Monday, December 24, 2012

Now, at last, I will say the words


For weeks on end, it's in the air,
Sounding often like a dare;
I don't do dares, I do not care
What others think, or if they stare.

I will not say it when ghosts are nigh;
I will not say it over pumpkin pie;
I will not say it by menorah light;
And not while Labor Day is in sight.
I will not sling it in a war;
I will not swing it in a store;
I will not chirp it bright and early
While competing for cheap crap, all surly.

At the risk of sounding snide,
Christmas is for Solstice Tide:

It's time for songs, it's time to feast,
It's sharing with those who have least;
It's time for greenery and lights,
It's time to brighten cold, dark nights;
It's time to warm our hearts with cheer,
To remember life is very dear.

Most of all, let us recall
That Peace on Earth is a wish for all:
Whatever our faith, or none at all,
One people, one planet, divided we fall.

Now, at last, the day is here:
So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!



(2012)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Every time we use MERRY CHRISTMAS as a weapon, Baby Jesus starts to cry


Every December, sure as the turning of the Earth, the Great American Holiday Debate begins another round.  Likely every one of us has had the experience of witnessing a cheerful "Happy Holidays" being met with a "MERRY CHRISTMAS" that sounds not so much like a wish for peace and goodwill as a declaration of war.  Jesus is the reason for the season, they proclaim, and "Merry Christmas" is the only proper greeting at this time of year.

The season is what it is:  the onset of winter.  Days grow shorter, nights grow longer, the air grows colder, and our world feels darker as we approach the time of Winter Solstice.

Throughout human history, humans developed many traditions, holidays, and celebrations to make the season bright while awaiting the return of the light.  Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are, in fact, rooted in other and more ancient celebrations, not with the religious observation of the birth of Jesus.  The only reason Jesus now has anything to do with this particular season is because a handful of bishops in the fourth century made it so.  According to biblical scholars, Jesus was probably born in the spring.  The church calendar was developed for liturgical purposes, not for historical accuracy.

It's also fair to say that the Great American Greed Fest, beginning as early as Labor Day and increasingly crowding out the traditional celebrations of fall, has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus; nor would Jesus likely want anything to do with it.  That this cultural holiday bears the name of "Christmas" is simply an artifact of the religious roots of the culture in which it developed.  Some Christians, looking with dismay at what the American Christmas has become, do not lament but rather welcome separating the secular aspects of the American winter holiday from the religious holiday of celebrating Christ's birth.

Yet the cultural holiday, even apart from any specifically religious elements, does have its positive side.  It's not all greed and materialism and smashing in thy neighbor's head to compete for a cheap computer on Black Friday.

Against the lengthening times of darkness, we light candles and adorn our homes with colorful lights.  We deck the halls with holly and spruce and we decorate an evergreen tree, all to remind us that even in the Earth's time of dormancy, life endures.  Red and green and silver and gold brighten the bleak midwinter.  We gather with friends and families and coworkers and neighbors in song and story and dancing and feast.  We tell tales of mythical figures, ancient and modern.

And, at our best, we invoke the spirit of giving, generosity, love, and compassion, not only in the gifts we give to friends and family but also to the help we extend to our neighbors in need at this cold, dark time of year.  We take time in solitude, we gather in community, pausing for contemplation and reflection and taking stock of our lives as the year draws to a close.

As an American who firmly believes in religious liberty for all, I welcome the trend towards a more inclusive label for our year-end festivities.  Personally, I prefer referring to our broader cultural celebration as the Winter Solstice, something all inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere have in common, but the popular designation "The Holiday" serves well enough, even if it sounds a little less poetic.

In making our holiday season inclusive, we are not denying Christianity, only shedding the long-standing illusion--reinforced in times past by the dominant culture--that everyone in our society is Christian.  We are evolving beyond the idea that the First Amendment freedom of religion means merely freedom to choose your favorite flavor of Christianity:  We are growing into the understanding that freedom of religion means freedom to practice any religion, as well as freedom to practice no religion at all.

While it's not true that Jesus is the reason for the Winter Solstice season, it is certainly true that Jesus is the reason for the specifically Christian commemoration of his birth.  As long as we realize that some people celebrate the former but not the latter, we can all get along in peace.

And for those who do celebrate the holy day of Christmas, please remember:  "Merry Christmas" is a wish for peace on Earth, not a challenge to a duel.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Empowering disillusions


Each of us learns lessons from the people around us.  Some of these lessons are helpful, giving us true knowledge and understanding of the world in which we find ourselves; others hinder our ability to take our place in the world with confidence and strength.

One lesson many of us learn is fear:  Lie low or you'll just get hurt.  The nail that stands out gets hammered down.  Resistance is futile.  Stay safe; stay invisible.  Survive.

Another common lesson is insecurity:  Self-worth is built up by tearing other people down.  Ridicule and put-downs reassure us of our own superiority.  Triumphalism masks deep-seated vulnerability.  The need to be right, versus the desire to understand what is true:  Truth spoken can threaten certitude, and thus threaten the sense of security that depends upon certitude.

Beneath these lessons, as well as many other lessons that hinder us, the bedrock belief is powerlessness:  The world is unfair; the cards are stacked against you; good people can't get ahead; you can't have the life and work you want; oh, well, what can you do; and just who the hell do you think YOU are, to believe you can have what you want, realize your dreams, create and shape your own life?  Do you not know that you are a powerless pawn in the hands of fate and at the mercies of a corrupt world?  You can only succeed if you become corrupt like them.  Power is bad.  You don't want it.

And many of us, whether as children or as adults, tried to challenge these disempowering messages.  We declared our determination to decide what we wanted and to figure out how to create it.  Set the vision, stay focused on it, and do the work to get us from Point A to Point B, with maybe a few speed bumps along the way.  Simple.

And, allowing for the ninety-nine percent perspiration of which Edison spoke, accomplishing a goal pretty much does boil down to those simple steps.  What we often fail to account for are not the concrete external obstacles but the subtler internal resistance which has been deeply ingrained in us--and will be thrown at us with renewed vigor should we persist in thinking we really can effect change.

Far from being seen as hopeful or encouraging, to speak of empowerment in the context of a disempowered system is perceived to be very, very threatening.  The communal story is that we are fundamentally powerless.  To suggest--or even worse, demonstrate--that we can find power within ourselves, whatever the circumstances, to shape our own lives is to threaten the truth of the communal story upon which communal security is believed to depend.

True security, however, does not lie in any of our stories.  True security lies in being at peace with life as it is, both the circumstances we encounter without and our power within to work with whatever we encounter, and in living each day from that sense of inner strength and power.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A story of experience


I first became interested in matters of food and health during my freshman year of college, when I realized I knew precious little about either cooking or nutrition.  From the campus book store I acquired two books to begin my dietary education:  a quintessentially 70s tome entitled Cooking With Love and Wheat Germ and a little paperback called Diet for a Small Planet.  The former introduced me to granola-hippie whole-grain whole-foods cuisine; the latter, to the idea that a vegetarian diet was the best thing I could do for my body and for the planet.  Ten years and many books later, after much experimentation with vegetarian meals and vegetarian foods, I made the leap and adopted a wholly vegetarian diet.

For most of those years my diet still included eggs and dairy, eliminating only meat and fish.  For a year or two, however, I did try a wholly vegan diet.  Having read that dairy foods can worsen respiratory allergies, as well as having encountered a popular wave of "plant-based diet" writings in the 90s, I cut out all animal products in anticipation of the soaringly vibrant health that a plant-based diet was supposed to bring.

One thing I learned from my dietary adventures is that some common ingredients in meat-free and dairy-free diets are hazardous to my health.

Nutritional yeast makes me feel ill and gives me a bad case of thrush.  Most soy products affect my digestive system in ways that nobody really wants me to write about.  As for wheat, that "healthy" whole grain which played a central role in my diet for a couple of decades, especially in my vegetarian and vegan years?  Of all of the dietary changes I've ever made, eliminating wheat from my diet created the single most dramatic improvement in my health and well-being:  I went from being semi-crippled from severe inflammation in my knees to being able to walk and move about in a normal manner for hours on end.  Respiratory inflammation, all but gone.  Mornings with lungs and nose full of gunk, gone.  Gurgling stomach and other digestive troubles nobody wants to read about, gone.

While attempting to live on a vegan diet, even one that included plenty of vegetables, I felt enervated and gained a lot of weight.  The diet was too low in protein, too high in carbohydrates, and too full of foods that made me sick.  Experiencing improved well-being by reintroducing animal products into my diet, I later learned that the forms in which some vitamins and minerals occur in plants are not necessarily absorbed by the body as well as those occurring in meat and other animal foods.

I am healthiest when I eat a balance of both vegetable foods and animal foods, excluding wheat and yeast, minimizing dairy, and not going too heavy on the carbs.  You'd think that would be a safe statement to make in discussions of food and health.

Yet it's not.  Do a search on stories of ex-vegans and see how much venom has been directed towards anyone who writes anything, however politely worded, that is remotely critical of the diet.  Saying "I tried veganism and it didn't work for me" seems to make die-hard advocates of plant-only diets even more angry than if they were confronted by a club-swinging cave-dwelling carnivore simply drooling at the prospect of a blood-dripping hunk of dead critter.

And, being the inquisitive, philosophical soul that I am, I ask:  Why?  My own focus is on making the choices that are best for my own body and my own health, not on telling anyone else what's best for them.  Likewise for most of the others writing on the subject of returning to an omnivorous diet for health reasons.  Why should anyone feel threatened by people simply relating their personal experiences?

I think back to why vegetarianism and veganism appealed to me in the first place.  First and foremost, I sought to be healthy, and these were supposed to be the optimal diets for human health, well-being, and longevity.  I wasn't particularly idealistic about the matter of killing animals for food, probably because even the most rudimentary understanding of Ecosystems 101 tells us that life and death are intertwined, but if helping myself also helped avoid harm to other animals, so much the better.  I did find raw meat aesthetically unappealing to cook with, and used to joke about being an "aesthetic vegetarian."  As for having a "taste" for meat, I could take it or leave it.  Were it possible to live on vegetables and hummus without any nutritional deficiencies or other health difficulties, I could probably do so quite happily, as long as I had a reliable supply of chocolate on the side.

Yet even my health-oriented rationale for vegetarianism had an ideological aspect to it.   A meatless diet wasn't just a diet, it was an ideal, a vision, the cutting edge of human evolution, the wave of the future for a more enlightened human race.  It was associated by some authors with a simpler, more holistic, less materialistic way of living.  Who doesn't want to be on the cutting edge, riding the crest of the wave into the future?  Who doesn't find it appealing to believe they have found Ultimate Truth about some fundamental aspect of living?

It was the story about the meaning of vegetarianism, as much as the vegetarianism itself, that attracted me and committed me to pursuing that way of life.

And this concept of story, I think, is the key to understanding the hostility with which the personal experiences of former vegans and vegetarians are met.  Saying "it doesn't work for me" undermines the story upon which the vegan ideal is founded:  that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore all human beings can and must thrive on a vegan, or at least vegetarian, diet.  If the conclusion is not true, then the truth of the premise upon which the conclusion is based is called into question.

Someone who is overtly adversarial--the critter-craving carnivore flaunting meat-lust in front of a plant-based crowd--is still reinforcing the fundamental paradigm of Good versus Evil.  The conviction that Plant Eaters are on the side of Ultimate Good remains secure against the attacks of Meat Eater heretics rebelling against what, deep down in their heart of hearts, they really know to be The Truth.

On the other hand, a former vegan or vegetarian who attempts the amicable agree-to-disagree approach, saying, "If it works for you, great, but your way doesn't work for me," is challenging the other person's deeply held conviction that their way is the One True Way for all people to follow.

The reality is that sometimes the One True Way simply doesn't work for someone.  And that means accepting that the One True Way is not, in fact, the One True Way, just one way that happens to work well for one particular person.  And that means separating our way, the thing in itself, from whatever stories we have created about the meaning of that way.

There may be some ways in this world that are worse than others--junk-food diet, hate-based religion--but there is no single right way that will fit every single human being on the planet.  Instead of expecting the diet that works for us to work for everyone else, we can recognize and respect each person's right to make their own choices for optimal health and well-being and create their own stories based upon their own experiences, rather than attempting to make their experiences conform to someone else's story.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Our true dreams


I am a firm believer in the power of affirmations.   Well-chosen affirmations, worked with regularly and mindfully, help us change our habitual thought patterns, addressing and countering internalized beliefs that influence the ways in which we live our lives.  Once we address the internal obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals, dealing with external obstacles becomes much, much easier.

One particularly powerful--and revealing--affirmation:

I am giving myself permission to pursue my true dreams.

Take a moment to notice all of the resistance that kicks up within you when you say that one!

No doubt memories of external resistance come up, as well.  We've all had the experience of identifying something we wanted to pursue, a moment of clarity in which some important truth about ourselves took shape in just the right words to give us a sense of purpose and direction.  In our heart of hearts, we've said:  THIS.  This is my true dream, my heart's desire.

And in our excitement we've shared our insight with people close to us.  And we've all had the experience of being greeted, not with, "Wow!  That's great!  How can we make this happen?" but with skepticism, discouragement, even ridicule.

  • "That would be nice" -- in a tone of voice that suggests a snowball has a better chance of not melting in hell than you do of attaining your desired goal.
  • "Wouldn't we all like that" -- in other words, why should you be happy when they're not?
  • "Dream on" -- and then wake up to the miserable soul-crushing existence to which they've resigned themselves.
  • "Get realistic" -- with "reality" being defined as the miserable soul-crushing existence to which they've resigned themselves.

Granted, if you think your true dream is to become a genocidal planetary dictator, people will rightly discourage you.  But such "dreams" are not really our true heart's desires; they are responses to insecurity, fear, and a sense of personal powerlessness.

Our true dreams tend to be the things that are so much a part of who we are that we may not even recognize them as our true dreams.  Think of the things that people tend to say about you:  "You're so...," "You always...," "You just have to...."  Not only the things people praise about you, but even--and sometimes especially--the things people criticize about you may be the very things that are most essential about who you are.

When people discourage us from pursuing our dreams, most of the time their discouragement has little or nothing to do with the merits of our dreams and much to do with unresolved conflicts within themselves.  Sometimes they're jealous:  You have the audacity to go after the life you really want to live, while they long ago relinquished any such hope for themselves.  They themselves tried and didn't find a way to make their dreams happen, or they got discouraged and gave up before their dreams could take root, or they got similarly slapped down by someone influential in their own lives and have internalized discouragement as the way life really is.  Sometimes they honestly believe it can't be done, and want to spare you the disappointment of what they see as inevitable dashed hopes.

The only way to attain a desired outcome is to first commit to pursuing that outcome.  Believe in your dream.  Hold it in your vision.  Hold it in your heart.  If you don't believe you have the right to pursue a goal, you'll never make the time and commitment to do the work required to make it happen.  So the first step in making your dreams your reality is to clear away all of the "reasons" people say it can't be done and give yourself permission to follow your dreams.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Casting out fear


For more than a year I and thousands of other Minnesotans have been holding conversations about the marriage amendment.  We lay out our most rational arguments, citing research in biological as well as social science demonstrating that same-sex orientation is a benign, natural variation in human sexuality.  We offer stories of real people who would be hurt by permanently restricting the definition of marriage to exclude same-sex couples.

Many people have been persuaded that voting "no" is the right thing to do.  Staunch supporters of the amendment, however, remain unmoved.  They are not pondering our rational arguments.  They are not empathizing with the hardships and harassment that gay people still endure in many places in our society.

Are they wicked "haters"?  In most cases, no.

Where we opponents see the amendment as an attack on human dignity and civil rights, supporters of the amendment see themselves as defenders of what they hold to be an immutable truth:  the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong.

Their religious assemblies teach that it is sinful to enter into homosexual relationships, and that this teaching comes from God.  Granting legal recognition to homosexual couples, applying the term "marriage" equally, would imply that the religious teaching is not, after all, true.

If this long-standing moral teaching is not true, then what other religious teachings are likewise not true?  When one's sense of identity and security in the world is rooted in believing that one's religion is the ultimate source of moral truth, any challenge to that belief feels threatening to that identity and security.

All of our reasoned appeals to science and research and personal experience are of no avail unless we also address the fear that prevents marriage-equality opponents from being open to seeing the evidence, hearing the reasoning, and empathizing with the cost of homophobia in real people's lives.

In order to feel free to question long-held beliefs, we need to feel safe in doing so.  We need to shift our center of security from faith in our beliefs about God to faith in God.  We can recognize that human perspectives evolve over time as we reflect upon new information, evidence, and experience.  We can allow our beliefs to change as our knowledge and understanding changes and still remain connected with that Presence we call "God."

As we take the leap of faith from fear to trust, we open ourselves to not only believing but experiencing that love and compassion are the very essence of God.  And we become free to extend that love and compassion to other people, including the ones we once believed to be strangers.

And we are no longer afraid.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Religion is not a free pass


Religion is often invoked in debates about public policy in the United States.  In the name of freedom of religion, people seek to block legislation they believe would contradict their own personal religious beliefs and to pass legislation that would enshrine their personal religious beliefs as the law of the land.  Any objections raised against this religious bias are met with cries of discrimination and attempting to suppress religious liberty.

This is based on a mistaken understanding of religious liberty.

Religious freedom means being free to worship and live as you choose, as long as you do not infringe upon the liberties of others.  Religion is not a free pass to justify any action, attitude, or belief, however irrational or harmful, simply because you believe your religion justifies said action, attitude, or belief.  In particular, religion should not be seen as a free pass for bigotry, whether against gay people, women, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities.

Religion is your personal set of opinions and preferences about whether there is a deity, or deities; what the nature of that deity or those deities may be; what it all means, life, the universe, everything; what your place in the Greater Scheme Of Things may be; what the purpose of your life may be; whether you have any purpose at all for being here; how you pray, worship, ritualize, connect with the Greater Scheme Of Things; and so on.  Religion is personal and subjective.

Religious beliefs are not objective, evidence-established truth.  If they were, they would not be religious beliefs:  They would be science.

As personal, subjective opinions, religious beliefs apply only to those who hold them.  They do not apply to people who do not believe they are true.  Moral and ethical guidelines that we would impose on society at large must demonstrably tend towards doing good and avoiding harm to people, rather than depending upon claims of religious revelation or doctrine to support them.

I myself have beliefs and experiences that are not objectively "provable."  They resonate with me at a deep level and give me a sense of peace and inner stability, and they reflect what I believe likely to be true about the spiritual realm; however, I do not seek to make those beliefs the basis for how others live their lives.  In the realm of culture, law, and society, reason and evidence are my cornerstones, as they should be for us all in order to create a just and harmonious society which respects individual liberty.

Personal religious beliefs cannot be cited as the basis for any action that would restrict the rights and liberties of others in society.  They may inspire and guide your own personal conduct, but for something to hold the weight of law for all people, it must have a basis in reason and evidence--the truths that all of us, whatever our spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, share in common.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Your most important thing


The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.

- Shunryu Suzuki


What is the one thing that is really, truly most important to you?  Beyond the things you think should be most important, the things you are told are most important, the things other people would like you to believe are most important, what is the most important thing TO YOU?

My own answer, the truth I am drawn back to--by necessity--time and time again, is:  solitude.  Quality time in stillness, quiet, contemplation.  Time at home.  Time alone.  That inner space of relaxed focus, the stillpoint within matched by an easy pace without.

I need to retreat daily into the hermitage of my own personal space, however simple and small that home may be, to restore my sense of harmony and balance and well-being.  I need to regularly reconnect with my inner self, my inner life, my being at the core of all of my doing.  I need meditation, contemplation, inquiry, following my muse, my trains of thought and all their little sidetracks.

Whether people understand that or not is irrelevant.

Whether people respect that or think it's ridiculous is irrelevant.

Whether people think I'm entitled to make space for myself and for what I want is irrelevant.

I NEED THIS.  THIS IS WHAT MATTERS MOST TO ME.  WITHOUT THIS, ALL ELSE IN MY LIFE WILL BE OUT OF WHACK.

In short, I don't need permission from anyone for my most important thing to be my most important thing.

I am.

That is all.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sugar hangover


One of my local grocery stores recently had an incredible sale on one of my favorite candy bars, the kind that are basically a tube of sugary white nougat rolled in peanuts.  They even had a "limited edition" chocolate-covered variety!  At ten for a dollar, it was, as we say in Minnesota, a heckuva deal, so I promptly snapped up two dozen of them with the idea of having a nice little stash of semi-healthy snacks for home and for work that should last me a few weeks or so.

Right.

A few days later, the "stash" was looking mighty sparse.  I'd eaten two or three bars at a time a couple of evenings in a row, as a post-work snackaroo.   Then I came home from work one evening, working on writing or hanging out online or something like that, attention occupied, and found myself grazing my way through I don't know how many of the bars.  I didn't devour them in a greedy, gluttonous desperation; I just sorta kinda mindlessly nibbled my way through them, one by one, and finding myself thinking, hey, those are good, maybe I'll have one more, until, at the end of the evening, I realized I had eaten at least a half-dozen candy bars.  Probably more.  My stomach was not happy.

Ah, well.  Nobody's perfect.  Tomorrow would be another day.

When I gradually came to consciousness the next morning, my first awareness was:  Man, I feel LOUSY.  I was enervated, lethargic, and ridiculously fatigued for someone who had just had a full night's sleep.  My entire body felt out of whack; my mind, like it was pushing through a cotton candy haze.

And it struck me:  Hmm, this feels familiar.

And it struck me:  Hangover.  This is just like waking up with a hangover.  I have a bleeping sugar hangover.

I recalled reading, many times over the years, that sugar acts upon the body in ways similar to alcohol.  Or, putting it another way, alcohol is essentially a rapid-delivery form of sugar.  Until now, I'd considered it simply a catchy simile to dramatize how bad refined sugar is for the body.  Certainly I had experienced the addictive aspect of sugar, as well as the general sense, after eating sugar, of not feeling as well as I could, but for the first time I was now experiencing a dramatic and direct parallel with the experience of too much drink.

And the parallel went further:  How much is "too much"?

I rarely drink alcoholic beverages.  For many years, I have been able to count on one hand the number of drinks I've had in a year.  Some years, that hand would have had not one finger raised.  I abstain, not out of a self-righteous belief that Alcohol Is Evil, but because I feel healthier when I don't drink alcohol.  I'd rather drink green tea, thank you very much.

So now here I was, faced with undeniable experiential evidence that sugar, like alcohol, was not doing my body--or my mind--any favors.

And I made a decision:  to commit myself to eating no refined sugar for the next month.  Zip, zero, zilch.  No exceptions.  No candy, no ice cream, no cookies or other sweet treats.  Swearing off sugar forever-and-ever would be too vague and likely to end in capitulation.  Thirty-one days?  That was concrete and do-able, a specific goal with specific parameters.

I'd already cut out wheat and most grains except for occasional rice and even more infrequent corn, and had experienced dramatic improvements in reducing food cravings as well as in improving health.  Now it was time to address the other half of the craving-and-crappy-health equation:  refined sugar.

As of this writing, I'm on day eleven of no sugar.  I set out to eliminate the junk-food sources of sugar, while still allowing myself to eat fruit whenever I craved something sweet, but after only a couple of days I found that when I don't eat sugar, I don't crave sugar.  I still enjoy fresh fruit, but I am satisfied with small portions.  One peach or one handful of blueberries doesn't lead to bingeing on five peaches and two pints of blueberries.

It does seem that naturally-occurring sugars, unextracted, unrefined, and unconcentrated, left intact in the whole food in which they naturally occur, do not have the same effect on the body as massive concentrations of extracted and refined sugar.  Eat sugar only as it occurs in real whole fruits and vegetables, and you will likely find, as I did, that real whole food has a way of being self-regulating, triggering satiety at a reasonable point.

The only hard part of eliminating sugar has been breaking the habit of reaching for sugar.  It's everywhere, especially in the most "convenient" foods.  As a reminder, I have adopted a simple affirmation that keeps me on track:  NO SUGAR.   Every time I see something sweet and think, hmm, that looks good, I silently repeat, NO SUGAR.

If it's got refined sugar, I don't eat it.  That simple.  And thus reminded, I break one more chain in the psychological habit of reaching mindlessly for the sugar my body really doesn't want, anyway.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Truth and happiness


One of the most annoying cliches in the history of the human race surely has to be:  "Would you rather be right or be happy?"

On a fairly simple level, yes, I get it:  Don't sweat the small stuff.  Though, contrary to what you may have been told, it's not "all small stuff."  Some things in life really do count as "big stuff."  Some disputes, however, really aren't worth pursuing.  Let go and move on.

Even when a matter needs to be resolved among all concerned, we don't always have that option.  Life leaves us with loose ends.  We never will be able to tie up those loose ends with the other parties involved, and so our only recourse is to finish them off within ourselves, weave them into the fabric of our own souls, and carry on.

Do note that it is important for us to allow ourselves to do whatever we need to do to resolve these matters within ourselves.  Simply suppressing the unresolved conflict, shutting up about it because "nobody" wants to hear about it, is not going to resolve the conflict within you.  If the people around you are not supportive of that process of resolution, find people who will be supportive, or simply give yourself the time and solitude necessary for healing.

Upon closer examination, the notion that it is better to "be happy" than to "be right" proves inadequate to the complexities of real lived experience.  It's one of those glossy simplistic feel-good platitudes that gets trotted out as if it were deep spiritual wisdom.

For one thing, being right and being happy are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  One who loves wisdom and seeks truth might be seen as "unhappy" in the process of questing and questioning, because that process does tend to involve conflict, intellectual and interpersonal; but arriving at answers, discovering truth, finding a satisfactory resolution to a troubling conflict, is deeply satisfying in ways that go beyond mere "happiness."

Sometimes it's more important to seek the truth than to smooth over the ruffled feathers of those who don't like hearing the questions.  When there is injustice in the world, conscience and compassion as well as a love of seeking truth compel us to do what we can to remedy that injustice.  And not only the large-scale societal injustices:  If we wish to truly heal and mend the harmful, dysfunctional patterns in our personal lives, we need to address the small-scale injustices in our homes, our families, our workplaces, our communities.

It is necessary, for our own healing and happiness, to go beyond surface harmony to addressing and resolving the problems and injuries which are at the root of our pain and conflict.  We cannot pretend everything is okay when in fact it is not.  Plastic platitudes, like plastic bandages, will not heal deep wounds.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Are we afraid?


It's a curious thing.

When I write or speak on the subject of What's Wrong In Our Workplaces, people generally chip in quite willingly and energetically.  When I speak of speaking out on the subject of What's Wrong In Our Workplaces, of not only venting about the problems but actively seeking solutions, people are not quite so willing and enthusiastic to discuss.

Sometimes I am met with anger and resentment and some variation on shut-the-hell-up.  More often I am met with a fatalistic oh-I-don't-like-it-either-but-what-can-you-do.

And when it is clear that I am neither going to shut the hell up nor going to sink into the morass of fatalism?

Silence.

No comments.  No thumbs-up.  No way-to-go boosts of encouragement.

Silence.

We fear to speak our minds.

Good reasons do exist for being afraid.  By and large, the average American workplace seems to depend upon living in a continual low grade (or not so low grade) state of insecurity and fear.  I don't like this, and that is wrong, but if I say anything I will lose my job, and then what will I do?  It's not safe to speak out; at least, that is what we are encouraged to believe.

In the extreme, a culture of fear is actively and blatantly cultivated.  I myself once worked in such a place:  People were targeted for ongoing harassment, continually criticized and picked apart, given an unpredictable barrage of good-cop-bad-cop treatment, in an effort to either break them into docility or push them out the door.

Our material security depends upon fitting in--or at least appearing to fit in--with the system.  Making waves is a good way to mark yourself as a Problem To Be Fixed.  Standing up when no one else is willing to stand up with you is indeed both frightening and risky.

And yet, as long as we remain afraid to speak, afraid to act, afraid to even acknowledge the truth of what we are seeing and experiencing in the workplace, nothing will ever change.  The only way to change circumstances that stress and oppress is to be willing to see and to say and to act.  And that begins with changing what we believe about ourselves and about the world in which we live and work.

Change begins within.

The American business world can, in many aspects, be viewed as one giant dysfunctional system.  The same insights that apply to healing from dysfunctional family relationships apply to healing from dysfunctional work relationships.

So much of what's wrong in the workplace depends upon psychological control of the people who work there.  Changing the outer shape of how we do business begins, then, with changing the ideas we hold about ourselves, our own worth, how business should be done, and how business should not be done.  People who cannot be shamed, intimidated, or devalued are people who cannot be manipulated by others.

If you believe in yourself, if you have a sense of healthy and appropriate boundaries, and if you are joined by everyone around you in not just believing but knowing that you are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, eventually you will prevail.  Bullies--in all walks of life--thrive on other people's insecurity, self-loathing, and fear.  Gain confidence, self-respect, and perspective, and bullies find you a less attractive target for victimization.

A healthy inner disposition is, of course, no guarantee against ever being victimized, but it gives you a foundation of inner strength from which you can advocate for yourself and for others to stand up against unjust treatment and to stand up for your own fundamental humanity and well-being.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Be Awesome


Have you ever had the thought:

If I were any more awesome, I'd be Neil Patrick Harris--RIDING A UNICORN.

I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Faded revolutionaries


We've papered the walls
with our faded revolution,
our passion become
a conversation piece,
the pigment of our muse.

Oh!  Those were the days
of glory!  we sigh,

fingers curled round a cup of cappuccino.


In youth, it all seems clear. There are so many things wrong with the world. Why are we the only ones who seem to see?  Well, there are a few elders, the few over thirty who share our vision;  we look to them as our guides.  Yet, oddly, the ones we deem wisest are not the ones who wield power.  Why is that?  And why do not the ones in power change the things that so obviously need changing?  Clearly they simply need to see more clearly, and then the power of truth will compel them.

And so we go forth boldly, determined to change the world.  Be the change we wish to see, living as if the obstacles to change did not exist.  Until, sooner or later, crisis:  I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.  Stabbed by the office politics we thought we could ignore.  The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

And we give up, give in, fade.

And we look at the next generation of youth, and we nod and we say, oh, you'll learn.  You'll get burned.  You'll be like we are.  Inevitably.  Someday.

And we look at the few among our peers, the ones who seem to refuse to learn, even after they get burned, and we think ah, some people just never grow up.  What can you do.

What can you do?

A hell of a lot more than you've conditioned yourself to believe.

We've been talked out of trusting the evidence of our eyes.  We've accepted our culture's lesson that the path to security and success is to praise the beauty of the naked emperor's clothing.  We've learned to love Big Brother.  And we've learned to ignore the voice within ourselves that says, insistently:

It doesn't have to be this way.

What human beings have created, human beings can change.

True, there are indeed external obstacles.  Visualizing and wishing alone won't make it so.  Yet every constructive action begins with a vision, an idea.  Every building begins with a blueprint, and every blueprint begins in the imagination of an architect, or two, or ten.

But if we are afraid to envision, afraid to dream, afraid to question and to challenge and to seek change, we will never lay the first brick.

We have been conditioned to be afraid.  We have been conditioned to stop questioning, stop challenging, just do as we are told.  Our access to material support depends upon our obedience and conformity to The Way Things Are.  Conditioned by the carrot and the stick, we allow our youthful freshness of vision to fade, and we convince ourselves that it was all just a dream.  A nice dream, a really nice dream, perhaps, but now it's time to wake up.

Except you weren't dreaming.  Wake up.

If we dared to combine the idealism of our youth with the wisdom and experience of our years, imagine what we could do.

And then, go beyond imagining.

Lay the first brick.  Make it so.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Plastic priorities


I used to own a garlic press that was made of plastic.  Why I owned a garlic press made of plastic, I do not remember; it might have been given to me, or perhaps plastic garlic presses happened to be featured at the store at the time I needed a garlic press.

However it came to be, I owned a plastic garlic press.

Over time, I noticed that the plastic tended to retain the smell of garlic.  This drove me nuts.  I would scrub it, I would soak it, I would use extra dish detergent on it, and still it would smell like garlic.  No matter how clean I got the danged thing, it still smelled like garlic.

One day it occurred to me to ask:  What am I doing?

This is a garlic press.

I use it to press garlic.

I use it only to press garlic.

No other food will come in contact with this garlic press.

So what difference does it make if it retains a faint scent of garlic?

And I found better things to do with my time than attempt to get a garlic press to stop smelling like garlic.


Years down the road, when I needed a new garlic press, I bought one made of stainless steel.

It does not smell like garlic.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I do not apologize

I do not apologize
     for never learning to
     keep my mouth shut.

I do not apologize
     for being.

I do not apologize
     for preferring integrity
     over loyalty.

I do not apologize
     for seeing.


I do not apologize
     for failing to play along.

I do not apologize
     for failing to keep cover.

I do not apologize
     for never fully believing
     that I am the problem.

I do not apologize
     for questioning and examining
     and challenging and seeking
     and speaking what I find.

I do not apologize
     for trusting my perception:

Something is wrong.


I do not apologize
     for having a voice.

I do not apologize
     for becoming

          visible.



(2012)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I am a person, at any age

One of the most destructive memes in human culture is the notion that children should be seen and not heard.

Children are human beings. They are people to be guided into maturity, not objects to be controlled.

Children, like all people, are entitled to being treated with respect and consideration. Children, like all people, are entitled to live and work in an environment free from abuse, be it verbal or emotional or physical abuse.

Children, like all people, have their own personalities, their own visions, their own views, their own emerging ideas about themselves and the world around them. It is true that children have not fully matured, and are in need of adult guidance and protection. It is also true that children need practice in the critical thinking and evaluative skills that will enable them to ultimately become mature, self-directed adults.

The best way to enable a child to mature and flourish is to provide that child with respect, with a listening ear and genuine engagement--including disagreement--as well as with necessary, age-appropriate boundaries. Not every view a child expresses is going to be true; then again, not every view an adult expresses is going to be true. Children, like adults, are works in progress, and truth is more readily discovered in ongoing dialogue than in suppression of expression.

I am a human being in my own right, at any age.

At any age, I have a voice. At any age, I have the right to be heard. At any age, I deserve to be treated with consideration and respect.

At every age, at every stage, every one of us has a view and a voice and the right to be heard.

That includes you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quiet and empty

At night, deep in the mountains,
I sit in meditation
The affairs of men never reach here;
Everything is quiet and empty,
All the incense has been swallowed up
By the endless night.
My robe has become a garment of dew.
Unable to sleep I walk out into the woods—
Suddenly, above the highest peak,
The full moon appears.

- Hakuin, 1686-1768 (Daily Zen, 1-17-12)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Love and respect

How can our families harm us when they love us? Very easily, unfortunately. Most of us overlook one important fact when we think love is enough: Love and respect aren't the same thing.

Love is fusion. As a baby, you belong to your parents, you're an extension of them; and fusion is good for the survival of infants. Respect is differentiation: you belong to yourself, and you're an extension of no one. Differentiation is essential for the happiness of adults.

-- Barbara Sher
I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was