The Meaning of Life (in under 1,000 words)

That’s right, dear readers, this is the article wherein I reveal to you the results of my five-decade-plus-long quest to discover the Meaning of Life. (And no, it’s not 42. Sorry, Douglas Adams.)

It’s actually easier than you might think. In fact, it’s so straightforward that for starters I can go back to the quote I utilized in my high school valedictorian speech. With recognition and thanks to Ms. Sara Payne, my junior year British Lit teacher who guided those of us who spoke at that commencement ceremony, here’s the quote I based my speech on (and apologies for the non-inclusive gender language, that’s the way it was translated back then from the ancient Greek):

This is man’s highest end: To others’ service all his powers to lend. 

– Sophocles, Oedipus the King

Really, that’s it. Life isn’t all about you. It’s about what you can do in the service of others. This may sound familiar:

[A]sk not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. 

– President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20. 1961

But wait, what about all those graduation addresses that tell young wide-eyed students to reach for the stars, to be all that they can be, to carpe that diem? Bullshit. At least as long as all that achieving and grasping and climbing and striving is only about oneself, I call bullshit.

You can accumulate all the “success’ in the world (as measured by standard societal norms) and still be unfulfilled. Why is that? Because we’re inherently social animals. We live to be in relation with one another. And yes, that applies to introverts as well – they just need smaller doses of interactivity. What we really long for is to be part of something greater than just ourselves. We find fulfillment in identifying with a cause greater than mere self-interest.

There are plenty of religious sources for this bit of wisdom. The best known in the Western Christian world is probably this Scripture passage:

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

– Jesus of Nazareth, John 15:13

The same dude also said this perplexing bit of wisdom:

All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.

– Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 16:25

What’s that? You have to lose your life to find it? You have to lay down your life to show love? You have to empty yourself in order to ultimately be fulfilled? Sounds like unhealthy self-deprecating nonsense. Where’s the part when Oprah gives me and you and everyone else a car? (Side note: Oprah does a lot of good stuff. Don’t get me wrong about Oprah.)

OK, still don’t believe me? How about an experiment? Try out this philosophy for a month. Go find something that’s outside of yourself, outside of your comfort zone, outside of your usual networks (unless your networks include a healthy service component), outside of your routine, outside of all the things you’ve built up around yourself to insulate yourself from the crap world we live in. Find a way to give back. And yeah, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely privileged relative to the rest of humanity throughout the world. And then come back to this post in a month, and let me know how things are going.

People are suffering out there. Physical, mental, emotional suffering is everywhere. It’s our job, as fellow human beings, to help alleviate suffering wherever we encounter it. And maybe part of our problem is that we’ve set up our lives to make sure we don’t encounter it any more than we absolutely have to. So let’s open ourselves up a little more. Let’s be just a little more vulnerable. Let’s actually seek out those places where there is suffering, and do what we can to mend the broken places. Be repairers of the world, tikkun olam and all that.

When you think of your heroes, I would venture a guess that you think of people whose lives were committed to service, to making this world and all of our existences better. One of my favorite quotes is from someone who did that, speaking of someone else who exemplified that. On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy (then a leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination), gave an impromptu speech to a mostly African American crowd in Indianapolis. It was intended to be a standard campaign speech, but earlier that day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and most of the assembled crowd did not yet know this news. RFK implored the audience to choose love over hate, forgiveness over violence, and coming together as a nation over breaking apart into disparate communities. For me, his touchstone line was this:

[L]et’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

– Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968, Indianapolis IN

I’ll be writing more about this soon – how we can recognize the sources of suffering, how we can help alleviate suffering, how we can repair the world, and how we can make gentle the life of this world. And I know I’m citing mostly Judeo-Christian sources here, but there will be more Buddhist-inspired ideas coming soon. Meanwhile, if any of my Muslim readers would like to add similar ideas from the Koran or the hadith literature, please feel free to comment below.



The time is now. #It’sTime #UMCGC 

Starting May 10, the United Methodist Church will convene its quadrennial worldwide General Conference, the only body within the denomination that has the authority to change official church doctrine. As has happened every quadrennium since 1972, the UMC will once again be debating its doctrine and policies regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered members, including whether same-sex marriages should be allowed and whether LGBTQ persons may be ordained. Currently, neither is permitted by the UMC’s doctrine, which considers homosexual practices to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Obviously, American society’s views on homosexuality have changed significantly since 1972, and we have seen a dramatic shift just in the last couple of years. Most notably, in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a fundamental right to be enjoyed by all persons, and thus legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation.
Many mainline Christian denominations have managed to keep up with our society’s evolving understanding of LBGTQ persons and their rights, and have changed their policies to allow for same-sex marriages and the ordination of homosexuals. Part of the reason that the UMC hasn’t evolved as rapidly as some other denominations is that it is a worldwide body, and not just an American one. Attitudes toward LGBTQ persons differ globally, as Mark Tooley, President of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, recently admitted, “There’s almost no doubt that if the United Methodist Church were a U.S.-only denomination, it would be where the other U.S.-only mainline Protestant denominations are on this issue.
The UMC General Conference will hear many petitions to change the church’s current doctrine. Some will propose to lift the restrictions on LGBTQ persons, while others will seek to keep the exclusionary language in place or even strengthen it. Meanwhile, so-called “moderate” voices are emphasizing the need for unity above all else, fearing a denominational schism as the worst possible outcome. These moderates are also calling for respectful and caring dialogue among the delegates, pointing to the sincerity of beliefs on either side of the issue.
I’m all for respectful dialogue, but there’s one problem with this call. The vast majority of the delegates who will be debating the UMC’s doctrine, and particularly those in the positions of power and authority, are straight. This is the equivalent of an all-white legislature setting policies on racial discrimination, or an all-male Congressional panel holding hearings on women’s health care issues. Given this setting, when those in authority call on those who are marginalized to be patient, to wait for the process to work as slowly as necessary to maintain order and unity, it’s like you’re being told to sit quietly in the back of the bus and wait, and wait, and wait. Remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate…who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Am I biased on this matter? Yes, I’ll freely admit that I am. While I happen to be a straight white guy (with all the privileges that come with that status), I can count lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons in my own family, let alone in my larger circle of friends and acquaintances. Chances are, you can probably identify some LGBTQ persons that you know and cherish, whether or not you’re aware of it.
In our society, the war over same-sex marriage is over, and the forces of inclusion and equality have won. In my view, the so-called “dialogue” that strives to get the differing sides in the UMC to a point of “agreeing to disagree” is far too low of a bar, and is unworthy of our energy and efforts. Would it be acceptable to agree to disagree about whether it’s OK for white people to own black people? Can we agree to disagree whether women should be allowed to vote or work outside of the home or, heaven forbid, be ordained? Likewise, there is no more agreeing to disagree about whether LGBTQ people deserve equal rights. They do. End of “dialogue.”
Of course, victory isn’t the same thing as the end of resistance. It took quite a while to end Jim Crow laws and practices that prevented African Americans from enjoying equal treatment under the law, and of course racism still exists in structures and practices in our nation. Sexism is likewise still alive and well; if you don’t believe that, just watch the tone of our Presidential campaign going forward. The difference is that it’s no longer acceptable in most of our society to be an outright racist or bigot or sexist person.
The same will soon be true in our society of those who would discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And so it will also be in the UMC. The forces of exclusion will continue to discriminate, but they are fighting what will inevitably turn out to be a losing battle. We have come too far as a society to turn back the clock on LGBTQ equality. My message to the UMC is this: If you want to live on the ash heap of history, go for it. Just don’t wait for me there. It’s going to be an increasingly lonely place.

A Democratic Fantasy

Philadelphia, PA
July 26, 2016
It’s the second day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and there is much tumult on the floor. After last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the polls are looking very bad for the Dems. Although the GOP nominee Donald Trump tried his best, he was unable to convince the Rules Committee that he should be permitted to choose Arnold Schwarzenegger as his running mate. In a stunning display of political compromise and electoral strategy, Trump relented and instead chose his primary opponent John Kasich. Coupled with the Cleveland site for their convention, this resulted in an immediate boost to the GOP’s electoral prospects in the key state of Ohio.
The latest polls show the Trump-Kasich ticket with a double-digit lead over the current Democratic potential tickets, depending on the eventual configuration of the race. In an effort to shore up Ohio support, both leading Democrats have announced their running mates. Hillary Clinton has tapped Ohio’s Senator Sherrod Brown, spawning speculation that he is on the ticket to make Hillary look charismatic by comparison. Bernie Sanders, demonstrating that he continues to give zero fucks about perceived electability in November, has chosen former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich to complete his ticket (after Noam Chomsky declared himself “totally uninterested” in the position).
Neither Sanders nor Clinton has earned enough pledged delegates via the primary and caucus process to secure the nomination outright, so the 700+ “superdelegates” hold the balance of power. Current polls show Trump-Kasich clobbering Clinton-Brown nationally. Although Sanders-Kucinich fares better in a head-to-head matchup, the prospect of a Sanders nomination has tipped the hand of Michael Bloomberg, who has qualified for all 50 state ballots in November. In this three-way contest, Trump again is projected to cruise to a November landslide.
Faced with a damaged establishment candidate and an unelectable outsider candidate, the superdelegates are desperate for a third way alternative. Huddling together in back rooms (which used to be smoke-filled, until the Democratic Party banned both cigars and weed from this year’s Convention), a contingent of these superdelegates has found a solution. On the first ballot, a number of superdelegates who had previously announced their commitment to Clinton break ranks and vote for a new ticket. In subsequent ballots (as pledged delegates are freed from their obligations) the momentum behind the replacement ticket grows, and on the fifth ballot the Democratic National Convention nominates Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker as their 2016 Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates.
On November 8, the Democratic Warren-Booker ticket sweeps 45 states, and the electoral tsunami allows the Democrats to regain control of the Senate as well. Subsequently, in her Inaugural Address President Warren announces that she will nominate Barack Obama to fill the long-vacant seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, and Obama is swiftly confirmed by the Senate.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Trump Is Not the Problem

On the day of the Iowa caucuses and a week ahead of the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump continues to dominate the GOP polls and the news headlines. Some critics on both sides of the aisle have decried Mr. Trump for injecting race-baiting, Islam-bashing, and sexist rhetoric into the Presidential campaign. Just a few of the choice diatribes tossed at Mr. Trump include the following:
And these aren’t liberal tirades. These are all recent examples from the prominent conservative magazine National Review.
His critics charge that Mr. Trump has coarsened our political discourse and dragged down the level of our society’s dialogues about such important issues. I disagree, at least on one count.
Trump is not the disease. Trump is the symptom.
Donald Trump has exposed some of the nastiest portions of our national id, those elements of our collective psyche that we prefer to keep hidden. Whether he’s portraying Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, or Muslims as terrorists, or women as PMS-ing bimbos, Trump isn’t making this stuff up all on his own. Rather, he’s giving full voice to the politically incorrect prejudices that many Americans secretly harbor.
That’s what I mean when I say that Trump is the symptom, not the disease. The disease is already there at the core of the American collective consciousness. Did we really think that racism and sexism were merely things of the past? Between the events of the last year and the current political rhetoric, I think we should all be disabused of that notion by now. I don’t need to list the painful recent events that demonstrate how far we have yet to go to fight the scourge of racism, explicit and implicit, in our nation. The dual backlashes, first against Hispanic immigrants and then against Muslim refugees, are of the same mindset.
It’s the same old story of projecting our collective shadow onto a collective “Other,” scapegoating and demonizing something outside of ourselves so that we can feel better about ourselves. I’ve written about this on many occasions in the past, but here’s one example from a few months ago (which actually drew on articles I’d written several years before that).
Donald Trump hasn’t invented American racism, or sexism, or Islamophobia. He’s merely brought it out of the shadows and into the full light of day. What used to be only ashamedly whispered in secret is now proudly shouted from the rooftops on the campaign trail.
I used to say that there was only one American political party, the Incumbent Party, with two wings, the Democratic and the Republican. I’m beginning to think that there are more like three parties at present. First is the Democratic Socialist Party, which finally has a major party candidate in Bernie Sanders. Let’s say this party represents about 20% of the total electorate. Then there’s the Establishment Party, with its two wings, Democratic and Republican. This party is devoted to Wall Street and the military industrial complex. It probably comprises about half of the electorate, perhaps a little more or a little less. Finally, there’s the party that Donald Trump has energized. Let’s call them the National Front/Homeland party. If America were a parliamentary democracy like most European countries with multi-party elections, I would suspect that this party could garner about 25% of the national vote today.
What this makes me wonder about, however, is the complicity of the Establishment Party in allowing the National Front Party to voice its divisive rhetoric. As long as the Establishment believes that it can retain power, it has little electoral motivation to stand up against the National Front. What has changed in this election cycle is that the Republican wing of the Establishment Party might actually lose this time around. What impact that will have for electoral politics remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is the corrosive impact it is having on our national dialogue.

America is not a Christian nation

There, I said it. America is not a Christian nation. Despite what you hear from politicians and pundits and preachers protesting to the contrary, it’s not now nor perhaps has it ever been a truly Christian nation.

But what does that mean? I think there are two important and distinct ways in which America is not a Christian nation.

1) America is not a Christian nation in theory. 

The intent of our founders and the grand idea of America was not to create a Christian nation. The intent was to create a nation where each and every citizen was free to worship as he or she saw fit, even if that included not worshiping any deity at all.

You wouldn’t know this from the (mostly manufactured) rage about Starbucks cups losing their (mostly pagan) Christmas decorations this season. You also wouldn’t know this if you were following recent political discussions. For just one particularly egregious example, GOP Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson apparently thinks Muslims aren’t fit to be President. In a September interview on Meet the Press, Dr. Carson (a retired neurosurgeon) opined, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” Later in the interview, Carson was asked, “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?” “No,” he said, “I don’t, I do not.”

A side product of this line of reasoning by Dr. Carson is that it feeds the nutcases who attack President Obama for being a Muslim. But here’s the bigger question: So what? What if Barack Obama really were a devout, practicing Muslim? Should that somehow invalidate his political policies, or disqualify him from serving as President? Since his opponents are often quick to appeal to the “original intent of the Founders”, let’s take a look at what the Founders said. I’ll keep it simple and quote the Constitution, Article VI, Paragraph 3 (emphasis added):

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Although this is what the Constitution clearly states, it’s also clearly not the way the nation tends to operate. Some of you are old enough to remember when President Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a major political issue. Imagine the furor that would emerge now if a Presidential candidate publicly proclaimed his or her belief in Islam, or for that matter Judaism, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or even worse, atheism.

If there is truly no religious test for public office, would it be possible for an agnostic or atheist to succeed as a Presidential candidate? I seriously doubt it. I’m reminded of the film Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel), wherein Dr. Ellie Arroway loses out on the assignment of piloting the craft destined to make first contact with the extraterrestrial aliens because she refuses to acknowledge the existence of God, while her boss conveniently adopts an acceptable “civic religion” tone in order to garner support.

But now for the second point:

2) America is not a Christian nation in practice. 

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave a much-anticipated speech at Liberty University back in September. For context, Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is a conservative Christian institution, while Senator Sanders is a democratic socialist and is Jewish. At first blush these two sets of values might seem in conflict, and Sanders acknowledged that he and his crowd probably had some significant differences on certain social issues. However, Sanders also tried to find common ground as he cited the injustice of so many American children living in poverty in the wealthiest nation in human history. Sanders quoted Pope Francis’ recent comments on social and economic inequality:

I agree with Pope Francis when he says, “The current financial crisis originated in a profound human crisis, the denial of the primacy of the human person…We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule.” 

More recently, in this past week’s news we’ve seen the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, among other places. We also continue to see the flood of refugees pouring out of Syria, people desperate to escape the civil war and particularly the terrorism of Daesh (a/k/a ISIS or ISIL). But now, in reaction to the Paris attacks specifically, many governors of American states are insisting that they will not allow any Syrian refugees within their borders. What makes this a particularly egregious bit of xenophobia is that so many of these Governors are self-proclaimed Christians. I don’t have time to list all of the verses in the Bible that talk about welcoming the alien and the stranger, but a quick online search reveals dozens. For now let’s just stick with this well-known passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Here’s a thought: Maybe instead of spending so much time proclaiming that America is supposed to be a Christian nation, those politicians and pundits and preachers might want to spend a little more time making sure that America actually lives up to the values that Jesus taught and lived and died for. After all, wouldn’t it be better to have a Christian nation in practice rather than in theory?

Making Room for “Yes”

Preface: This post could actually be a journal entry to myself, but for some reason I feel compelled to share it with you as well. Maybe someone will read it and have something click for them as well. I put it together in about an hour’s time, and have done only minimal editing, so it might be a little rough in spots. There probably isn’t one single original thought in here, as I’ve gleaned most of this material from a number of sources I’ve read in the past few months. I’ll give credit for original insights where I can, but much of this knowledge has been previously packaged in various forms. 
How can we learn to say “yes” less? That’s actually the title of a presentation (and a forthcoming book) by Jeffrey Cufaude, You can find out more about him at his website, Idea Architects. The basic point behind this notion, as I understand it, is that we often wind up saying “yes” to too many things, perhaps out of a sense of obligation or possibly out of a sense that we need to seem busy to be important or taken seriously.
The most frequent reason for saying “yes” with only moderate enthusiasm, in my experience, comes from the recently oft-discussed FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. It’s the same impulse that drives you to check your social media feed on an hourly basis in case one of your 500 friends just posted the most amazing photograph or life lesson or cat video ever.
Tim Ferriss (famous for his books The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Body) also recently wrote about this phenomenon. In his article “How to Say ‘No’ When It Matters Most,” Ferriss discussed why he’s stepping away from start-up investing and advising for the foreseeable future, so that he can concentrate on the key things that he believes have the capacity to have the most profound, long-term impact (in his case, writing).
Ferries also mentioned the idea of needing to be able to say not just “yes”, but “Hell Yeah!” before taking on a new commitment or undertaking or opportunity, and that if you can’t say “Hell Yeah” then you should say no. I’ve also heard this described as “Fuck Yes! or No” for those who aren’t squeamish about R-rated language. In other words, don’t do something unless you’re actually quite enthusiastic about it.
Why take this approach? Won’t you risk missing out on some great new opportunity? If you’re asking this question, please reconsider the meaning of FOMO. Also keep in mind the 80/20 rule, recently re-popularized by Ferriss, which is common parlance for the Pareto principle.  In short, the Pareto principle asserts that for most events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Applied in a business world setting, you can probably think of the 20% of your clients/customers who yield 80% of your revenues. Using this as a management strategy, you should then realign your efforts to really ramp up your attention to those most valuable 20% of your clients in order to give your revenues the biggest boost.
This goes to a core principle of management, personal development, and any number of realms. Too often we spend most of our energy trying to overcome our weaknesses, when in fact we’d probably see a much better ROI (return on investment) by spending more energy building and capitalizing on our strengths. I’ve seen this manifest itself in both good and bad ways in many of the companies I’ve consulted with over the years. Companies that find some success and then decide they need to diversify into a vast array of products or services, moving away from their key strength areas, always wind up stumbling somewhere along the way. Almost without fail, when the company brings its focus back to their core business strength, it winds up flourishing.
But here’s the real key for us as individuals. Saying yes less and saying no more gives us more space and time, which most of us desperately need more of. How is that next amazing opportunity going to find time to make itself known to you if your life is already overbooked 24/7? Give yourself the room to allow for the new to enter.
This reminds me of the Buddhist tale of the master pouring tea for a student who thought he was already quite knowledgeable. The master quietly handed the student a teacup, and began pouring tea into it until it overflowed. The student said, “Master, you can’t pour anything into my cup until I empty it.” The master replied, “And I can’t give you any new ideas until you clear out some thoughts to make room for what I have to teach you.”
This brings up another of Ferriss’ applications of the 80/20 rule. He suggests that the first step in overcoming obstacles is to “write down the 20% of activities and people causing 80% or more of your negative emotions.” So we can apply the 80/20 rule in both a positive and a negative manner:
  • Figure out the 20% of activities, people, commitments, etc. that bring you 80% of your joy and flourishing in life, and focus on those.
  • Figure out the 20% of activities, people, commitments, etc. that bring you 80% of your heartburn, disgust, and frustration in your life, and get rid of those. 
I’d actually suggest that you might want to try to do the second of those before doing the first. Why? Because getting rid of the 20% of things that are the truly most PITA (Pain In The Ass) elements of your life will free up an enormous amount of energy that you can then channel into the positive aspects of your life. 
It can also be a very scary undertaking. For me, one massive example of saying no to the negative 20% was when I quit my job back in 2001 and went out on my own. Have I become rich with an automated business model, a la Four Hour Work Week? No, but at least I do know that every single penny of profit I manage to generate will actually belong to me. What I have gained is freedom, freedom from commuting in Atlanta traffic every day, freedom from reporting to an office on a daily basis, freedom from the constraints and schedules and requirements and arbitrary whims of a 9 to 5 job. Has it been scary, financially insecure, and full of its own drawbacks? Of course. Has it been worth it for the freedom? Abso-fucking-lutely. 
Here’s the real kicker, though: That PITA 20% might include some things that you hold very dear, some things that are central to your self-perceived status or standing or self-definition. You might have a very hard time imagining yourself without that particular structure or role. You might not be able to imagine how to explain your decision, or even how to introduce yourself without being able to refer to “what you do” rather than “who you are.” Too bad. Kick them to the curb anyway. Unless, of course, you really are saving the world with your struggles, in which case by all means continue your suffering for the benefit of humanity. 
Does this sound selfish? Ultimately it’s not. What’s the most important thing you can do for the world? Wake up, be on fire for something, because the world needs awakened, enlightened, and passionate people, not just a bunch of zombies stumbling around the planet. 
Now back to thinking about this like a journal entry rather than a blog post. How can I figure out what my current PITA 20% is, and how can I get rid of it? How will I muster the courage to identify and eliminate the things from my life that aren’t helpful and productive for my well-being and overall flourishing? I could start by reminding myself that life is too damn short, and every day that I don’t discard what holds me back is another day I’ve pissed away to the sands of time. It’s not doing me any good, it’s not helping anyone else, and it’s not honoring to any deity that you might happen to hold in high regard either. Go meditate in a graveyard or read some Thoreau or Seneca. Shake yourself out of your torpor. Don’t lead a life of quiet desperation. Life is too precious to waste like that. 

10 Things I learned while evangelizing Muslims on my summer vacation

Let me start with a little background. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), during my college days I was a raging evangelical Christian. For those who have come to know me since then, it can be hard to believe this, but I promise it’s true. I belonged to a group known as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We liked to think of ourselves as a brainer version of Campus Crusade.
As I continued to explore my Christian faith and made it an increasingly integral part of my life, I decided that if I were serious about the exclusive faith claims of the Christian gospel (e.g. that in order to know God and guarantee eternal reward and escape eternal punishment in the afterlife, one must come to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior), then it was incumbent upon me to share that gospel with everyone in the world, and particularly those who were hardest to reach. So, in the summer after my junior year of college, I joined a mission trip to the Mediterranean island of Malta. Why Malta, you may wonder? Because there was a large concentration of Libyan college students on Malta for the summer, and given the state of international relations back in 1984 this was one of the only places where American Christians could encounter Libyan Muslims.
The hope of InterVarsity was that this short-term summer mission trip would inspire many of us to take on a longer mission trip, perhaps even as a lifelong calling, in order to win souls for the gospel. In my case, however, missionary zeal was bested by the laws of unintended consequences. Here, then, are 10 things I actually learned while on my summer mission trip (and upon reflection thereafter):
1) First, one can’t just say “Muslims” and “Christians”. Those categories are far too broad, on both accounts. To be more exact here, what I’m talking about are American evangelical Christians and Libyan Muslims of varying degrees of observance and devotion (although most were typically less devout/fanatical than we evangelical Christians were). When I use the shorthand of “Muslim” and “Christian” hereinafter, please keep these more detailed descriptions in mind (unless otherwise specified).
2) Muslim college guys think about mostly the same things that Christian college guys do – girls (at least the straight guys), cracking jokes, and ribbing your friends. A funny story illustrates this: Although all the Libyan guys knew a fair amount of English, we American guys did our best to learn a few words of Arabic. One early lesson was learning the Arabic word for “beautiful” – so as to say it to nearby Libyan female students. Unfortunately for one of our cohort, his Arabic pronunciation was slightly off, and instead of calling a woman beautiful, he called her a camel, much to the uproarious delight of our Libyan male compatriots.
3) Libyan Muslim college kids have pretty similar ambitions to American Christian college kids – get a good education, get a good job after graduation (or go on to post-graduate school), and find someone to spend their lives with.
4) Libyan college kids have the same kinds of insecurities as American college kids. Among the group of Libyans we hung out with, there were two guys named Mufta. In order to distinguish them we gave them nicknames, one of whom we began calling “Crazy Mufta” because he was sort of a wild and crazy guy (this was the 1980s, and Steve Martin was still huge). We soon learned, however, that calling someone “crazy” in Arabic culture was quite the insult, although of course we only meant it in a positive playful sense. We soon changed his nickname to “Fancy Mufta,” reflecting his sartorial splendor, and he was much happier with this new moniker.
5) Muslim families want the same things for their kids as American Christian families do (and apply the same kinds of pressures, spoken and unspoken). They want their kids to get a good education, behave well, be successful, become doctors and lawyers and engineers, and have a happy and long life. It’s not all that complicated, really.
6) Muslims come in widely varying degrees of devoutness. Not every Muslims stops for prayer five times a day. Secular Muslims take similar approaches as secular Christians. Debating theology wasn’t something that really interested most of the Libyan guys we encountered. It wasn’t so much of an argument about our deity versus their deity, but rather it was more of an effort to convince them of the need for devotion in the first place.
7) Perhaps this should have been listed as 5b, but Muslim college kids aren’t any more interested in being evangelized than are American college kids. Quelle surprise. 
8) Muslim theology has many parallels with Christian theology. Monotheism, a supreme prophet (albeit in the Christian case, said prophet morphed into a deity, which of course is anathema to Muslims), and similar moral codes are all shared doctrines. This should not be surprising if one realizes that Muslims draw on the Jewish and Christian scriptures as well as their own Quran.
It’s like the old story about the blind men trying to describe an elephant.Here’s a version from the Jain tradition. In short, each blind man touches only a part of the elephant, and thus each is convinced that the part they touched is the most representative of the whole elephant. They argue about which of them has the correct interpretation, until a wise man with sight informs them of their limited perceptions, noting that in the end they are all right, albeit only partially so.
Here’s another way to think about it. You don’t read Beowulf in order to argue about whether the dragon was green or brown or red. The dragon isn’t real. He’s a myth. The value of a myth is in the metaphors, the stories, and the truths that can be gleaned from them. But don’t worship the metaphor, worship the underlying meanings.
(But what if there’s actually no elephant in the room? More on that in a later post.)
9) Libyans had some of the same types of biases toward Americans as Americans did toward Libyans. They assumed that all Americans were just like President Reagan, with a gunslinging, cocksure attitude, wanting to commence bombing of Libya as soon as possible.
10) Libyan Muslims had the same capacity (and need) for cross-cultural exposure as we American Christians did. As one of our new friends said upon our departure (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We used to think that all Americans hated all Libyans. But once we met you guys and got to know you, we learned that you Americans can actually be real gentlemen. We will never forget this time together.”
And this was the key. Before I got to know a handful of Libyan Muslim college guys, I was able to maintain my stereotypes and biases. Once I actually did get to know them, I was forced to treat them as individuals rather than as a stereotype. As Mark Twain famously wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Here’s a little insight: That works for pretty much any group of people that we’d like to label as “the Other.”
What’s so scary about gays, and blacks, and immigrants, and all the rest of the bogeymen conjured up by those who “want their America back!” is that they’re NOT LIKE US. That is to say, they’re THE OTHER. According to depth psychology, we fear that which is different from us – or alternatively that which represented some shadow aspect of our true selves – and then we find an out-group, an “other” or a set of others, and we project all of our fears and hatreds onto that group. It really doesn’t matter what that Other group is, as long as we can clearly identify and in turn vilify that group. I’ve written about this before on this blog so I won’t go on too long about it now. Just realize that this is what’s really at work in these seemingly irrational positions – the fear of the other. Do we really need to fear that which is different from ourselves? No, what we need to do is recognize that element within ourselves that we in turn use to label the other. As Carl Jung wisely noted, “The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

Coming out of the Shadow(s)

In reviewing some of my previous writings as part of my research for a current piece, I ran across a couple of old columns that unfortunately still resonate today. I say “unfortunately” because I would have hoped that our nation would have made more progress on these social fronts by now. Although we have seen significant legal advances, our current political and social discourse feels retrograde. From ugly nativism to the backlash against the legalization of same-sex marriage, the elements of society that “Want Their America Back!” continue to try to drag us back to the 1950s, or the 1890s.

Without further ado, here are two pieces I wrote over nine years ago, with very minor edits for context. I hope and fear that these still have something to say about what we’re dealing with in America today.

Soy un inmigrante

May 2006

So I got to thinking, after all these boycotts and protests yesterday and all the discussions and diatribes about reforming immigration policy over the past few months, what does all this really show about our society?

Before I get very far into this at all, let me point out that there is no easy answer to the problem of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, depending on which side of the issue you choose. We can’t simply open our national borders and let everyone in who wants to come in, but we also can’t simply deport 12 million people. The correct legislative solution, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle, but to find it we’d have to have a vibrant middle in our political spectrum, and that’s pretty well lacking these days.

But I’m more interested in what this debate reveals about us. According to statistics from a Pew Research project, about 74% of the immigrants who are here illegally are of Mexican or other Latin American origin. That means that 26% of the immigrants, or over 3 million people, are non-Hispanic. Funny though, when the pundits bloviate about “illegal immigrants”, you never hear them talking about Romanians or Somalis or Cambodians. Nope, it’s always “those folks coming across the border”, and they don’t mean renegade Canadians, eh?

So is there a racial component to this issue? Naturally. Of course, it’s also true that if roughly 3 million of these immigrants are non-Hispanic, the other 9 million are Hispanic, and so the large majority of the people in question are in fact of Hispanic origin. So there’s some justification for focusing the debate on Hispanic immigrants – but nearly all prejudices have some tenuous connection to reality (or at least reality as it’s perceived by those harboring the prejudices).

But what we have here is another set of categorizations. We have constructed a “them”, in opposition to the “we” that is us, us being those folks who were made in America, and them being everyone else. And when we set up “us” and “them” categories, you know what the next step is: We good, they bad. Yes, it’s the old nasty collective shadow projection rearing its ugly unintegrated head once again. (Click on this link for a prior posting about the shadow concept as it relates to homosexuals and Brokeback Mountain.)

So as long as there’s a “them” over there that we can differentiate from the “us” here, we can project all kinds of badness onto “them”. It’s much more convenient to group folks into categories when we can find some obvious distinguishing characteristics to use in our taxonomy. Thus the emphasis on Hispanic immigrants – they all speak a certain, other language, one that is not ours. There are other inaccurate distinguishing characteristics that are often employed – cuisine, job types, etc. – but we’ll leave those aside for the moment.

But is the “us” really that different from the “them”? I know the argument – “My ancestors were immigrants, but they came here legally, and worked hard and played by the rules and made a better life for generations to come.” The flaws with that argument are obvious – immigration policy wasn’t the same back when your forebears made their way to our shores, and for that matter I’ll bet that one or two of the folks in your family tree probably did slip through Ellis Island without the proper documents. Oh, and if you trace your lineage back to the Mayflower? Well then, you were part of an invading force – or did the Indians stamp the Pilgrims’ passports and grant them extended work visas?

Here’s what really hacks me off about this issue – most, though not all, of the bloviators who are fiercely opposed to illegal immigration are also professing Christians. The last time I checked my Bible, there was a whole lot in there about welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality to the traveler among you, and allowing the refugee to settle in your land. Regardless of your position on immigration policy reform, it’s abundantly clear that if you call yourself a Christian, your moral duty is to welcome strangers in your midst and to offer hospitality to those you encounter.

Some legislators want to make it a crime to extend practical hospitality to immigrants who are in this country illegally. Does that mean my government wants to punish me for exercising my religion, since it’s my Christian duty to be hospitable? I don’t know what the correct legislative response to this issue is, but I can say what it’s not: It’s not one that locks up a priest for offering shelter and bread to a family, nor is it one that snatches a cup of cold water out of the hand of one who offers it to another.

The Other…Does Only the Shadow Know?

January 2006

In my last posting about the film Brokeback Mountain and its societal impact, I noted that the religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about the film (and about homosexuality in general) are perhaps motivated by “fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other.” I went on to say, “there’s Jungian analysis that could be done there…”

Now, my friend who prompted this article is not by any means a Jungian, although in previous private moments he has displayed some affinity for analytical and mythological perspectives (and not merely in his admiration of old songs by The Police). I, on the other hand, am much more mythically inclined when it comes to explaining human behavior. Thus, I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype. Any discussion of the concept of the Shadow in under 1,000 words is naturally going to be lacking, but in brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies. As Jung put it:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (Psychology and Religion, 1938, in Collected Works 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, p. 131)

Part of the danger of the Shadow is our tendency to project it onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”). Have you ever noticed that in movies, the only time that all of humanity is united is when we’re all fighting some extraterrestrial alien race? We humans can band together only when we have a bigger “Other” to combat.

For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBT community is their current hot-topic “Other”. Now, I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

However, these days we don’t necessarily have to resort to mythological explanations for this human behavioral tendency. Now we have evolutionary psychology, natural selection, “selfish genes”, and the like. What’s the best way to make sure your genetic material is the stuff that gets passed along for eons of generations? Eliminate the competing genetic material (and by extension, those people who carry the competing genetic material)! But wait, who’s got which genes? Well, let’s see, that’s my brother, so he probably shares a lot of genetic material with me, so I’ll let him live. This other dude, however, I don’t know from Adam, so let’s take him out. Or, this guy’s a human, but those creepy green aliens clearly don’t have my genetic materials, so set phasers on kill!

Here’s a question – isn’t it about time that we as a species reach the point in our evolution where we can start consciously acting a little more frequently in ways that might conflict with our genetic imperatives? Where, as the critically acclaimed science writer Robert Wright might put it, we realize that life isn’t necessarily a non-zero sum game, where these kinds of we/they dualities have outlived their evolutionary utility? If so, how do we as a species get there?

I’ll leave the neuropsychological answers to that question to those more knowledgeable than I on such matters (perhaps the Pundit will take this on, or one of his colleagues?). From a spiritually inclined, quasi-Jungian perspective, though, I’d say that consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge is key. As Jung himself put it:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (Aion, 1951, in Collected Works 9, Part II, p. 14)

Liminal standard time

With this month’s time change and change of seasons, I’ve been thinking about the nature of transitions, and specifically a philosophical/spiritual concept known as liminality. I think it can help us understand some of the big societal controversies we face today, but more on that later.

A liminal place, either literally or figuratively, is akin to a threshold. It’s a place of transition between two different states. Part of my fascination with liminal places comes from the fact that I grew up in a very liminal place, South Florida, where the ocean meets the land and where the glitzy development of Miami sits right up against the primordial swamp that is the Everglades. If you’ve read any Carl Hiaasen novels, you know what a bunch of crazy characters such a place can produce.

Stories abound with liminal places, usually leading from the mundane to the mystical. Examples include the wardrobe through which the Pevensie children pass to enter the magical land of Narnia, or the hole down which Alice falls into Wonderland, or Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter catches the train to Hogwarts. Each of these places is open to those ready to enter them but hidden to those who are not.

Beings can also have liminal qualities. One might think of stateless people or undocumented immigrants as liminal, since they reside in a place but are not officially of that place. Bisexual and transgender persons occupy a liminal sexuality space, embodying a both/and rather than an either/or. In fact, many traditional Native American cultures believed that such persons, sometimes known as “Two-Spirit” people, possessed mystical spiritual qualities.

Here is where things can get a little touchy. Many people in our society are uncomfortable with this both/and concept, preferring the comfortable dichotomy of either/or and black/white. They don’t want to imagine a topsy-turvy world in which the lines are blurred, in which time-bound traditions are overturned in favor of new emerging realities. And that’s what liminal spaces and times do – they give birth to new life, new possibilities, and new ways of being.

Some devotees of the mystical/New Age realm have hypothesized that the entire cosmos is currently in a liminal state, undergoing a major transition from one Age to another (e.g., “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”). Some talk of colors of auras changing, while others consider new frontiers of conscious human evolution and enlightenment. Some have even speculated that new dimensions or realms are coming into being.

One early thinker of the latter speculative school was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century. He propagated such concepts as the noosphere, a sort of higher level of consciousness interconnecting all humans (or perhaps all sentient beings), and the Omega Point, a final unity toward which all creation is evolving together. A really interesting aspect of this is that Teilhard’s transition is at some level a conscious evolution, and that probably as we progress in this evolutionary process it becomes more and more of a conscious process to move through our current liminal state.

For (Western) Christians, the occurrence of Holy Week is another liminal time. Beginning with Palm Sunday and stretching through the Gospel narratives of the final week in the life of Jesus up to Easter, this is a time of living and dying and becoming and not-yet-being and transforming, along with all the accompanying mood swings. But the Easter narrative itself draws on ancient liminal traditions.

A friend of mine in college recounted a story in which an old, colorfully erudite Professor of Classics once invited him for Easter dinner by saying, “Why don’t you come over and help me celebrate this pagan holiday with some Easter ham?” At the time, being a firmly entrenched evangelical Christian, I was a bit taken aback at this characterization of what I considered to be the highest of high holy days in the Christian calendar. Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand just how correct that old professor was.

Let’s go back a few centuries. Somewhere around the year 723, an English monk by the name of Bede (sometimes known as the Venerable Bede) wrote a book called e Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. Bede addressed, among other matters, the etymologies of the names of the various English months and the timing of the date of Easter (based on lunar cycles). He explained the origins of the name “Easter” by referring back to an ancient goddess, Eostre:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Now that we’ve got our Classics lesson for the day out of the way, does all this stuff really matter? Only to the extent that it shows the interrelated nature and history of religions. In this case Christianity used the name of an established pagan holiday celebration, honoring the goddess Eostre, and adapted and incorporated it into its own traditions. The coinciding of Easter with the Vernal Equinox is another intriguing point. Some have argued that this date (and Christmas) align with many other deities popular near the time of Jesus, and more specifically that Attis, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mithra and others all have associated stories of a birth (to a virgin) on or around December 25 and a death and resurrection of one variety or another on or around March 25. The accuracy of these comparative mythology claims is uncertain, but what is clear is that Christianity was often willing to incorporate and subsume elements of competing religions, myths, and holidays.

Before anyone gets too worked up about this, let me emphasize that all of this background knowledge does not in any way “disprove” the veracity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I’d argue that faith claims such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus are neither provable nor disprovable, inasmuch as they are not testable scientific hypotheses. My only point of contention with certain elements of Christianity is that there does exist a context within which we can study and learn about (and yes, even evaluate) the faith claims of any given religion by comparison and contrast. Christianity is not a remarkably unique set of faith postulates that has absolutely no parallel whatsoever in the entirety of human history. Rather, Christianity is one of many attempts by our species to figure out the nature and meaning and purposes of reality.

On Privilege

It seems that every time I turn on the news, there’s yet another report of yet another marginalized group being disadvantaged by a privileged one. Some argue that this is because of our societal norm of “victimhood” or that some people are looking for a handout or an easy way to get ahead or that people aren’t willing to take responsibility for their own lives. In contrast, some argue that we’re hearing more of these stories now because our society is finally willing to listen to the voices of those on the margins.
Here’s the funny thing about privilege: When you’re a member of the privileged group, it can be quite hard to see that privilege for what it is. Let me use myself as an example. There are plenty of days that go by that I don’t stop to think about my privileged position in this world, but there’s not a day that I don’t benefit from it in one way or another. Consider these categories:
1) I’m white, Caucasian, Anglo (Euro, really). That goes for a lot in America. I have never been harassed by a police officer about why I’m waking or driving in a particular neighborhood. I’ve never had someone cross over to the other side of the street when they saw me coming toward them on the sidewalk. I’ve never had fraternity boys sing about lynching me. I’ve never been asked when I first came to this country. I’ve never been passed over for a hire or a promotion because of the sound of my name.
2) I’m male. I’ve never worried that walking around by myself might get me raped. I’ve never had to deal with complaints about my provocative attire. I’ve never been in a business meeting where people assumed I must be the administrative assistant. I’ve never been paid 78 cents on the dollar or had to pay more for a haircut or dry cleaning because of my anatomy.
3) I’m straight (sorry guys, I know it’s a letdown). I’ve always been able to get married and serve in the military. I’ve never been beaten to a pulp or spat on or called hateful names because of who or how I loved. I’ve never been rejected by my family and friends and church because of my sexual orientation. I’ve always been able to visit my spouse in the hospital and claim my spouse on my tax return. I’ve never been conflicted about my gender identity, never agonized over why my body doesn’t match my soul.
4) I’m American. I know that some may consider this a mixed bag, and I certainly have plenty of issues with American domestic and foreign policy. But I have never lived a day when I wasn’t a citizen of the most powerful nation on the face of the planet. I’m not particularly rich by American standards, but I may as well be a millionaire compared to the billion people who live on $1.25 a day or the two billion who live on $2.00 a day.
It’s supposedly no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist, or sexist, or even homophobic, but those attitudes still pervade our society. We have to say things like #BlackLivesMatter because it’s already assumed that white lives matter. We have to say things like #YesAllWomen because it’s already assumed that all men have access to educational and career opportunities.
So when you hear the complaints of those on the margins, don’t dismiss them out of hand as disingenuous ploys to gain something undeserved. Hear their complaints, and understand them as only seeking the same privilege that you often take for granted, if you even stop to recognize it.