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Saturday, February 18, 2017

And Nothing But the Truth

There has been more said about truth and its difference from falsehood than has been considered in a long time. This has been exacerbated by the presence of a newly post-factual world, where excuses, denial and even outright insistence that it is the truth,so what! are more and more common.
But let us be real: people lie! People have turned from truth in varying ways since Adam tried to cover the truth about that apple. In some communities of faith,there is even a liturgical way for someone to confess deceit and falsehood, and be forgiven for it.
And at the same time we almost expect the lie, even feel a thrill about the supposed revelations offered us. (Exhibit A: the tabloids, and even more the click-bait headlines on the internet.) Perhaps it is a residue of childhood when the grownups would keep things from us (in the justifiable reason of protecting us), perhaps it is our current rapidly-changing society where a need to know what is going on has become essential (if perhaps futile.)
But we are facing a different issue today. People in authority, for a variety of reasons, seem to have declared war on truth. Not absolute truth, to be sure (even were that possible!) But simple, garden variety truth. Perhaps it comes from a time in their lives where they could say whatever without chance anyone might know the difference. Perhaps it comes from something deeper, a need to seem better, grander than others. Whatever the etiology, it leaves many feeling every feeling from frustration to anger.(And for some, a kinky sense of the ridiculous.akin to Monty Python's "Dead Parrot"skit.)
Some have compared this to Goebbel's Great Lie strategy. (If you repeat a lie often and seriously enough, people will begin to believe it)But it does challenge us to look at what we hold true, to insist the earth does go around the sun, that there is nothing really to be afraid of in the darkness, that trust (however risky) is still our best option. Because the truths long since held evident are still true

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Been There,Done That

Okay, it was pretentious and condescending of me. She had been through the trauma of homelessness personally, and I tried to make it seem as though I knew what it was like. After all, I have a career full of work with that population, establishing shelters and drop-in centers, providing free counseling, leading a low-income advocacy group. No, I  have never been personally homeless, but...
She caught me up right away. If you have never been through something like that, don't think you know what it is like! Which is a more and more common point of view: don't assume you know what my life is like! Don't use your perspective as a lens to examine my experience!
And, as is usually true with absolutes, it's right, and it's wrong.
It is true that most realities are not transferable. A white person cannot really know (however well-meaning) what it is like to be a person of color. A straight person ends up projecting his or her own sexual anxieties and fantasies onto the LBGT community. And the American who has vacationed in another land can only have surface understanding of the ethnic, national and historical reality of that land.
But if we were to take this to the logical extreme, no one would have anything in common with anyone else. The doctor would be unable to diagnose or treat any medical problem not personally experienced. The actor would be unable to play any role but him or herself. Laws could not be passed, much less enforced, because the legislators cannot know our personal code of right and wrong.
At its most benign, this ends up being a form of tribalism, a drawing of boundaries to exclude all those we hate or fear. In Vermont, for example, the only residents considered "true" Vermonters not only had to have been born in Vermont; one's ancestors must have as well! In a more insidious example, Nazi Germany ruled that a Jew was anyone who had a drop of Jewish blood in his or her ancestry.
In a day when we strive for a balance between diversity and commonality, it is essential that we begin from a common place, a place where we all are of equal value, a place where difference does not mean division, a place where unity does mean uniformity. You may never really know my experience, nor I yours. But see that as an opportunity to share rather than an obstacle

Saturday, June 20, 2015


In the most recent tragedy down in South Carolina (and isn't sad  we have to qualify it?), there has (again) been finger-pointing at mental illness as the central issue. Yes, of  course, he was crazy, or (to paraphrase Lewis Carroll),  he wouldn't have done it. But there is a problem with such an obvious observation.

  • First of all, ascribing this tragedy just to mental illness paints anyone with any sort of psychological problem with the same stigma. When it is pointed out that one out of every four people has to deal with some form of emotional issue, and that covers everything from depression to psychosis, we get a different and less scary perspective. Actually,  very few seriously mentally ill people are any risk to others. To themselves, perhaps. but they can be so scared of others they would avoid any contact sooner than seek them out to harm them.
  • Second, this speaks far more to our own fears than it does to anything to do with those who struggle with mental illness. We see stories of phobias, delusions, loss of contact with reality (the vast minority in the field), and we worry that we might have something like this happen to us. We have a bad day, or even a  bad year, and we feel as though we are going crazy, so someone like Dylann Storm Roof becomes a shadow we desperately want to pretend isn't there.
  • Most important, the people who suddenly want to focus on mental health are more probably looking for an issue to distract us from looking at the self-evident causes for such tragedies. Racism. Guns. System-wide inequality. (Feel free to add anything I've overlooked.) I do not mean that mental health is not an important issue, nor to pretend someone like Mr. Roof isn't mentally disturbed. But when we focus on that one thing as the only motive, we tend to ignore the broader issues.
It would be a wonderful world if we could act from our rational selves. We were all created in God's image. We've just forgotten that. And in our frantic attempts to recapture what we have lost, we fall into a self-centered view of the world, where we resent others for not doing and being what we want. them to do or be, So when we come up against anyone whose skin is a different color from ours, or who speaks a language we are not familiar with, or whose culture is not in sync with ours, we are so frightened by this threat to our world-view that we  feel a need to eliminate it.And that, my friends, is my suggestion as to the root of the problem.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Forgive and forget?

"So I should pick and chose whom I should forgive?" she asked. It was another turn in what had been a complicated and difficult interchange between us. She has her own reasons for holding high the banner of forgiveness (which, after all, is an essential and central part of Christianity.) And she was asking (actually, I am paraphrasing her words) an important question: do we not follow a faith where unconditional and immediate forgiveness is expected of us?
The problem arises not in forgiveness, as tricky as that might be in itself. It is what we should do next, after forgiving. We  can note that, whenever Jesus forgave, He always did so in context: go, but don't do it again. You got into this because you didn't know. Make reparations to those you have hurt. Get yourself back on a better spiritual path. In other words, Jesus put a sort of price tag on forgiveness: personal accountability
There wasn't anything He  couldn't accept. The infamous "unforgivable sin" is commonly seen as one where the person saw no sin, did not see a need to be forgiven. He hung around sinners, tax collectors and other people frowned upon. In fact, He seemed to prefer their company.
But what  of us? There are those who repeat the same  dysfunctional patterns over and over and over. Yes, we are told to forgive "seventy times seven," a metaphoric number of that time for "infinite." But do we have something we cannot let go of? Many have wounds so deep they seem sure to never heal.
Saying we forgive in such situations may seem appropriate but not always realistic. To quote the Bard, "My prayers fly up, my thoughts remain below. Prayers without thoughts do not to heaven go." Or must forgiving and forgetting go together? What if we claim forgiveness, but forgetting remains out of reach?
And what if the one we must forgive denies any such? Or has passed beyond any point where direct forgiveness is  moot?
Maybe we need to look differently at forgiveness? Maybe it need not be a way of absolving someone of what was done but a way of setting ourselves free? Too often forgiveness (as Jesus hinted in His Prayer) becomes a continuation of the same tug-of-war that that sin/trespass/debt was to begin with?  But if we are to let go, move on, stop this spiritual power struggle, then we need to use words of forgiveness. "I forgive" becomes "I'm free of this."
And we must do as  much for ourselves as those who hurt us, Too often those who have been through a traumatic time will take on the responsibility, as though the abused child "asked for it," or the rape victim was dressed wrongly, or the soldier caught in a firefight should somehow have prevented it. True, we do have responsibility for much, but no one willingly steps in harm's way.
To answer the original question: yes, we choose when and whom to forgive. Not that we are picking whom to forgive, but that we are choosing. Not some  automatic unconditional, universal forgiveness; that's God's job. But making a personal decision, one that we may revisit over and over.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Changes: Xenophobia

Changes: Xenophobia: Fear of the different. Fear of change. Fear of the Other. One of the earliest stages of human development is coming to terms with the reali...


Fear of the different. Fear of change. Fear of the Other.
One of the earliest stages of human development is coming to terms with the reality that we are not the world. As part of the process  of building a better self, we accept the fact that there are things we cannot control, things we are not responsible for. Despite our earliest experience, the world does not rotate  around us. There are others in this world, and (Schopenhauer aside) we do not control this world, no matter how we might try.
The difficulty arises after we realize this in whatever subjective or objective fashion. In a  nutshell; how do we react to this new reality, with people, places and things that are Not Us. If we are secure enough in ourselves, we tolerate them, accept them, even celebrate them. (As the French would say in another context,  Vive la differance!) But if we have no such feeling of self-worth, we will view others as frightening, threatening, simply because they are not us. We may even fear them because we fear there is something of them in us, as there might be something of us in them.
Hence we have those who react to the Other not just with wariness (as if dealing with a strange and possibly vicious animal) but with anger and even hatred. Their solution: get rid of the different, remove anything which is not Us. For anything which we do not control is scary, threatening. And if the Other has any alluring aspects, the reaction is all the more so.
So if the skin is a different color, or the national origin is different, or the sexual orientation is not the same, we react as people of ages past reacted to those with certain illnesses: Outcast! Unclean! And even within such groupings, there have been some instances of reaction. Even people of color distinguish, even ethnic groups maintain pride in coming from their own separate ethnicity, even those of any given political or religious  belief may view diversity in their particular ran ks with mistrust or dismay.
When we were children, our parents went through the  common ordeal of getting us to eat something other than what we wanted. Granted, it didn't always work; for every instance of having to stop the child from devouring everything, there are too many instances  of adults that just won't eat peas! But we hold  back from any such attempts to learn from  the different, to know a world that is not Us.
Because only when we truly know the Other can we know ourselves.
"And this shall be the end of our exploring: We shall not cease from exploring, until we return to the place where we began, and know it for the first time." -T.S. Eliott

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


The worst hours of my life were supposed to be the most carefree, fun times. My father would come home from work, dig out the baseball and gloves and call to me, "C'mon! Let's toss a few!" And for an endless period of time, my father and I tried over and over to throw the ball and  catch the ball. Unsuccessfully on my part, need I add.
It did not help that my eyesight was rapidly deteriorating. At one awful stage, my parents were resigning themselves to my eventual complete loss of vision (an event that did not happen.) It also did not help that I was shy and bookish and prone to numerous illnesses.
The net result was a long aversion to sports. I was relieved when I was the last to be chosen for whatever team. I would stand in the outfield (why the outfield? I dunno.) daydreaming or dreading that someone might hit a ball my way. I would go to school sporting events convinced my school would  lose (and they usually did so!)
At various irregular intervals, I got involved in some esoteric sport such as karate or fencing. I was deeply committed at one point to hiking, if you take a broad definition of "sport."
But it was only when the physical became less possible for me due to increasing disability that I fell into my current fascination with sport, specifically baseball/ (Go Red Sox!) At the same time, I recognized how dysfunctional most sports can be.
This is not just about the inevitable physical wear and tear that is part of any sport. Not just boxing and football, but the damage that happens to any athlete, and that results in retirement from most sports by age 40 or so. This is also idealizing conflict as a form of entertainment and therefore acceptable as a way of dealing with differences even in most social settings. And we even go into the complicated ways in which sport is used as a pretext for making money (the big sports organizations as non-profits? really?)
But most of all, it has taken to recent years to address the homophobia implicit in many sports organizations. Not that there were no gay players! But as in society at large, we preferred not to see or acknowledge that these men and women  might be other than the Frank Merriwether stereotype of the wholesome straight-no, no, chaste! role models we sought.
So what does society do when it is faced with the eroding of the gay stereotype, with the image of manly/womanly members of the LBGTQ community? What do parents do when they have a son who has no interest in the traditional macho things? What do they do when a daughter shows no so-called "feminine" tendencies?
Some advice: don't take them out to the back yard to play a game of catch. Doesn't work.