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.