Two Weeks More…

Like many Americans during this election cycle, I have had my share of jaw dropping, eye popping, head shaking and soul searching moments. You may have noticed the frequency of my blogs has declined dramatically this past month. The enormity of the social and political upheaval in progress does not lend itself to modest cautions or familiar wisdoms. Most often, I have been left wordless.

We’re in uncharted waters.

Those who have found a voice in Donald Trump will neither be enlightened nor discouraged with his defeat. There is a frustration with the system and the status quo that runs so deep that people like the Sarah Palins, Michelle Bachmans and Donald Trumps have exploited and convinced a core percentage of our citizenry to reject reasonable discourse and compromise in our politics. This has been going on for years. Gridlock and legislative dysfunction are but two of the glaring results.

There is a frustration with the system and the status quo that runs so deep that the corrosion of a person’s character is the presumption for those who have been involved with politics for any length of time. “You’re bound to get dirty when you’re playing with the pigs ” is how it is politely expressed.

We, the people, once had a narrative, a story, that we told ourselves and bought in to about our election system. Whether it was at the local level, the state level or the national level, we thought we could vote people into office who would then go and change the system. What we have experienced for generations of elections is that the system changes the people. Period.

From before baby boomers and through the millennials, the system of governance has successfully resisted meaningful, substantive reform to its processes.

If an elected person is to ‘survive’ politically, they have to ‘learn’ to play the game. At the very least, this requires unsavory choices. Usually, though, it requires morally dubious decisions. Rarely will a person sell their integrity wholesale. They typically give it away piecemeal…a little bit here…a little more over there…until there’s nothing left.

We’ve witnessed this as a citizenry so often and at every level of governance that our trust has been broken. Not in any given person, but in the process itself. That’s how someone like the Trumpeteer can claim that the ‘system is rigged’ and it resonates.

But you don’t fix broken bones by sending in a virus.

No matter how disillusioned you are, a delusional person will not lead the way to anywhere we truly want to go.

A broken moral compass cannot possibly point us out of these woods.

 

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The First Snow

The rain forest tour guide had yet to travel outside the region of Central American. I knew this because, after he’d described the intensity and impact of the rains, I asked him if he’d ever seen snow. He smiled. “Only in pictures”, he replied. Then he surprised me, “Can you describe it for me, like I just tried to describe the rains and rainy season for you?”

I looked over to my wife and asked her with a gesture if she would like to do the describing and she bounced it back to me with a nod and a smile. I am always amazed and grateful for these moments, even though they occur with frequency. They are the evidence of an ease and love between us that warms my heart and gives me courage.

As our guide had been providing us with a rather idyllic version of the rains and the forest, I opted to give him a similarly edited description of the first snow of the season. I tell him:

Before the flakes start to fall, there’s a heaviness and a distinct chill in the air that people sense. “Feels like snow”, we all tell each other. And, soon enough, it usually does. Fat feathery flakes drifting down, gently transforming every surface into something smooth, white and new. In spite of all the flakes, there’s a pervasive stillness. If you listen closely, there’s the feintest tingling of ice crystals that will tease your ears into hearing them. There seems to be a collective pause in all other forms of outside activity. It sometimes feels like an innocence is being restored.

The guide and I looked each other in the eye. He smiled. I followed suit. “I will have to see that sometime for myself”, he said. I told him that I was sure that he would.

My working and interacting with others often involves my attempting to put the indescribable into words. I am acutely aware of the limits I continually bump into. Sometimes I manage to be helpful, and that is enough in any moment to try anew, but I want you to know, dear reader, that the first snow waits for you too.

To pause.

To listen.

To smile.

And be made new.

You need a prick to lance a boil

Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious: The current Republican nominee for President didn’t invent or create racism, bigotry, arrogance, ignorance or any of the list of phobias he espouses. He simply is the prick that has lanced the boil of this puss pool.

(And, while I’m being obvious, here’s a common definition of the word…. Phobia: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.)

Extreme and irrational fears, by their very nature, are unmoved and unchanged by reasonable discussion, the preponderance of physical evidence to the contrary or the consequences/effects they might have on a person’s quality of life.

However, gradual, repeated exposure to and experience with the source of the phobia DO tend to help a person to progress beyond the most paralyzing aspects of their fear. But many people choose to simply do a ‘work around’ rather than a ‘work through’ approach to their fears. Hence, the aversion element of phobias.

What we, the people, are experiencing in this election cycle is a reality check. Exposed for all to see is a large gap between who we thought we were collectively as Americans (and perhaps how far we had come in our social awarenesses)  and who we actually are individually (and how a society cannot legislate hatred, fear and bigotry out of existence).

Underneath the political correctness of the past 50 years or so, wherein it didn’t matter as much what a public figure (or any of us really) did behind the scenes provided they spoke appropriately and frequently about inclusion, fairness and equality, there was a percentage of our population that simmered and seethed.

They have found a face and a voice to rally behind.

They are not ‘bad’ people. They’re deeply afraid. Fear’s first responder is ANGER, followed closely by Righteousness and Blame. These energies attract and enflame any similar energies they come in contact with and become a self-perpetuating, self-justifying, self-fulfilling prophecy. They are the Donald.

The truth about our country, about our society, isn’t always pretty. But the truth does need to come out into the open in order for us to address it honestly and to ask ourselves genuinely, “Who and how do I want to be in the light of this truth?”

This is life putting us on the spot.

It’s worth noting that during natural disasters, or on battlefields, or in any life threatening situation, we never take notice of the color, the gender, the garb, the sexual orientation, or the beliefs of the hand or the face of the person who is reaching out to help us or is standing by our side.

None of those matter. They never do.

Many people learn that truth from and through those experiences. Not everyone does.

As a nation, we have fought wars, foreign and domestic, against tyranny and for freedom, against oppression and for equality, against injustice and for the wrongly persecuted.

We are either going to come together, person to person…neighbor to neighbor…voice to voice and stand up firmly and clearly for what we know this country was established for…or we will pull ourselves apart and perish.

Standing firmly is NOT about beating the other person down.

Standing firmly is standing firmly…with the person who willing to stand too…

and not letting the fear filled run over us.

 

It’s what you don’t see…

My wife and I had the opportunity recently to be on a guided tour through a rain forest in Central America. Our guide was very personable and seemed relatively well informed…     (I wasn’t exactly going to fact check him as he spouted his fountain of information). He did caution us at the outset to not wander off the main trail and told us a brief story to make his point.

Another rain forest guide, a friend of his, was taking a group of ten on a tour. It had been a disappointing experience in that very few of the animals or insects he was mentioning were showing themselves. So he asked the group to wait on the trail while he went off in search of something that he could show them. About 15 feet into the brush, he did see and delicately coax into his hand a colorful poisonous frog. As he turned and stepped to return, he was bitten on his ankle by a Fer-de-Lance, an aggressive, venomous snake. When all was said and done, he nearly lost his foot. He told his friend, our guide, that he knew what he was looking for, but it was what he didn’t see that changed everything.

Of course thereafter, my wife and I stayed glued to the trail. Here’s what happened. We came across a caravan of leaf cutter ants traversing the trail. Thousands of them, with most of them carrying sections of vegetation many times the size of their bodies. They looked like  miniature Mardi Gras participants complete with headgear and uneven steps. As we stood there staring, sensations from my left foot finally broke into my awareness. When I looked down, I saw that it was covered with fire ants. I was wearing a modified version of a sandal with no socks and so I was being bitten. Both of my wife’s feet were also being swarmed, but she was wearing sneakers with socks. Still, she shrieked loud enough for both of us. She put her small backpack down as she brushed herself and myself off with both hands. Within a minute, we seemed to have finished with the worst of them. We laughed a little and remarked again about how it was that what we didn’t see was more impactful than what we had been looking at. That’s when we started up the trail again and I noticed that my wife’s entire back was covered with fire ants. Her backpack had also been on the nest of fire ants. More swatting and laughter, as even our guide joined in to brush her off.

We laughed and continued the tour rather than cursing and returning to the ‘safety’ of the jeep. It was a choice made without words. Everyone checked into everyone else’s eyes and  we simply proceeded. Asked and answered.

Hours later, as we all (guide, driver, wife and I) sat at a nice restaurant’s table to share a late lunch, the guide complimented us as to how we had reacted on the trail. My wife reminded him that she had shrieked initially, to which he replied, “Yes, but you did not run”.

The four of us proceeded to talk about the unexpectedness and unpredictability of life as we ate our way through some local dishes that even they were impressed with. We shared specific stories from our lives to illustrate our points…about our children, our jobs, our relationships, our selves. You would have thought we were old friends who hadn’t seen one another for a while.

Not everything you don’t see coming is bad or dangerous.

Very often, they can be blessings.

 

Catch All Replies

Life does imitate art sometimes and, as such, there are real instances of not being able to know which came first…it’s the chicken or the egg sort of thing.

For example, did the catch all answer line, “It’s complicated” originate with a bunch of real people actually saying it in conversations or did a bunch of people start saying it in real life after they’d heard it used countless times on TV and in movies?

There’s no way of knowing.

It does seem, though, to be a favorite answer to the tougher questions in life these days. A sign of our times, I suspect, yet not necessarily a bad one. (more on that in a moment)

Fifteen or twenty years ago, one of the more popular catch replies was, “It’s hard to explain.” For men in particular, the use of the reply seemed to buy them sympathy and a little time… while indicating a touch of willing sensitivity. Powerful stuff. This line fell into disuse when a single word counter reply (uttered with a hint of sarcasm) was perfected: “Try”. Superphrase had met its kryptonite.

Another utterance had an equally good run after that. I’m referring to that catch all response: “It depends”. With a suggestion of broad mindedness and a hint of wisdom, this response, when spoken with sincerity, generally ended an inquiry with a form of agreement in lieu of an answer…”I suppose it does”. The wishy-washiness of the reply, through its overuse, eventually became clear. It was impossible to rely upon someone or to really get to know them when their main response to life’s questions was, actually, nebulous…rather undependable even though predictable.

The catchiness of these responses aside, I sense that they reflect definite stages of our collective and growing awareness.

It is hard to put into words the deeper and more significant aspects of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. This realization is a vast step forward from the stock answers many of us were raised with: “Because I said so”…”Because that’s the way I was taught to deal with things”…”It’s none of your business”…”I don’t want to talk about it now or ever”. So, there is a truth beneath the phrase and an even deeper truth in the developed reply, we still have to try, even though it may be hard. The quality of our lives and our relationships improve when we do.

Sometimes life, answers and the most loving response does depend. The recognition of context and circumstance is a vast leap forward from black and white thinking, from the strictly literal approach to ethical situations that judges some choices as completely right and the rest totally wrong, and from culturalcentric perspectives that demonize and dehumanize all others. How we view things and people does depend upon many factors that we have only begun to acknowledge. The more we acknowledge them, however, the better our decisions become.

As it turns out, it is complicated. The interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all of life is being explored and exposed constantly. It’s no longer a surprise. It is expected. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Nothing happens in isolation. We now know that those relations and connections must exist and finding them has become the new direction of our research and our understandings. This includes within ourselves. We are part of and belong in an integrated and interactive system of entities and energies. Our very own bodies are a prime example of those complex exchanges and cooperation. Layer after layer, level after level, we are amazed and astounded at the intricate beauty and harmony of the processes involved. As we shift from our arrogant opinion of ourselves as ‘most important’ in the scheme of life towards the appreciation and acceptance of how necessary and healthy it is for us to simply be equal and valued, we live more peacefully and act more maturely.

Now, I’m not saying that these replies can’t still be used by people to evade, obscure and excuse the real reason for the lack of honest and clear communication.

I am saying that underneath all of that foolishness, I sense a slow growing but collective awareness.

Can you sense my smile?

 

 

Roots

“To be aware is to be willing to suffer.” (I’ve seen this sentence attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but I can’t really vouch for that).

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Once more, I’m not vouching, but this is attributed to Socrates, another philosopher from a similar location and time in history).

I was educated in America. The ancient Greek culture’s arts and sciences were always presented as a high point of Western civilization. The ‘roots’ of our society, so we were told, were to be found in Athens. There was a great deal of respect, credit and admiration given to the Ancient Greek civilization by textbooks and teachers. The warring, conquering, pillaging, raping, enslaving aspects of their empire’s expansion (the soldiers, politicians and businessmen) aside, apparently there was a segment of the ‘at home’ population that had the time and inclination to ruminate and dedicate their energies to exploring and explaining things. Lots of things like math, the stars, why things float and what constitutes a ‘good’ life.

I might be mistaken, but the people (exclusively male, by the way, that’s how it was taught to us) who were engaged in these dialogues and discoveries may have been some of the one percenters of their day, those who were privileged enough by birth line or circumstance to be unhampered by the menial tasks of survival. Regardless, history has chosen to overlook their indiscretions and atrocities in order to focus exclusively on their achievements.

That’s some seriously good public relations work over time, if you ask me.

My point is this; underneath many of the cultural values that we inherited directly and indirectly are some outdated notions and mistaken premises.

An unexamined life is not worthless. It’s less fulfilling sometimes. It’s prone to painfully repetitious missteps or mind numbing, boring routines, but that doesn’t make it a worthless life. If it’s the best that someone knows how to do, if it’s what they’ve been taught and only what they know how to do, so be it. Every life is still valuable and worthwhile. Socrates was being an arrogant elitist, an intellectual snob. That’s if he actually said anything like this at all.

Associating awareness with suffering is misleading. Certainly one element of being ‘aware’ is the willingness to feel and, yes, some of the feelings we open ourselves to are difficult and even painful. But our awareness also opens us to beauty, joy and love. When we are awake, aware and alive the full Monte of human emotions is available to us. Not just suffering.

But many of us have grown up with the assumption that human beings naturally are supposed to seek pleasure and avoid pain…pleasure = good…pain = bad. As a result, many of us habitually turn a blind eye towards the unpleasant or the painful as if that would somehow make it go away.  We avoid, deny and pretend…all of which create a whole new realm of suffering.

I realize that tracing the roots of some of our misconceptions and cultural neurosis back through the ages doesn’t change a thing.

But it might help a little to recognize that we didn’t start this mess.

 

 

Believing

Whenever I’ve asked someone, “What do you believe in?”, I’ve almost always received an answer that runs along religious lines. They’ll either tell me about their current denomination, their birth religion, their lack of either (agnostics) or their rejection of the whole lot of them (atheists).

When I explain to them that I wasn’t asking about those kinds of beliefs, they look puzzled. “What other kinds of beliefs are there?” is the gist of the questions I get back.I have an unfinished list of answers, too numerous to count, but here are a few examples  that I have used:

  • Do you believe in the kindness of strangers?
  • Do you believe you have the right to be wrong or incorrect without punishment? (I’m strictly referring to personal matters, not legal matters)
  • Do you believe in fidelity?
  • Do you believe that if the traffic light is green in the direction that you are driving that all the other traffic at the intersection will obey their respective signal?
  • Do you believe everything you read? What about everything you see?
  • Do you believe that quantum physicists have really discovered particles that blink in and out of existence or that particles can be in two places at the same time? (Hint: the quantum physicists do).
  • Do you believe that someone you don’t know very well can phone you simply to talk,  to develop the relationship, and not to want anything from you more than that?

I believe that I’ve at least pointed your attention in the direction I intended. (wry smile)

Underneath many of our daily activities and choices, there seems to be a multitude of beliefs that are shaping, pulling, influencing the very nature of our experiences. What we believe forms the filters through which and by which we create our reality.

This is true even in science. A scientific theory or hypothesis is a hunch, an idea or a belief about something followed by experiments designed to prove or disprove whatever object or explanation was proposed. Whether proven or disproven, the scientific method always leads to additional questions or further beliefs, which, in turn, are put to the test through experimentation. This has come to be called progress. Scientists believe that something exists or would be a valid explanation for a phenomenon and then they construct an experiment to measure or confirm their belief. As I stated, even if the initial belief is disproven, the experiments still lead to refining and developing additional beliefs. “Scientists now believe that they have discovered…(fill in the blank)…a new planet, a new cure, a better explanation…” The whole process of science is rooted in the belief that physical reality exists and that it is capable of being reduced to a form of understanding by our brain.

There is no way of confirming that belief.

Here’s what I can confirm, humans share beliefs. We express them, adopt them, adapt them and then manifest them collectively. We do this so often and so pervasively that it passes almost without notice.

It would serve us better to take more notice of our underpinning beliefs.

There is much to be said about the power of belief.

What we actually believe in matters a great deal.

In times like these, I believe it is wiser for us to turn towards one another than it is for us to turn on one another.

What do you believe in?