wherever you like, you can’t drive while intoxicated, you can’t rob banks, and a host of other things.

You also have responsibilities when you live in a society. We are responsible for taxes whether we like them or not, we a required to obey laws, when we see something we should say something, we should look out for each other – especially the elderly and infirm, and a host of other things. If you are the kind of person who comes across and old lady trying to cross the street and immediately starts making book on whether or not she will succeed, sooner or later society will put you away. We dispose of our garbage appropriately because to do otherwise creates a public health risk. Similarly, we wear a damn mask during a pandemic. The fact that you may not want to wear the mask is irrelevant. As members of society we have shared responsibilities. If you don’t like that, I’d recommend you prepare to become a very rustic hermit. Those of us who are responsible members of society don’t want you around using our resources any more than Costco does.

A Post-Truth World?

Seriously? What would make us think such a thing was even possible? Who would choose a name like that, a name that implies that truth no longer exists? Of course it means that in our world today many people believe that opinion matters more than truth. I reject that notion! I reject the idea that truth can ever not matter, or matter less than opinion. What we have is narcissism run amok, including in the office of the President. What we have is propaganda passing as news, bald faced lies being presented as alternative facts, and attempts to confuse and distort in an attempt to do whatever we want to do without being held responsible for it.

If this is a post truth world, then I think those who assert that notion must be willing to put the law of gravity to the test. When I was a teenager, every now and then someone would drop acid and decide they could fly. Some of them climbed up onto the roof of their parents’ home and “flew” off. The results were predictable and swift. The next week the family would have a ramp built to the front door so that when young Orville Wright was discharged from the hospital his wheel chair could get into the house. Believing you can fly doesn’t make it so, R. Kelly.

Have you noticed how often millennials begin a sentence with “I feel…” and then go on with content we would have introduced with “I think,” “I know,” or “I believe”? Linguistically, for them, feeling is fact. Except feeling isn’t fact, it is feeling and can be influenced by any number of dubious factors. In fact, feeling doesn’t require fact at all, it’s completely subjective. After the big football game, the fans of the winning team feel happy. The fans of the losing team feel sad. Those who are fans of neither most likely don’t feel much about it at all. The fact is that one team beat another. There are not three underlying facts.

The notion of a post truth world cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. We must have the courage, when we encounter someone who believes their opinion is equivalent to or more important that verified fact, to challenge that idea for the nonsense it is. We might assure our feeling friends that their feelings are valid and we would be happy to discuss them – while reminding them that they are not, in fact, facts. There is much reeducation to be done, and we need to start right away. We don’t want to build any more ramps.

The Demise of Institutional Religion

ventIn case you haven’t noticed, institutional religion is on a ventilator and not expected to survive. The reason is very simple, though many experts would make it very complicated because you can’t write a book with only a few sentences.

It doesn’t matter what religion we are talking about, all religion began with a charismatic teacher presenting new ideas – and never intending to start a new religion. Most often they were simply trying to reform the one of which they were a part. The Buddha sought to address problems in what we today call Hinduism, Jesus wanted to reform Judaism and free it from Roman occupation, Muhammad didn’t believe Judaism or Christianity had quite hit the mark. Protestant Christianity started when people thought Catholicism had drifted off point. The New Thought movement started as a place for overly educated people to gather, Baha’i began as a reform movement within Islam, and New Age started so that people who had serious cognitive deficits from drug abuse to have a place where nobody would notice their issues. The important point is that each of these movements began as small gatherings around a teacher or teachers. As they grew, some of the followers of the tradition decided they needed to build a structure to preserve their new tradition. That sounds great in theory. healing wounds institutional religionIn practice that decision to build a structure is always the beginning of the end.

Once you form an institutional structure around a religious movement you have created an organization in which survival of the organization is the primary concern. The religious teachings become secondary at best. The leaders of a religious institution will only too gladly change their official beliefs to gain acceptance from the local governing authority. There is no small irony in that churches under persecution grow while churches that are officially accepted decline, but church officials crave that acceptance. They see it as key to the survival of the institution despite all evidence to the contrary. They seek that acceptance because they crave power, but power corrupts every time.

End_of_Service_BDThe truth is that the death of the institution is good news for religion, but the dying process can be extremely painful. There is a lot to let go of as an institution dies, perhaps most importantly the need to replace one institution with another before we take the time to learn the lessons from the failure of the last institution. We need to trust ourselves and come to see that we are capable to making spiritual and religious choices for ourselves rather than take orders from “on high.” Just as so-called rebound relationships almost always fail, rebound churches do, too. Can we come to see that, whatever our names for the Sacred might be, we don’t need an intermediary to be in contact with it? Stated another way, are we willing to take responsibility for our own spiritual development – especially since nobody else can do it for us?shit happens tatt

If we are willing to take on the sometimes hard work of spiritual growth, seeing others on the path as companions rather than dispenser of truth from on high, the rewards are plentiful. If we chose not to undertake this path, we will just have to have the tattoo with our old religion’s name covered up yet again and replaced with the new one. One day we may learn not to put anyone’s name on our bodies – but I digress.

 

Spiritual Hierarchies

One of the very just criticisms of institutional religion is that it has become profoundly hierarchical, and hierarchies become self-serving, top heavy, and potentially corrupt. Human nature being what it is, we tend to run headlong to the other end of the spectrum in search of an answer. In Protestant Christianity this resulted in the rise of the non-denominational church. No hierarchy, but also little to no supervision. That means no way to check misconduct or hold people accountable. Within the institution you have misconduct followed by coverup. Outside the institution you have the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the late Jerry Falwell amassing fortunes without the need for coverup or even shame, because they are accountable to nobody.

In Buddhism and Hinduism it isn’t much different. Sex scandals, Rolls Royce collections, and worldwide organizations staffed almost entirely by volunteers loyal to the guru means the often massive donations that flow in end up largely in the guru’s pockets (or wherever you keep your money while wearing a robe). Across the board egos run amok and people are worshiped as if they were God, or at least gods.

As Lord Acton reminds us, “absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Whether at or near the head of a hierarchy or in a system without accountability, corruption waits at the door, an almost ceaseless temptation. Nevertheless, when organizations grow beyond a certain size, some sort of hierarchy is necessary to provide a level of organization to keep things running. The proper balance can be difficult to find. While a collection of independent communities coming together on an ad-hoc basis works for smaller issues, if we want to run a number of homeless shelters in area communities, somebody will need to do the accounting and make management decisions on an ongoing basis.

I honestly believe that the only way to solve these serious issues is through the use of shared power and responsibility. Do spiritual bodies need spiritual teachers and/or leaders? Absolutely. Are those teachers and leaders necessarily the best people to be performing administrative function? Most often they are not. The areas of administration and spiritual leadership require two very different sets of skills. It has been to the detriment of the Christian Church in all its forms that pastors have become administrators, rendering them less available for pastoral duties because they are making business decisions – decisions their spiritual education does not prepare them to make.

In the end, however, this is not a complete solution. Spiritual groups of all kinds absolutely need a board comprised of, for lack of a better term, lay leadership. It also needs to be a board that has rotating membership. If a board does not have regular inclusion of new members with fresh perspectives, it can become entrenched, encrusted, odiferous in places, and part of the hierarchy – subject to the same temptation to corruption and coverup.

Finally, a clear and enforceable code of ethics needs to be in place that addresses leadership at all levels. This code of ethics should clearly delineate acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the consequences for violations of these expectations. The code of ethics should also be subject to review and amendment as necessary, because as circumstances change so does the nature potential problems.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the changes we need to implement, but it is is decent beginning. We must abandon the flawed notion that our leaders and teachers are beyond question or beyond supervision. None of us are perfect, and so all of us should be willing to receive appropriate questions and explain the rationale behind out decisions. None of these actions decrease the credibility, in fact quite the opposite. Transparency serves us all very well, and should be welcomed with open arms rather than avoided.

Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

Opiods, Lawsuits, Addiction, and Responsibility

I confess, I am a bit uneasy about the current batch of lawsuits against big pharma for its role in our self-proclaimed “opiod crisis.” It’s not that I have any affection for big pharma, quite the opposite. Nor am I am addict, though you can’t swing a dead cat at my family gatherings without hitting one – and several if the cat’s tail falls off. I did, however, spend a decade working in healthcare, the vast majority of it in inpatient behavioral health settings. I have assisted in more than my share of medical detoxification of patients who were addicted to various chemicals. I have led talk therapy groups that included addicted people, and the biggest lesson I learned from those folks is that recovery begins when the addict takes responsibility for their actions.How-Does-Drug-Addiction-or-Alcoholism-Affect-My-Social-Security

To be clear, I believe that addiction is a disease. I also believe that as long as an addict can blame someone else for their problems they aren’t at all likely to recover. What I see all of these legal actions saying is that big pharma made people addicts. To that I say, “nonsense.” Big pharma didn’t push those pills down anyone’s throat. They may have underplayed the addictive potential of these medications and that may have resulted in physicians over prescribing them when they first came out, but it has been a very long time indeed – decades – since anyone, especially physicians, believed that opiods weren’t highly addictive.

I am concerned that as settlements and legal judgments roll in against big pharma we will send the message that big pharma is responsible for your opiod addiction. We will also send the message that your physician wasn’t complicit in the problem in that they prescribed opiods far too easily. We may very well offer addicts another excuse to avoid recovery, something no amount of money can justify

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.