Friday, September 17, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 18, 2021 - The Exit Ramp

When stuck in a cycle of rumination, how do we find an exit ramp? Sometimes I get really stuck in my thoughts. I, like many people, have a tendency to trap myself in little emotional spin cycles that feel as long to end as if I were standing in front of the washing machine willing it to finish spinning already. 

Knowing that I’m not alone, I ask the question on behalf of us all: How the heck do we manage to just chill out once in a while instead of letting things get to us? Where is the peace? And why isn't it available on demand?

Those of us who make a point to study spiritual practices have a tendency to get even more frustrated with ourselves, thinking we should be better at this kind of thing than we are. But added perspective doesn’t always mean added results. 

It’s a source of frustration for me because when something gets under my skin, I have a tendency to talk to myself a lot. I continually refine my arguments against the person who miffed me. Out loud. I do it for several sentences before I realize I’m doing it and I’ve always wondered just how many people out there have seen me talking to myself. 

The advent of speakerphone technology in cars has made this somewhat less of a concern. Hopefully, it makes me appear as if I’m having an actual conversation with a real person. Unfortunately, I’m not always in my car when I’m doing it. 

If I’m going to be dispensing advice here on how to achieve an exit ramp, I have to recognize that I’m asking this advice for myself as well. And that it will be just as difficult for me to follow as anyone else. But humans are always meta-aspirational, even without merit or precedent. Hope springs eternal.

The first bit of armchair advice that pops into my head is that if we want to change our feelings, we need to change our thoughts. Which of course is very easy to say at this moment when I’m not actively making mashed potatoes in my head. But I have a suspicion that the advice is true nonetheless.

I’m sure there are all kinds of suggestions about how to constantly remind ourselves that we are responsible for the thoughts we’re having. From yellow sticky paper to strings on fingers, and even apps on our phones, there are myriad ways of tapping ourselves a reminder. I wouldn’t know if they actually work, because even though I’ve recommended them, even in this very column, I’ve never successfully managed to do it myself. 

Is good advice still good advice even if we who shell it are bad at following it? Every medical professional I know is very challenged when being asked to follow the same medical advice for themselves that they give to others. Religious professionals are no different.

Another idea which comes to me is about building resilience in the first place. And this I manage to actually do on occasion. I go to the woods. I find other ways to spend time alone and recharge. I have always liked my reflective time, so it’s easy for me to not forget it. 

But clearly, building resilience isn’t quite enough or else I wouldn’t ruminate so much, right? I suppose I can hear an answer that says, “But how do you know it wouldn’t be worse if not for your time spent in nature?” Since that’s impossible to know, I will optimistically assume it to be the case.

I’m quite scientifically certain, however, that regular exercise also builds emotional resiliency. It’s that I don’t appear to be emotionally certain which makes exercise a struggle. The science is there, but it’s not always good at motivating me.

My husband has an excellent tactic that has actually changed how his brain is wired around a subject. 

He used to have pronounced road rage. Not to the point of physical altercation, but definitely on the level of screaming and colorful gesticulations. 

A therapist one suggested to him that he humble and ground himself away from his reflexive rage thinking by subtly asking himself “who do you think you are anyway?” At that point, he flashes back to the old Imperial Margarine commercials from decades ago where just tasting their product would make you feel like a crowned emperor. The thought of a crown popping onto his head and scepter into his hand along with the little trumpet fanfare which accompanied it would make him laugh. It changed his mind, literally. 

He never feels road rage now. He found an exit ramp. And now that I think about it, I realize his exit ramp also built resiliency at the same time.

So it’s definitely possible. Some have managed to crack the code. Jamie can’t be the only one. 

I think it’s interesting that the secret might be in the fact that his mental trick helped more permanently rewire his brain at the same time as it calmed down the immediate reaction. Are there other exit ramps out there for us that manage to do these both at the same time? Is that the real way out?

My time spent forest-bathing definitely builds resilience. But am I not taking advantage of the possibility that I could use the forest as a way of reducing my knee-jerk reactions and hours-long ruminations over hurt feelings as well?

Perhaps the forest works better if I not just observe it, but memorize it? Maybe I can store it for later when I can’t manage to derail my mind from something. I’m going to try it tomorrow. I might let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, consider finding little mental tricks that accomplish both the building of resilience (meaning actually rewire your brain through regular new ways of thinking) and calming ourselves down at the same time. 

If anything, spend more time thinking. Let thoughts just come to you. Put your phone down. Shut the TV off. We often prefer they remain on so that we don’t have to listen to our thoughts. But as Confucius said, “If you do not change the direction in which you are going, you will end up where you are headed.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 11, 2021 - Does It Matter?

One of my favorite characters in all of literature is the Bishop from Victor Hugo‘s 1862 novel Les Miserables. Also referred to as Monseigneur Bienvenu (meaning, welcome), Bishop Charles Myriel was suddenly elevated from parish priest to his high clerical rank by Napoleon himself after paying him a complement in passing. Having originally learned the basic story of Les Miserables as a stage musical in the 1980’s, I discovered the Bishop in more detail once I read the book upon which the musical was based. 

In the musical, Les Miserables, the Bishop plays a minor but still crucially benevolent role. It was presented in the stage production rather like backstory exposition rather than the fundamental ingredient to the entire novel’s raison d’ĂȘtre; its literal reason for existing. All of the moral choices made in the entire novel by its lead character, Jean Valjean, are based upon his singular night’s exchanges between himself and Bishop Myriel. 

In short summary, out of desperation, Valjean steals some silver from the Bishop, only to be returned in chains by the police. The Bishop fibs to the police that it wasn’t stolen, he gave the silver to the man, but scolded Valjean that he forgot to take the candlesticks too. After the police leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to use the money to become an honest man.

This single generous act, even setting aside the countless other generosities which Victor Hugo uses at length to paint the character of this man for his readers, demonstrates every single one of the principles that Jesus taught, but which nearly all of us find impossible to live up to. 

On that single act, I base my life and actions to this day. I don’t mean that as a point of bragging, but as a notification of my sincere attempt to live up to these ideas for living in relationship with one another. 

I needed to see someone behave as the Bishop did—outside of scripture—to understand how to put the teachings into active practice. Why might that be? I had certainly already been exposed to Christian teachings, why hadn’t I yet clearly recognized how to embody them? The fictional person of the Bishop clarified the teachings for me in a way that attending church had not yet managed. 

Monseigneur Bienvenu’s actions were based on the teachings of Jesus, but for all we know Jesus based his teachings on other ideas and traditions as well. For instance, many have recognized the similar character of the teachings of Christ with those of the Buddha, who preceded Jesus by 500 years. Some have postulated that Christ’s missing years were spent in India learning these very traditions. 

Were the parables Jesus told his followers true stories? I wouldn’t think so. But they were used by Jesus as literary devices to demonstrate how to be in good relationship with one another. Were they devices of Jesus’ conceiving? Or had he heard them from someone else and recognized their value in sharing them?

So if one were to ask the daring question: Did Jesus really exist? my reply would be: Does it matter? I mean, sure, within most Christian traditions his actual existence appears to be of great importance, namely for the purpose of reconciling God to all of humanity—and its vast quantities of sin. 

But how can we calculate the hereafter with any certainty? Especially since God doesn’t appear to talk about it all that much. Most of what God teaches people in Scripture, whether via Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, is about how to relate with one another. It’s a subtle bit of advice not to spend all of our time considering the vertical, when our present existence occurs entirely on the horizontal. Scripture is about the human experience. Not really the divine.

Humans always tell narratives in order to teach one another. More often than not those stories are fictional. Their characters are made up out of thin air to demonstrate a point. Do they really need to have literally existed in order for us to find value in them? And what of those individuals whose stories are based in truth, but have since taken on new layers? Are the layers irrelevant? Or has the historical individual become a scaffold for telling an even greater story?

Personally, I believe that Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth. I believe this despite the fact that only one primary historian refers to him, and that was sixty years after the fact. I consider it a leap of faith, but one that is not required in order to practice the things Jesus is reported to have taught. Forgiveness is a good teaching whether or not you believe the teacher was real. That’s what makes them worth their salt.

Furthermore, even if there was a host of archaeological and historical evidence that he actually did exist, we know for a fact that some translations have misrepresented the original teachings to degrees we cannot fathom. History is factually murky. Should we use all of our energy trying to see in the dark? Not likely.

The only fact we have is, that as of this moment, the Bible is in print. There is no evidence to suggest it is in its original form. All we have is what we’ve been given. Even as recently as the 20th century, critical changes in the methods of translation were still occurring. They are probably occurring right now. Which version of the Bible is true if so many of them word things differently? Again the question becomes: Does it matter?

By and large, it does not. Which means we are able to use our gifts of critical thinking and discernment to determine a historical text’s value for ourselves. We can look at a piece of scriptural advice with our own minds to determine if it has value for us. We don’t know anything about the editorial chain of those who have handed it down to us, we only can explore what we have in our hands right now.

If God “wrote” the Bible, as many traditional Christians claim, it must be that God is authoring these constant changes in real time. Which then begs the question: Is that all according to plan?

Regardless of your position on the existence of God, or the divinity of Jesus, the teachings still have value in them. As do those characters who were fictionally devised to live up to them. Take the time to have a look at the words yourself, or listen to some hopeful thinking about it now and then. There are pathways of ease and comfort to be found. 

Thanks be for the writers, for the fiction creators, and those who pull truth out of thin air. If it be in favor of love, a truth lies therein. 

In closing, it's worth noting that my favorite line in the book, at least as regards the tradition of writing about people, is this of Victor Hugo’s: “We do not claim that the portrait herewith presented is probable; we confine ourselves to stating that it resembles the original.”

Good food for thought. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 4, 2021 - What Choice Have We But Optimism?

What choice have we but optimism? Truly, in the end, there is literally nothing else for us but to seek out ways toward which, at a minimum, at least our basic survival seems possible. This is instinctive for us.

Of course there are other options. Pessimism. Obstinacy. Fear. But those things are not self-sustaining; nor are they naturally-occurring. They require we bolster them artificially, through the misuse of power and authority. Through an avid campaign of persuasion against our natural instincts. There are those who would prefer we continue to exist in a little bit of fear. That is the way of the world. 

Well, clearly not all of it.

Still, there is tremendous beauty, and even elegance, in the design of these challenging human classrooms. When we step back a bit from how difficult it feels to be in it, we see an arc of progress that occurs especially because of having gone through it. Is that benevolence? Diversity almost always refines us. If we could manage to believe that our struggles contained within them a hint of the Divine, a wink from Spirit that says, “even in this I am with you,” could we allow our hearts to be at ease just a bit? Worrying accomplishes even less than nothing. 

I find the distinction between hope and optimism meaningful. Hope is an idea about something we truly want, but can’t imagine a way it might be possible. We hope for a million dollars to fall from the sky into our laps. 

Optimism is buying a lottery ticket. Optimism is hope mingled with an at least semi-believable pathway toward what we want. Hope becomes optimism when we use our creativity to guess at genuine ways, however improbable, that our desires might become true.

Buying a lottery ticket, as opposed to hoping a bag of money falls from the sky, however remote a chance it might be to win, we know someone typically does win it. Which means it could be you. Which means, in your mind, there’s a genuine, miniscule possibility you might become rich. That’s optimism. 

Pessimism is a belief that good rarely occurs, and when it does, it probably won’t be anywhere near you. Pessimism is a fear of rejection, really. Even for agnostics, it’s hard not to feel a sense that the Universe is betraying us sometimes. Many of us often feel stranded by God. Rejected. Pessimism is resonant with rejection. 

However, pessimism is still a worthy classroom of its own. Living within it often teaches us many things in the long run. But it is a long run to get there. A sad, winding road with turns that often threaten or fool us back two steps for every forward one we make. If only we didn’t learn so much from grief.

But optimism is natural. Optimism is what propels our species forward. Suppose a pessimist and an optimist walk into a bar, each with a desire to get lucky. The irony is, the pessimist is showing his optimistic streak in doing so. A true pessimist never bothers to go to the bar in the first place. Going to a bar always reveals a belief that joy might be possible. 

Of course many of us look for love in the wrong places. But that doesn’t diminish our desire for, and belief that, love might be possible. That’s optimism. 

The advice here is to have faith. It is the inserting of the “unknown variable” into the list of possible ways in which our desires might be realized. Hope plus faith equals optimism. It’s not the only equation of optimism, but this one means you think that some unexpected thing is just waiting to occur in your favor. That’s potent. That’s the viewpoint that allows for unlimited possibilities.

Do optimistic people live longer? We sure do. 10-15% longer, in fact. Even those with chronic illness.

Why do you think this is? It comes down to basic body chemistry. Negative thinking creates a more constant drip of fight or flight hormones throughout the body. These hormones are very useful in short bursts, but deteriorate our cellular structure like acid when present for too long or too often. Does that sound like a person who lives longer? Or better?

How does one shift more toward optimism? It’s easy to say, “Just change your thoughts and be more optimistic!“ But we all know that’s much easier said than done. It takes practice. Not just practice, but life practices. Dharmas. It takes community to accomplish.

That’s essentially the function and purpose of church. Of course organized religion is certainly not the only way to achieve it. But a deliberate shift toward optimism does typically require the support of others. We need others to share their ideas with us about it. And we need room to share our ideas with others.

We need to hear about examples where maintaining optimism proved to have been the best option. We need to add synaptic pathways to our brains that reinforce the idea that good can and does occur. Every time we think an optimistic thought those pathways become strengthened.

But spiritual community in support of greater optimism needs also a place to let go of the past. We need space to grieve–communally–the parts of us onto which we held so firmly for so long. The parts of us that were wrong for us, un-self-loving, resentful of the past. We have to let go of the parts of ourselves which were wounded into thinking that less good happens in the world than bad. Thank you for your service. Hail and farewell.

What’s left over is an exposure of the parts of ourselves which always believed anything is possible. Those parts never went away. They were never beaten out of existence. They were merely covered by other, more artificial ideas. These were not natural to you. And so they were never destined to last. Release them. Reveal your natural sense of future promise. 

There are many dharmic pathways and organized life practices in the world where there exist teachings that can help us. Some are religions. Like Christianity, or Islam. Some are not religions in the classic sense but present themselves rather as organized guidance. Like Buddhism and Hinduism. Some are born of the earth and resonate with the change of seasons and agriculture. 

Each of them provides instruction on how to be at ease. Each has the potential to offer a sense of belonging and community, which aids our desire for peaceful inner change. 

Find a way for yourself. Find others who struggle as you do to retain a belief that all shall be well. We become part of the solution when this occurs. We become a wind at the back of progress. The shift occurs naturally within us, and once done, cannot so easily be forgotten. 

If you can manage to believe only one thing, believe that you are meant to experience joy. You are designed for the purpose of loving and being loved. You were created with beautiful and benevolent intent. Tap into it.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 19, 2021 - Punching Holes in the Ocean

Why do bad things happen? Do bad things happen for good reasons? Meaning, is there a hidden benevolence in all things? 

For spiritual teachings to have any value, they must have a practical, human relevance. They must look like us and empathize with our feelings. It can’t be all about the heavens. All worthwhile religious traditions must be about our experience here on earth. 

Religion gives vague answers about the reasons for why bad things happen. I think that’s fair and understandable. There is no one answer we all equally perceive. Every tradition has its own facet of the diamond. The light reflects differently from there. And since there is no rational, human answer to some of the tragedies which befall us, traditionally, we conclude them to be celestial in origin. A.k.a. punishment from God. Punishment implies we have done something wrong.

Since religion is rarely about definitive answers regarding the mind of God, it can’t give a clear answer. But I think they can’t give a clear answer because they expect the answer to be more complicated than it is. And so they conclude the simplest answer invalid; or perhaps they don’t even notice it at all. Even as the word comes from their very mouths. 

What harm would it do to believe that every tragedy has a hidden potential encoded within it? Does believing it diminish you in any way? What proof have you against it? My point being, when we behave as though certain things might be true, they have a tendency to behave that way. We have a tendency to see the world through our lens of choice. Rose colored glasses see roses more often. Does that mean the roses were never there before? Or you’re just noticing them more now?

There is no real answer to the question ‘why do bad things happen.’ Although if I had to synthesize world scripture into a single-word answer of my own assumption, it would be: Love. 

That is, to me anyway, the simple answer to the question. Love is why bad things happen. This I truly believe without understanding it one single bit. This is a faith assumption that love is at the root of all things, including bad things. Including when I don’t understand how, or so grief stricken I don’t care.

And that may not be true. I have no way of knowing if love is the answer to why bad things happen. But I do have a way of behaving as if it were true. I have a way of responding. I anticipate goodness in a way that tends to attract it. This is what spiritual practice is meant to teach us. It helps us to choose what color glasses through which we shall see the world  

Where is the love in bad things? It can’t be in our grief. It can’t be intermingled with our rage, especially our rage with God. Or perhaps, it can. Where inside our tragedies exists the little paper fortune? 

I think the first step is to assume there is a paper fortune at all. Attune yourself to its existence. Make the invisible visible to you. Once we have this mindset, we are on the lookout for signs of it. Isn’t that what you want? Don’t you want to know how to best navigate through our sorrow? Don’t we want little trail markers to help us along the way? Unless you know what the markers look like for your trail, why would you even think to look for them? And rather than wonder, we wander through the woods, battling the thicket for nothing. 

Some of our greatest wisdom tales display for us in exuberant detail what happens when we forget that there is benevolence in all things. The news shows the same. Battling with symptoms instead of root problems because we don’t know that love is in the soil. 

It is as useless as trying to punch holes in the ocean. Some are not looking for the best possible ways forward as they should, but the ways which satisfy their rage and fear in the immediate. Revenge rather than restoration. They are not humble. Their methods will fail. 

Considering the issue of our problems with guns and drugs, for example, their existence is natural and logical. We have created a vacuum that supports their continuing presence. People are built to seek self-worth and meaning. When it does not come naturally, it will be gotten unnaturally. The benevolence here is not about legislating guns and drugs as much as it is about raising up those who would be most vulnerable to them. The benevolence here is that love is the only answer to the problems of guns and drugs. The benevolence here is that once we figure that out, the world will change. God gets what It wants in the end, by hook or by crook, all nourished at the root by love.

When we get sick, we don’t legislate against the symptoms, we seek out the virus, if we truly wish to feel better. Symptoms are simply a natural part of the cause-and-effect process of illness. They are not villains unto themselves. Love your enemy. Seek them out at the root. Don’t do battle with their fears. They are phantoms. 

Some, however, would have you believe that battling windmills is the only way forward, but that will get you nothing but a twisted sword. You must untether the windmill from the grinding stone entirely to cease its function. Let the windmill spin. Useless as a pinwheel toy, its arms will rot away and break in time, now obsolete, now impotent from the process of further grinding us into powder. Untether the power that sorrow has over you. Let it spin itself into oblivion.

Look for bumper stickers of spiritual wisdom. They are often more helpful than we give them credit for navigating the intricacies of our daily lives. The best wisdom uses the fewest words. The most helpful mathematical equations are the most elegant. 

The goal here is to move through life with an assumption that even on your darkest days there is something through which to grow from, and empathize with, and ring a bell into the universe. There is always a best path forward, no matter how deep our pain, nor how intense our fear. Assume that from your list of options, one of them is the best of all possible choices, maybe even a transforming one. Prepare yourself to notice it. Listen for wisdom from your heart. Promise yourself to heed it. 

You have everything you need to spin gold from hay. It's already a part of you; a part of the benevolence with which you were so gloriously made. Claim it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 12, 2021 - The Art of Appreciation

How does appreciation configure into our well-being? 

There is a distinct ring of upward trajectory in the word appreciate. It’s from the late-Latin adprentium, meaning to price. It’s a business term.

When we set something at a price, when we assess personal value and give it a monetary equivalent, we are declaring something. Something deeply personal and well attached to our sense of satisfaction.

Interestingly, the use of the word appreciate has more than doubled in the past 200 years. My uneducated guess would index its use with the rise in industrialism and technology. More people, more things to sell. Things appreciate in value.

Yet have people? Do we appreciate people more now than 200 years ago? Even looking at the decline in homicides per capita over the past 200 years would tell you the answer is likely yes. Not that that alone would prove it.

What is the benefit of appreciation? I’d think that the answer is dividends. Offshoots of benefit resulting from the benefit of something else. Are there extra benefits when we appreciate someone or something? Are there benefits when we are appreciated by others?

This is my way of establishing a platform to discuss something which I have personally noticed to be true. I have a natural tendency to be appreciative of others. I don’t know where it came from, other than to give my parents credit for raising me in an environment of appreciation. Until now, I don’t think I fully appreciated that.

Appreciation is different than gratitude. It feels different. It feels more about bonding. It feels more essential, a balm we seem to need as much as food or water. 

I can tell you several instances in my life where I was appreciated for something that made such an impact upon me I remember those moments to this day. They are no less effective at reminding me of who I am than the day they were first spoken. 

I quite distinctly remember the feeling of appreciation I received for a fairly ludicrous portrayal of the character Pee Wee Herman in a Thanksgiving day football rally back in high school. I wasn’t getting much appreciation back then from my classmates. But even from those whom I’d call my greatest nemeses, I could tell their compliments were genuine. Though I couldn’t fathom why it would be that I, who was bullied constantly for my soft-edged masculinity, should now be lauded for publicly acting effete. 

It wasn’t attention that I wanted, however. I got plenty of that. It was appreciation that I needed most.

So let’s acknowledge that this is part of our emotional food pyramid which many of us neglect. It falls under the category of gratitude, but clearly is more specific. More nuanced than gratitude. Appreciation is an art form.

The business world knows this very well. And not just because of the monetary and transactional nature of the word appreciate. But because they spend real money on learning how to enhance productivity in the workplace. The irony is that all of these studies show us that keeping your workers happy, safe, and appreciated, both monetarily as well as verbally, ensures high productivity. Essentially, the studies prove you have to be nice in order to get more from people. Corporate argument against the findings is that being nice is too expensive.

Surprisingly, at least to me anyway, was learning that while receiving appreciation is important, it’s nowhere nearly as effective as demonstrating it. Not just for the sake of those whom we are appreciating, but even more so ourselves. Psychologically, and even physiologically, appreciation acts as a generator within systems. Appreciation begets enthusiasm, belonging, and a sense of ownership.

So what might we do with this realization? I started off this essay with a thought about what happens to us emotionally when someone clicks ‘like’ on something we have said or shown on social media. That ‘like’ is a signal of appreciation. That’s where the dopamine rush comes from. That’s what we’re addicted to, some of us.

A well-meaning but impossible-to-follow maxim I was taught growing up was, “Don’t care what other people think.” It’s not only easier said than done, I haven’t yet been convinced of a single case where people haven’t cared at least a little about what others think, despite their protestations against it. Many reading this will consider themselves an exception, but I have deep faith in this idea. I think we are hardwired care what others think. 

An aspect of our communal nature rests squarely on ritual appreciation. We require it. Biologically, appreciation is the vetting process of good ideas and strong genes. Spiritually and emotionally, appreciation is the elevating of our spirit. It is the further entanglement of our unity. It coheses the bonds between us. We might consider doing it on purpose as a prominent aspect of our regular spiritual practice.

But what does the spiritual practice of appreciation look like? How do we practice appreciation? The simple answer is to just do it. But obviously that's no answer at all. Because practicing appreciation is really the practice of mindful appreciation. Deliberate and intentional use of the act of appreciation for mutual benefit. Something to meditate upon and try out in real life. Just like the concepts of forgiveness or compassion.

The best part is there are endless opportunities to demonstrate appreciation, most of which we never even think about. How often do we make a point of making a complaint? Start off by giving a compliment to someone for every complaint you make about someone or something else. One for one. Brace yourself. If you manage it, I guarantee you it will be a real eye-opener.

This is another occasion to think about what comes out of our mouths. To be mindful of what we say and to be “impeccable with your word“ as don Miguel Ruiz says in his book, The Four Agreements. There is a lot to meditate upon that thought alone with regard to appreciation as a purposeful activity.

Personally, I’m grateful that I tend to be an appreciative person. It makes my life considerably better, I can tell you that for a fact. I adore my coworkers, particularly the ones who call me to task. I admire my community for how hard it works to reinvent itself for a new age. I deeply value my family, beyond the ability of words. 

I express these feelings every day. I complement good waitstaff in restaurants. I tip the gas attendant at the Montouri’s for washing my windshield when getting gas. I empathize with those experiencing difficulty, for that too is a form of appreciation. My favorite thing is to surprise people with an unexpected compliment (provided it doesn’t come across as creepy). 

I appreciate the fact that you’ve read this. I appreciate the emails I receive and the occasions I’m politely stopped in the Market Basket to chat about something I recently wrote. These are among the blessings of my life, and I treasure them. Mindfully. 

Friday, June 4, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 5, 2021 - The Saturation Point

What is it that really makes a difference in the world? What is it that changes something from an impossible situation to an ideal one? What is it that takes a few small, scattered rainstorms and coheses them together into a perfect storm? It takes just one small updraft of air at just the right temperature and just the right amount of moisture in just the right location to create a superstorm. Does that little puff of air know that it will be the final ingredient of a super storm of incalculable power of both destruction as well as transformation? How could that little bit of warm moist air know its real destiny? It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. But it moves as if it desires something. It moves, like everything in the universe, as if it seeks equilibrium with its surroundings. Equality. Equanimity. Balance.

We love to say that ‘one person can make a difference’ even though we never think we will actually be that one person. Is that something that we choose, or are we chosen? We usually think of that one person who saves the day as being of entirely singular force and presence. A superhero who was so powerful they could stop the speeding train all by themselves. We assume that everything was one way until they showed up and through the sheer power of their own individual ability to change things, transformed lead into gold. But it’s not alchemy we’re talking about. It’s not magic. It’s not superpowers either.

There’s a term used in both meteorology as well as chemistry. The term is saturation point. It’s meteorological use is applied in terms of the making of storms. In chemistry, it is the stage at which no more of a substance can be absorbed into a vapor or dissolved into a solution.

That sounds a bit technical. Kind of dry and hard to put into context. But let’s think of it like salt and water. We know what salt water is. We know what it tastes like, what it feels like. We know the salty residue it leaves on our skin when we come out of the sea. 

If we were to place a bowl of fresh water on a table and slowly pour salt into it, we know the salt will dissolve. We can watch it happening. The water, acting as a solvent, becomes a tiny bit cloudier as the little cube-shaped salt crystals slowly disappear. The molecules jump off the salt crystal one layer at a time, shedding themselves from the little cube like peeling back layers from a square onion, until the cubes exist no more. They have become dissolved. Saturated into the solution of the water. 

We can keep adding more and more salt until something special happens. Eventually the water in the bowl will not let any more salt dissolve. It starts to collect in the bottom of the bowl and just sits there, not knowing what to do with itself. It just sits there like a wet cat. 

What happened? How was the salt able to dissolve at one point but then just stop? Essentially, it’s because the water had had enough. It was up to here with salt and would take no more. It had reached its point of saturation.

This is simple enough to understand, of course. It is not a stretch of our imaginations to picture a moment when the water had become too full. We experience it all the time when we overeat. That one french fry that tips the scales, and then heartburn. Or we suddenly feel so full that we are certain we will explode. What was it that made perfect into too much? What makes not enough into just right?

Going back to our bowl of salty water, which grain of salt was one french fry too many? Could we point to a particular grain of salt and say, “Ah, yes. That was the culprit!” No. Because even within that one grain of salt there are 1.4 quintillion atoms of sodium chloride. That’s a 1 followed by a 4 with 17 zeros after it.

Which one of those was the “one french fry” too many? Because that’s what did it. That one, single, beyond-microscopic molecule out of 1.4 quintillion changed the entire solution of the water. The water reached its saturation point because of one tiny molecular speck. Not saturated. Then, saturated.

What if that molecule had decided to stay home that day? Didn’t want to attend the protest. Didn’t want to sign the petition. Didn’t feel like voting that year. Didn’t think they mattered because they were so small that they alone could not possibly make a difference to something so large.

Malala Yousafzai was 15 years old in Pakistan when she was shot in the head on her own school bus by the Taliban who were enraged that she not only attended school, but dared to publicly advocate for girls’ education against their strict version of sharia law. There had been many other women and girls who had already been shot, tortured, beaten, confined, or abused for the exact same reasons. Many at the hands of their own loved ones. 

Dozens upon hundreds of women who wanted to learn, who knew it was their inherent right to be educated, and who were ultimately martyred for it in one way or another had gone before her. And yet Malala’s voice was heard over them all. 

Following her attack, she would not be silenced. Her voice was heard around the world. For her advocacy of women’s education, in spite of the enormous obstacles against her, she won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later. At 17, she was the youngest ever Nobel laureate.

Was she alone in her resistance? No more so than the little salt molecule who managed to create a saturation point in an otherwise enormous bowl of water. Malala was not alone, she was not the first. She was the one who tipped the scales. She was the one who was finally tall enough to see above the horizon of oppression because of all the women below her upon whose shoulders she now stood. But she still had to agree to stand up.

Rosa Parks decided against giving up her seat on the bus to a white man one day in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955. She was arrested and fined for it, sparking a bus boycott that served in part to change the segregation laws in this country. But she was not the first woman of color to say, “No more.” Rosa was not alone either. She was the one who tipped the scales.

Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai both had something in common. They had already been advocating for change long before the moment came which changed their lives. They had already been preparing for the day when it would be their chance to do something that would change the tide of their cultures toward a more equitable and loving society. If every little action they ever took or every new idea they ever learned were a grain of salt in a huge bowl of water, we now know which grains it was that created the saturation point.

What are you doing to prepare for your own saturation point moment? You may already be well into the process just by being yourself, just by following your heart, learning about what interests you, exploring places you intuitively feel you should be, seeing things that will germinate in your heart until their time has come for that one final choice which coheses them all into an action that changes your life, and quite possibly the lives of countless others. What are you doing?

What are you doing to recognize your own worth and power? Perhaps the question is really: What are you doing that prevents you from recognizing it? Because we all doubt ourselves. We all feel as relatively powerless and insignificant as a loving molecule of salt in an enormous and briny sea of fear and hatred. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know the depth of our courage when presented with a difficult choice. We often don’t know who has already laid the groundwork for us to step in and flip on the switch.

It isn’t just about doing things that hold the capacity to earn a Nobel Prize. Not everyone is called to that. It’s just about you, really. About your life. Even a life that you think affects no one or nothing still affects you. Your happiness. Your satisfaction. What are you already doing that you haven’t yet put the pieces together to realize there's a trajectory starting to coalesce in front of you and you just haven’t realized it yet? Ask yourself what course you’re on. Wonder about the answer.

You are so much more powerful than you know. You have potential in you that only the Universe knows about. Believe that. 

Both Malala and Rosa had their moment on a bus. A vehicle of transportation upon which many people can travel together at the same time, often to the same destinations. They were not alone. They were among people who mostly wanted to go to the same place, but needed someone to help them chart the destination and guide them. Someone brave. Someone small. But no less powerful than the strongest among them. For strength has nothing whatsoever to do with power. Strength is sometimes just the act of showing up.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, May 15, 2021 - It’s Not the Guns

I have news for you. We don’t have a gun problem. Well, we do, but we don’t. We have a people problem. And against all odds, eventually, the violence will stop. But not before we address the situation at its true source. And the signs are there that this is exactly what we’re doing.

This is intended as a message of hope for those who are in fear about the way guns are misused in our country, and what it will mean for our future. I would venture to put at ease at least a few troubled hearts. For others these words may provide no hope at all, and they will conclude me to be a Pollyanna of the highest order. 

They may be right. Only time will tell. But I don’t believe in doomsday. Mostly because it’s pointless to put our faith in the worst possible outcome.

I see evidence of the opposite. 

Although I’m no sociologist, I feel a trend is visible in the way that society reacts to growth. It doubles down against it. It first works all of its energy toward keeping things remaining the same. At the beginning of a movement, an idea may be a fly hardly worth swatting, but the more pronounced a movement becomes, the greater the reaction we see from the “powers that be” against it. Their response is always proportional, if not extra-proportional, to their annoyance. The ‘extra’ is the red flag. The more strongly they react against progress, the more their fear of extinction is revealed.

When something knows it is doomed, it will use its last breath to fight back. The more energy and resources used to prevent it, the more confident we can be that a Hail Mary is all they have left in their arsenal. 

But the tide they are attempting to hold back is not about guns at all. We know that it’s people who kill people. Guns are inanimate objects as value neutral as capitalism. Humans are what make things deadly. 

So the source of our problem is not the guns, it’s the humans. And it’s not about punishing our way out of a problem. We happen to know for a fact that method doesn’t work very well. 

Our methodology for improving the world should stop relying so much on retribution and vengeance against those who commit offenses against us and start working more efficiently toward the real goal. When someone commits a crime how proportional and responsible is our reaction to it? The more thoughtful our reaction, the more likely it is not to be a reaction at all, but a meaningful response.

Are we doing what’s best for the world when we choose how to met out responsibility for someone’s actions? Are we making more criminals than we are healing? The answer is, statistically, yes.

I believe it is an inevitability that we will eventually figure out that we all do better when we all do better. We are step-by-step ridding ourselves of old ways of thinking about other people. Generation by generation, we are seeing ourselves in others. 

This is good news. And much of the change we seek will occur in our own lifetimes. A lot more of it than I think we can presently guess. Because progress has been accelerating lately. and the absurdity of the response against it is the clearest indicator that we are witnessing the extinction of the old way of life. As well as its desperate fight to survive.  

We are in a new age now. It’s okay to acknowledge it. What we might have suspected before to be true, has now been confirmed, and is being cemented as we speak, by our step-by-step survival through a global pandemic. The whole world has changed before our very eyes. There are consequences to that. And they are almost entirely emotional in nature.

That is the source. The emotional health of humanity. That must be our focus. All good will stem from that mission. 

Emotional health is achieved and sustained through proper education and physical health. We look to the government for these things. We pay our taxes and vote for these things. We donate to charities who make it a point to do these things. That is the trend, and increasingly our society’s expectation. 

Good work is already happening with regard to the subject of guns. But it won’t be our legislation about them which accomplishes it. The problem of guns will slowly fade away in direct proportion to our caring for humanity and the emotional health of our neighbor.

The good news is this: the problem with guns is on the verge of ending, but it will be difficult to see in real time. There’s a revolution of human awareness at hand because of all we’ve been through. That is a garden from which only good things grow. 

Care for the people who hold guns. Care about their education and physical health. Support anything you can which enhances these two things for all people, but especially those who are susceptible to fear. 

Take note of all ways in which this mission of human flourishing is already well underway. Good things are occurring everywhere in spite of the tragedy around us. 

The increase in open carry gun laws despite the number of shootings we’ve had is proof that they know their days are numbered. They are fighting tooth and nail, much harder than is necessary or called for. Why might that be?

The Second Amendment is not responsible for the gun violence we see. It’s that we’ve forgotten, or perhaps have yet to truly learn, that humans are our first priority. And few will truly prosper until we acknowledge it. In fact, only the few will. 

But if we take more notice of the subtle changes we already see around us in these areas of progress, the writing on the wall becomes much more deeply printed. The use of guns in the way we presently see it will become a relic of the past like cigarettes on airplanes and words about others we already no longer use. We will remember these times as a barbarous age, because it is. But one day we will more clearly see in hindsight the trends that were already working toward the right ways to support one another in the flourishing of humanity. 

We are figuring it out. The signs of it are everywhere. More and more, sometimes still violently so, we are demanding equal and fair treatment in the world. That will have an immeasurable effect over time. It already does. You can see it in the violent reactions against it.

Put your heart at ease in this troubled time by consoling yourself with the rapid progress of humanity occurring all around us. Conserve your energy for serving those who are presently suffering because those changes have not yet fully come. Comfort afflicted. Sit with those who will not enjoy the benefit of this growing age of human flourishing. Hold the hands of those who have lost loved ones in the fight toward this future time. Their sacrifice is noble indeed. And it is working to change us all.