Monday, May 6, 2024

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 28, 2023 - The Secret to My Lasagna

I am a heretic. At least, to certain traditionalist sectors of the culinary world. For you see, the secret to my lasagna, a secret which is about to be revealed to you, with neither expectation of thanks, nor remuneration, is… not to boil the pasta. 

It’s true. I never boil the pasta before assembling the lasagna. It is so much easier. I literally frost the hard lasagna noodles right out of the box and lay them side by side in the pan. 

I don’t do anything else differently, though. Nor am I claiming to be an epicureal innovator. I’m only a lasagna rogue when it comes to the noodle prep. 

Really it’s just because I’m a little lazy that I figured it out. It just occurred to me that the moisture in the sauce would be sufficient to soften the noodles in the oven. The only times it hasn’t worked perfectly is if I don’t completely cover the noodles with sauce. Any exposed bit of noodle ruffle poking out might stay crunchy.

This simple step saves quite a bit of time really, and it’s faster as well because it’s so much easier to assemble them dry.

My husband knows this, but he still intends to boil the noodles whenever it’s his turn to make a lasagna. He is set in his ways. That’s part of why I wonder if boiling water is not more valuable as a part of the ritual of cooking than it is a necessary step of the cooking process. Rituals have value.

What will be most noticeable are those who have a strong reaction to this idea. Those who might even get angry or feel as though it’s their role to lash out at me online for my stupidity and disrespect for tradition. 

Now, where have I heard that before?

But it’s really interesting to me that it’s not necessary to boil the noodles first. I’m sure there are others who have discovered this on their own as well, I’m certainly no Magellan of Mullers. But it perks my antenna that my lasagna turns out no differently from lasagna made with pre-boiled pasta. It makes me wonder...

Why have they been telling us to do this? Why is this a thing if it’s not necessary at all? Does that mean that the act of boiling has value, the ritual some purpose? Maybe. Jamie might say so. But that’s beside my point.

My point is in taking note of your reaction to the suggestion and how you respond to it when it comes to making your own lasagna. Will you try my method? Will you resist it? Will it nag at you? Or maybe you don’t cook so it doesn’t matter to you at all. 

One of my favorite mentors once introduced me to the ‘work smarter, not harder’ approach to tasks, projects, life, etc. It’s a brilliant aphorism because it completely explains itself in four, highly uncriptic words. 

But like most bumper sticker wisdom, the simplicity of its description does not represent the difficulty of its application to our lives. It's far easier said than done.

Making lasagna without boiling the noodles makes my life easier and has no negative impact on the food. In fact, it’s always nice and firm right from the oven. I definitely experiment with the various ingredients, though. It probably comes as no surprise to you that I like experimenting with the traditional model of things. In fact, I recently made a pesto chicken and goat cheese lasagna for a church spaghetti supper that was a big hit. Not a boiled noodle in the pan.

There’s more to ponder in this, of course. More to wonder where else in our lives we might find to experiment with tradition in ways that end up being just as good, maybe even a little bit better in some unexpected ways, while skipping some of the older parts of tradition which no longer serve us, or at least, deserve a reevaluation of their merit. 

We are in a new time. And we are now freer to experiment with the model. We have inherited tradition and history from our forebears and they now belong to us. And while we must handle them with respect and responsibility, we should also ask of them to demonstrate their continuing value. What rituals are no longer necessary? Skip them. What of the old ways still holds up? That should be the majority of your lasagna.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 21, 2023 - Big Heart Ideology

Speak humbly and carry a big heart. You may or may not recognize that as a reinvention of President Teddy Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy quote to "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” 

The idea behind his foreign policy, commonly referred to today as Big Stick Ideology, was that we should be well prepared, and in ways that would make an opponent take notice, to act justly, never bluff, and always leave your adversary with their dignity intact.

Debating theology with people, or even arguing with those who have different belief systems, benefits from the same advice. Be knowledgeable, and take the time to understand various viewpoints in advance, so that they know you know what you’re talking about. Because even while you might not agree with them, you respectfully understand the perspectives of the views they may hold. 

Never deceive and never behave in a passively aggressive way in the course of your arguments. And should you best them in a contest, treat them with dignity and respect as is inherently due all of humanity.

From my own theological viewpoint, all belief systems on this planet are worthy of dignity and respect. Even the ones with which we heartily disagree. 

Now, this is not to say that we should treat with respect the interpretations of scripture that allow for exclusion, disparagement, or oppression. But the scriptures themselves are rarely responsible for how people choose to interpret them in order to accommodate and justify their own unloving viewpoints. In other words, scripture never tells us to hate people, or even to love them while hating their sins. 

Recently, I engaged in an online discussion about religion with a couple of people who each told me what the ‘truth’ was. It was interesting, because there was no flexibility or humility in their words. They claimed that they knew the one and only truth, and therefore any deviation from their perspective was not only wrong, it was a lie.

There was no sharing of ideas or perspectives. There was only, “I am right and you are wrong because it says so right here in the Bible.” But the Bible, as it stands today, is not an infallible document. In fact, there are so many thousands of opportunities throughout its centuries of oral tradition, translation, re-printing, editing, reframing, and even conscious malinterpretation, much of which today’s believers are entirely unaware, that it cannot be considered a perfect text.

Does that mean it’s not divine? Not necessarily, for humans are not capable of interpreting the divine in its entirety. Therefore none of us has the capacity to say whether or not it is of divine origin or in the care of such divinity throughout the centuries. For all we know, the many various shifts of meaning and context that have occurred throughout history within the words of scripture have some divine purpose in mind. We don’t know.

Which brings us to our version of religious diplomacy as inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s words: Speak humbly and carry a big heart. You will go far.

Things about history are almost never quite as we think they are. For the Buddha, news flash, was not fat, as is often depicted in his statues. Napoleon was not short, at least for his time. His height was quite average. Cleopatra was actually fairly unattractive. And Jesus had short hair.

In fact the familiar image of Jesus with long hair and flowing robes actually comes from the Byzantine era, around the 4th century. Byzantine representations of Jesus were symbolic - they were all about meaning, not historical accuracy. Because they wanted to show Jesus as a Godhead, they used their contemporary imagery to define it, meaning, they made Jesus look like Zeus. They did it, not to tell a lie, but so that people understood the truth as they saw it. But in doing so, they unintentionally corrupted the historical record, which has now been handed down to us, and interpreted as historical fact. The same is true for making Mary Magdalene out to be a prostitute, and Napoleon being short in stature, and the Buddha being depicted as fat.

So much of what we have come to believe about historical figures, both religious as well as political, arrive to us through commentators long after the fact of their actual lives on earth. These commentators frequently misinterpret, or deliberately re-interpret these figures to suit the needs at the moment as they see it.

These misinterpretations are handed down to us as though they are historical fact, when they are decidedly not. Which is interesting considering the idea that people often see the face of Jesus - with long hair - in things like toast or clouds, and claim them to be divine appearances when those appearances resemble little to nothing of the historical figures who are supposedly making the appearance. 

There is no one single truth. Truth is subjective. At least from the perspective of any human being. An objective truth does exist about all of these things, but rarely does our own hindsight view of history enjoy the same. 

So, maintaining humility and respect for the religious or ideological other, while being confident in your own awareness of the mistakes often made in the historical record, gives one an opportunity to listen to other people with a compassionate ear, and a lack of hostility for their perspectives. It gives us the freedom to listen honestly to their fears and concerns hidden in between the lines of the way they frame their beliefs.

Exclusionary, hardline, or unloving interpretations of scripture will always be a lie. But the lie need not be called out so much as it can be compassionately received and responded to with love. That does not mean allowing oppression to continue, but we may have compassion for the fact that the oppressor often knows not what they do.

In short, be at ease with those who believe differently, especially when they are unkind or inhospitable about it. What is true is true with our without any of our beliefs. But our first priority should not be the correcting of the record, it should be the correcting of our approach to our neighbor. Speak softly, carry a big heart, and you’ll go far.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 14, 2023 - The Implications of Goodness

What are the implications of goodness? Even more, what are the implications of the proven fact that exhibiting kindness has a positive effect on things like the immune system?

That fact alone should make one think about what is natural to us as humans. War and conflict are not natural to humans. If they were, there would be a physiological benefit to practicing them. But there is not.

There are other phenomena like this. Gratitude? Natural. Compassion? Natural. Healthy self-awareness? Absolutely natural. We know this because when people do them they live longer. What other conclusion is there to draw other than that we were literally made for goodness? And when we contravene that natural tendency over and over, we get sick, we even die. 

This is the basis of my optimism for the future of humanity.

When we are kind to just ourselves, there is a benefit, but only momentarily. It does not last, nor does it make an impact on our overall immune system. Yet when we are kind to others, it has a powerful and beneficial impact on our health and happiness that lasts.

Of course, you need to keep the practice going, because all bodily improvements have their shelf life. But the effects of kindness toward others compound when you do it often enough.

Does that make you want to be nicer to people? Maybe you’re already one of the unfailingly kind ones. Good! Keep it up. Take note of the fact that it’s healthier and correctly assume that the quality of your life has been improved by it.

If you struggle with being kind to others, if you’re overly judgmental, critical, or even hostile, take note of that too. Consider if your life and health could use some improvement in that area. Fake it till you make it if you must.

Some could conclude that this is an indication of having been created by a divine being with love at the center of It. That may be true. It’s not indisputable proof, but it stands in as such. Why are we like this? Are there other species among creation who exhibit greater levels of health and lower tendencies toward stress when they behave compassionately? Yes. Neural activity associated with empathy has been observed in mice, dogs, and monkeys. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises also demonstrate levels of caring and empathy similar to humans. Elephants, certainly. Sometimes even cats (when they feel like it). 

This compassion is demonstrated cross-species as well. What could be the evolutionary benefit of kindness across species? Why does it exist? Why does a dolphin help a whale? Or a human? It seems to go against the common understanding of the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” model of evolution. Unless, of course, “fittest” doesn’t just refer to physical strength. 

We now know that forbearance, patience, trust, forgiveness, and even vulnerability are able to be seen as strengths. They certainly do make relationships stronger. Shouldn’t these be seen as forms of evolutionary fitness? Are they by design? 

When we look at the current age with despair, and fear for what comes next in human history we might look to statistics for answers. In them there is both cause for concern as well as hope. Statistics show that there had been a steady decrease in kindness and empathy during the study period from 1979 to 2009. But that trend reversed itself dramatically during the pandemic. Kindness is steadily on the rise now. Hopefully, we can keep it going.

The decline we were seeing in kindness is a result of the media and politics twisting and distorting our views of one another; encouraging us to fear our neighbor. That makes people hoard resources instead of sharing them. It makes them perceive greater levels of competition among us than is actually real. 

But since kindness is our natural tendency, it is my faith that the distortion of truth cannot last. Our perception of separateness will be seen for the lie that it is; convenient only to those who profit from it. For as the Buddha said, “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

Kindness is humanity’s truth. It is in our DNA. The proof is in the benefits. Lean into it. For it is far more contagious than any disease or dubious meme on the Internet. It has a power those who practice it know and understand quite well. Make good use of it.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 7, 2023 - Making Molehills Out of Mountains

I have been described in the past as an “expansive thinker.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I took it as one nonetheless. It’s true that my mind works in expansive ways, generally overthinking things, but also imagining huge possibilities ahead. That’s the part I like.

When it comes to making change in my life, however, this trait often has a tendency to not just invite change in practical, realistic ways, but also in ways that can overwhelm the sense of discipline we all need to make change possible. In other words, the idea of a brick often makes me think of building the Great Wall of China.

A single brick is doable. The Great Wall of China is not. There’s a lesson in this.

Humans are not designed to take on enormous shifts of reality all at once. It is generally better for us to break things down into increments. Steps. Stages. Smart change versus drastic.

I recently wrote about wanting to think of my life as a series of sacred temples; each with its own domain and list of nudging improvements which call out to be made. These improvements would really be better described as respects. I wasn’t respecting my temples. I am still not quite. But it’s early days still.

The changes I have decided to make in my life are not all going to happen at once. Just like the Great Wall of China was not built via New Year’s resolution, nor shall be the changes I need to make in my life. 

On my regular Wednesday morning radio appearance on WPKZ, where I usually discuss my column’s topic for the week, cohost Noah Hatton smartly noted that a piano is tuned one note at a time, never all at once. This is important, because the process of fine tuning a piano is virtually identical to the process of fine tuning ourselves.

A piano tuner carefully listens to all of the notes one at a time and adjusts them accordingly, playing the piano periodically to see whether or not the notes are compatible with one another and play in harmony. We too, must have all of our notes, all of our various components, performing in harmony with one another if we wish to live an optimal life. 

For it often comes down to the vibration we wish to emit into the Universe. But even if not looked at metaphysically, being in harmony with ourselves is simply healthier. It’s better brain chemistry, which translates into better choices.

I also think of the difference between hope and optimism here. Hope is a desire for something we can’t imagine how it might occur. Optimism is something we can imagine a pathway toward, even if improbable. Hope it is wishing for a pile of money to fall from the sky. Optimism is buying a lottery ticket.

When the contrast between hope and optimism is placed alongside our desire for change, it’s worth noting that optimism works better. Incremental change is something we can imagine. Building the Great Wall of China is not.

Make a slow and steady plan for change. We did not get fat overnight, nor shall we lose the weight overnight. Gaining weight happens because of small, incremental changes we make over time that gradually decreases our ability to metabolize fat. So if we want to lose weight, we have to gradually reverse that process. Likewise, all forms of change we wish to make in our lives happen slowly, even when we intend to do them quickly. Just try to lose 50 pounds in two months and see how much the body has not changed in that time. The body still feels its proper form is heavier and so the weight will inevitably return.

Change is an almost entirely emotional experience, not physical. It is spiritual and existential in the sense that it is about fundamentally changing who we are at the core of how we identify ourselves. So be gentle about it, and forgiving. Evolve your body and mind slowly into seeing a new and happier version of itself. Be patient and constant. Reward yourself in positive ways at all stages of accomplishment. Our hearts never tire of congratulations.