Being Fully Human, Compassion, nonviolence, terrorism

Nobody Likes a Terrorist

Nobody Likes a TerroristThe website Listserv.com has a compilation of terrorist fails put together by Morris M. This is one of my favorites. This is about the Colombian group FARC, a group that has nothing to do with religion. The FARC are a self-described army of peasant Marxist–Leninists with a political platform of agrarianism and anti-imperialism. They fund their operations by kidnapping and demanding ransoms, illegal mining, extortion and the production of cocaine. They’ve killed thousands during their 50-year battle with Colombia’s government. Their operatives are ruthless, brutal—and, just occasionally, hilariously incompetent.

In 2008, FARC leaders struck a deal with the Colombian government in which they were to turn over three hostages including former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her son. The child was born while Rojas was a hostage and was now 3 years old and the government’s chief concern. The whole exchange was choreographed by the FARC leadership to be a PR triumph for the terrorists—and it probably would have been, had they not accidentally freed their key hostage two years earlier.

As zero-hour approached, it became humiliatingly clear that FARC no longer held Rojas’s son captive. One of the fighters had given the child up for adoption shortly after it had been born and somehow the leadership had failed to notice the total lack of screaming baby in their camp. Suddenly, the massive PR coup was nothing of the sort, as FARC were forced to release their other two hostages to mocking laughter instead of cheers of solidarity.

Think terrorist cells are run by a network of criminal masterminds? Think again.

Who Is the Terrorist?

Ever since September 11, 2001, we Americans have become a nation increasingly obsessed with terrorism. We wonder why we were attacked and what we can do to prevent being attacked again. We explore the causes of terrorism and debate how should respond to the next threat.

We also tend to have taken a pretty singular stance as we do so. We are the victims of terror. We are the potential casualties. And they – that group – those people – they are the threat. How shall we protect ourselves from them? That’s a convenient stance to be sure because it nicely isolates us from the problem – the role we play in this tangled web of power and corruption and desperation.

So if we are to take a more integral view of this whole messy business, perhaps we should start by asking the more fundamental question. Beyond the rhetoric and the scare tactics, just what is terrorism?

Caleb Carr, in his book “The Lessons of Terror” defines terrorism as “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.” Terrorism is “any form of warfare that deliberately targets a civilian population.”

It’s not a particularly comfortable definition to some ears because it implies that terrorism is not only a means of individual extremists, but also something the regular military might use. And so it has. Think of Nazi Germany. Think of Cambodia. Think of Rwanda. Think of Hiroshima. Think of Iraq. Think of drone missile strikes.

Drone missile strikes from the United States to be exact. The human rights group Reprieve analyzed the available public data concerning US drone strikes. Targeted strikes aimed at 41 men have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of November 24. The Council on Foreign Relations also reports that 500 signature strikes outside the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a conservative estimate of 3674 civilians killed in these terrorist attacks. Oh sorry, I think the correct term is “collateral damage” when we’re inflicting it on others.

Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism

That’s the regular military. What about those bands of extremists? Here it is helpful to distinguish guerilla warfare from terrorism. Both guerrillas and terrorists consisted of small bands that would rise up against a more powerful enemy with quick action and fast retreat so that they could soon strike again. Both tend to work by hiding among civilians and recruiting their support. Both groups consist of the disenfranchised. Both attempt to use violence to change the status quo. But the target of their violence is very different.

While terrorists attack civilians, guerillas know the importance of strictly avoiding (or at least appearing to avoid) any such attack. By following this mandate guerrillas are able to maintain the support of their fellow citizens – even their admiration for the brave work they do. As a result there are many examples of successful guerrilla campaigns.

Terrorists, on the other hand, use civilians intentionally as targets. The goal is to instill fear. Because they fail to show concern for the people, the citizens blame the terrorists both for their actions and for the retaliation that often comes at their expense. This is why eventually, Carr maintains, terrorism always fails.

Nobody likes a terrorist.

Here’s an example: US citizens are killed when planes become terrorist missiles that slam into the World Trade Towers – the world immediately responds with prayers, support and sympathy – but then the US attacks Iraqi citizens and support for the USA plummets globally while fear of the US increases.

Killing civilians is not a good long term strategy. It always makes it more difficult for those who use it to achieve their ends. Here’s another example: The Palestinians and Israel. Whenever one acts against civilians, sympathy shifts to those who are being attacked or harassed. Terrorism is ultimately a self-defeating tactic.

Nevertheless, it remains a tactic used by a whole host of people all around this world. Why?

No Other Option

Because they see no other option. In his book The Many Faces of Terrorism, Ken Wilber looked at 50 major terrorist acts around the world from Protestant bombings of abortion clinics in the South to Buddhist subway attacks in Tokyo to Sikh separatists in India to Muslim terrorist acts including 911. He discovered that all have the same profile. They were groups of people who did not believe there was a place for their most firmly held beliefs within the modern world – and because the world would not make room for their beliefs, they were ready to blow up the world.

Wilber contends that 70% of the world is operating at no higher than an ethnocentric world view. Preserve and protect me, my family, my kin, my lineage, and those like me. Me, my family and those like me are united by our belief structure and a rigid code of right and wrong. We are united by obedience to our God or another moral order that glues together our particular ethnic group. We know what our God values and what our God wants.

But this nation or this world does not recognize those values and those wants. The world is a threat, a jungle full of predators. A place in which heroism is necessary and power belongs to the conquerors. Such is the seed of a holy war.

Terrorists are Soldiers

We all can fall pray to this mentality. All of us have within us the seeds of this kind of extremism. We all have tightly held beliefs and values and when they are threatened, we have the capacity to act to protect ourselves, our families, our Gods – whatever they might be.

Understanding the human capacity for both good and evil is critical if we are to have any impact on terrorism at all. For the first mistake we make is to justify the killing of civilians on our side and to dehumanize and call terrorists those who kill civilians for some other cause. In reality terrorists are soldiers and activists. Our failure to deal with terrorism adequately over the past few decades rests in the fact that we have refused to acknowledge that in their own minds they are not criminals, but soldiers engaging in acts of warfare.

Terrorism will continue to haunt us all as long as there is hunger and poverty, corrupt and brutal political systems, harsh discrimination and social inequalities, civil wars, environmental degradation and epidemic disease. All of these problems are sources of insecurity and hopelessness for millions. To be indifferent to these realities is to ignore the role we play in the perpetuation of terrorism.

In Buddhism there is a state of consciousness called compassionate detachment – the ability to step outside of one’s own self, above the human level, to see the wider view of humanity. From this elevated view, we see that there is suffering on all sides that has led people to act out in ways that hurt others and themselves. From this vantage point, there are no sides to pick, there is just the tragedy of human victims trying to make their way in a difficult world while carrying their own wounds and scars. From this perspective we understand the need for compassionate action.

A Compassion Response

But what about here on the ground? But what about ISIS? What about Boko Haram? What about Al-Shabaab? We almost can’t stomach the slaughter of college students in Kenya, the execution of Egyptian Coptic Christians and the beheading of journalists. As we recall those images, you can feel the energy in the room shift. We are filled with revulsion, outrage, and frustration. What does the value of compassionate action call us to when such evil is assaulting our world?

If you’re like me, the idea of practicing compassion in light of such horrific behavior stops us short. It’s hard enough for me to feel compassion toward the guy who cut me off in traffic last week or and my old high school classmate who posted their conservative rant on Facebook last night. It takes tremendous courage to practice compassion toward people who we love and who have caused hurt. Isn’t this taking things to an unrealistic extreme? And why would we do it? Why would we even bother cultivating compassion for men who barbarically mass execute civilians?

We bother because we genuinely want to be more fully human and that means we understand that violence only begets violence; that there is never an excuse for one human being to commit violence against another human being. And here’s the kicker – not only is nonviolence a more fully human response, it actually works!

The Buddhists and other spiritual teachers tell us that deep down inside those we call terrorists are just the same as us. They want to be happy and free of suffering, and so do we. If we had been born to their parents, in their country, and brought up in their environment, who’s to say we wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way.

The Making of a Terrorist

But let’s bring it closer to home. What about people born here in the United States becoming terrorists? Pete Simi is an investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism. He has found that there is a lot of diversity among those who join extremist groups, including the fact that they come from a wide cross section of socioeconomic situations. While it is not always the case, the most common background characteristic is some kind of family disruption, either divorce, parental abandonment, a parent becoming incarcerated, or substance abuse by one or both of the parents.

In terms of personality, there does seem to be certain characteristics of thinking that make a person more prone or susceptible to recruitment. One is a low tolerance for ambiguity and a strong need to categorize things as “black and white” rather than deal with so-called “gray areas.” In fact, at the most fundamental level that’s what most of these movements are really all about — the oversimplification of a highly complicated world. Simi concludes black and white simplicity is a powerful incentive to offer people, especially those who feel lost and looking for easy answers.

Compassionate action allows us to see others as brothers and sisters. It witnesses to the fact that love extends to all. And it invites us to pay attention to the interests and welfare of those we might consider to be enemies. It recognizes that we all play a role in creating extremism, so we all need to find ways of diminishing extremism.

After Hate

Simi points out that “a common misconception is the idea that “once a hater always a hater,” once a terrorist always a terrorist, once a deviant always beyond redemption. This,” says Simi, “is folklore; it’s simply not true.”

People do leave extremist groups. Some leave as they become more familiar with the ideas and realize it really is a pretty warped world view. Moral uneasiness can emerge that creates distance between them and the group. Others realize that their future is likely prison or the grave and decide this isn’t the life they want for themselves or their family.

But Simi believes the most common factor for those who want to leave extremist groups is the growing realization that, “as much as the movement professes loyalty and kinship and all of these affirmative qualities, there’s really a tremendous amount of backstabbing and infighting that occurs. As people experience and observe this, they become disillusioned and begin to see the movement for what it is.

But leaving can be very difficult.  The organization LAH Life After Hate was started by former hate group members. The focus of their message is the importance of using compassion to inform prevention and intervention efforts and aftercare for individuals who want to change their lives but may need various types of support.

Compassion may indeed be the most powerful tool of all. Compassion does not mean condoning reprehensible behavior. So what does compassion look like in this situation? CompassionIt is a nonprofit and global social movement. They suggest that in this very moment, we can send terrorists (both home and abroad) a wish for peace by saying or thinking, “May you find peace. May you be free from suffering.” It’s pretty simple, really.

People at Peace Do Not Harm

People who are at peace with themselves and with others do not harm others. By wishing that others find peace, we open our own heart and cultivate peace within ourselves. When I am at peace, it changes my own world view and my interactions with everyone else. It is a truly a transformative and subversive action.

It might sound naïve, but we should never underestimate the power of non-violence. Preston Sprinkle points out that, “History doesn’t like to glorify non-violence; our nation and identity were born out of bombs bursting in the sky. But wipe away our militaristic lenses through which we view the past, and you’ll see that many seemingly invincible powers were resisted and overcome through non-violence.”

Compassion takes courage and practice. We won’t leave today and suddenly feel compassionate toward everyone just because we want to. It just doesn’t work that way. But we can set an intention to look at the world through the lens of compassion. If we do that, we can achieve peace…within ourselves.

So are you ready to exercise profound courage and subversion? Then close your eyes and begin by settling your mind with a few moments of breathing…

Now visualize a terrorist or a person who represents terrorist to you.

Send out these thoughts, “May you find peace. May you be free of suffering.”

As you open your eyes, may you find peace. May you be free of suffering.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christmas, Compassion, ego, egoic giving, generosity, gifts, giving, holiday, presents, reason for the season, santa claus

Expressing Our Thanks in Giving

GiftWhen my son Alex started first grade he came from a pep rally ready to raise money for the school. He gathered a bowl full of small toys and office supplies and told me he was selling them for $5. I found the magazine from school and explained that he was supposed to sell the items in the magazine. 5 minutes later he was very upset. “I have to sell the stuff in this magazine?!” he demanded. “Yes,” I calmly explained. “Great!” he said as he flung the magazine to the floor, “We don’t even HAVE any of this stuff!!”

‘Tis the season for fundraisers … and charity events … and end of year donation appeals. And since we just celebrated Thanksgiving, we have officially entered what used to be the beginning of the Christmas season and is now the last lap. You all remember the reason for the season, right? Yes! Of course you do! The reason for the season is to engage in overindulgence, materialism and consumerism. It is the time to celebrate commercialism run amok! What a wonderful time of year! Because underneath the layers of Christmas wrapping paper and piles of newspaper inserts lies the heart of Christmas, and it turns out it is a heart full of love.

Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, whether we embrace the season through the lens of secular celebration or religious tradition, this time of year at its best is about giving, it’s about good will to all people and it’s about compassionate action. The winter holidays are a time to remember the joy and delight we discover in giving of ourselves to others.

Did you take advantage of Black Friday sales this week? One year my brother in law actually got in line at Toys R Us at 4:30 in the morning! To me that is absolute insanity, but he still loves telling that story. We buy our presents, fill red buckets with change and hurry home to wrap our gifts in pretty paper and ribbons and bows.

A Buddhist Perspective

In Buddhism this kind of giving is called “dana.” Thoughtful gifts given to friends and family become symbols of our love and affection. As we complete our shopping list, we are reminded of the importance other people have had in our lives over the past year and we attempt to show a bit of our gratitude for their presence in our lives. We express our Thanks in Giving.

We also pay a little more attention to the needs of our larger community this time of year. The Buddhists It is a time for cultivating compassion itself or “karuna.” “Karuna” moves us beyond considering our own happiness and well being to acknowledge that there are others who are unhappy and who suffer in all different ways. As we support charities and give to strangers we will never meet, we demonstrate “metta” or loving-kindness.

But it can be a delicate balance, expressing our Thanks in Giving without feeling overwhelmed with stress, weight of expectations and the burden of accumulating credit card debt. Because for most of us, our holiday giving becomes a blurry mixture of compassionate action and egoic giving based on WalMart values.

Giving from the Heart vs. Giving from the Ego

When we give out of the need to live up to some stressful expectation, we give from the ego. When we give and find ourselves crushed, angry or frustrated when people don’t react to our gifts the way we expect them to or think they should, we give from the ego.

But when our giving comes from the heart with no expectation of what we will receive in return, then we are practicing compassionate giving. When we give because we are truly thankful for what we have received and feel the need to share what we have with others; that is compassionate giving. Compassionate giving finds joy in the act of giving itself.

In adopting the heart of a giver, we stop keeping score. Instead, we receive the joy of discovering that in our core – in our genetic make up as altruists, we are givers. That giving is simply an expression of our own True Self. When we give from the heart, the delight we experience is in the giving and NOT in anticipation of being appreciated or acknowledged for the incredible gift giver we obviously are. The delight is in the giving — and the reaction to that giving really becomes of no consequence at all.

This kind of giving is totally different from egoic giving. It’s a lot like the difference between compassion and idiot compassion. Compassion is other focused, idiot compassion is self focused. Egoic giving is also self focused. Let me give you an example.   

Egoic Giving 

I used to get together once or twice a week with a small group of friends. One of people in the group was very obese and one night he announced that he was going to join a diet program through a medical facility. It was quite expensive but he was committed to that plan of action even though he had very limited income.

One of the other members of the group immediately thought we should all pitch in to help cover these costs. Now, our obese friend didn’t ask for our help. Never even suggested it himself. But friend number 2 had an offer on the table and although I didn’t agree with it, it would have been very awkward to be the one person in the room saying “No way. Not pitchin in. Not gonna do it.” So we all began contributing to the monthly expense of this program.

The first couple of months he announced his weight loss and we all congratulated ourselves on our group accomplishment. You see where this is going. A couple of months later, he started to have lapses in his commitment to the program and his success started to wane. Guess what happened? You know don’t you. Everyone who had been footing the bill felt betrayed and let down. How could he do this to US?

Wrong. When we decided to donate to someone who didn’t even ask for it, we were engaging in egoic giving – something that made us feel better about ourselves. Helping to pay for the program did not buy us the right to hold anyone accountable to us – and it created a barrier for us to be an accountability group for our friend – because instead of speaking out of genuine love and concern for our friend, we were talking out of anger and feeling bitterness that our own contribution was being appreciated in the way we thought it should. The truth is, our obese friend didn’t owe us a thing.

When we give because it makes us feel good to give, there’s nothing wrong with that. Feeling good is something we all aspire too. But when we give with strings attached, when we expect something in return, we are engaging in egoic giving. This is the kind of giving that looks like an accounting relationship. If I give to you, you are in some sense in my debt – maybe to do  me a favor in return, maybe to bail me out when I need it, maybe to live up to my image of you and for you to see me as the selfless, caring and compassionate person I know myself to be.

Compassionate Giving

Compassionate giving, on the other hand, asks nothing in return. It is the giving we do from the depth of our heart –– regardless of the response we get. Compassionate giving brings us to selecting our gifts and placing them under the tree with love that is free and unconditional. And it challenges us to extend such giving beyond our immediate family and friends to embrace all of humanity. It cultivates a heart of universal compassion as we offer up our concern for the well being of all others.

So let’s wrestle with the question that comes up time after time about giving to strangers. What about the guy on the street corner? If we give him a handout, will he use it to feed his family or to buy a beer? The truth is we really don’t know. So we have to make a decision. Give or don’t give. There really is no right or wrong answer. We usually don’t have enough information to practice idiot compassion. The decision really says more about our view of money and our financial systems and structures than anything else.

Some of us will prefer to donate our money to organizations that seek to address the underlying causes of disparity in order to create more financial stability for people in the long run. Some of us will be moved to act in that instant to help that particular individual with the money we are fortunate enough to have in our pocket right then and there. Some of us will opt to take this person out for a meal and a conversation to connect on a more intimate level.

All of those decisions are valid, value-based responses to human need. And if we decide to give, we owe it to ourselves and the recipient to believe the best. Give and let go. What ends up happening to it, doesn’t matter. There is no reason to stress yourself any further worrying about what you have done and whether the other person will appreciate it appropriately. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.

Our Relationship to Money

Giving from what we have to help others individually or as a group is an important aspect of living a good life. Money and our relationship to it is certainly one of the most emotional aspects of our lives. We can’t separate money from the rest of our life, because how we approach money, how we treat money, how we depend on money, how we may even tend to worship and idolize money shapes how we approach life.

The tithe (or 10 percent of our income) is a common model for compassionate giving. In the ancient world a tithe could be a compulsory tax paid to the government, a required payment to support the synagogue or a donation to charity. It’s a model that I used when raising my own children. They got an allowance. They were required to put 10% in savings, to donate 10% to whatever social justice program they wanted (which I admit was usually the faith community I was leading), and the rest was theirs to blow on Pokemon cards.

Giving satisfies our impulse toward altruism, but it contradicts our impulse of individual survival. If we give away 10%, that means we only have 90% left for our own wants and needs. We fear that unless we have more, we will be dependent on others and in our dependency we will not be free. We want freedom from anything that might hold us in bondage. We are free when nothing is present to stop us from getting what we want, when nobody is telling us what to do.

The truth is we only dream about meeting the needs of all the world’s children because we do not trust we can do more than we have ever done in the past. While the reality is that we have everything we frail and flawed human beings need to end poverty and hunger and homelessness. Why don’t we do it? We are captive to a genetic disposition of survival that has created a culture that fails its own people and a worldview that allows human beings to walk away empty, hungry and without hope. We are bound, captured by our culture, in bondage to money.

Of course, sometimes we just aren’t in a position to give any money to anyone else – that is the sad reality of economic disparity in our nation today. It is then that we need to be able to receive the gifts of others in order to maintain our own health and wellbeing. During those times, we can still cultivate the heart of a giver through our presence, with our care and concern for each other, for the positive energy we send into this world. We each do what we can – for each other, for this community, for this world in which we live.

The Spirit of Santa Claus

Edwin Osgood Grover in The Book of Santa Claus writes, “Santa Claus is anyone who loves another and seeks to make them happy; who gives himself by thought or word or deed in every gift that he bestows; who shares his joys with those who are sad; whose hand is never closed against the needy; whose arm is ever outstretched to aid the weak; whose sympathy is quick and genuine in time of trouble; who recognizes a comrade and brother in every man he meets upon life’s common road; who lives his life throughout the entire year in the Christmas spirit.”

So with the giver’s heart of Santa Claus and in the Christmas spirit of Compassionate Giving, let’s all celebrate the reason for the season!

Namaste

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altruism, Being Fully Human, belonging, Compassion, eveolution, faith and science, process theology, Progressive Christianity, selfishness, tribe

The Altruism Gene

dnaWe all seek to be more compassionate people and to demonstrate that compassion in our daily lives. I’ve mentioned that I have two boys. My firstborn, Jackson, is 22 years old. Twenty years ago when Jackson was just a toddler in the process of potty training, grandma came over to babysit. As the morning wore on, she found the need to visit the restroom. Shortly after sitting herself on the commode there was a gentle knock on the door. “Yes?’ She asked. “Whatcha doin grandma.” “I’m just going to the bathroom sweetheart.” “You want me to help you wipe your butt?” Not that’s being willing to take one for the team!

And it is an example of altruism. The unselfish concern for others. Altruism is the active practice of love and compassion.

So where does altruism come from?

Evolutionary Biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that arose as part of our biological development. But that’s only half of the story. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he also suggests that selfishness is part of our biological development. Hence, human beings have evolved in such a way that we are in a continual inner struggle with the contradictory forces of selfishness and altruism.

Altruistic and Selfish DNA

It’s all there spelled out in our DNA. One on hand our genetic makeup is the result of a process in which only the strongest individuals survived. This individual survival instinct continues to play itself out in the choices we make to pursue our own interests, needs and desires. But on the other hand, our genetic makeup allowed us to survive as a species through collaboration and sacrifice for the good of the whole. So we also have this altruistic instinct that automatically thinks about caring for others, even when we derive no benefit from it ourselves, even when we pay a personal cost in doing so.

As a result of this multilevel selection, individual selection and group selection, we now live with inherent internal conflict. Within groups, selfish individuals are more likely to survive than altruistic individuals. But groups of altruists are more likely to survive than groups of selfish individuals. So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that our common language is protective of the group with individual selection promoting behaviors we label as sin, and group selection promoting behaviors we label as virtues. We gain an advantage as an individual by being selfish, but our group is more likely to survive if we act altruistically.

Are Humans Essentially Good or Bad? 

One of the most enduring philosophical debates is whether we as human beings are at our root good or evil. Sinner or saint?  The answer is yes. We are both team player and whistle blower. We buy from our local farmer’s market and from the shelves at WalMart. We donate our money to peace initiatives and invest our money in stocks that produce the machinery of war. We obey the rules and we break them. We are simultaneously champions of truth and hypocrites – not because of a religious or philosophical failing, but because of the way we originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

It isn’t the forces of good and evil with which we struggle at all – it is conflicting biological traits. These conflicting pressures have produced an unstable mix of innate emotions and shifting moods. We are in turn proud, humble, angry, loving, vengeful and empathetic. This unique combination of self focused and other focused traits is the essence of our humanity and the source of our creativity.

So if altruism is nothing more than a biological development, what does that tell us about god?

Faith and Science

There were no debates in my house about evolution vs. creation when I was growing up. My mother’s approach was one of simple faith. She believed God created the universe – and that God could do that anyway God chose.

And so I learned to see science and faith, not as competitors but as complements of each other. Science itself was borne out of a desire to understand the “mind” of God, and science-based theological reflections have never been difficult for me to make. As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

And yet in some places and in some hearts, battle lines between faith and science were clearly drawn. The explosion of scientific knowledge, the accuracy of mathematical physics, and evolutionary science based on random variation resulted in intolerance as people painted themselves into either the corner of science that would seek to disprove the existence of God or the corner of Faith that would shut its eyes to the very wonder of scientific discovery.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, science and faith have a comfortable connection in process theology. So, let’s first define theology not as the study of God, but as the study of the human understanding of God. Alfred North Whitehead introduced the idea of process theology and gave us a whole different way of understanding God. I still use words like “god” as placeholders in order to have precisely these kinds of conversations.

Meant to Be?

But to get a feel for what I mean by God, and to understand process theology, we have to let go of the image of God taught in so many of our Christian churches and households. And I don’t just mean giving up the idea of God as an elderly white grandfather figure. I mean letting go of definitions of God that necessitate a faith that contradicts scientific reality. That means letting go of three beliefs about God:

First, that God is a cosmic moralist who keeps a record of our sins and will punish us for our trespasses.

Second, that God is unchanging and absolute.

Third, that God is a supernatural controlling power.

It is belief in these three attributes of God – that God is all knowing, that God is all powerful, and that God keeps score – that leads to the teaching of predestination. Predestination is the idea that God has already determined who is going to heaven and double predestination means that God has already decided who is going to hell. The big catch is that you have no idea where you are destined to end up, no matter how piously or horribly you behave. In my first theology class I learned that Pine Rest Mental Hospital was founded in large part to care for people who had literally driven themselves crazy with worry about what would happen to them after death.

While collapsing under such uncertainty is an extreme reaction, I am fascinated by the way in which we routinely use predestination language to explain even the most mundane occurrences in our life. I guess it was meant to be. It must be part of the plan. It’s Fate. Destiny. God’s will.

In marked contrast, process theology affirms that everything is in the process of changing. Like the teaching of impermanence in Buddhism, nothing stays the same. Every new thought, every interaction, every gain and every loss changes us in some way. Everything we do makes a difference, however subtle. We can’t, as Heraclitus said, step in the same river twice. And because we are continually sloughing off cells and growing new ones, we can’t even take a step with the same foot twice!

Claiming the Power to Create

Which means we are at the very least co-creators. Every decision that we make has the potential of changing every other possible decision in the whole cosmos. So we owe it to the cosmos to be about something more than passive existence. It is up to us to claim our own power to create. Because here and now, in this relative world, our choices make a difference in influencing our own lives and all of creation for good or for ill. What we do has consequences for our self and for others.

And we humans are intensely interested in the behavior of others. Just look at the racks of People magazines and the proliferation of reality television shows. We are gossips and social media sponges. Our minds are constantly evaluating everyone in terms of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability.

At the same time, we are compulsively driven to belong to groups and to define ourselves in relation to others. Not only that, we all tend to think of our own group as superior – no matter how gently we try to express those sentiments. In fact, studies show that not only do we sense our own superiority, but we also quickly come to think of members of other groups as less able and less trustworthy, even when we know the groups have been selected at random.

The truth is, we have the intelligence and the capacity for altruism that is necessary to turn this world into a utopia. But we are handicapped by the dysfunction of our species: we are addicted to tribal conflict. It’s amusing when we watch the Detroit Lions play or when we root for our kid’s soccer team. But it is deadly when expressed in real life ethnic, religious and ideological warfare. We have hereditary myopia. It is just harder for us to care about people beyond our own tribe and country, or about those whose births are one or two generations away.

The Future We Choose 

So what choices will we make? We have the social intelligence and the memory necessary to evaluate scenarios and predict consequences. We can imagine different futures, then choose which we would like to see while planning our path forward. What path will we follow?

My mom tells the story of three scientists got together and decided that by using all of their knowledge, they could create a human being. So they approached God and told her that they could create a human being without any help from her at all. Then they asked if they could prove it. God was very skeptical, but finally said, “Sure, let’s see what you can do.” Excitedly, the scientists started running around collected dirt and putting it in a pile. But after a few minutes, God said, “Hold on a minute. If you don’t want my help, you’re going to have to get your own dirt.”

We are quite literally on the precipice of abandoning natural selection and truly taking on the role that we once reserved for nature or for god. Now that we have mapped our own DNA, we can also alter it. What will be the consequences as we step into the ability to change the genetic makeup of unborn human beings? should we? If so, how much? Shall we have longer lives? Better memories? Less aggressive behavior? More pleasing body odor? Will our choices err on the side of individual conquest or group survival?

And how much more do we just not now yet? Think about it. Scientific theories are consistently proven wrong over time. Our images of God are also consistently proven wrong over time. Maybe god finally equals the right answers. Or maybe there are no right answers and no permanent resolutions. The Jewish name for God YWHY is usually interpreted as I AM WHAT I AM. But another equally valid interpretation is I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Nothing absolute. Nothing concrete. Nothing even particularly well defined. Hmmmm. God as a process…

And if God is a process, then we are a process. Continually evolving and developing. So if we are both selfish and altruistic, if we need a tribe and we need to stand out, then let’s stand out because it is hard for people to understand the depth of our compassion. And let’s join the tribe of the entire Cosmos so that the only limits to how far we extend that compassion are the limits of our imagination.

Namaste

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acceptance, beign fully human, belonging, Christian Mysticism, coming out, Compassion, gay, gender identity, glbt, heterosexual privilege, homophobia, sexual orientation

Heterosexual Privilege

Coming Out DayIt is a gift that we are talking out loud about those things that used to only be shared in secret, in darkness, in the closet. I’m guessing that I wasn’t the only one raised with the teaching, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” What an incredibly destructive teaching. To condone hating on one hand and to label people as sinful on the other.

When I was doing campus ministry at our Muskegon Community College, I met with a professor of philosophy. The college had recently been in the news for refusing to allow a drag show to take place on its campus. The professor welcomed me and told me he hoped my presence would have a positive impact. He shared with me that in the past year, a young student of his had come out as gay to his Christian parents. They responded to his disclosure by telling him he “should kill himself.” He did.

The LGBT community has far too often been the victim of violence – both physical violence and spiritual violence. Too often anti-gay rhetoric masquerades as a message of God’s love and the power to overcome obstacles, giving rise to self hatred and encouraging intolerance. When people arm themselves with the weapon of misinformation that perpetuates intolerance and preserves heterosexual privilege, the fruits of their labor are suffering, self-hatred and wasted gifts. There is much to be angry about and much to lament. And there is also much to celebrate.

You know, as a heterosexual, I had the privilege of never having my own sexuality questioned. I also never had anyone reduce me to my plumbing or ask me how I “do” it. I never had to “come out” and worry what the consequences would be. I also never had to live with internalized homophobia that would make me question whether every person’s reaction to me had something to do with my sexuality.

One of the saddest stories I lived through was when a gay couple stopped coming to Extended Grace. When we finally connected weeks later, I learned that one of the men had been refused a hug by a young college women. He felt she was rejecting him because he was openly gay. What he didn’t know was that she had been raped on her college campus while walking home at night earlier that week. She wasn’t letting anyone hug her. A heterosexist, homophobic society conditions human beings to expect rejection even where that rejection doesn’t exist. And when that happens – everyone is hurt.

I know I will be more aware in the days to come and I hope those of you who share my heterosexual privilege will be, too. Think about what the world would be like if we would all live as our most authentic self. Then work for a world in which everyone is not tolerated or accepted, but where everyone is celebrated and encouraged to be fully who they are.

Namaste!

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ageism, aging, beign fully human, Being Fully Human, Buddha, change, Compassion, emotional, feeling, grief, Jesus, loss, moses, mourning, pain, physical, Spiritual, stillborn

The Worst Kind of Grief

griefI used to be a Lutheran. Then I changed and became a Christian Mystic Taoist. So my first question is how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t change. How many Taoists does it take to change a light bulb? You can’t change a light bulb. It can only be true to its own nature. How many politically correct clergy does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll never know. Politically correct clergy don’t tell light bulb jokes!

In a past life I was the Project Manager for the Primary Care Network at Mercy General Health Systems. That meant that my job was to know everything that could be known about a doctor’s office– and then to change it. So I spent time with staff, job shadowed doctors and interviewed patients all in attempt to be more efficient, more effective and more customer focused. Then I would present my wonderful ideas for change.

This is where my lack of human understanding would always rear its ugly head. See, I thought that if I explained what was happening and how it was going to happen and all of the reasons it would be so much better that everyone would be happy two go along. Wrong. You see everything I was doing made great sense intellectually, but I was completely disregarding the fact that change is an intensely emotional activity. I was simply disregarding everyone’s fear and pain and assuming everyone would now be happier and more content.

By the time I left Mercy General I had learned a lot about the process of change – the grief and loss that must be met with mourning, the fear that can propel or paralyze, the joy and anticipation that can lead to even more change.  Change is an opportunity for growth, an antidote against inertia and proof that we live in an ever evolving and creative cosmos.

Organizational change is a challenge, but there is other change that is far more difficult, more painful. In my last blog, I talked about the aging process. I challenged us all to embrace growing old gracefully as a sign of hope for those who follow us. I focused on what we gain as we age. Today in true Taoist fashion, it is only appropriate to acknowledge what we lose. Because loss is real. Aging with grace isn’t about denying that loss, it’s about acknowledging it, grieving it and then continuing to go on living.

Aging isn’t the only thing that brings about painful loss. There are accidents and injuries, divorces and layoffs, violent acts and natural disasters. There is death. And there are too many Detroit Lions football games.

Change can overwhelm us when there are too many of them too soon – and when they come not as something we choose and to some extent control, but as something that controls us. These changes are especially painful.

You know what I’m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life – those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.

What is the Worst Kind of Grief?

And what is the worst kind of grief? Your own. The worst kind of grief is whatever grief you are experiencing. The worst pain you will ever experience is your own pain.

Life is hard. And life is hard because we hurt.  We hurt physically, we hurt emotionally and we hurt spiritually. Pain is present from the very beginning of our life until our last breath. First we are pushed and shoved out of the warmth and security of our mother’s womb into a cold and uncertain world.

And from that day on we will know pain as an unavoidable aspect of life – as we cut our teeth, as we learn about gravity, as we realize why we were told not to touch the stove or play with knives. (Side note, when I was two years old I actually tried to shave my tongue. Any idea how much a tongue bleeds? Hard to bandage, too.) We know pain as we stretch ourselves to learn new skills and in the process fall flat on our face. Pain accompanies our journey as we maneuver our way through the sicknesses and injuries of life and keeps us company as our bodies age, reminding us we are mortal after all.

Then there is the emotional and spiritual pain that can bring us to our knees faster than any physical injury. As we are emptied of everything else – hope, dreams, desires, belief – it is the pain that comes into the void and fills us to overflowing. It arises in times of crisis, trauma and loss and serves as a cruel reminder of our own powerlessness and lack of control. And it is universal. None of us can participate in this world and not know its sting.

We have few role models, however, for learning how to deal with the sting. Our society does not encourage emotional awareness, let alone emotional expression. Instead we are offered a continual array of ways in which we can avoid feeling our pain or feeling anything at all. When any glimmer of emotional turmoil threatens to come our way we can choose alcohol, drugs, sex or food instead. We can distract ourselves from our own emotion by yelling, blaming, or trying to appease somebody else. When sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness threaten to descend we can run away, go shopping, or turn on the TV.

Feeling the Pain

The idea of actually FEELING our pain can seem strange and even frightening. But the only real way to get through it is to finally experience it. Fully. Unflinchingly. In all of its terribleness and terror. And the truth is, we can.  We can feel our pain without exploding, going crazy or dying. And when we do, we realize our pain is not endless.

Half of the battle with grief is just accepting the grief and letting ourselves grieve. We have to accept our grief because other people might not. Other people will mistakenly think that we should have “gotten over it” or that our personal loss shouldn’t be “such a big deal.” We may run into people who are so uncomfortable with grief themselves that they would rather not talk about it. Whatever the reason a lot of people will say or do things to discourage us from grieving. So we can’t depend on others to give us permission to grieve. We have to give that permission to ourselves.

And as we allow ourselves to grieve, we move beyond being a victim. It’s actually much easier to let the voice of the victim drown out the pain. The victim is the witness who carries our story and that is a very important role. As Michael talked about last week, there are times we need to tell our story. There are times people need to hear our story told. But our story is not all that we are. And when we choose to see ourselves as the victim in our own story, we choose powerlessness. We choose to remain stuck right where we are. We choose to do nothing to help ourselves or to help those around us.

Ultimately, we have to grapple with the pain itself in order to move through it. I can complain about my bad luck all day and all night, but until I’m willing to experience my pain, I will never know joy. For the same energy I use to avoid embracing my own damaged self with all of the hurt it carries, is the same energy that keeps me from embracing my own original joy and wonder.

For many of us who prefer to stay in our heads, this may not seem like good news. We cannot think our way into healing and health. We cannot think ourselves out of our grief. It takes great courage to listen to the damaged self, to stay with the painful emotion, explore it, and own it.

The Process of Grief

Grief is a very individual process. There is no roadmap. We all have to go through the stages, but we will do so in different order. We may thing we’ve worked through a stage and then suddenly find ourselves in it again. That’s okay. It just means there is something else that needs to be worked through. We need to let ourselves do that work.

How long does grief last? As long as it takes. In one sense our grief will always be with us. Those things that we’ve lost – people, pets, jobs, abilities, youthfulness – they will never be replaced. In another sense, grief does end. Eventually pain subsides, memories bring more smiles than tears, and the future appears more hopeful than foreboding.  There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe for grief. There’s only your unique and personal timeframe. That’s the only one that should really matter to you.

A Personal Story

Every year on February 1st I take time to intentionally sit with my pain. It is the anniversary of the date my son Malachi Aaron was delivered stillborn. He was a perfect little boy with 10 fingers and 10 toes, my chin (poor kid) and his brother’s nose. And his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his little neck, twice. It was horrible in every sense of the word, pain more intense than I had ever felt before. Physical pain. Emotional pain. And especially spiritual pain. I felt as if a part of my very soul and very being had been severed from me. This is the feeling I still know when I return to the cemetery every February 1. A deep and abiding ache that I surrender to once a year. A bleeding wound that I take time to expose, to kiss and to nurture and then to gently rewrap in bandages of remembering.

In fact, an important part of my healing was in creating a time to intentionally feel the wounds once more. In the midst of my grief there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay again – that didn’t want to let go of the pain. I didn’t want to simply blink and then pretend that everything had returned to normal. And yet my normal routine was beckoning me and the time came that I had to return to life. And so I returned. But I returned not to the same old world I had known before, but to a world where I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I returned having survived something I didn’t know I could survive with strength I didn’t know I possessed.

Spiritual Pain

Today spiritual pain is recognized as a very real factor in our total well-being. Health care providers are taught to recognize signs and symptoms and to help bring healing. Even the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation requires that routine spiritual assessments be part of every hospital patient’s care.

Spiritual pain is about feeling separation. It can include loss of meaning, loss of hope, and loss of one’s own identity. It can include anger, a sense of betrayal and abandonment, and a disruption to one’s core beliefs.

When we allow ourselves to move into our spiritual pain, to experience it fully, we can find new meaning and understanding in the midst of it. A community that welcomes individual questions and doubts can offer consolation and the promise of building relationships of care and of witness to one another, while assuring us of abiding grace and unconditional love.

This is what we seek to know and feel underneath all of our life long struggles. “Our problem,” according to David Richo, “is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adults they are still un-mourned. The hurt, betrayed, bereft child is still inside of us, wanting to cry for what he missed.” Because without that expression and the release it allows, we stay stuck. We don’t let go of the pain. We continue to feel stressful neediness. In fact, that neediness tells us nothing about how much we need from others. What it tells us is how much we still need to grieve a barren past that cannot be changed as it urges us to call upon our own inner sources of nurturance.

Pain comes out of nowhere, hitting us when we least expect it in the place that hurts us the most. When we do our grieving work, when we admit our powerlessness and express our mourning, when we whine and complain and yearn and yell and then take another step forward, we realize that we always have alternatives, no matter what our predicament might be. Knowing we always have choices keeps us from getting stuck in depression, apathy or the paralyzing stance of the victim. Instead we get on with our lives in powerful and productive ways.

When my oldest son Jackson turned 9 I remember his being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I’m already 9 years old. I’ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I’m 18. I’ve already lived half of my life with you. It’s just all happening so fast.”

As we grow, there is much we leave behind. But as mature human beings, there is also much we can recapture. As we live our lives more fully and deeply, we can even move outside of ourselves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people in their grief.

Entering Into a Broken World

It was the sight of pain that jolted the Buddha out of royal complacency and set him off on one of history’s greatest spiritual journeys. It was the sight of pain that made Moses give up his privileged status to lead a political and cultural revolution that is called the Exodus from Egypt. It was the sight of pain that stirred Jesus to follow the call of social activism in such a way that his teachings would influence history and get him killed.

There’s a story of two men in a hospital. One is able to sit up and the other can only lie flat on his back. Day after day the man who sits describes the picture outside the window – the trees, the sunshine, the children playing. His descriptions give the other man comfort and consolation as he struggles with his own failing health. One day the man at the window dies and is moved from the room. The other man asks to be moved to the other side of the room. He is very excited to finally see for himself the wonderful activity taking place outdoors. But when he is moved there is only a wall. The nurse explains that the man who had died was blind.

Indeed, one of the most significant changes for grieving people happens on the inside. Nearly every grieving person becomes more caring and compassionate with others who experience loss. They know what it’s like to lose something or someone precious and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs. Look to your own heart for your motivation. When you are ready and when you feel it deep inside, reach out to help someone else who may need it. When people give of themselves, they also receive.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, change, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, pluralism, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

Tension in the Tank

Tension in the TankI write today with a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to go online because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

 When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual lives. 

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

The spiritual journey offers us another option: a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure, a life of accountability. It is in our spirituality that we are challenged to do our best. To not take what we’ve received for granted. To take risks. To set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your faith fresh and vital?

A Conservative Country 

One of them, I have to guess, is living in the United States where we seem to be having an upsurge of Fundamentalism. Here in West Michigan I am perpetually challenged to be compassionate and understanding toward those who truly believe they owe it to me to let me know I am going to hell. When I was at seminary I had a fellow student who actually took offense at the idea that God could actually love everyone! That was one of the first indications that I was, in fact, in the wrong place!

And of course, so are you. As a spiritual person, you really don’t belong here at all. Which is why you are so infinitely needed here. Right here in this place of tension. We all have had times when the Spirit has broken through to add a little tension to our life.

For me, those moments began when I was quite young. I was welcomed into this world by Lutheran parents. Parents who brought me to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving and they wanted to slip me in quick before he drove away. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world learning the one true religion in the whole world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

The Path of Pluralism 

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you. Because if you have then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

I am very proud to be a heretic and I like to be in the company of other heretics. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our spiritual journey becomes tasteless and soggy, if not stagnant and dead.

If we are truly caught up in the mystery then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully find the words to express the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Which means we fully embrace the faith journey of all spiritual traditions as equally valid and rewarding, recognizing that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our faith experiences and others become more and more important as something to raise and up celebrate and less and less important as something to divide and separate us.

Father Thomas Keating reflects that religions are probably supposed to be the starting point of the spiritual journey. Pluralism and the interfaith movement are not about detaching ourselves or uprooting ourselves from our own spiritual history and tradition. In fact, mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they came to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. Dorothee Sollee writes that, “It isn’t suspicion that turns people away from the church; it is hunger that drives them to seek help wherever their dignity and their right to have a life are being respected.”

If I have to define myself at all, I say that I am a Christian Mystic Taoist. Mysticism is the direct experience of God. The path of the mystics is toward a transforming union with God. Mystical experiences happen in every culture and every faith tradition, among people of all different backgrounds and every walk of life. The question to ask when exploring mystical experiences is not “Who are these people? How are they special?” The question is “What kind of culture honors these experiences and which destroys them?”

For example, childhood is ripe for mystical experiences of awe and amazement and wonder. Among the Native indigenous people of North America, a mother will begin a conversation with her children by asking, “What did you dream?” In my non-indigenous North American home I was always more likely to lead with, “How was school? Do you have homework?” When our dreams and visions are not honored, they tend to become meaningless, embarrassing or simply forgotten.

We Are All Mystics 

The truth is that all of us our mystics and most of us have experienced heightened sensations of awareness or unity or being grasped by the certainty of knowing Spirit’s presence in our life – often at very young ages. But in our haste to leave childhood behind, we may end up labeling those experiences as crazy or silly or the product of an overactive imagination.

The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest anti-mystical force among us.

To have a mystical experience is to have an altered state of consciousness derived from an encounter with the divine reality. This state is referred to as illumination, enlightenment, awakening or the union of the soul with God. Mysticism is really no different from the promises many religions describe in the language of being made whole, liberation, the peace of God, coming home, and redemption. But mysticism deals with these experiences differently, by lifting them out of doctrine and freeing them for feeling, experience and certainty.

Mysticism claims that it is in existential experience, in the actual feeling of it, that we finally know what grace is all about. And to feel grace is to know ecstasy. Mystics claim a relationship with God based on love that arises not because of the demands of powerful institutions or of God, but out of utter freedom. Ken Wilber describes a mystic as one who does not see God as an object, but one who is immersed in God as an atmosphere.

Aldous Huxley describes three gates into mysticism: “We can begin at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.”

The lower gate is preferred by teachers like Gautama Buddha and those who focus on practices that increase concentration, like yoga, breathing techniques and spiritual disciplines. The upper gate is sought by philosophers and theologians who prefer speculative thought. And the middle gate is the way of spiritual religion exemplified by the Sufi’s of Islam and Christian contemplatives, like Thomas Merton who said we become contemplatives when God discovers God’s self in us.

A spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths as equal and valid and challenges a society that favors only one path, particularly here in conservative America where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

Beyond Tolerance 

Fred Stella talks about the stages of interfaith relationships that begin with tolerance – which essentially means I will let you live. Even in places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are occurring, the encounters are often more like a first date. I’ll make my best impression and only show you the really good things about me while trying to decide if I like the little bit of you your willing to reveal. It’s all very pleasant and we feel good afterward, but we never get into places of depth or dare to tread where conflict might exist.

First date relationships are a start, but they will never change fear, hatred or violence. For that we need communication, connection and collaboration. Our communication needs to be on a much deeper and a much more vulnerable level. Our connections have to lead to genuine relationships in which people of other faiths have actual names and faces. Our collaboration has to move us out of our own comfort zone into a space we may have never entered before.

I attended a conference once where I heard a Hindu Christian speak. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of you have experienced the consequences of this approach personally. And now those of us who are no longer part of mainstream Christianity have to be careful not to follow that example.

Genuine engagement with others means that instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, as superior, better or above others, we begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other and invites them in rather than shutting them out. We begin by approaching people of all traditions and beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true.

And we are wary of the shadow. Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

The Promise of Tension 

Today as Spiritual people, we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because Spirit does not call us into a place of relief. Spirit calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension. Which is why you are about your work at Spirit Space. You have heard that call and against all odds are pursuing that path into the heart of the Divine. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.

The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do; prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other, and to always be prepared for the Spirit to move us in an expected direction as our own heresies change and evolve. For as T.H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.”  

So my hope for you is that there will be more tension in your life and that you will think of me, although the image isn’t particularly flattering, as your visiting catfish! For it is the challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey that add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives.

Namaste!

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, disability, hope, marginalized, mental illness, neurodiversity, normalcy, perspective, Relationship, stigma, worthiness

Neurodiversity

NeurodiversityIf you don’t know something that you want to know, what do you do? If you are conducting research on something, where do you look? Do you make a B-line for the library? Do you grab the appropriate letter from the set of encyclopedias? Or do you turn on your computer and do a Google search?

Google has become a whole new way of life. We now have all the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips. The most powerful research tool ever to be constructed by human hands, the most impressive feat of human ingenuity and collective wisdom. And it shall be called… “google?”

What the heck is a google? Well, Google got its name from a 9-year-old nephew of a mathematician who was asked to invent a name for a number with 100 zeroes. He came up with a googol. How do I know that? That’s right, I Googled it!

Names are important. It turns out that when you blindfold people, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to change my name. Having been raised in home in which my relationship with my father was strained at best and experiencing unhealthy marriages that did not end well, I had accumulated a long string of names. Then in the spring of 2010 I petitioned the court and dropped all of the extra baggage. Lee had been my middle name. And now, for the first time, I felt the congruence of my name actually proclaiming who I knew myself in my limited ego existence to be. Names are carry a lot of emotional weight and they are critical for communication.  

 My son Alex came home all excited one day from school. He was 5 or 6 six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

Two weeks ago I shared with you news about Alex that is not as cute and funny. He, like nearly 1 in every 5 Americans is struggling with mental illness. A number of you have shared with me since that announcement your own struggle or a family member’s struggle or a friend’s struggle with mental illness. That’s the politically correct name – mental illness. And it’s better than many of the common pejorative names we toss around haphazardly like psycho, schizo and freak. But today I want to introduce what might be a new name in your vocabulary: Neurodiversity.

The Need for Names

I first heard the name on NPR about a month ago so I investigated it to learn more. How did I do that? Yes, I Googled it! I Googled Neurodiversity and this is what I learned. Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize mental illness and to recognize that brains are every bit as diverse as any other aspect of life. As we wrap up a month of talking about Diversity, I think it is more than appropriate to recognize that the mentally ill remain squarely in society’s camp of the marginalized and misunderstood.

We talked a couple of months ago about words. Our words are basically placeholders for ideas and concepts. The names are a special kind of word because they contain a whole collection of ideas and concepts.  

Names lead us to making assumptions about people – some of which are clearly true and some of which are undoubtedly false. And while we know assumptions often get us in trouble, we also need them if we want to get past the first five minutes of our day without being paralyzed by analysis. Our labels help us to make quick decisions about how we should respond or behave in any particular situation or place. But we also use our labels to maintain the status quo so that we aren’t challenged to think beyond what we have already observed.

Names become a tool for dehumanizing people when we don’t want to put forth the effort of understanding them. If they are *that* then I know enough about them to know I don’t want to really know anything about them. Why would I let a silly thing like facts get in the way of altering my world view?  

I had a psychology professor who used the example of “woman driver.” You’re driving along and somebody in another car does something stupid. You look. If they are a woman, you say to yourself “woman driver.” If they are a man, you say to yourself “hmph, drives just like a woman.”

Know what I’ve noticed the last couple of years? Seems like whenever someone commits an act of horrible violence, the media immediately ask if they are schizophrenic. If they aren’t, then they acted like a schizophrenic – despite the fact that violence is not even a symptom of schizophrenia. Think John Nash. Think Jack Kerouac.  

Which brings me back to the name neurodiversity as opposed to mental illness. I like it this name because it suggests that people are not diseased or broken – they are different. Thomas Armstrong, the man who I heard on NPR, argues that we don’t say that a cala lilly has petal deficit disorder, we value it for its own intrinsic worth. Similarly, we need to approach mental illness and developmental disabilities from an entirely different perspective that challenges us to see the intrinsic worth of every human being and every human brain.

What is Normal? 

Neurodiversity proponents say that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage because they allowed a few people to think outside of the box. When no one else could come up with an answer, it may have been these creative thinkers that pointed to another way. This theory, which emerged about a decade ago, challenges us to celebrate the differences between our brains and moves us away from our almost instinctive focus on problems and deficits.

When we look at the whole make up of humanity, we see a range of different thinking that’s made our progress in science and the creative arts possible.  Picture a bell curve of humanity. To neurodiversity proponents, people who are disabled are not sick or broken, they are merely at the edges of the bell curve.

This approach strikes at the heart of the medical model that focuses on defects and deficits. Neurodiversity doesn’t ignore the struggles many people have to live functional lives, but it says we need to give at least equal attention to the assets, advantages and abilities of people who are simply wired differently.

The name “neurodiverse” tears down the false wall of separation that divides the “normal” from the not “normal” and calls into question the idea of normalcy itself. It allows us to see different ways of thinking and processing the world as natural variations instead of seeing people as bad, broken or in need of repair. To proponents of neurodiversity, the idea of a “cure” can actually feel like an attack on their being. This is particularly true in the autistic community where advocates believe autism is part of who they naturally are and who reject the idea that there is some other hidden self within. One autistic man writes that trying to cure him of autism is as detestable an effort as trying to cure someone of being gay.

A Society that Makes Accommodations

When I worked at Kandu I helped people with barriers to employment find competitive employment. Kandu and similar organizations are not in the business of fixing people or changing them into something else. They are in the business of identifying strengths and finding ways people can use those strengths to succeed in society. They are also in the business of identifying accommodations that society needs to make to help them achieve that success. 

Now none of this is to romanticize the functional limitations of people on the edges of the Bell curve. I don’t propose stopping treatment or research in the field. But I am suggesting we stop looking at people as diagnoses that need to be fixed and start looking at how as a culture we can make accommodations so that everyone can survive and even find a place to thrive without having to be made into some imagined social ideal of normal.

When we name people as defective, disordered and ill, we build a wall that implicitly states that the rest of us are normal or whole, ignoring the fact that we are all flawed and imperfect. We make people into “them” and “other” in a way that might sound sympathetic and compassionate, but that also reinforces judgment and fear.

We ignore the reality that we all struggle with deficiencies and we all have aspects of our lives that we are working to improve or overcome.   

The real value of the neurodiversity movement may be in reminding us that we all experience joy and sorrow, pain and hardship, challenges and opportunities and that a humanizing society is one in which we are all given the chance to make the best of what we have been dealt.

 Renaming mental illness as Neurodiversity is a start. A change of name and our entire outlook and set of assumptions can change – because it forces us to change our perspective. A change of name can open us up to see and explore other truths that are out there just waiting to be discovered – and waiting to be shared. I mentioned two weeks ago that we are not traveling alone. We are on a journey together, learning how to live together in all of our wonderful diversity – including neurodiversity.  We each have so much to learn and so much more we can teach.   

These days we also have the resources of the entire world at our disposal. That wasn’t always the case. I heard a story just the other day that I’d like to use to close on chuckle. Two people were sitting on a couch together sharing a snack in the days before Google was invented. One said, “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replied, “That’s a damn shame.”                                                 

Namaste

 

 

 

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