Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 28, 2020 - Peculiar People Rule

Society has a checkered relationship with people and things we consider to be peculiar. On the mammalian level—for we are still biologically animals, don’t forget—our biology instinctively notices sudden differences in our environment and acts on those findings.

Depending on your viewpoint, you may be highly suspicious of anything or anyone new, or unusual, or who doesn’t neatly fit into the narrow list of categories we often construct for ourselves. Some people are more comfortable welcoming difference than others. Pray for those who struggle.

In the wild, sometimes an unknown fruit or plant is good for you, a potential new food source, and sometimes it is poisonous. Biologically, we can’t just eat everything we find and expect to survive for long. There’s a process of establishing trust and information before we feel safe to try that new fruit. Some differences in the wild can mean life or death. I empathize with those who are afraid right now.

That biological function of seeking out and evaluating differences in our environment doesn’t ever shut off. We don’t want it to, really. It’s very useful, in moderation. What we need to be careful of is knowing the truth about when difference, when peculiarity, is truly dangerous and when it just feels that way.

The word peculiar didn’t always mean unusual, for the record. In fact, that’s a relatively new definition. Only about 300 years ago did the word peculiar start judging people for their eccentricity. Before that, for a couple hundred years, it meant to be distinguished or special.

Peculiar definition as distinguished or special connects back to its original meaning in the Latin word peculium, which means ‘my treasure’ but translates literally as “property in cattle,” glimpsing the use of the term signifying one’s wealth by the amount of livestock they possess.

“My treasure” is how God described the Israelites to Moses. When the Bible was finally being translated out of the Latin into the common languages around 500 years ago, the Middle English word peculiar was the natural choice at that time to describe a possession of great value. But in doing so, in choosing the word peculiar to describe God’s deep affection for and recognized value of his chosen people, that first early translator endowed the word peculiar with an even greater sense: that of belonging.

I think it’s time to recognize the full spectrum of a word that now includes within its use meanings of specialness, belonging, treasure, uniqueness and abundance. That is how we should see those who are peculiar in the modern sense. Because when we do, we all benefit.

Today, we have a slightly better handle on the value of peculiarity in all of its definitions. We compliment others, and take pride in ourselves, for thinking “outside the box.” It’s time we made ourselves more comfortable with offering a new sense of belonging to those whom we consider unusual. It’s time we made this world a little more peculiar.

How many of us know someone whom we might, by the ‘weirdo’ aspect of its definition, be considered peculiar? How many of us might consider ourselves the same? I absolutely know that I do. Sometimes being a weirdo makes me feel special, sometimes it makes me feel like a target. I feel pretty sure that most of us have felt both of those at one time or another.

But what if we embraced that as an act of faith, and even of prayer in action? What if you chose to welcome someone whom you thought was a bit odd or eccentric, or who you knew thought differently than you, to dinner? To church? To lunch? What harm could it do?

And what if you really listened to them? What if you were okay with the fact that you didn’t agree on everything and didn’t feel the need to make sure they changed their mind? What if you allowed yourself to be at ease with their difference? Chances are there will be at least some common ground. Look for it and celebrate it. That one little spot where you agree, that’s the space through which a handshake occurs.

What’s in it for you, you might ask? Well, let’s just think about a few people who have been considered peculiar in the “strange” way and see how our eventual acceptance of their examples transformed their eccentricity into vast progress for humanity. Charles Darwin, Madam Curie, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Galileo, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nikola Tesla, Abraham Lincoln. And lest we forget a revolutionary named Jesus of Nazareth. The list of those who thought outside the box, and yes, made people very nervous, but who produced genuine change for the better as a result of their revolutionary way of thinking is enormous. And for all of them, may we give tremendous thanks.

A revolutionary is most peculiar. Because of their intrinsic calling to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, they belong to one, are feared by the other, and are therefore, peculiar to both. A revolutionary has a long neck which sticks out above the crowd yet is still one of the people. But that neck is also vulnerable in its exposure. It is often a sacrifice to speak inconvenient truths to power.

We’ve improved on this significantly, but what would our world be like if we started feeling even more comfortable with accepting new thought? What if we were to finally stop shooting the messenger? Martyrdom should be unheard of to a mature civilization. What if we hastened that paradigm by deliberately welcoming those who feel different? Doesn’t welcoming appear to be the best path forward? Wouldn’t that give us all the best chance of increasing the pool of talent we must have if we’re to survive this age? The more global our society becomes, the more safe it is.

This is why the dharma of Christianity is so persuasive for me. Not the dogma, but the dharma; the life practice which Jesus taught. The teachings are active and relational and tell us to go out into the world and heal it. Don’t wait for disease to come to your door. Reach out to the sick for yourself, and the lost, and the lonely, and lift them up. Heal them.

Move the needle forward with your own hands. If the meek shall inherit this earth, I, for one, would like to be on their good side when that happens. I’d like to make it happen faster if I can. I think we stand a chance of not only surviving, but launching ourselves toward an eventual peace on this earth. That peace will come, not in a sudden political peace accord or treaty, but from millions of small actions of welcoming and belonging of the unusual or unloved. That is what the master taught. That is the way to our salvation. And it’s your homework.

The answers to all our problems are in each other. We each hold a single piece of the puzzle. And we’ll never see the contours of the image until we work together to reveal it.

Befriend someone. Encourage all revolutionary thought. Give kids the tools to feel comfortable in their uniqueness now, and allow them to feel the support of belonging as they mature. Hopefully in time to make miraculous use of this unsettled world we’re handing down to them.

Have faith. Be patient, with yourself and others. Be welcoming and open to the unusual. “And all manner of thing shall be well.”

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 21, 2020 - Adaptability is Our Gift

I cried this morning when I prayed. Hard. I surprised myself with just how much fear is lurking beneath the surface of my optimism and hope. This is all very real.

I have been encouraging myself with a quote from Mr. Rogers. It was taught to him by his mother. She told him, when tragedy strikes, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

And it’s 100% true.

I have been encouraged by things I have seen in the news recently about how neighbors have banded together. They have delivered humor where they could not bring hugs. And hope. And friendliness. And simple recognition of each other’s existence. We are being reminded right now about who our neighbor really is.

Don’t worry, though. We’ll forget it again when this is all over. Most of it. Not all.

But we will indeed forget about our unity again, at least a bit, because of one incredible feature of our humanity. It is the reason why some of us have employed our higher communal and neighborly instincts at this time, and it is the reason why we will dispense with them again when it’s over. We are an incredibly adaptable species.

Our ability to adapt to changing circumstances is the reason we are the dominant species on this planet. Of course we must continue to be more responsible with that power, but it is what has brought us to this moment; both good and bad.

The same arc of history which bends towards justice, however, bends also toward unity. For they are of the same substance, really. We are built to solve problems, as well as celebrate victories, as a family. At the end of this crisis we shall perhaps celebrate, and enjoy our enhanced unity for a moment while it lasts still to that degree, but we will first have to care for the bereaved and ill. Even the optimist in me knows that moment too will come. Our forward growth as a civilization always comes at a price.

But look for evidence of our evolving adaptability in between the lines on the news. Turn it off once in a while as well. Check in only periodically to make sure there is no new information and then change the channel again. Make a note of websites that just dispense facts, not stories. Don’t listen endlessly to the talking heads on the 24 hour news outlets. Their job is to make sure that there’s always news to broadcast so that people can tune in at any point. Watching it endlessly for fear you will miss something is not its proper use. It will only enhance your anxiety, preventing you from being as adaptable as you might otherwise be. Most of our adaptability comes from our emotional state. Care for it as equally as your physical health.

Acknowledge the power of your own adaptability right now. We think we hate change, mostly because we do, but most changes occur without receiving much notice from us. Things change on us all the time, every day, and we brush these off far more often than we are troubled by them. Recognize that you are more adaptable than you are probably aware. Now is a good time to observe it more closely.

There will be two categories of people during this outbreak. There will be those who struggle desperately as we proceed through it. Some, though, will not be troubled by it much at all. Their lifestyles are more insular and they can weather the storm more easily. To those of you in the second category, please be mindful of and pray for those in the first. Serve them where and when when you can.

Be in touch with people. Be sure which of the above two categories they fit into and help those who need it. The food shortages which many people will experience will not be because the shelves are empty at the grocery store. It will be because they can’t afford food anymore. Give generously to food banks, those of you whose jobs are not at risk. Give cash donations rather than canned goods so that they can purchase fresh food as well as fill the gaps in their revolving inventories in real time. Donate to both local and global charities in support of our survival and recovery. Make these all into literal acts of prayer and their benefits will ripple outward in ways that we cannot imagine. Add potency to every loving act by turning them into a bell rung for the benefit of the whole universe. That’s prayer.

Look to the Internet as your gateway to the rest of the world and cultivate beautiful things with it. Turn your cheek from complaints and abuse. Unfriend, or at least unfollow, those whose reaction it is to bring others down. Switch them off and offer higher vibratory content of your own. We could change the world during this chapter by that choice alone.

I wept this morning because it’s all so overwhelming. My heart can hardly stand the thought of what’s to come. But at the same time, I know we have survived worse than this and been made better through the odyssey of it. We grow together more deeply as a family each time we face a trial such as this.

I shall continue to look for the helpers in my neighborhood and elsewhere. I thank the late Mr. Fred Rogers for the legacy of his ministry to us all. And in his memory I will look for the other teachers like him in my search for comfort. One or two in particular come to mind.

In my prayers I give thanks for the leaders, I give thanks for the teachers, I give thanks for the people, and I give thanks for the earth. I am grateful for the undiscovered solutions to this crisis, the seeds of which already exist in some corner of the world in the creativity of our better minds. Thank you for the existence of our human saviors even as they have yet to complete their task. That moment shall come. In the meanwhile, may peace flow from us all and encircle the world, evermore. And may good health be your constant companion as well as to those whom you love and hold dear. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 14, 2020 - Blind Faith is Easier

At what point do you suppose someone first pointed out the notion of “blind faith?” It is my assumption that the term was a critique. But I could be wrong.

Of course, there are passages in the Bible which people have attributed as exhortations to blindly obey all of God’s commands, such as Abraham did when commanded to kill his child, Isaac. But Abraham's faith wasn’t blind, it was complete. It was based on a track record of experiences between himself and God. For Abraham had already been made certain promises by God that the death of his son would prevent. So he may have gone through the motions of preparing to strike down his son, but he clearly didn’t believe that would be the end of it for Isaac. Abraham's faith wasn’t blind, only winking.

There are many places in scripture which are in support the ideas of wisdom, discernment, debate, and deep questioning. Even Paul complements his followers for doing their homework on him. So it can’t be that we are supposed to question nothing.

But today we have found ourselves in a paradigm where a highly vocal portion of the Christian community claims—blindly, if I may—that every word printed in the Bible is straight from the mouth, heart and mind of God.

That creates a problem.

Because any nominal amount of objective biblical scholarship will eventually point only to the complete fallibility of the Bible to be in coherence with itself. It contradicts itself on so many levels that it would be preferable to think of each book in the Bible as a sibling in a large family rather than a unified voice. The individual books can be in communication with each other, even related, but they are not saying the same thing. And often they quarrel.

Even Jesus contradicts the Old Testament in several ways including his update from the old legalistic judicial method of “eye for an eye” to the more prudent and community-building activity of “turning the other cheek.” Jesus says that there are things in the Old Testament which are now wrong. For those who claim to be Christian, are you paying attention?

I know there are many talented debaters out there speaking on behalf of the infallibility of scripture. They make lots of interesting points, but ultimately fail because their originating premise is flawed. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that it is the unadulterated word of God. Since that is their only source material, there is no data to back up the claim. The infallibility of scripture is built on a foundation of sand. Which is perhaps exactly how God wants it.

So why do people cling to blind faith like this so steadfastly?  Frankly, because it’s easier. And many need it.

Increasingly, over the last 70 years or so, life has become very complicated. During these seven decades in particular we have systematically uprooted our entire human civilization as compared to the model which existed before. All the rules have changed. It’s not a very long time by evolutionary standards. We lose sight of that fact which only enhances our terror of the change we see. It feels devastating because it is.

When all seems in turmoil we look for solid guidance. We look for reassurance. We attempt to newly comprehend the old prophecies and make sense of them. We seek more convenient truths to supplant the inconvenient ones. The greater our anxiety, the more we need things to be solid and concrete and true and undeniable.

We are existing in a time of existential crisis regarding our faith and the understanding of why we are here. As we fear the world around us we look to God to “humansplain” things to us and tell us that everything will be OK. We ask God to give us a nice clear checklist that we can follow so we know we won’t get it wrong. For some, this is not a time for guessing, but certitude. Interpretation feels too unsafe to broach.

But there are no facts to be had, sadly. It may be easier for you to find a way to justify it in your heart that we should just shut up and do as we’re told by whomever appears to be the most certain. But it is not better.

Empathize with and pray for those who so desperately need to believe that all of our questions have already been answered. They are seeking certainty in the face of an uncertain time and their fear is tangible. They are seeking ease. As do we all. Pray that they get some. Their ease may ultimately contribute to your own.

Attempt to be comfortable with the shifting ground beneath your feet. It will continue to do so for the rest of your lifetime and the lifetimes of your children and grandchildren. This shift is not anywhere near over. Put your focus on your resilience and adaptability. Remember during times such as these that it is our love which sustains and guide our actions. Sometimes that love is expressed as fear of loss or change. Fix that. Change has and will occur. Your love will not prevent it.

Love never prevents change. It’s job is only to guide us through it. Remember that when asking why God would make or let us suffer. I don’t believe God’s doing that. I don’t think it’s God's job to make us suffer or prevent us from suffering. Especially when that suffering is so often of our own making. God‘s job is to be the love which sustains us through challenging times. And through hints and whispers, we are given tidbits of insight as to how to proceed next using fearless Love as our guide.

Perhaps that’s too fanciful for you. I don’t blame you. It’s smacks of the very blind faith I'm cautioning against. So perhaps that’s where blind faith belongs: In the existence and continuation of love and benevolence as the only substance in the universe. Put your faith in that, even if a bit blindly. Stake your claim on the certainty of love and that will become your experience.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday March 14, 2020 - The Princess Paradigm

Who is in charge of what you buy? I’m being rhetorical, of course, because the answer is: You are. Yet it seems to be a question which must be asked. For we appear to forget the answer, unless asked directly. This is the first important point of the case I’m trying to make here. We are in complete charge of how our own money is spent.

The corporate world doesn't want you to consciously acknowledge this, however. They want to maintain their subconscious grip to manipulate and persuade you into buying whatever they tell you to buy. 

We are unfailingly gullible when it comes to what we are told and by whom. We want to believe what we hear and read. Especially when it seems as though we are being given that information by a reliable source. But we still have preferences. We still have intrinsic human needs and wants and desires percolating beneath the surface of our conscious thoughts. 

It’s like two worlds existing side-by-side. The corporate world, which behaves as though its hold on your decision making ability is complete and unchangeable. And our subconscious inner world, which silently nudges us toward higher forms of thought and action. The corporate world thinks it’s doing the driving, when really it’s only able to affect the quality of the road surface, not the destination. Our higher selves are doing all the driving, make no mistake. 

That might seem like a contradiction when looking around and seeing how people behave and react when it comes to social and fiscal progress. But progress is occurring on a steady trajectory which is virtually impervious to the machinations of our greed and fear. Those lower attributes are the road’s surface, not the car, nor the driver. 

I say this because there are so many voices out there trying to tell you how the world is doomed and why you should subscribe to their prophecies. But they don’t understand the power of a social evolution that has been in process long before they were even born and will continue long after they’re gone. They think they have control over the rules of the game. And they want you to believe it too. 

The evidence of our social progress is most easily seen when looking at the types of things we buy. 

Business has an obligation to produce products that you will actually purchase. It needs to know your preferences so that it can adapt to them. It spends billions of dollars on demographic studies just so that it understands the wants and desires—and most importantly, the fears—of its human market base: you. It takes that data and then makes the things that you will want to buy.

Big business knows already about the trajectory of social progress. When it suits its purposes and bottom line it alters its business plans to accommodate that trajectory. In other words, when people become disinterested in a product, companies stop making it. They already know that to pursue manufacturing a product which has become distasteful to us is a waste of money. They can fool us for a bit, repackaging and re-branding to retain us a little longer, but not forever. Eventually, we always wise up. 

When people started becoming interested in electric vehicles, companies started making them. As people have wanted more, companies have started making more. Despite the fossil fuel industry’s documented desire that these types of vehicles be suppressed—buying up eco-friendly companies just to bury their technology— there are more electric cars now than ever. Why do you suppose that is? What does it tell us about who really controls the world and what’s driving that change?

The answer is: The consumer controls the world and our higher selves are driving the change we see. The biggest businesses on the planet are powerless against a consumer who will no longer buy what they’re making. Pay attention to retail. It’s sure as hell paying attention to you.

My favorite example is Disney. Not blaming Disney for establishing the patriarchal system that subjugates the rights of women, they did, however, participate in perpetuating it. Looking at a long line of princesses portrayed in their films, one can see a trend that has educated young girls and women to believe that they should uphold a particular standard of physical beauty and reliance upon men as their saviors. There are multiple studies pointing to how damaging this has been for young girls around the world, especially in countries not predominantly white. 

But, the Walt Disney Company, like all of the corporate world, knows which side of their bread is buttered. Beginning in the late 1980’s, their princesses slowly began to evolve toward more equitable and modern ideas about womanhood. That change did not occur because someone in a boardroom proposed that Disney begin using its cultural influence to empower women. Disney did not institute this change from their own moral compass. They were responding to the consumer. 

There is still a long way to go, of course. What seemed modern in 1989 about Ariel from The Little Mermaid having an independent mind and desires and who defied her male authority figures, seems less so today when we consider that she also had far less dialogue then the male characters, despite her being the title role. And she still got married in the end. 

Disney’s earliest princesses were all domestic damsels-in-distress. Eventually they became more openly rebellious and ambitious, but still typically “needed” a man to complete them as women. Today, these female characters are free spirited and independent, often not relying at all on men or romance to neatly tie up a story for its happy ending. That is a good sign.

It’s true, that these earlier Disney princesses are embedded in the eternal canon of classic family films. Their effects will be felt for a long time to come. But now that they are balanced with more empowered female characters, it allows for a healthy dialogue between parents and children about the issue of gender equality. Eventually the styles of those older characters will seem passé. 

This is an example of the inner part of us that is automatically evolving toward equity among our species. It is this part of us which influences the market as well as our politics. Whether it’s our increasing distaste for things like fossil fuels or Disney princesses that kowtow to men, or our enhanced desire to know the work conditions of those who manufacture our clothing and food, we only seem to become smarter and more compassionate in our desire to spend our money. 

I point this out to reassure you. We are not sliding backwards. We are moving forward at a pace so rapid that the old energies scarcely know what to do about it or how to contain it. They will not be successful. They want to go back to the old days when people knew their place, when governments could be trusted, and cigarettes were recommended by doctors. 

But those days are gone. Good riddance. Welcome to the New Age, warts and all. The transition is a rough road, made more so by those who would slow down our progress. But the destination remains a kingdom so beautiful we can hardly imagine it. Be at peace.