Friday, February 26, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 27, 2021 - Read the Room

In my 20 years as a performer, I did everything from singing to stand-up comedy. Stage manager to costume designer. Choreographer to chorus dancer. Producer to production manager. I’ve done my time on the boards.

I loved it all, really. It’s hard work and much longer hours than anyone might suspect. But it was a very satisfying experience of friendship, teamwork and enhanced collaboration. It’s surprising as well, the diplomatic skills one can develop simply by navigating a series of artistic temperaments. 

Most notable was my time doing stand-up comedy for six months on a cruise ship. I was also the MC for all the shows and the lead male vocalist in the stage productions. Beach every day, stage every night. Rinse and repeat. Fun, but exhausting. 

It was the stand-up comedy part of that gig, however,  where I really learned to rely upon what I was getting from a room to determine what I was going to say next, and more specifically, how. It’s an instinct you learn to use very quickly. Or not. It’s called “reading” the room. Stand up comedy is not the only profession in which the skill is useful. But it’s the one where I learned it. 

Comedy was a particularly good platform for developing both language and diplomacy. Communicating an idea effectively requires a deliberate use of the correct words so that the listener adequately receives the information. One can very rudely tell a joke by being insensitive and go over the line even for those most familiar with profane humor. You always know the minute you’ve stepped in it. I received some particularly ugly commentary for having written a parody of the Canadian national anthem. For a cruise ship full of Canadian tourists, I might add. Live and learn. 

But one does get a sense of what’s effective to a goal and what’s not. If my point was to upset people, then I could’ve stuck to my guns on that song, but I would’ve lost a job. I would’ve also missed the point about why people might be angry about it in the first place. Their point was valid and I was being disrespectful. 

For my column for last Saturday I was able to make a last-minute correction before deadline. I had submitted it early last week, but then I noticed in my reread of it on Thursday that I had twice used the word “fireman.”

That might not seem like much of a big deal. What’s wrong with the term fireman? Except, we are in a time when we’re trying to be more thoughtful about the words we use and the implications they have. The word fireman excludes all those who don’t happen to be men yet still bravely fight fires. It also sends a subconscious message that women shouldn’t do the job. 

Some will likely skoff at this, feeling their right of free speech has been sufficiently impinged upon already. Be that as it may, it’s always in everyone’s best interest to be able to read the room. And right now issues like this have been deemed important by a large enough segment of our society that all of us, agreeable to it or not, should take note.

I changed the word fireman to firefighter in my column. Not so much because all that many people would complain about my inadvertent use of an unnecessarily gendered word. Most people wouldn’t likely notice it today, incorrect though it may be. But history will. Maybe not my words specifically, but history will remember this difficult shift toward inclusive language and, at least in general, those who helped usher it forward. 

Learn to read the room. Notice things that are said by many and wonder about them. This is true no matter what side of an argument you’re on. If nearly half of the population wants something, there is something to be learned from it. That might not mean changing your opinion about what you think is important. But it will definitely help you learn how to make your case better. Listening is the key.

Isn’t that really the point, to be effective? If you want a new state law, you don’t go screaming into the state house to make it happen. You use your words effectively and efficiently, you speak to those in power using their own terminology and processes. You learn how to navigate a pre-existing system so that you may then nudge it into becoming what you want. That’s diplomacy. That’s reading the room.

Someone told me not so long ago that both sides of an argument will repeat their case over and over and over again to anyone who will hear it. It’s always the more inclusive ideas which manage to rise to the surface over time. There is a visible sociological pattern to it, but it’s only in the long view. Stand back and observe that trend. Consider how it might apply to you and how you speak about and treat other people today. 

When people look back on this time in history, what will they think of your words and actions toward other people? Will they view them as having been on the right side of history, or will they be able to look back and see the footprints of a dinosaur en route to extinction? 

These points matter today, because they inform how well we get along with other people in this age of shifting language and increasing gender and racial equity. We are becoming a more loving society, whether everyone likes it or not. We are using different words today to describe our desires than we did not so long ago. Does it feel like a bad thing because it’s simply inconvenient, or because it is socially destructive? 

We have begun to give greater social voice to those who have not had one in the past. That we don’t always now enjoy hearing what they have to say is irrelevant. These are things which must be said and heard. We are the set of generations whose task it is to be a witness to it. Read the room.

It’s hard. Some aspects of our modernizing world make us scratch our head and wonder how they come up with each new politically-correct term. We use examples of how we survived decades without wearing seatbelts, or bike helmets. Except for those of us who did not. And they are not here anymore to say how good an idea a seatbelt or a bike helmet might’ve been for them. But history remembers.

Look around you in society and consider what you might do to help close the divide among us. Take note of those whose actions and words sound more like a bully than a teacher. Listen to both of them, but follow the example of the one who is more loving. For that is what you can read in the largest of print among the room of humanity right now.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 20, 2021 - Be Nothing

Think about your roles. How many of them do you have? How many hats are you wearing? Are you a parent, a teacher, a manager, a maker? Are you sibling, cousin, friend? These are our roles in life. 

These roles come with responsibilities.  How’s that going for you?

What do your roles ask of you? Are there limits to what they may ask? Are those limits yours or theirs?

Revisit these questions later on and ask them of each of your various roles. Chances are, the answers will not only be very illuminating, they will make your life easier.

But first, let’s consider the concept of kenosis. It’s a favorite concept of mine. In Greek it means “to empty.” Religiously, it was first used in Christianity to describe Jesus “emptying” his humanity before God. 

But the concept and practice of kenosis is one that offers us a little bit of an opportunity to refresh ourselves when feeling spent. Because when we empty ourselves of who we “are” (or at least who we define ourselves to be and the obligations of our roles), even for a few moments, we are literally shifting the inertia of who we’ve become.

That might seem a bit muddy. To simplify, we too easily define ourselves based on what we do, and the people for whom we do it. When people ask, “Who are you?“ we often answer with what we do. We are a parent, a teacher, a firefighter.

Understandably, there’s a language barrier in the attempt to try to define ourselves in terms equally simple as parent, teacher, firefighter. We are so complicated, the question “who are you?” has no simple answer. But for our purposes here, that doesn’t matter.

What if, for ten minutes, or an hour, or even an entire day, you were not one of your roles? That’s not to say you suddenly stop becoming a mother, and the love is still there, but what if you set aside the responsibilities of that role in your mind to luxuriate in being nothing for a minute? 

What if you could take an entire day to be nothing to anyone? What is your first reaction to that thought? Be curious about it. Because it will say a lot about the parts of you which remain untended, unnoticed, or unknown. Feeling a little resistant is like a big finger pointing right at something. That’s exactly the kind of stuff you want to know the most about.

There’s a reason for this practice of a deliberate emptying of oneself for a period of time. Because in all likelihood something good is trying to get in, but can’t for all this busyness. What are you not allowing to unfold? In the way I mean it, it’s true for all of us. There is something for us in this life, a quiet intention of the soul, as yet unheard, perhaps, but no less powerful than our most dominant of thoughts. What is waiting for you to just listen to it?

We aren’t deliberately shutting these thoughts out. They just can’t get a word in edgewise. We probably wouldn’t be surprised by any of them, because we’ve likely heard them in the background. We just haven’t given them any weight. I know for a fact that I can now look back on my life and see how I was going to be a minister all along. I was doing it from the earliest of ages but it wasn’t until the moment I allowed myself to truly hear the thought “you can be any kind of minister you want” that all of it finally gelled together. 

I had emptied myself during a period of intense grief, and that thought finally took up the amount of space in the forefront of my mind it had waited for. At least that’s how I conceptualize it. In doing so, I can see the throughline of how this was always who I was but hadn’t yet put the pieces together. 

That moment came about because I had suddenly lost one of my most important roles and now I didn’t know who I was. I had put so much attention and effort into that role, I felt lost without it. But since it was taking up so much mental real estate and now had emptied itself from my life, the person I was meant to be suddenly showed up. What if I had closed myself off before that happened?

Of course this is a life-altering example. But it hints at the worth of a smaller daily practice of deliberately being nothing, even for just one moment at a time, to mindfully allow in that which has been waiting for airtime. 

The process does not have to be dramatic or even take up very much time. You can spend as much time thinking about it in these terms as is useful, practical, or helpful. I don’t think the Universe cares just how much time you give it, considering that time is a construct of our world and not likely that of the Ultimate Reality. It may prove that you want more of it once you give it a little room, however. 

But what matters now is that even for seconds at a time you stop, take a deep breath, and think of your slate as clean. Think of yourself as a holy nothingness, open to whatever experience is meant to be yours. Think nothing of what that experience might be, but just that your doors are wide open to it. Be open to all unknown loving conspiracies working behind the scenes on your behalf. Thank them for their existence.

Make a smaller deal out of this practice than the amount of space I’ve given it here. It takes longer to describe than it does to practice. Give the thought a few seconds now to germinate in you, and then move on with your day. Consider it later, perhaps. Write it on a note to yourself attached to your bathroom mirror to take a deep breath and allow all of the duties of your roles to melt away for a few minutes and sit on the sidelines of their obligation.

Be thankful for the unknown and loving idea which is patiently waiting for you to open the door. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 13, 2021 - Pumping the Brakes

The word inertia has two different definitions, even though they really are the same. The first is a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. The second is a physics definition, “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”

More simply said, if you throw a ball without gravity or friction being present it would keep going on forever. The friction of the air slows it down, and the gravity of the earth draws it in. Anything wishing to escape the gravity or friction of the earth and its atmosphere must have enough power to overcome them. It must be stronger than gravity and friction themselves. 

But inertia also means to sit there and do nothing. It essentially states that any experience will continue without change, so long as nothing happens to it.

Are you content with your present state of inertia? Assuming you may be one of those who feel their life isn’t going anywhere, or perhaps is going too fast, what would you like to do to throw off the curve? Or start one?

I learned yesterday that one of the strategies which might be employed to push off course an asteroid that threatens the earth is to spray it with paint. It would utilize a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect. Different colors have the ability to alter the amount of radiation an asteroid can absorb as it gets closer to the sun, ultimately changing its speed and trajectory. At least that’s the theory. 

I’m very fond of the notion that all it needs is a bit of redecorating to make it a little less destructive. A nice coat of yellow would cheer that astroid right up.

Friction through the air would seem a small thing for those of us who move within it all our lives. But consider how hot a spacecraft becomes when moving 25,000 miles per hour as it propels itself away. Or that a meteorite burns up long before ever reaching the earth. That’s friction at work. 

And gravity is a multi-dimensional force unto itself; appearing so basic on one end and a host of scientific mysteries on the other. It embraces us as it restrains.

What are the forces of gravity and friction in your life? What burns you up if you move too quickly through it or holds you when you try to run away? What must we do to create—as well as survive—change? 

Thankfully, the news here is good. But it is the opposite of what we often think is best. The first thing to do is to assume that the use of force is not the only act that accomplishes anything. Subtlety and finesse are what alter a trajectory, or a mood, or an environment. That’s how change happens most reliably, and most comfortably.

My grandfather gave me the best advice about driving on slick New England roads: Remember to pump the brakes. Pumping the brakes is finesse. It’s not aggressively trying to shock inertia into changing course at the speed of our desire. Reality is an asteroid. It must be nudged gently and without overt disruption. Just like my car needs to be coaxed into slowing on a slippery road. If I jam on the brakes, disaster will be the only result. But if I gently pump the brakes, the car gradually reduces its speed and power of inertia.

Is there something in this for us? Of course. It means that there exist opportunities to work smarter not harder toward creating the change in our lives that we desperately want but are rightfully afraid of. 

We are terrified of disruption in general. Unnaturally so, considering the amount of change we are typically used to experiencing on a daily basis. But I also remember how I felt when my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s was discontinued. It’s been years, and I still look for it. (It was Crème Brûlée, in case you’re wondering.)

Using this as a lens through which we can look at our present state in society, it reveals that the world is not falling apart so much as it is subtly and slowly changing. These changes have consequences, but they are not the same thing as a devastation.

But if you find yourself dissatisfied with life, change is necessary. It’s calling to you. Start with a fresh coat of paint. Literally. Do it intentionally, believing in at least the metaphor the Yarkovsky effect to change, however subtly, your trajectory. If color truly affects mood as studies have suggested, how could that not make a literal impact on the type of decisions you make? 

But even if you do it purely symbolically, adorning yourself or your environment with intentionality is finesse at work. It will allow you to move through a frictional environment with greater ease. It will allow you to fly in the presence of gravity. 

But most importantly, subtle change is easier to take. Drastic change is difficult, and sometimes unavoidable. But when possible, direct your attention to any subtle change that might make a difference down the road. That day will come one way or another. Who will you be when it arrives?

Go easy on yourself. Decide where you want to be and then take a step toward it. Even if no one notices. Who cares how old you are? Who cares how fat you are? Who cares how uncreative you think you are? You are likely wrong. We are made of creativity itself. Our attachment to the source of all creativity is secure. Tap into it. Pray to see your path illuminated before you. Ask for signs. Or paint them yourself. Tell yourself what you would have you know. This car is yours. Drive it with finesse. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday February 6, 2021 - The Eschatology of Our Times

Repent! The end is near! Of course, it always is. We are constantly ending things and beginning new ones. Sometimes the new thing looks a lot like the old thing, but it never is completely. So did the thing evolve, or end and re-begin?

There’s a word in the field of religious study with a funny sound to it. Eschatology. It comes from the Greek éschatos, meaning "last" and -logy meaning "the study of.” It originated in the mid-1800s as a theological term regarding the ending of time. In addition to considering how various cultures predict the end of the world, it also provided a contrast point for discussions on the immortality of the soul.

It’s funny how difficult change is for us when we recognize that change occurs constantly. The ephemeral occurs against a backdrop of the eternal constantly. But that again makes me want to ask the question: does a thing evolve, or end and re-begin? If a city is destroyed by a natural disaster and then is rebuilt from the ground up does the city change its name? Or does the natural disaster become part of its long and continuing history? 

There will come a time, due to increasing climate change, when some cities can no longer support a community and must be abandoned. The prediction of that and the considerations around it would be considered eschatological in nature. 

What kind of time are we in now? Are we ending things or are we evolving them? In politics, neither major party is in danger of immediate end, but both are in need of adjustment; as has and always will be the case. But then, we often refer to things in terms of their former version’s demise using phrases like, “the end of the old ways.”

That makes me wonder whether or not we need to consider a thing which has naturally evolved, more in terms of the death of its former version than openly recognize a continuation. Do we need a death? It seems we do. It appears we need a cut off. A threshold, beyond which the tabula rasa awaits, the clean slate. In hindsight we look back on the older versions of our society as a separate era. That’s exactly what we need. A bit of emotional and evaluative distance. 

It’s the difference between ripping off a bandage and waiting until it falls off on its own. Both reveal a healing has taken place, but one tends to have sticky residue and sagging old bandages hanging around for a while, long after the healing has actually occurred. One represents an acceptance of change, the other knows deep down it’s already happened but has yet avoided dealing with it. All in good time. Guide these struggling souls with compassion and gentleness.

Both of these ideas represent the duality we are experiencing in our modern culture. Some are comfortable with the progressive changes which have already occurred in human society, some are resisting them steadfastly. Their dirty bandages are showing. 

Consider the period of time we are presently in as the end of something. Consider whether or not the prophets have left us with prophecies of the “end times“ so that we might always consider ourselves to be in them. What would you like to end today?

Study the old words and ideas with new eyes. Wonder if they are teaching us how to end something which no longer serves us with dignity, how to remain faithful during a change, and how to look forward to that which comes next. That’s what I think the purpose of apocalyptic prophecies has always been. To help us recognize that catastrophic change frequently occurs and it is our attitude during it which determines our individual movement as it unfolds. The tide comes. Will you be surfboard or driftwood?

What is your attitude about the current apocalypse we are experiencing? I’m not just talking about the pandemic here. I’m talking about the last 20 years, the last 50, the last 100 years. There could have been no predicting what we are experiencing right now, not to the detail which might have been useful. We are in the period of tabula rasa. We can put anything on it we wish. Does that comfort you or scare you?

Of course this is entirely debatable. One could just as easily argue a trove of details against the idea that we are now in a new age. So much of what we see on the news looks just like we saw before, sometimes even worse. But since it’s all a matter of perspective anyway, which perspective would you like? What is true will be true no matter what we believe. But our attitude about it is malleable, the hope we carry is useful, as are the results of maintaining a flexible mindset. If you keep your knees slightly bent, a sudden shift in the ground beneath your feet won’t knock you over. Hope gets us through the period of time just before. Hope is the coping skill for the as-yet-unknown. 

As a child I remember hearing people talk about the end of the world in religious terms. In the 80s, I saw the genesis of films depicting these impending end times occurring in one way or another. Nuclear fallout, meteors, self-annihilation, various acts of God. The stories were less about how the world ended, however, as much as they were narratives on the hope for survival, which always existed, and never proved to be unfounded. 

Is that our attitude now? Have we been as prophets to ourselves, through our stories and television and films, to encourage us in advance of the times about which we have been most afraid of arriving? How much hope do you have right now? Any? None? Lots? Something in between? Cautious optimism? Hopeful apprehension? 

My favorite advice comes from Mr. Rogers' mother. In times of tragedy, look for the helpers. Attend to them. Give them your attention. Allow yourself to become inspired by them and their actions. Give your power to that which heals. That is the overall advice inherent within all apocalyptic prophecies and admonitions. See the hope. Add to it. All shall be well in time.

If that advice was never meant for a specific date, it was meant for all of them. I suggest we use it now. Consider that prophecies of the end times were not about destruction as much as reinvention. We do not have to die. And most the deaths we are currently experiencing would be avoidable in direct proportion to our ability to work together. Look to the helpers. Do what they’re doing. Encourage collaboration.

The first step is to recognize that we are actually experiencing a death right now. We are slowly crossing the deep threshold of a new time. We can never go back now. We wouldn’t want to if rationally given the chance. Seeing that, and looking change directly in the eye, is half the battle.

Comfort the old bandages. Send them love and thanks in your prayers. Even through their denials and obstructions they have ultimately served our forward momentum nonetheless. There was never anything they could do to prevent it. Our collective divine spark will always win in the end.