Saturday, April 28, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 28, 2018 - Determining Your “You”

Thank you for everything. It’s a simple prayer. One that cannot be expressed in simpler terms, actually. Thank you. Thank you for everything. For life. For even stress. For love and heartache both. Thank you.
Now let’s define who “you” is.
I can’t. At least not for you. You have to decide who the “you” is in that prayer. You are the only member of your faith. It will never be any other way. You are the leader of your own thoughts and beliefs. Even when you think you have been instructed, you will still have opinions about what and by whom. You may be a fully devoted Catholic, for instance, and yet will always maintain your own views about the doctrine. Blind faith is actually a misleading sentiment. No faith is blind. We can’t simply shut off our opinions. More so now than ever in history, in fact.
So, who is your “you?”
I prefer to assume that what people refer to as “God” is the literal connection between all life. The interdependent web of all existence.
I believe that God is the web Itself.
If we are all connected—even if we don’t understand the mechanics of that connection —who we are is a part of that web. Perhaps the connection between us is the sum total of who we really are: spiritual beings having a human experience.
I realize that sounds very heady and transcendental. But I mean it in the most practical of ways. Perhaps God feels like one of us because It is all of us. A grand mainframe with a circuit for each.
To me, this is why things work out better when we collaborate; it’s natural to us. We are connected in the truest sense, so when we exhibit that connection here on earth in ways that are relational and in support of community, everything just works better. On earth as it is in heaven. As above, so below.
When our contemporary religious practices first emerged through a succession of spiritual masters beginning around 2,500 years ago, those practices were entirely relational in nature. Relationship with the self, with history and tradition, with the community and one another, and relationship with God.
If we are all truly connected on a level we cannot see, what occurs along that connection? Collaboration is the only thing which comes to mind. Communication. Deliberation. Evaluation, perhaps intuitively misinterpreted as judgement. What does happen behind the green curtain? Whatever It is, that’s what I choose to call “God.” That is the ‘you’ whom I address.
Returning then to our prayer, thank you for everything, the “you” is subjective. It is your call. It is your choice. It can refer to the traditional God, if that is your preference. Or “you” may refer to the winds or the earth. “You” may even refer entirely to the self. Pray at least to your own ears, they are listening. And if there’s anything else listening, if there truly is a connection between us all, you would be the most direct route to the greater ear and heart of all existence.
The purpose of the prayer is to experience gratitude through having something upon which to direct it. Though some may disagree, It doesn’t matter to where that gratitude is directed, but that it is directed somewhere. Verbalizing gratitude, experiencing the value of the words ‘thank you’ and meaning them, is the whole point. We anthropomorphize God because Its easier to talk to that way.
Your personal definition of what “you” means is important to determine. Everyone should know, and not be afraid of questioning, their own personal viewpoint about the nature of the ultimate reality. What do you believe? This question is clearer for those who are comfortably religious. For the rest, it is important to note that it is not a question about religion. It is about knowing, and having spent some time thinking about what you believe is the truth. Direct your gratitude to that.
If we are to be thankful for life and for this world as a part of our daily practice, we must also be thankful for its potential to solve the problems we face. Our creativity is not limited to warfare and destruction. I am thankful for that.
It is said that God exists in the face of our neighbor. I believe this is true. And if the network of all reality is also true, then the face of my neighbor isn’t just a conduit to God, but the only conduit at all.
In my book, I believe the “you” is you.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 21, 2018 - The Level of Friendship

On what level of our psyche does friendship occur? What part of us is doing the feeling when we have a friend? Is it an area of our cerebral cortex? Is it in the air between us? Is it an entirely chemical reaction in the body? Where are the literal threads of my friendships and to what in me are they anchored?
I think most of us are comfortable with the notion that friendship is a real thing. Not imaginary. To be clear, I’m not speaking of the friends themselves. I’m speaking of the connection between them. That connection between you and your closest friend exists whether or not you are together. Across the globe from one another the friendship is no less strong. No less real.
Do we form these kinds of connections online as well as in “real life?” I would have to say yes. And we regularly form them with people we’ve never met. My mother had a penpal in Australia as a child. They wrote to each other for years. Decades later they finally met in person. Were they not friends until that point? Bonds between people strengthen with awareness and attention. Those are processes of the mind not the body.
What kind of connections do we have with people we’ve never physically met? Could we really deny that we have them? Is it possible for us to declare any form of friendship illegitimate? The fact that one can “friend“ someone on the Internet requires making a request. We may decline or accept it. But is that person now a “friend?” Aren’t they? We use the word. Does the word make it so? Wonder why the word ‘friend’ was chosen for the action of connecting with others online. Assume good. There’s something to it.
I think we somehow feel more comfortable in creating different categories, or levels, of friendship in our lives. We use words like ‘acquaintance’ or ‘colleague’ to differentiate between people whose company we actively enjoy and those with whom we occasionally interact, generally without conflict. But absence of conflict is not the definition of friend any more than is diplomacy. Many friends argue and many enemies smile at one another. What is a friend, really?
That is not my question to answer.
Where friendship actually occurs is the question I ask. Friendship is not tangible, yet we can feel it. Where is it being felt? The heart, one could say. And it’s probably true. We know physical connection, skin-to-skin contact, even from a handshake, boosts serotonin levels in the brain and makes us feel good. We “miss” people we are used to being around. Physical proximity does have physical advantages. But that does not make a friendship either. Is the heart a consciousness or a radio receiver? What if it’s both?
In this technological age, we are forced to redefine our concepts of neighbor, of friend. Scripture has tried to teach us that the word ‘neighbor’ both is and is not a metaphor. This planet is one, single neighborhood. We are all one tribe. Everyone is your neighbor. Especially now.
It’s okay to have thousands of friends. It’s okay to recognize that a connection links us all. The threads of friendship which exist between us were already there, long before any potential friend captures our attention and awareness. Connecting with them on the earth plane only serves to remind us of the celestial bond we always had. The literal connection between us was not created, it always was.
The interdependent web of all existence is the literal fabric of our friendships in the truest sense. Pull one thread and all are moved. That is the level of friendship. Do not seek to diminish it by declaring one form superior to another. There are only greater and lesser degrees of awareness, not friendship.
Be grateful for the vast quantity of friendships you have which are still unknown to you. For they are fully real.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 14, 2018 - The Secret to Life

There is one great overarching message which all mythology and religion tells us. It is repeated over and over. Story after story, it is drilled into us. God(s) want us to be grateful. They want our praise, our devotion. They expect total obedience and lengthy worship. At least, that’s how we have interpreted it.
The haphazard character of humanity is so often ascribed to divinity. We love to believe that God feels the way we feel. That God is only interested in being praised for the benefit of an ego. Greek mythology is especially good at making the divine in their stories behave like spoiled children. Worse actually, self-absorbed teenagers.
We historically sculpt the divine into a jealous reflection of ourselves. We know how we like to be praised. We know how good it feels to have a job well done recognized by people we respect. Some of us are obsessed with praise for unhealthy reasons and behave badly, even vengefully, when they don’t get what they need. We assume the same of heaven. We don’t realize that we are still telling those old misinterpretations about the nature of worship, and even sacrifice. We have outgrown our old understandings about the reasons for praise.
It’s to be expected, actually. I assume it’s part of the divine process of embedding gratitude into the culture of humanity over dozens of centuries. First, make it compulsory, then systems develop, over time it becomes habit, eventually we begin to notice the benefits, and finally we are evolved enough to do it on purpose and with full understanding. Isn’t that how every school lesson is learned? I know that’s exactly how I learned multiplication.
If there is a God, wouldn’t It know that humans learn in this linear way? Wouldn’t It present the lesson of gratitude to humanity in a way that we would slowly, but completely, enshroud it into our daily customs and rituals? Spiritual logic would observe that God nudges humanity rather than forces it. As all good parenting does.
Praise is about the experience of gratitude. It’s like the old milk campaign, it does a body good. There are mysterious comforts to the practice of gratitude as well as literal, physiological benefits. When we are all at optimum, both emotionally and physically, what else might our society be capable of? What higher levels of thought await us once we get out of our own way?
When agriculture was first invented, and we didn’t need to spend all and every day using our creativity to gather food, we had brain space leftover for higher levels of creative output. Of course we first used that creativity for warfare. But that’s what adolescents do. Eventually they grow up and higher forms of innovation begin to creep in. Both social and technological. Statistics show that warfare is actually slowly going out of business over time. Wonder why that is.
Today we have the luxury of examining gratitude and spiritual praise to see with hindsight the purpose and benefit of living a life saturated with thanksgiving. Are we finally mature enough as a society to see beyond the history of our rituals and find what they’ve really been trying to teach us for thousands of years? Is it gratitude which finally reveals itself to be the secret to life?
I’ve seen enough sociological and psychological research over the years to convince me there is a special relationship between humans and gratitude. There’s certainly no mistaking it is a central component to all spiritual practice. Plus, it actually feels good. So what do those three facts encourage in you?
It’s hard to feel grateful for things we don’t understand. Things which hurt us or frustrate us. That’s what the practices are all about. Forgiveness, hospitality, nonresistance, empowerment and compassion. These are the platforms which support the existence of gratitude. They enhance our capacity for gratefulness in times when we don’t understand our world. They help us assume that goodness is in the cracks. And goodness then becomes the seed we water.
Be thankful for everything. Literally. Say, ‘thank you for everything.’ Mean it. Find a place inside of you which can spend time dwelling on a belief that all shall be, and in fact truly is, well. Do it every day. Face stress with gratitude. Directly confront misery with it. Use gratitude as a weapon—perhaps the only weapon—against fear itself. I have a deep suspicion it will not only rewire the actual circuitry of your brain over time, but all parts of your reality as you know it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 7, 2018 - The Job Description

Sadly, as this column publishes, I will be burying my father. He was a good man who served his country and taught me a lot. And while there are of course many sadnesses, there are also joys to be remembered. Stories. Jokes. Friends who cherished him. I look forward to shaking their hands.
Of all the stories my dad told me, one in particular stands out.
In the 1970’s my father and his brother moved our families from Fitchburg and Lunenburg nearly 1,500 miles south to Miami, Florida. They had purchased an oil company franchise and each drove gas trucks at night filling up the tanks of post office vehicles. My mother did the bookkeeping and cared for three mostly well-behaved very young children.
My father’s job was extremely hard work. Very physically demanding. Racing around truck yards, lugging heavy gas lines from tank to tank, and climbing in and out of his truck cab hundreds of times a night. All racing against the clock before the mail carriers needed to make their appointed rounds. If gloom of night didn’t matter to mail carriers, it didn’t matter to the gas guys who filled their trucks either.
My father actually was a mail carrier here in Fitchburg when I was born. I’ve seen a picture of him in his uniform with a heavy mail bag slung across his shoulder and a big apple-cheeked grin. I wonder if he’d ever given thought to who prepared his truck for him long before his day began each predawn morning. I wonder what he thought about it when he became the one doing it for others.
Between Naples, Florida and Ft. Lauderdale there’s an infamous stretch of highway. It’s official name is Interstate 75, but is more popularly known as Alligator Alley. Part of my dad’s gas route took him along this dangerous 80-mile road bisecting the swampy marshlands of the Everglades.
Tourists who plan to make the trek are cautioned to be sure their gas tanks are filled, snacks and water are packed, emergency kits are checked, and above all, don’t drive it at night. Not only can the long, straight road mesmerize a tired driver and send them spiraling off into the swamp, but even the locked interior of a pulled-over, broken down car is no safe place to wait till morning. Critters of all kinds can nuzzle up to the engine block for warmth and find their way inside. Don’t bother going outside to answer nature’s call. You may not live to tell about it.
One night, my father came upon a car in just that state. The blinker was on. In his panic he had reflexively flipped his signal as he exited the lane. Car slightly at an angle to the road. Gently rolling to a stop with not even enough gas to bring the car parallel to the shoulder. I can picture it slowing; the gritty sound of tires rolling onto the sandy edge of the pavement. Engine sputtering to a stop, and then, no sound at all but nervous breathing, the clink-clink of the blinker, and the terrifying thrum of volumes of life just outside the window.
And then, perhaps after a likely prayer for deliverance, headlights approaching, the sound of a truck. And not just any truck. My dad’s truck. A truck that just happened to be filled with gas.
I have so many times throughout my life imagined that night. I’ve wondered what was actually said between them (my father never remembered the conversation). What the man was thinking in the moments before he knew he was being rescued. I wondered how he thought about his problem as the solution was literally driving straight toward him. My savior dad to the rescue.
I always imagined that the man thanked him profusely. Probably offered money. But if he did, I bet it was refused.
The one thing I’ve consistently envisioned is their departure. I can imagine the stranded man saying thank you again as they shake hands. They start to head to their own vehicles, but just before they disappear inside, the man asks my father his name.
“Dan Darcangelo,” my father would have said.
“That’s an interesting name. What does it mean?”
“It means ‘of the archangel’ in Italian.”
I wonder what the stranded fellow would have though of his prayer for deliverance being answered by a man named archangel suddenly showing up in the middle of the Everglades at night in his own gas truck. I wonder if his jaw left an imprint in the pavement. I wonder what became of his faith.
Ever since first hearing that story, I understood who I was and the purpose of the name my dad gave me. It tells me who I am. It’s not about being a literal angel, of course. But it is about deliberately choosing that as my life’s job description.
For whom are we angels? For whom do we show up exactly when needed? Exactly when called?
My dad was no angel. But perhaps that’s not exactly true. Perhaps we just don’t know what angels really are. Perhaps they’re exactly like a guy in a gas truck.