Friday, January 28, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 29, 2022 - Who Decides the Words We Use?

Who decides if a word is racist or not? How do we know when discrimination is happening? When is it possible to know if gender plays a role in how professional decisions are made? These are among the questions of our Great Human Reckoning.

Society has increasingly made decisions about these things every day. Lines get drawn in the sand. Sometimes the lines move as we discover greater details about what should lie on which side. We can look at the history of the n-word, for example, and the birth of the idea that it represented hatred. A hatred we slowly decided was no longer appropriate.

That gradual decision drew a line in the sand. A line that our society would increasingly turn to over the years and decades which followed, and continues to this day. A line beyond which were placed other non-loving, and non-inclusive words, and terminologies, and phrases, and eventually even product logos depicting the oppressed, and team mascots that unfairly portrayed whole races of people. That is the line in the sand that was drawn by our decision to no longer use the n-word in police society.

A rule begins to develop. A rule whose infant language may or may not end up representing its intent in the long term. Or, it may very well be created with such perfection that it takes centuries to live up to its ideals. Like our US Constitution. 

Our Constitution is ultimately at the heart of line placement when it comes to the words we use, adapt, or relegate to the dustbin. At least when it comes to equality for women, people of color, children, the disabled. Whether intended for all human beings or not at the time of the Constitution’s composition, the declaration that ‘all men are created equal,’ ultimately means ‘all’ even if not consciously thought of at the time. ‘All’ means women and people of color, too. Thomas Jefferson literally owned other human beings as property at the time he wrote these words. Does that make them less true?

Putting in print lofty ideas is only a declaration of intent, it is not the act of enforcing it.  The act of protecting the words “all men are created equal” and attempting to live up to them is what gives them weight. Believing in words of equality is what gives them power.

There are natural consequences to the exerting of all forms of power, both good and evil. Exerting good power is what draws lines in the sand about what is right and what isn’t. Exerting negative power, in the end, typically manages to accomplish much the same thing. Good often occurs from learning what not to say, what not to do. 

There are a lot of words that we now consider to be socially off-limits. Many people have given much thought to the words we use. Eventually giving rise to the need for a term to describe that methodology: politically correct speech. 

Of course, this methodology is upsetting to many people. Including kind, loving people who mean no harm in the words they choose. Words and terms they grew up with, and often innocently meant, were found to be on the wrong side of the line by some. Then more. Then lots.

Once we decided upon a metric for evaluation of all the words we use, a trend emerged. Now suspect became words that were meant to describe various races of people, and various types of people, including the handicapped, and the intellectually disabled. The elderly and those with autism. 

Word by word, we have evaluated the merits of each based upon whether or not they diminish our humanity through their use. That is a real thing, whether people choose to acknowledge it or not. It may not be a conscious act by many, but otherwise loving people use harmful words inadvertently every day. Check yours.

Try to be at ease about this process of sifting and sorting through our language. We learn more every day about the power of our words. We can’t help it. We are designed to improve, to seek the higher thought, to find the more loving way. And as we do, we discover more about ourselves, and our character as people. 

We have not been dissuaded from our progress. It continues on course. There are actions and beliefs we now find obsolete which only a few decades ago were commonplace. Just think of ashtrays on grocery carts and tell me if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Just think about family picnics to a hanging. The last public execution was only 85 years ago. Thousands of men, women, and children attended it.

This is good but difficult work. It is sacred. It is the result of centuries, even millennia, of attempts to create a more equitable world. We are closer now than we have ever been. Keep it up.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 22, 2022 - Fleeing Toxicity

Nearly all of us have been affected in one way or another by what has been dubbed “the Great Resignation.” Since the return to work following the lockdowns of the early pandemic, people have left their jobs in droves. 

Many have wondered why, theorizing often that the federal funds added to state unemployment benefits given as a stimulus to help get us through the most trying financial times of this experience were making it more appealing to stay home than to return to our jobs. 

To me, that seemed too simple an answer from the beginning. And it didn’t correspond to the realities as neatly as people wanted to believe. It turns out I was correct. As those benefits phased out, people were not returning back to their old jobs. There had to be other reasons. 

My suspicion all along was that the pandemic was giving our civilization a serious “come to Jesus moment” with regard to our satisfaction and purpose. In other words, we were ‘mad as hell not going to take it anymore.’ Officially. 

Our society is responding as if it has had a collective near-death experience. Mainly, because it has. And there are always certain characteristics typical to the aftermath. When faced with a life-altering situation, which usually involves facing our own mortality, often through a brush with death, our personhood fundamentally changes.

As a person who has lived through this type of experience myself, I can attest firsthand that my own near-death experience altered me in ways I could’ve never predicted before it. 

All too similarly, I knew that this pandemic would, and will, alter humanity in a way none of us could ever predict. It will be darker before the dawn. I also genuinely believe that the alteration will be ultimately good. For that is typically the type of change we all make when death is around us. 

My own change following my near-death experience occurred slowly. I can’t say that there was a single moment when a lightbulb suddenly went off over my head and thereafter all life for me became different. It was more of a gradual response to a singular, nearly imperceptible shift within me.

The singular change was the recognition I wouldn’t live forever; something which comes as quite a jarring truth to a 29-year-old, despite the obviousness of its universal truth. None of us will live forever. At least not in these bodies nor in these times. 

But when something like this comes to the forefront of our brains, when we suddenly realize for our own sake how precious, fleeting, and rare life is, something about how we engage with the world around us foundationally changes. 

It may not look like much on the surface at first. I still saw the same face in the mirror every morning. For a while. I still had the same dreams for my life. And for a while, I had the same friends. Yet these things were destined to change as well.

But two things I could no longer tolerate were a lack of clear purpose and, even more importantly, being treated without respect. Without consciously choosing it, being treated with dignity became of the utmost priority in my life. And, one by one, those things which no longer passed that test fell away. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with great conflict and drama. But always, we parted. Rarely did I ever look back. 

What is it about facing our mortality that inspires such change? Facing death makes us want to live. And not just live, but thrive. When we rise from our own deathbed, figuratively or literally, there’s an opportunity to reflect that cannot occur under normal circumstances. And when we recover from it, we are forever changed. 

The regrets we might have on our deathbeds are given a chance at a do-over. Life becomes even more precious. As does satisfaction, fulfillment, and dignity. 

This is very good news. For this is where we all are right now. As a civilization, we are slowly, but surely, rising from our own death bed. And the world no longer looks the same as it did before. Good.

This is best indicated by the fact that it has now been shown that workplace toxicity is the number one reason why people are leaving their jobs in droves. Even to a greater degree than money, job satisfaction and being treated with dignity and respect by one’s employer is the reason for the change. Going back to school, starting a new business, finding better employment opportunities. 

This is the proof to me that we are truly facing our mortality as a society. And like all near-death experiences, a better life is almost always awaits those who take what is learned to heart.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 15, 2022 - A Real Moment

Back in the early 90s I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City. I enjoyed nearly 20 years of being a performing arts professional. 

I learned an incredible amount about the human experience in the process of learning how to emulate it. But it was of the craft of acting itself from which I learned a cornerstone idea about life. Namely, that stuff always goes wrong and how you face it is all that matters.

Of course I don’t say this to be a pessimist. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This prayer is more of an idea about non-resistance. Because things always do happen. Rarely does everything go according to plan. On stage or in real life. And sometimes surprising things occur when our expectations have not been met.

There are many ways of reacting to a sudden change of plans. We can certainly overreact. We can also thoughtfully respond. How easily are you thrown by a sudden change?

In the process of acknowledging that stuff always goes wrong, the “actor’s prayer“ was born. It goes as follows: “Please let something go wrong tonight so that I may have a real moment.” It’s saying that good stuff can occur when we are in the process of responding to sudden change. On stage, it means that someone has forgotten their line, or a prop is missing or broken, or a costume malfunctions, etc. How that problem is resolved in real time with an audience full of people watching is where our genuine creativity is revealed. There is simply no time to second-guess oneself. 

That prayer was a revelation to me. In part, because at first blush it seems like actors are actually asking for things to go wrong. And I suppose, in a sense, they are. But not for the sake of the difficulty inherent in things going awry. But for the opportunity to respond in a creative and agile way that further cements their professionalism as an actor, gets the play back on track, and expands upon our ability to be fully present in the here and now. 

It also relieves some of the pressure from having to exist in a state of anxiety during the very brief span of seconds in which a solution must be devised. The prayer implies a thought that we are aware that not all things go according to plan, and that it just might be a good thing when they don’t. So be mindful of and patient with the curveballs the Universe throws at us. Because there could be an unexpected hidden gem unearthed in those precious moments.

How do you respond to the pressure of sudden change? Do you internalize mistakes? Do you ruminate on them, feeling guilty, or regretful, or like a failure? If I asked you directly how helpful you think those negative attitudes might be toward achieving a solution, what would be you answer?

The reason nearly all spiritual practice recommends we be at peace whenever possible is because peace is the best state from which to resolve crises with the least amount of hassle, if not the most amount of input from our divine spark. We are more intuitive when we are calm. We are funnier. We are more creative. We are literally smarter.

Praying for something to go wrong so that we may have a “real moment” is more about the real moment than it is about something going wrong. It is an acknowledgment that we are infinitely creative when we maintain an ease about life and its monkey wrenches.

I can say for my own part that, as an actor, some of my most memorable life experiences have been from moments where something went off the rails while an audience was watching. I can say with confidence that it was during these moments in which I learned who I really am.

Now, as a minister, I am faced with these moments nearly every Sunday. I face them with ease and assurety. I remain calm because that’s what the moment requires of me. Not simply because I am officiating a contemplative experience, but because panicking has never resolved a problem, nor has it created a seamless transition from the expected to the unexpected and back again.

Life right now is a series of things going wrong with an audience in full view. Every facet of our culture has been thrown a curve ball in real time and begs for solutions that are laden with compassion and creativity and desire to see our neighbor as ourselves.

Give yourself permission to be at ease with change. Recognize that within these moments exists the potential to discover new talents you never realized you had, new ways of responding you never thought you’d be capable of, and a level of grace you never dared to dream for yourself. You are more than entitled to it.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 8, 2022 - Do the Math

What could there possibly be to look forward to right now? Our society feels like a carcass of bones being picked at by ravens on the side of the road. Cheerful image, isn’t it?

And while it may feel that way, there’s no real evidence to back it up. The math is just not there. The world is not falling apart. Statistically speaking, it’s doing exactly the opposite. But you have to step back to see the wider view.

Picture the world of 200 years ago. What were the rights of women at that time? Non-existent. And people of color? They were literally the physical property of other people. The LGBT+ community wasn’t even a blip on the radar. 

Most of the real legislative and social advances made for these communities have occurred in only the last 50 years. And while the aspiration of this great work is still decades from being fully realized, and setbacks do occur, the overall advances in human rights are unquestionably snowballing across the planet.

World War II has had a surprising effect on human rights, interestingly enough, considering the violence and disregard for human life which occurred during it. The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of the war as we faced the harsh reality of what devastation humans could wreak upon one another. Dozens of human rights treaties and covenants have been created and acted upon since its formation.

Should we pause and pat ourselves on the back? That’s probably a trick question. Because the work is so far from over. The goal line has not yet been fully envisioned, much less reached. But at the same time, should we disregard the enormous amount of progress which has been made? 

As we fear for the future, we should still take some comfort from our progress to date, and what it might portend for tomorrow. We should allow it to become a part of the wind in the sails toward the continuation of our desire for an equitable world. We should be encouraged by what we’ve managed to achieve. Let it be added to the fuel which continues to drive us forward.

Our forebears of social justice would be amazed if we could have listed for them what their work would manage to accomplish as of the year 2022. They would also likely be not very shocked at the actions of those who would wish to hold us back.

As a member of the LGBT+ community, for example, in my single lifetime I have gone from being considered a psychiatric aberration to a fully contributing member of society who could legally marry and raise children with the blessings of my community. My rights have not been freely given, but they have been fairly and rightfully achieved. So much so, that in my own hometown I can virtually take for granted my rights as an equal citizen. 

Yet that is another controversial idea, taking one’s hard earned rights for granted. And while we must always remember the struggle which has resulted in whatever advances we’ve managed to make, I think the goals all along of the civil rights movements have been to arrive at a place where we can take our equality for granted. It is an unexpressed hope that there exists a future day and time when we even forget that we ever considered some people less equal than others. 

We are not there yet, of course. But we have come so very far and with so much sacrifice in the history of it. We should celebrate what the work of our human rights advocates have achieved to date. Because it is tremendous. And it cannot, will not, be stopped. 

But human rights are not the only aspect of our civilization which have made convincing advances forward. Among them in particular, the massive and unprecedented sharing of information is a much-unheralded phenomenon in our culture, mainly platformed via the Internet, but appearing everywhere.

This is a relatively new situation. For not so long ago, things any of us can now learn how to do simply by clicking a video link, were considered highly protected information. A stonemason’s trade secrets, for instance, were once so closely guarded, you had to apprentice for years before being given the full knowledge of the craft. Now it’s all out there for anyone to learn.

One would imagine that the reasons behind the secrecy would still be valid. If a tradesperson gives away all their secrets, who will hire them? And yet tradespeople still work. Despite the fact that so many of them now create DIY videos of the exact skills they are hoping you will hire them to perform, they are sharing their wisdom freely with you. 

Of course some have monetized this information so that their videos generate income for them, and that is a valid exchange. But the vast majority of contributors to the world knowledge pool never receive any compensation for what they have shared, beyond a bit of dopamine. In fact, we are so used to it now, that we hardly give it any thought that all world information is virtually at our fingertips, shared by millions of people freely with one another to a level none of us could have predicted before the Internet.

It’s all going to be okay. Don’t listen to those who say the sky is falling. Because while they may be able to point to this instance or that one to make a flimsy case for how the world is piling up like so much rubble at their feet, they just haven’t done the math.