Walking the Labyrinth

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I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.

A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):

  • It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
  • It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
  • It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
  • It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.

What did I learn on my walk today?

  1. That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
  2. The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
  3. Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
  4. As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
  5. I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my). lab-2
  6. It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.

What a cool way to start the new year!

I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?

 

Why I’m Struggling with Wearing “The Safety Pin”

My church is full of loving, liberal-minded, enlightened people whose ideals match mine to a large extent.

I’m looking at the safety pin my church gave me on Sunday … it is still attached to a card made of thick paper.

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The Safety Pin Movement is a response to the perception (which appears to have some merit in light of current events) that Donald Trump’s election may embolden certain people, i.e. people who have negative, even hostile, views toward “minority” populations, to act out that hostility.

The card basically says that if I wear it I’m pledging to take action if I witness verbal or physical attacks on others. It says I should be prepared to intervene “with my physical body” if necessary. The card lists these potential victims: “women, LGBTQA, transfolks, people of color, those wearing religious garb, people speaking languages other than English, those who are visibly different—anyone.”

My first response is to think, “What a wonderful, simple thing to do to show solidarity with, and a willingness to come to the aid of, others who may be thought to be disenfranchised or under threat by certain segments of society.” I think, “I can do that.”

Wear a pin? Yes. I can do that, obviously. Place myself (potentially) in harm’s way to protect others? Well…

That’s a far harder question, isn’t it?

I mean, I totally want to wear the pin. The principle behind it is a good one, the intention is awesome and laudable.

I ask myself: Would I, in fact, risk harm to myself to stand up for this principle of unity?

The answer: I don’t know.

I ask myself: Have I ever stood up for someone before?

I can say, yes to that.

A time or two. In very small ways. In grade school and in high school I can think of two times I stood up for kids who were being picked on at school for being “different.” The kids doing the picking on were just being mocking, they weren’t trying to beat up anyone. Nor were the perpetrators particularly “dangerous” fellows. And in both cases, we were on school grounds—so there was pretty much zero real physical threat to me.

What if it had been at night in an alleyway, far from the safety of adults in authority? What if there had been pushing, or worse? Would I have acted?

Doubtful. Maybe run for help. But intervened? Sadly, probably not. I wasn’t at all a tough kid. I’d never been in a serious scrap. Wasn’t athletic. Wasn’t particularly courageous.

I’m 56 and none of that, regrettably, is any different.

So, would I stand up, today, for someone if I thought there was pretty much no possibility of violence? Yeah, I would. Would I be happy to be a friend and support to someone in one of these categories who came to me distraught? Yep, I would. Would I call 911 from across the street? You bet.

But am I going to risk real physical harm to myself? Probably not. That’s just the unfortunate truth of that.

Does that make me a coward? Maybe.

But wearing it without feeling certain I could follow through with the pledge that the pin represents? Well, that presents its own moral dilemma, doesn’t it?

I feel like I just got jabbed with a pin that I haven’t even put on.

Maybe that jab wants to teach me something. (Like, now is the time to take that self-defense class you’ve always wanted to take?)

Am I doing the right thing by not wearing the pin?

 

 

Do You Hate Half of America?

To be clear: I did not vote for Trump. I wouldn’t have voted for him to be president of my neighbor’s dilapidated toolshed, much less president of the United States of America. (Apologies to people I love who voted for him. If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t thrilled about the person I did vote for either. Blood has got to be thicker than politics, right?)

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A question: is Donald Trump’s heart full of hatred for people of color, women, and Muslims? I don’t know. Maybe it is. He’s certainly said astonishingly careless things that seem pretty damning. But I’m not willing to make those assertions as if they’re a certainty. Saying that I know what’s in his heart is carelessness on my part. Maybe Trump is a horrible, hate-filled man. Maybe he just speaks without thinking. Again—I don’t know.

The question that I would address to my outraged, grieving, fearful-for-the-future-of-our-country, liberal-leaning friends and neighbors is this: “Do you really believe that the nearly-60 million Americans who voted for Trump are hate-filled, bigoted, misogynists?”

I sure hope you don’t. If you do, that would be far sadder than the outcome of this election.

No. Those tens of millions of U.S. citizens whose vote has you shuddering in horrified disbelief? I fervently believe that the great majority of them are people who would help you shovel your car out of a snow bank; people who would help you pick up the groceries that fell out of your torn bag as you came out of the super market; they’re people who want safe streets, peace on Earth, and good will towards men. Many, many of them are people you’d like. People you already do like. They’re your neighbors and co-workers and, in some cases, your family. They deliver your mail, they figure your company’s payroll; they may well own your company, or they may bag your groceries.

Not all of them are decent folks. Of course not. Some of them are exactly all those unpleasant things I listed. Far right and far left folks get scarier and scarier the further out to the extreme edges you go. So, yes, ugly haters are represented in both halves of the voting populace.

But please do not make the grievous error of painting every Trump-voter with the same ultra-extreme brush. Many detested some of things Trump said, but had other reasons to be compelled to vote for him according to their own consciences and what they believe the country needs right now. Maybe even what they, on a very personal level, need right now and believe Trump may help provide. You can heartily disagree with them, but please don’t despise them.

Remember this, too: if you want to banish the 60 million who disagree with you to a faraway island, then you don’t want a democracy, you want a utopia, where everyone thinks just like you. You know, the right way. But guess what? You’re living in a democracy and, hate it or love it, that system elected Trump.

I get that Trump’s rhetoric is deeply disturbing. But we must hope that, like pretty much all of his predecessors, he reels it in when he actually governs. Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he will be a catastrophe. Maybe he’ll be the worst president we’ve ever had. Perhaps not. We’ll see.

So far, this country has weathered filthy, bloody, unjust wars under both Republican and Democratic administrations. We’ve caught presidents breaking into their opponent’s political headquarters. We’ve caught presidents lying under oath. We’ve had to explain to our children the embarrassing, seedy behavior of politicians of both parties at the highest levels. If you want to try to pretend this isn’t a dirty game full of dirty players on both sides, you’re in absurd denial. Humans run the world and humans are NOT saints. You may have noticed. People you want to think of as liberal heroes (JFK, Bill Clinton, MLK) were certainly not saints, nor did they show much respect for their spouses (and by extension, women in general) with their well-documented serial philandering.

None of the aforementioned “inconvenient truths” excuse the appalling things Trump has said (let alone what he is alleged to have done). My intent here is to offer perspective, not a defense.

So, you’re totally ticked off and freaked out by the 2016 election results? The best you can do is use our political system to keep on fighting for what you believe. Make your case. Gather your people. Get behind a great candidate who can articulate your 2020 vision (hey, that’s catchy, isn’t it?). Defeat Trump in four years with your awesome choice.

But don’t stop loving your neighbor who thinks differently than you. Don’t assume the worst of them. If you do, well, my bitter friend, then the terrorists have truly won.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death as a Halloween Prop or What Does it Mean to Really Live?

inflatable-airblown-reaper-skeleton-lights-up-monster-halloween-holiday-decor-e7a6020c609cf29d46d76cee5498b9b6

It isn’t surprising that we seek to take the “sting” out of death by making it into a cartoon lawn ornament, or wearing it as a costume, or embracing a belief system (religious or secular) that enables us to make peace with it.

Death is the great, inescapable, metaphysical killjoy waiting in the weeds for every man, woman, and child. Clearly, it is the end of one thing: our consciousness in this body on this planet in this moment.

We long to believe that it may be the beginning of another thing; because, if it isn’t, the little light that is “us” winks out forever. We are the center of our universe. We can only perceive life through our singular prism. A world that goes on without us, is a world that might as well not exist.

“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Said William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.” And this simple statement is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

We move through life wishing away mortality because we fear we have not lived well. “Really living” is something most of us feel we have yet to accomplish. It is out there. Maybe it’s falling truly, madly, deeply in love. Or maybe it’s a great friendship we don’t yet know. We think real life is waiting in a thousand future moments. It’s writing that song or that screenplay or that novel. Getting that royalty check—that validation of our worth, our talent, our intelligence. It’s in reconciling with our dad or our son or … you know who.

I watched my elderly mom die slowly for two years. She wasn’t a perfect saint. She didn’t live a perfect life. But she absolutely had zero fear of death. This had a lot to do with her unwavering faith, but it also had a great deal to do with her being able to look back at her life and feel good about it. She knew she’d been a good wife and mom and friend. She knew she’d (mostly) lived well and loved well. This, I believe, gave her a peace about facing death.

She also was 89. She’d lived a long life. I’m confident it’s a very different thing to get a terminal diagnosis when you’re 45 or 29 or six.

At the very end of her life, my mom was still as a stone for three days, didn’t move a millimeter. I have to admit, it was a bit eerie standing over her during that time, saying, “I love you, Mom,” out loud, not knowing if she heard or understood. She looked like a corpse. The only thing that told me she was alive was the fact that, very slowly, she was still breathing. Finally, that stopped.

Seeing death in such an intimate way, up close and personal, is something you don’t forget. Not ever. But it’s my mom’s life that I reflect on, far more than her death. I am grateful she was my mom. I’m lucky I had her as a model.

I’d like to be able to say that today I’m living well and loving well. All I can say is that I’m trying. I’m as caught up in ego and worries about everyday things as the next guy or gal. Maybe more.

What, then, does it mean to “really live?”

I’m tempted to say it’s about living in the present tense, appreciating each moment, seeing the beauty in small things, doing everything you can to be at peace with all people, finding meaning and purpose in loving family and friends, following your “calling” in every aspect of life, finding your spiritual bearings, you know—seizing the bloody day and all that…

I guess that I believe those things are all part of “really living.” However, I believe them to a much larger extent than I am actually doing them. So, it feels fraudulent to say them. It feels like someone else’s list.

And yet … these ideas are the best I’ve got. So, I will say … I’m working on it.

That’s all I’ve got. How about you?

(It seems this blog keeps inspiring me to write: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/ This post is 95% a comment on left on this guy’s blog. He’s smart and insightful and I enjoy disagreeing with him in a friendly way. He takes it well.)

 

Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)

 

What the *&@# is the matter with people?

Depending on who you ask, tool-making humans may have been around for as long as 60,000 years.[i] Where have we arrived as a species?

The rich oppress the poor and the strong oppress the weak. We have resources enough to care for all, still one person dies every four seconds from hunger or hunger-related causes.

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You would think we would have figured it out by now, this thing about human kindness, about loving your neighbor, but it seems we haven’t. Not by a long shot.

Let’s examine just a little of the more-modern wreckage, shall we?

According to the Iraqi Body Count project, as many as 175,000 non-combatant Iraqis were killed in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.[ii] What a ghastly cost. And for what?

During the Rwandan Genocide 800,000 men, women, and children were butchered—often hacked to death with machetes or beaten with farm implements—all this taking place in 100 days, while Bill Clinton (and the leaders of every other nation) failed to take any meaningful action.[iii] Samantha Powers called it “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.” What better proof of, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing?” (The “goodness” of any given political leader is a matter of some dispute.)

Fact is, we, as “civilized” homo sapiens, seem to consistently completely suck when it comes to attending to the things that really matter in life. And we seem to excel at finding new ways to exhibit callous inhumanity.

Nor can we look exclusively at governments, corporations, and greedy millionaires to be our evil-doing scapegoats. We have to look at ordinary people too, the ones living next door, the ones living with us—yes, we even have to look at the human being in the mirror. Because regular folks are abusing children; husbands are beating and cheating on wives; we are gorging on food and purchasing luxury products while others starve. We are lying, stealing, coveting, failing to love and forgive, turning a blind eye to a thousand injustices … and on and on. We are the problem. I am the problem.

We want to believe we’re evolving upward as a species … but the statistics are telling another story.

No political party or race or class or creed has a monopoly on deceit or cruelty. Evil is, fundamentally, a human problem not a political problem; though its exercise on a grand scale seems to relate closely to the “power corrupts” notion. Power can poison the formerly humble when the glitter of its promises begins to affect their vision.

Republicans brought us Watergate and Kent State. Democrats got us entangled in Viet Nam. A Republican administration brought us the Iraq War and “enhanced interrogation.” A Democratic administration dropped two weapons of mass destruction on non-combatants with high-end estimations of nearly 200,000 killed (includes long-term aftermath deaths) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (A coherent argument can be made that these bombings ultimately saved lives because they ended World War II, but it’s a slippery moral slope, isn’t it? It’s still the USA using WMDs to murder tens of thousands of civilians.)

So don’t try to tell me it’s those d***ed Republicans or Democrats that are ruining life on planet Earth. It’s people. It’s us.

Of course, individuals and governments are doing good things every day too: aiding the suffering, caring for the destitute and disempowered. People perform simple acts of kindness to help total strangers all the time: they help little old ladies cross the street, push stalled cars off highways, buy lunch for the homeless, etcetera. We are, indeed, capable of “rising to the occasion.” These acts are being done by Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the religious and the non-religious.

If we all woke up tomorrow and every living human truly “loved his neighbor as him- or-herself” (not as a religious principle, but a philosophical one) we could do away with the military and police. We could close prisons. We’d be living in John Lennon’s utopia. Unfortunately, that’s an idea we’re still “imagining” and not living out. As Metallica said, “Sad but true.” Hey, Metallica might not have been the first ones to say that … but they said it the coolest.

Yes, you and I have to decide what to believe in, what ideas to support and oppose, and this will mean picking a political representative whose espoused values line up most closely with our own (if we haven’t yet become so cynical that we’ve given up entirely on the whole dog and pony show called politics). So go ahead and pick your guys and gals. Wear a pin if it makes you feel good.

But please don’t pretend that everything’s going to be swell “once the nice people get in office.”

‘Cause that hasn’t worked so far. Maybe you noticed. Expecting it to happen this election cycle might be a tad naïve.

So, what are we to do? Give up?

Your job is to be a light where you are. Love your spouse, your kids, your neighbors. Be kind to those with whom you disagree. Disarm them with unconditional love. These are your most critical earthly tasks (and mine). This life-thing is not about winning an argument—that’s for courtrooms (and, c’mon, how just are the decisions coming out of courtrooms these days, really, whichever way they may lean?).

Could there be some human movement that truly makes the world a better place?

Well, it’s already happened, hasn’t it? Abolition. The Civil Rights Movement. Women’s rights. Gay rights. War protests. Occupy protests. These ideas began somewhere and they changed things. Not that those problems are resolutely solved. They aren’t. But there’s been progress. So, there’s hope. Go ahead and join a movement you believe in. Write that check. March that march.

Just keep checking your heart. When you feel yourself harboring ugly feelings toward those whose ideas you oppose, realize that, in all likelihood, you’d be them if you’d been raised by their parents, grown up in their neighborhood, been born in their generation. Try not to just tolerate them. Challenge yourself to love them. That will free you from anything that might morph into hate. Your best chance of changing someone else’s heart is to begin by changing yours.[iv]

Hug people you love. Lift them up with words of encouragement and acts of service.

And don’t forget to lighten up. Life’s too short to be indignant all the time. Have a nice cold beer, or Diet Cherry 7UP, or whatever your beverage pleasure is. Have an M&M (I recommend Peanut). Smile, laugh. Help others to smile and laugh. As often as possible.

That is all.

Oh, yeah: peace.

[i] Start Date for Human Civilization Moved Back 20,000 Years or So

[ii] Iraq Body Count Site

[iii] Samantha Powers: Bystanders to Genocide

[iv] Sally Kohn: Let’s Try Emotional Correctness