Monday, 31 July 2017

If You Wish Upon Believing In Yourself

To amuse myself this vacation, I'm mainly taking in stuff that feeds my mind. (A refreshing opposite of trying to feed other people's minds.)  Learning more about stuff I like, mostly.  So, one of the many things I'm watching is a series of online lectures by a Tolkien professor, about Tolkien's writings.  Along with a lot of other stuff, this is all further cementing in me a love of things classical and old-school, gently and respectfully deconstructed, rather than savaged and dismissed as harmful.

In a time when all of that is dismissed because it's old, and seen as part of Eurocentric patriarchy, I am determined to be the most useful and trustworthy of fatherly European figures, informed and grounded and aware of things beyond the ken of presentist post-modernists.  Because it's so much easier to just say everything's shit, than to start to actually know your shit.  About something or other.  Because you can't know everything about everything, and it's not good enough that it's all somewhere on the Internet. 

Characters Of Good Character
One of the things that I noted, when dipping my toe in some Tolkien, was how much of his thinking was entrenched in that pre-WWI notion that adversity reveals and builds pre-existing character.  Or reveals the lack of it.  Character and virtue are presented as germane and useful things without any hint of finding this view embarrassing or old-fashioned.  It's not just that having virtues is good. It's that virtues work.

Nowadays we mostly look at vices instead, and call them diseases, quite often.  Or syndromes.  And we work to accommodate and accept them.  We let them limit us.  We "raise awareness" of them.  I hate to be positive, but there's something to be said for "working your strengths/virtues" rather than putting everything into accepting and feeling ok about your vices and weaknesses.

It's very compassionate to try to live in and view the world as a place where everyone's equal in some theoretical way, where no one's better than anyone else, but: history, psychology and law.  It's just not like that.  Some people are more this or that.  In any given setting, some people are more effective.  Some people are, for example, generally smarter than most others, no matter how much we try to deconstruct how we recognize, treat and generally deal with the fact that the people we meet in our lives clearly run the gamut all the way from genius to profoundly handicapped.  

We want to say "everyone's smart in their own way," but nothing much really seems to support that, Howard Gardiner's entirely unsubstantiated but blindly followed, sacrosanct "Multiple Intelligences" theory, and "varied learning styles" ideology to the contrary.  Some people are smart in many ways and can also learn in just as many totally different ways. Other people are smart in two ways and can only learn things, fairly slowly, in one way.  Still other people are borderline average in only one way, and very sub-par in every other way, and no attempt to change that does a whole lot.  And then some people are below average in everything and don't learn no matter what is tried.

And just deciding that someone who is far below average in absolutely everything is slightly less below average in the matching up of simple shapes and patterns doesn't mean they are "smart" at that.  It just means they're less handicapped at it than at the other stuff.  They do not suddenly become "smart in their own way."

And this obviously isn't only true as to intelligence. It's true about everything. Some people are more physically fit in terms of cardiovascular health. Some people are stronger in their upper bodies and cores.  Some people are more emotionally stable in times of stress. Some people are taller than others.  Others are younger.  And there's hardly a virtue or talent that survives very far into extreme old age.  We have what we have.  Right now.  Physically, mentally and psychologically.  Even, one could argue, in terms of moral character.   Some people seem to have come with a lot of it.  Others seem to have squandered it, or had it corrupted.  Is it something that, if you don't "build" in children, then it doesn't happen later?  But everybody's got to live in a world filled with others.  And hope is important.

Someone like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien probably never gave a second thought to the idea that one might find one's hope in the virtues of others one trusts.  In their stories, at least, the various characters' virtues (talents, affinities, strength of character) are essential to getting anywhere.  And a well-rounded moral character is important.  You can be as smart as you like, but if you're Saruman the White, your lack of moral character will take you and everyone around somewhere very dark.

Tolkien does not write wholly good or wholly evil characters.  Every character in Tolkien has great capacity for good or evil, and spends most of their time in the middle, the grey, the doubt, trying to make sensible choices and hoping not to be thrown in too far over their head. Hoping their inner character will be revealed by adversity, and it will end up being more of a Faramir situation, and less of a Boromir one.  Most characters in Tolkien make mistakes.  Many get second chances.  If the Ring does anything, it reveals the moral character of not only Boromir and Faramir, but even people people like Gandalf and Galadriel.  Tom Bombadill (and if he is to be believed, Faramir, in the book, as opposed to the movie) are the only characters who don't seem to have to struggle to have enough moral fibre to avoid succumbing to the corruption of the Ring.

It really isn't all about repression in Tolkien.  Self-control is only one moral virtue, after all.  In terms of character, you get what you get, just like you get better or worse sight and hearing and intelligence, and you can make the most of it, or damage and squander it. 

Old-school Virtues
Some virtues in particular, some features seen in characters with strong moral fibre in writings like Tolkien's, seem to have been lost today.  Seem to have faded.  Even hearing the terms "character" and "moral fibre" make one expect that one's sainted Aunt Hattie is talking about the past.

But they're lost and faded.  Lost as in, their meaning has changed to something lesser, or they are viewed today as simply not terribly good or important anymore.  Problematic, too, when taken to extremes.

Faded is in they no longer shine so clearly in people's mind's eye as important and worthwhile.  Any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice, of course.  But any virtue that is utterly lacking is guaranteed to be a problem. For everyone around. Surely that is self-evident?

Pity is an important, good thing for Tolkien, in the 30s and 40s. Pity as in empathy. Not the same thing as condescension and feeling superior.  Just the good old putting yourself in someone else's shoes and feeling their situation second-hand.  Frodo and Bilbo alike could (should?) kill Gollum, but they don't, because they can see themselves in him and identify with him to some degree. They start to feel how easy it would be for them to end up where he is one day.  And it affects their actions.  Makes them doubt themselves when they are tempted to "mete out justice" too hastily.  Makes them listen when Gandalf says maybe they're not the ones to do that.

But today, "I don't want your pity!  You're not better than me!" is what we think of when we hear the word "pity."  It seems like something only priggish, superior, arrogant people might feel. Like pitying someone is a really bad thing. 

But Bilbo and Frodo aren't motivated by feelings of superiority to Gollum when they pity him.  For one thing, they feel how much it would suck to be him.  Pity as in "sympathy coupled with a wish to help."  For another thing, they know that, having had their character eroded, corrupted, and infected by the One Ring, they might not end up doing even as well as Gollum has, considering how long he's been exposed to it.  They have a realistic measure of their own potential to fail.  This is an old-school virtue that used to be called humility.

Humility in the sense of attributing one's own success and position partially to things external to one's own choices, talents and work.  It takes humility to know when you've been lucky.  To know when one has done so well partly because it was easier for one to succeed than it generally has been for others.  Humility is often coupled with gratitude, understanding the role that other people and things have played in helping one succeed. It is about not attributing one's successes solely to being a uniquely special individual.

That's what humility does as to one's attitude about the past and present.  As to decision-making affecting the future, humility can produce prudence, which warns one when it is wisest to stop and not act. It indicates where the borders are.  What too far would be and what might happen if one goes too far.  When decisive action isn't going to work out well.  Prudence can involve knowing one's own limits, the limits of others, and the true complexity of a given situation.

Prudence and humility absolutely fly in the face of our ubiquitous "believe in yourself, the only one holding you back is you, you can do and be and get anything you can imagine in your own special little head!" dogma.  They let you know when the best thing to do is to wait or do nothing.  Prudent, humble people do not "leap in where angels fear to tread."  They are given too much wisdom by their prudence and humility.

In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir (in the books far more than in the films) is prudent and humble.  His elder brother Boromir had looked to "show his quality" by impulsive, strong, decisive acts of bravery, eventually daring to overstep his limits and in doing so breaking the Fellowship.  Their father Denethor is also lacking the prudence and humility to stay within his own limits as Steward (not King) of Gondor.

Faramir is very different.  He shows the quality of his character as being one that almost rivals his elder brother's in terms of virtues like courage and strength and decisiveness, but he has the prudence and humility to know when to step aside.  He knows not to try to take the Ring away from Frodo, and to his father Denethor, not to try to use it himself, and to support, rather than question it being taken into Mordor and destroyed by people much smaller and weaker than himself. He knows it's not his call.  (He also knows that his failure to interfere will have consequences for him, which consequences he is willing to undergo being of strong enough character to need to do things that way.)

The One Ring aside, Faramir thinks Gollum should be killed for everyone's safety, but even lacking pity for Gollum, he has the humility to defer to Frodo's decision that Gollum will not only be allowed to live, but that the little junkie will serve as Frodo's guide into Mordor.  A less prudent, less humble man (like Boromir) would have taken this decision into his own hands and ordered Gollum killed, robbing Frodo of the chance to do things how he sees fit.

But Frodo knows far more than Faramir about the Ring and about Gollum both, having attained a fair bit of experience with them.  Because of this, Faramir is humble enough to act in the knowledge that he himself, though the bravest, mightiest warrior of Gondor, needs to step aside and let Frodo go on, taking Gollum and the One Ring beyond his control.  This even if he doesn't understand and disagrees with Frodo's decisions.  Part of strong character is not needing to impose it on someone else, even if that person is lacking it.

At Rivendell, Boromir had warned that one doesn't simply walk into Mordor to destroy the Ring.  But really, Boromir isn't being humble and prudent when he argues against the coalescing plan of the Council of Eldrond.  He has a whole different thing going on.  He is focused more on "showing his quality" by coming back to Minas Tirith to hold up his hand, upon which he is wearing the One Ring, to be used as a weapon again the Enemy.  He is not humble enough to know that, though he may know more than most people about fighting Mordor, he doesn't know anything about magic, or rings of power.  Boromir's lack of humility causes him to act imprudently, and he shatters the Fellowship as a result, making Frodo need to scratch Boromir off the list of allies and defenders, and put him right at the top of the list of immediate threats to the outcome of their quest.

Nowadays though, the word "humility" makes us think of humiliation, of feeling bad about ourselves in a time when we are told to believe in ourselves if we want to succeed.  Humility is, perhaps, seen as folly, in other words.  Something that would fuel timidity, hesitancy and passivity (seen as weakness), if indulged in too much.  Not healthy.  It is thought to come with shame, a known tool and manipulative tactic of Religion, which we are too wise to be fooled by anymore.  

And how are modern folks taught to deal with shame?  By denying it.  Not thinking about it.  Putting it from our thoughts.  Feeling ashamed and awkward about having felt it.  Pretending it isn't in our hearts.  In other words, repressing it.

Where Sigmund Freud wrote that repressing urges made people sick, we now seem to be counselling young people to repress their fears, their shame, their hesitancy, and other feelings that people are tempted to label "negative."  To focus on "the positive" only.  That they need to push "negative things" aside/inside/behind.  If they want to get anywhere in life, anyway.  "Don't dwell on the negative. Move on.  Focus on the positive."  Just as if you can walk away from something that's inside you.  Just as if you can flee and hide from your own shadow.

Shame Isn't a Virtue
Let me say emphatically that shame isn't much use, most of the time. It doesn't help.  Not like a nuanced, balanced self-knowledge.  In fact, shame isn't even terribly effective at stopping people from going ahead and doing things they will later feel ashamed of. 

Now, there is such a thing as sitting down and having regular conversations with one's established, long-term vices.  Groups like AA either work or they don't, partly based on how much self-knowledge and reflection occurs.  How many epiphanies are allowed to trickle in.  Good, bad, indifferent.  

Shame doesn't help at AA either.  Shame is kind of a hammer, when what is required is more of a screwdriver or scalpel.  Shame often provides almost no understanding or whys and wherefores, and simply overloads the emotions without anything being learned.  And it's usually too broad.  If you tell yourself and others simply "I'm a terrible person" or "I just generally have an addictive personality" or "I'm the worst friend/husband/father ever," you're kind of avoiding getting down into it and figuring out what specifically is really going on and what's really required to better things, or at least make them stop worsening.   

I think it was Hannah Arendt, Holocaust survivor, who said that if we (in her case, Germans) are all guilty, then no one is.  She wanted actual Nazi war criminals to be actually punished for specific things they did personally, rather than all of the Germany simply saying "Whooops!  We were all wrong. Very, very wrong."

Shame is like that.  If you decide to imagine for a dark evening that you're terrible in almost every way, you won't actually need to identify your biggest problem.  The thing that, if improved, would bring about the most dramatic improvements.  Instead, you briefly cuddle up with some generalized, short-lived shame.

Today shame is seen mainly as the arch-enemy of self-esteem, which we seem to believe makes the 21st century world go round the way love used to.  (The old-school virtue of love has long been downgraded to mere tolerance, of course.)

But thousands of years before the 1950s, a very different virtue from "self-esteem" was where people put their faith, hope and trust.  It wasn't even self-acceptance they trusted in, which virtue seems more foundational and important than valuing (having esteem for) yourself. Self-acceptance might even represent a prerequisite to self-esteem.  But before self-esteem was crowned king, we prized self-knowledge. It's what all the thinking and writing and learning seemed to be about.

All this was before we discussed "fake news" and long before we thought there really was such a thing as a "negative fact" or "violent statistic."  We were willing to just know stuff.  Even if we thought it was "negative," which although it sounds very absolute and objective, mainly just means "stuff that makes me feel yucky in my tummy."

Dealing With "Negative Facts"
The 20th century was fleeing self-knowledge so quickly, upon tossing out religious approaches to spirituality, wisdom and psychological health, that Carl Jung had to step up.  People wanted to feel good about themselves and their lives without taking a very close look at them or learning about them or working to improve them in any way.  They'd had enough of priests and confession, after all.  They'd had enough of choices mattering in any larger narrative.

Into this climate, Jung presented the idea of the shadow, a part of one's self he claimed was composed of the various real things that one wouldn't deal with.  Often real things about one's own self.  The shadow was the part of that self which Jung claimed was an unopened black box to everyone.  The part one might think of as "negative," though one really hasn't dealt with it enough to know much about it.  It's the part we don't want to know about.  The part we won't deal with.

(I was quite probingly asked, not too long ago, what it actually means to "deal with" realities.  And it was a veiled way of challenging my view that it's very important to deal with "negative" facts/realities, rather than ignoring them and trusting them to stop being real when one stops looking at them.  I was flummoxed at first that this was even under debate.  All I could think of was that to "deal" was to accept and behave as if real things were real, rather than pretending, denying, lying and avoiding thinking about them if we don't like them.  But we're taught that reality is whatever you imagine it to be, so long as what you imagine to be real doesn't invalidate anyone else's existence and represent violence to them and hurt their self-esteem, especially with "negative facts.") 

And the shadow, Carl Jung's lasting contribution to modern thought isn't terribly popular right about now.  There aren't too many self-help books and seminars and retreats out there right now which mention it.  Oversimplified, again it's simply the idea that, if something is real, but you don't like it, and so you cast it into the dark corners, thrust it behind you where you can't see it, that all of that stuff will continue to be real and do things back there, in the shadows, out of sight.  It will form a collective or body of reality in there and continue to be active.  That it will follow you around everywhere all of the time.  Your shadow.  Your psychological junk drawer.  A place where incredibly useful stuff is often found, in a time of need.  Like chargers for things.  And adapters.  And batteries.

Hope Come From?
Tolkien wrote in a time when it wasn't terribly odd to imagine that for his hobbit characters, hope might come from not only recognizing the existence of Nazgul and orcs and Mordor far beyond the borders of the Shire, but in navigating a path right through and to them.  To deal. To live to see a more hopeful situation in which to live.  For everyone.  Even if this meant sacrifice.  (another old-school virtue that's fallen on hard times.  Tolkien served in the First World War.  This was bound to have an effect on him.)

Sometimes you need to sacrifice stuff, need to get off the couch and go deal with scary stuff, in order for there to be any hope at all.  And we want hope.  Life's not much fun without any.  And where is hope to be found?  For Tolkien, there was hope that one's character (not created by one's own self) proved up to the tasks before it, there was hope in the mercy, generosity, pity, help and grace of others one had found and formed close bonds with, and there was even hope in some kind of Overarching Thing that was temporarily foiled by chaos and evil, and validated by order and nature. God, Luck, Justice, Karma, the Cosmic Balance, Humanity, Britain, Science, Reason, whatever.  Something that one could raise ones eyes to look at and navigate by, like a star.  (A star is a more useful aid in navigating than "yourself."  Precisely because it is outside, beyond and above.)

Unlike Tolkien, his creations Frodo and Bilbo don't have faith in a monotheistic creator figure looking down on them with an unfolding narrative in mind.  But they do feel that some things are meant/fated to happen and that other things aren't.  Gollum "has a part to play."  Bilbo is "meant" to find the Ring.  By something/someone other than Sauron.

So that's three levels of hope.
1. In one's own character being enacted in one's choices,
2. in the allegiances formed with others,
3. and in some inspecific fate or destiny (or "doom" it is even called sometimes, as in "Mount") that makes some endings natural and desirable, and other endings cataclysmic, abominable and unnecessary.  (Or boring, wasteful, foolish and stupid.)

There is a game, and it is possible not only to win it or lose it, but also to break it entirely into pieces.  Very tempting for a 90s nihilist.  If I'm not guaranteed to win, or it might take work or worst of all, an attention span, I'll smash it all to bits and say it's just dumb anyway.

Hope largely comes from what you put your faith in.  Disney movies did not, in the twentieth century, so much teach or instill 20th century virtues, as echo them back at the people who held them, in a form they would accept.  So, in Pinnochio, America is not quite going to accept "If you place your faith in an ultimate, power (doesn't matter where you ow-er)." But this can be worded "If you wish upon a star" so as to eat one's cake and have it too.

Religious people pray to Something Transcendent and put their faith in that Something possibly helping, and they derive hope from it.  Superstitious people (like religious people, but with no willingness to adhere to any real structure or logos) literally wish upon things like dandelions and stars and thus satisfy their immature, but deep and primal psychological need to find hope by investing faith.  In something.  In anything.  In communism.  In women.  In karma.  In science. In eating gluten-free.  In essential oils and crystal therapy.  In a new money-making book. In social justice. In a political party.

You don't need God if you have an ideology in which to put your hope, faith and trust.  It will do exactly the same thing for you, psychologically.  And you don't even have to grant it a personality.

Disney's Pinnochio came out before Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings.  And in the decades that followed, that "If You Look Up Above and Out Beyond Yourself For Hope..." attitude changed. And was lost.

With no real discipline devoted to self-knowledge, the Path to Wisdom  Positive Feelings progressed right past self-acceptance, beyond merely holding one's self in high esteem, and all the way to Believe In Yourself.

For some, this is the common sense, baseline reality that if you flat out disbelieve in your chances at anything, you are not likely to succeed.  But for many, the message encoded into countless 20th century films is "Never mind knowing yourself, especially the weaknesses, vices or other "negative facts." Never mind taking too close a look at what you're up against; that might just discourage you.  Never mind knowledge, wisdom or awareness.  Just blindly believe.  Not in evolution, progress, society, people or anything that might sound religious.  Believe in yourself. Generally.  Because you're special and smart.  In your own way."

If you want to know what you have faith in instead of God, look to from whence you draw hope when you really need some.  And that's it/him.  That's God for you.  That's what you pray to.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A "Tough Time"

Someone died again.  Someone younger than me, who was raised in the stifling arms of my church culture, whose family fell afoul of infighting there, and who never really got his life together even to the standards that most of us call "together."  (As low a standard as that is.)

And now that he has died, people from my church culture are saying that thing they so often say when someone dies.  (Besides "the Lord is speaking!"  The other thing they say.)  They're saying "He had a real tough time." In our church culture, they mean.  A tough time socially.  A tough time fitting in.  A tough time in terms of falling afoul of vindictive exclusion, in fact.  He was given a tough time.  On purpose.  By people who either thought it was a good idea, or just believe that "that's how it works."

This guy's father was like mine.  "Difficult."  Quarrelsome.  Apt to object to every inconsistency he saw in the church culture.  There to fix things, not just feel ooey gooey togetherness.  To try to better the problems, to make things more fair.  Not just to celebrate how awesome they allegedly are right now already, said awesomeness handed down unchanged for over a century.

I know about this first-hand.  My dad was the same, and so am I.

Because, in a world that wants diplomats, spin doctors, sales reps, and above all, marketing people, some of us are born to be repairmen and warriors.  We are people who insist the dryer's not supposed to make that noise.  People who keep tools in the trunk of our car.  We are people who will fight until we are dead.  People who aren't scared to tear things all apart, looking for the leak.  We are people who do not fear conflict, but wake up inside and get energy when there's fighting that needs to be done, social awkwardness be damned.  People who find our hope only in the possibility of things changing from the way they currently are.  Because we think we see stuff that's wrong.  Stuff one ought to fix.

And this is not a time for that.  Or is it?

Virtue Signalling
It's very fashionable to "raise awareness" of troubling things that are far away.  To be virtuous by caring about something that doesn't necessarily hurt us personally.  Like sending missionaries to Darfur when the Wilson kids are right next door, cutting themselves and sneaking pills from mom's medicine cabinet.  Because, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, you'll soon find you can't "fix" people.  And the Wilsons themselves are mainly just angry with their kids for hurting the family church reputation by having problems that happen to have stigmas attached to them, instead of just being poor, blind lepers or something else we can pity.

The hardest lesson of all for fixers and fighters is that you can't "fix" people and you can't "fight" their problems either.  And awareness campaigns?  Turns out people already know that cutting yourself, substance abuse and emotional issues are just as problematic as cancer, hunger and crime, and that they happen on a daily basis in our culture more than most.  Everyone is aware.  And just thinking about it doesn't seem to help.

So you send money, one of your children, or maybe even spend some time off yourself and go, to a different continent to "fight hunger" or something.  Because, as we said, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, it will soon become obvious that you can't.  But Darfur?  Random bits of India or Africa?  You don't have to achieve any measurable success of any kind.  Just trying makes you a hero.  And a role model.  And an inspiration.  On Facebook. On Twitter.  You can use every social media app you've got to share your "inspiration" with as many people you can, in a sea roiling with virtue-signallers.

Working Vs. "Helping"
I know someone who goes to Africa and isn't just a charity tourist, virtue-signalling and merit badge earning by going there.  She is a nurse, and she goes to places that need nurses and she simply... works.  Does her job. Does the thing she trained for.  The thing people want her to do badly enough, that normally they have to pay her.  That's different.  She's not "fixing" Africa. She's not "raising awareness."  She's not even "fighting" anything.  She's just working.  Getting up and showing up.  I have a great belief in the potential for working to make a difference in a way that "raising awareness," "inspiring others" and giving lectures with multimedia clearly doesn't. I have a belief in personal sacrifice.  And I don't see the personal sacrifice in paid lectures, or likes on social media.

But, my nurse acquaintance aside, it's a bit tougher to see where the value is when someone with no particular credentials decides to toss money or unskilled carpentry at Africa or India.  Can't hurt, right?  Might help?  Won't fix it, of course.  Mostly gives you stuff to put on social media, and nets you a slideshow and "talk" to give at your church, if we're being honest.

But the young guy I wrote about didn't live in Africa, or even a "bad area" in North America.  And as they say, he had "a tough time."  At church.  Like a lot of us.  And he didn't just happen to end up having tough times.  He was purposely given a tough time because people with more status than he did wanted him to have one.  People with more influence than he or his immediate family. 

This guy was always trying to work in our church culture.  To serve.  To help out.  And it's not as easy as that in a church culture.  Some people will pretty much stab you in the back so they get to be the only person who sweeps the floor after church, brings the coffee, stacks the chairs or whatever.  And many of us heard about this guy's life, growing up.  When his name was mentioned, people said "Well, I heard he's a little..." or "I hear they gave him a really tough time..."  Or "I heard there was stuff there..."

We all heard that talk.  Because the less fun stuff you allow yourself in your day, the more culture gossip you have made time for.  And the most hardcore of us church folk had entirely funfree Sundays and evenings in which to culture gossip.  And we did.

Making A Go of It In Our Church Culture
I can connect to this guy and his family in a pretty direct way. I know a lot of it personally.  You're young and you note that status makes a huge difference in your church culture.  And your church culture? It's your only culture.  And the culture itself absolutely requires that you put all of your eggs in that one cultural basket.  So you're not an involved church guy, but also running for mayor, or running a club or anything.  That's not allowed.  It's an "or" thing, not an "and" thing.  And so you were a big deal in your culture, or you weren't.  So you tried to be "valuable" there.  If they let you.

Another thing, in a circle like ours, you don't choose the one church culture because it suits you, and then everyone sees the culture as the one you ended up choosing.  No.  No one sees it as a choice.  It's not even seen as merely a church culture. It's just What God Asked For. It's Where He's Working.

Everywhere else? That's just Everywhere Else.   We're us, and they're them.  This is the only game in town.  It's not seen as a cultural choice because no other choices are being acknowledged. And you only get the one birth culture.  You spend your formative years in the one place.  And you are formed by it.

Old Godly Vs. New Godly
Another thing to know: what you are trying to be specifically, in order to gain and keep power and status in a church culture like mine?  There's a name for it: "godly."  You are trying to be a godly young person living a godly life.  Then maybe you can marry a godly girl and raise a godly family in a Godless world.  "Godly" is a more euphemistic word than "pious," "abstinent," "pure" or "holy," but it means the same thing.  Good.  And not Good by doing stuff, mainly.  Good by not doing stuff. (the fun stuff.) By being the one thing.  By having that one cultural connection only.

What's everyone talking about at work?  You don't know about that thing. Is there a show that everyone's bingewatching?  You don't have a TV.  Is there an app that everyone's kids have on their phones?  Your kids don't have phones.  Is there a huge event happening in your city on a holiday weekend?  Your family is going to a bible conference/retreat in Idaho.

Godly is what you need to be in cultures like mine.  But there's something that really complicates trying to live "godly."  I'm going to have to dip into F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for a moment to properly make this point.  In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby isn't born rich.  His parents are just ordinary.  But he meets a charming girl named Daisy who was born rich.  "Old money."  A wealth insider.  Now, Jay Gatsby wants to marry her, but "ordinary" doesn't get you in there to marry old money.  So Jay Gatsby gets rich. To get in.

Gatsby is first a WWI hero, and comes home, ready to get down to it.  He changes absolutely everything about himself, using every method he can, legal and illegal, to become the kind of public person, driving the kind of car, living in the kind of house, throwing the kinds of parties, that Daisy will marry.  

Jay Gatsby makes absolutely everything about getting and looking rich.  Buys a mansion and fills it with the trappings of wealth, which things he doesn't even want or enjoy.  Keeps a giant library filled with books he's never opened.  It's one big signal of his wealth.  Has a grand piano he can't play, so he hires a guy to hang around in case anyone needs some piano music.  Jay Gatsby does nothing else but get, stay and be seen to be rich.  And there's no more to him than that.

Thing is, Daisy is the opposite.  She's not working to get or stay rich.  She's just wealthy to begin with.  She never did anything at all to get rich.  Never gave it a second thought.  In fact, she's never made absolutely everything about anything at all, let alone the acquisition of wealth.  She's old money. The money came before she did.

So Daisy marries another "old money" person.  Tom Buchanan isn't as good a person as Jay Gatsby, but the union is supported by their culture, because it is a union of two like people, from the same social bracket.  Tom is a racist, abusive, a bully, a braggart and an adulterer.  But he's old money.  There can be no looking into how Tom earned his money.  Because Tom didn't earn his money.

No matter what Gatsby does, at best he is only "new money."  And old money doesn't mix with new money.  If old money Daisy had tried to court new money Jay Gatsby, her social circle and family connection would have shown just how much trouble they can cause when people are trying to put something so potentially fragile as a marriage together.

Gatsby knows how to put on show-off, new money parties, filled with people impressed by his wealth. What he doesn't know how to do properly is be obviously bored of wealth, not always working to try to keep and display it, and instead spend his days doing nothing much. He's always working, earning, maintaining and displaying.  Old money doesn't do that.

The Game is Rigged
In many eastern cultures, the whole society works together to get you a viable spouse.  You need a marriage, so you culture arranges one for you, usually giving you some choices.  Western cultures generally don't do that so much as work together to keep you from managing to connect with anyone they deem to be unsuitable.  You have Tinder, right?  Pick someone we like.

I grew up with people who were raised "old godly" but who married someone aspiring to "new godly." For many, this brought about the end of any real membership in the culture.  Pressure had been exerted, warnings given, but they didn't listen, so they end up on the outs.  Because yes, people interfered heavily to try to forbid the union, seeing this obligatory calamity about to happen/be caused.  Made the union, the membership impossible.  This happened to fictional Gatsby, and it happened for the all too real young guy who died recently.

A harsh lesson for me, and for this young guy who died, is that the game is rigged.  If you have the right last name, if your family is a dynasty, you have the power and status to do what you need to.  If you are "old godly," you have arrived and just have to ensure no one hurts your family status.  Especially you.  There's a lot of pressure there, I hear.

But if you're aspiring to "new godly," you find that no matter how uprightly you live, no matter how many potentially joyful things you delete from your week, you never quite get let into that game.  The rules are different for everyone else.

If you're "old godly," your family can, and usually does, have emotional problems.  That gets rather glossed over. Gossiped about perhaps, but you keep your status.  It's not the same for the rest of us.  There is a stigma that can't be overcome.  What is "quaint" or "just how he is" in old godly circles reads as "sick, a serious problem" in yours. 

People get permanently excommunicated in our culture, not just for social misbehaviour, but for having personality problems or emotional issues.  We all knew old people who had to sit at the back of the church and not take communion or participate in any social activities.  When you asked what they'd done, you were simply told "They were trouble when they lived back East."  Or maybe "They had a hard time in the 70s."  Didn't fit.  Rocked the boat so were cast into the sea.  Very, very often it is a case of new godly refusing to bow down to the excesses of old godly. Not knowing their place and being shown it, with relish, by the entire culture, until they died.

In my case, this included being told I could attend a bible conference, but I was not welcome, and could not eat or be given accommodations for the night there.  In the case of the young guy who died, this included being allowed to attend a bible conference, but having to sit outside the building to eat, and literally having the tray with his food passed out a window to him.  These bible conferences are traditionally used to meet possible future spouses.  But try to romance someone while you're not allowed to eat in the same room with them...

If this kind of situation happens to your dad (and it did to mine), your whole family is screwed from that point on.  You can't really fit.  You can't really date.  So you find yourself in this "middle" position.  You feel like your affiliation or membership in your birth culture is hanging by a thread.  If the impression is given (facts don't matter) that you have been entertaining yourself or partying, or even worse, going to other churches or reading their doctrine or whatever, you may well find yourself elbowed right out of the culture you were born into.  So you fight as hard as you can to be allowed to lurk on the threshold for the rest of your life, never allowed in, but clearly not having walked off either.

Trying Too Hard
So you try to work. Ceaselessly.  Too hard.  Jay Gatsby hard.  You try to work with children in the Sunday school and get told you can't. You incessantly read the bible and books of "ministry" (we didn't use the word "theology," because that sounded like the brain was involved).  You swept the church floor.  You stacked chairs.  You spent time with old church folks.  You did all of this and tried to keep your reputation free from any hint that you might have been partying or associating with other churches or their doctrine.  You made sure you kept no role models that were outside of your culture.

What drove my dad to throw out our TV, outlaw my comic books and ban an increasing number of things with each passing year was not some parental fear that we children would be hurt spiritually, or led astray by stuff, or even fear of God's disapproval.  It was fear of our family losing status. It was tightening down the screws to try to build a family legacy as a godly one.

My dad made the church sign for the front of the building, he built and maintained the box that people submitted Scripture Searcher papers to and which recorded their progress, he recorded visiting guest speakers and kept a tape library and tape mailing service, he taught in all of the bible studies and things we had five or six times a week, he preached the gospel and invited guest speakers to speak, he counted the collection money and discussed how to spend it, he bought endless stuff for and repaired the Meeting Hall... and on and on and on and on.  This is what he did instead of being my dad.  Chose the church culture over his family, God and all that is good or prudent or loving, to be honest.  Never let logic or empathy deter him in his quest.  Some of us definitely have an obsessive streak that is viewed as a cheating, annoying superpower by people playing the game more casually.

And I will tell you what happens when you live like this, burning yourself at both ends: it makes you stand out.  You are trying far harder than "old godly."  You are clearly trying too hard.  What's wrong with you that you have to try that hard?  And your reward for this is you remain forever on the fringes.  You never quite get let in.  There's always that carrot and there is always the stick, too.  You are continually under suspicion and in need of explanation. 

Anyone who really starts to accept you gets a bit of your outsider smell on them, and those you grew up knowing will inevitably socially punish, in the various ways that children and young adults can, anyone who spends a bit too much time with you.  And if you were, for example, to somehow overcome the constraints and awkwardnesses and prejudices of your birth culture, and connect to people outside it?  This would certainly count simply as evidence that you simply never were "one of us" to begin with.

Failed New Godly
So you are very, very, very alone, if you are failed new godly.  When you run full tilt for the prize and smack your teeth into the brick wall that is painted to look like a doorway.  Heaven help you if you object in any way!  If you say things aren't fine, or need to be looked at.  This culture is, after all, a worship of How Things Have Always Been.  Your family is torn up with the members blaming each other for possibly risking the family's tottering, almost gone status in the culture.  With not succeeding in it.

Two things are there waiting for you: emotional issues and substance abuse.  Either one is certainly enough to shatter any possible remaining association with the culture.  Our culture isn't one that is known for accepting and helping alcoholics, pill poppers, gambling addicts or the like.  And there really is that usual Christian attitude that, if you have addiction, anxiety or depression, you clearly don't have Jesus.  Otherwise, you'd be fine, right?  Are you saying that having Jesus doesn't work? Why aren't you happy?  Get over yourself.  Move on.  Focus on the positive.

Unlike the guy who died this time, I myself was spared problems with substance abuse by virtue of being a clinical control freak. This means that emotional issues are the only dysfunction left open to me.  But so much more of this story I feel like I "get."  Being alone.  Family very welcome to leave the culture at any time.  Fighting for a status you don't really have and will never get.  Trying too hard, and this hurting rather than helping your status.  Giving up everything healthy and personal and natural in vain pursuit of getting accepted to a position you will never occupy.  Trying to regain something you never really had.

Because the thing that human cultures are, that church cultures should not be too?  Competitive.  Someone was waiting in line behind you with their hand out for status, importance and inclusion, and if you step out of line, they step up and take your place.  These cultures are status hierarchies one can only be born "old godly" into.  Last name helping or hurting you, quite beyond your control.  Being encouraged to cut off ties to friends and family to save yourself and try to keep any status problems they may have from spreading to you.

Sins of the Father
Speaking of which, how was this recently deceased young guy given a "tough time"?  Specifically? What little I know of this guy's story is that he was haunted and hounded his whole adult life by the fact that his father had fought with their local church when the guy was a young teenager, and so his dad was put in an "out" position to perpetuity.  This young guy always felt like maybe the way his father was treated was a wee bit wrong, and refused to "admit" his father was 100% to blame, and for this he was never forgiven his whole life.  He was formally required to officially declare that his father "needed" to be kicked out, and that the church was 100% correct in how they acted.  As the young man argued that maybe things were wrong on both sides, he himself was then also kicked out forever.  Because that's how we roll, in some corners.

The young guy moved West across the whole continent, and changing country of residence to America, wanted to be a missionary.  Wanted to work in a church connected with his birth culture.  But when he moved, a letter arrived ahead of him, warning people to never include him.  Never let him take communion.  Never let him help out at church.  Under pain of starting a fight with Us.  ("Us Out East.")

And as I said, when those various bible conferences were held, where one might meet potential spouses in the culture, people in this guy's position are often told they are simply not welcome. (In my case they said "the older brothers have decided it would be best if you did not attend.")  And he attended the one bible conference in a pleasant village "out East" from where he'd originally been given the "tough time" about his dad, and was required to eat outside, plates literally passed to him out a window.  By those who proudly claim they are responsible to "feed God's lambs" in Maritime Canad. What did they feed this guy, socially, spiritually and psychologically?

Still, he got to go out East, and they did find a way to compromise between getting in trouble with "Us Out West" for accepting him for once in his life, and actually making him stay home.  And this young guy travelled all of the way across North America from the west coast to the east, only to be sent outside to eat every meal, literally segregated, in this the 21st century.

And no one ever agreed to let him help out anywhere.  No girls agreed to date him.  People who spoke to him much were given an update about him.  The solitude and the emotional problems and the substance abuse he eventually fled into slowly ate him.  Eroded him.  His heart couldn't take it.  It degenerated to a point that it could not be repaired, even in this, the 21st century.  And now he's dead.

His body was put into the ground by two people: his parents.  That's it. No words were said.  His church culture did not come to mourn.

Despite this, to this day, folks who speak about him, including his own father, are reluctant to see anything terribly wrong with the church culture itself.  With How Things Have Always Been.  Oh sure, a few guys in it acted poorly.  But the culture?  How Things Have Always Been?  We're not actually going to take blame, or try harder, or talk about it, or change or anything.  Why should we?  This is as good as it gets, right?  This is How Things Have Always Been.  You wouldn't want to bring in compromise and change, would you?

We're All Fine, Here...
This guy had a tough time, alright.  But that doesn't mean anything to the rest of us.  Because we're, more or less, ok and we've got families to think of, and family reputation to uphold, and that's what matters.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Children on Elephants

Confession: I'm happier than I used to be.  Significantly so.  There are a number of reasons for this. And I'm reading a book called The Happiness Principle, by Jonathan Haidt, which is sparking a lot of thought (and feelings) about it all.

I used to hang onto my sorrow, discomfort and dissatisfaction like a flag.  Like there needed to be a guy, standing there, saying "No.  This is all bullshit.  We need to be more real.  We need to do this right.  We need to pay attention.  We need to look after the people who are falling between the cracks.  The ones we're shoving out, between said cracks."  But after having written a couple of books and done other such things, I feel like I've planted that flag, and I don't actually have to wear the t-shirt every day, or even stand outside the gates anymore.

And yeah.  I'm reading Haidt's The Happiness Principle.  A lot of it seems terribly familiar, and goes over very old ground, prompting me to want to say "Get on with it!  Give me something new to think about!"  It's surprising that I'm reading Haidt's book.  Any book with this title, actually.  There are many, many books out there on the subject, and with similar titles, and I have learned to avoid them.  Because when I've tried to read them, I quickly find that I haidt them.  They convince me more deeply that happy isn't something I can be.  That it's for other people.  That the only thing holding me back is me.  (Horrible thing to tell people.  Go peddle that in Africa or Syria, why don't you?)  But this book is being so "me" right now that I'm getting bored with the well-worn paths and want to see what's next. Want to think something new.  I agree with him about the stuff he's disagreeing with, because I've been disagreeing with it too for a long, long time.

But I'll try to explain one of the key reasons I'm happier lately.  I think, being middle-aged, I've lost a whole lot of hope in the idea that people can change.  Significantly.  Deep down.  I've seen too many people die, rather than change.  And I've seen some that seem to be killing themselves in extreme slow motion.

So now?  I genuinely don't think people change.  Not really.  Not at the core.  So I don't hope for it.  And that's very, very freeing.  Because I've gone straight through my life always feeling like I need to change.  Need to be someone else.  People have leaped up to tell me the same thing.  That I need to become someone who is less pessimistic.  That I need to become someone who is less withdrawn.  Someone who is more of an extrovert.  That when I don't want to participate, I need to become the sort of person who wants to participate more, who wants to indulge and placate others more.  That when I get over-eager and talk too much, I need to become a person who will want to participate less, and again, want to indulge and placate others more.  That I need become someone who cares less.  That I need to think less. That I need to smile a lot. That I need to flinch less obviously when touched unexpectedly.  That I need to hug people more.  That I need to show "positive" emotions (ones people like) more.  That I need to get happier. (or, failing that, act cheerful.)

And after all of these years, I have slowly come to really hate all of that.  Not just a little.  See it as the enemy.  See it as the key to unraveling me when I'm busing being who I am.  But I used to hear it more than I do now.  One thing about being middle-aged is people lay off you.  That pressure to change starts to subside a bit.  You know that pressure.  To be a person others will like more.  So they will hire you, and trust you, date you and otherwise socially, financially and romantically reward you.  Because we're not ok the way we are, apparently.  Nope.  We are inconvenient and embarrassing.

Melancholy and philosophical?  Introverted? Quiet at times?  Solitary? Dissatisfied with "the way things are"?  Apt to sneer and mock at fake stuff that clearly sucks, but somehow always seems to demand a whole lot of praise and attention and recognition from every single one of us?  Lacking in emotional affect and response?  All of the above?  Not ok.  We need to change, apparently.  To be happier.  Or to fit in better, anyway. To make ourselves easier to accept.

And of course, you can see where I'm going with all this.  It turns out that "just being" makes one happier than being burdened with constant negative feedback from others and continual attempts to adjust, correct and control one.  Especially if one buys into the idea that one needs to care deeply about all of the above.  No, the opposite is what makes a person serene, content, at peace.  Happy, even.  Oddly, a person being themselves is far easier to accept than someone who is miserably trying to be more acceptable to others. There's something right about it.  We can't help but accept authenticity when we see it, even if it's packaged up in a person who's a bit crusty, or who comes with some sharp edges.

So I'm done listening to people who feel I ought to do everyone a favour and change.  I'm doing the very opposite: I'm not even pretending I'm going to change, on a deep, psychological level, mainly to meet the expectations of others.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend clinging to one's identity instead, and running with it, instead of from it.  Be it more.  Be it deeper, higher, broader and more richly and maturely than anyone dreamed was possible.

"Everybody" wants you to get a specific haircut or smile more or lose weight or be excited about some sports or Internet thing or wear some wristband or colour or whatever?  What works for me is the bone-deep, decades-old abiding accustomedness to simply recognizing that yeah, there are always people like that, who seem to want and need that from every single person.  Like junkies on street corners with their hands out.  You can spend some time or money trying to make them happy if you want to, or you can not bother with them.  One thing that's sure is that nothing is really going to take the edge off that keening need in their blood to shoot up heroin or tell you about the environment or require you to use the word "issues" instead of "problems" or love Ke$ha or whatever it is.

There's them, needing something, and there's you, possibly with the power to maybe to choose to stop and give them what they claim they need, or not.  And "not" is just as viable an option as giving them what they think they need.  Because sometimes what people are looking for isn't something you can give, or isn't going to content them anyway.  

I have learned to no longer confuse growing and maturing, on the one hand, with changing, on the other.   God put me in the world and I'm a very specific design that you sure didn't order from a sampler with various options and dropdown menus, available in your preference of sizes, colours and fragrances.  I am growing and maturing, but I'm not going to become anybody else.  Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.  Because it's not possible.  I'm just me and I am only getting more "me." Deal with that.  Wisdom of middle-age talking.  It gives contentment and peace.  Try being.  Life isn't all becoming.  And it sure isn't about ceasing to be various things.

Any person who has struggled with depression, or who is grieving or whatever, will tell you the same thing: people all seem to have stupid advice.  Freely given.  And it's all the same.  They tell you "smile."  They tell you "be happy."  They tell you not to think about it. They tell you to care less.  They tell you to enjoy stuff you don't.  They tell you to feel and think differently.  My favourite?  They tell you to "Move on."  To "Walk away."  From stuff that's literally inside your skull.

Mostly it adds up to "Be more like me by doing what I do, the way I do it."  

Sometimes this is because they themselves are beautiful, young, white, rich, happy or whatever, and they genuinely don't get why every other person on the planet can't just be more or less like them.  "Be like me.  You can do it.  By your choices," they feel.  This all dodges the matter of why they need you to be more like them to begin with.  (Bigotry written small)  

Other times, people tell you to be happy or wear red, or cheer loudly or join their thing or whatever it is, because they see a potential for them to lose their thin facade of pretend, functional, daily cheerfulness. If we're all going to just go around being real and everything, instead of doing others the favour of hiding our psyches away for the day, what could happen? They're willing to paint the cheery on thick, so what makes you so special that you won't return the favour?  Their facade is so think there's no telling who's beneath it.

Maybe not pretending to be cheery is an important first step in embracing genuine, deeper, eventual happiness.  And maybe contentment and serenity are far more valuable than superficial cheerfulness. 

Jonathan Haidt is writing in the part I'm at right now about his own favourite way to imagine the stuff that St. Paul, Freud and a bunch of old Greeks saw in all of us: Haidt imagines we are like little children (our thoughts and decisions and self-control) riding huge elephants (the rest of our personalities, which we are little aware of, and certainly did not create and do not daily maintain, ourselves).  You know?  Part of what God made.  (Haidt doesn't believe in God, but is an honest enough atheist to have done his homework and is able to cite books which seek to explain the universal phenomenon that evolution and the ecology and the universe and so on seem to be not only designed, but designed to maintain and upgrade themselves.  "Design with a designer" is what he's hugging to his bosom right now to explain that big elephant in the room.)

So, an elephant?  Your past, your hormones, your genes, and millions of factors of which you are not presently consciously aware, Haidt imagines, are all working together right now to form this huge, ancient elephant that is as much a part of you as the little part on its back that tries not to respond sincerely and honestly when someone you don't like much tries to chide you to smile when you're not happy.

Think about it.  The elephant is part of you.  You are not a separate part that is stronger than the elephant.  And the elephant remembers.  And the elephant has big ears and hears everything.  And the elephant is, in its way, wise.  Whipping the elephant is not, in the long term, a good idea, given its memory and its strength.  It has thicker skin than (the conscious) you do, clearly.  You have to work with it, not against it.  Accept it and learn to work together better.  Laugh at the very idea, tossed at you from the person riding her miserable, over-trained elephant across the tent from you, that what would really be nice, really be best, is if you whipped your elephant more, to make it smile. Or balance on a ball, or do tricks.  And that if you paint it pink, maybe people will believe you when you say it's really an adorable, cheerful little poodle.

They call out to you: Just be happy.  Just smile.  Just somehow find cheery music and perky people cheering, rather than deeply depressing and annoying.  Just hug people.  Just shut up.  Just forget.  Just don't care.  Just never mind.  (Just try to stop the elephant from being big, from heavy, from being grey, from having a trunk and a tail and two big ears.)  Get out that pink paint.

Thing is, if you grow to have a warm, familiar, accepting working relationship between the elephant that is part of you, and the rest of you, you don't need to whip and shout and cry and otherwise seek to bully it so much.  You start to realize it's probably worth it to stop and get it some peanuts or a cabbage or whatever from time to time.  What's important to it starts to become important to the rest of you.  And.... vice versa.

No one else has a hope of understanding what goes on daily between the part of you that is not the elephant, and the part of you that is.  Doesn't mean they'll shut up.  Doesn't mean you have to listen.

So never mind trying not to be you.  Grow.  Relate.  Do not try to change utterly.  Growing will change you in all the ways you need. Mostly by making you more, rather than less you.

Depression, inventor of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck, claimed, often looked like the rider of this elephant saying certain things out of frustration.  Ranting.  Crying with frustration.  You could, Beck felt, "script" how depression talks.  It's very predictable:

1.  I am bad, weak, corrupt, selfish and no good.  (I am not able to subdue the part of me that is this elephant. It is too strong for me and I am tired of shouting at it and beating it and otherwise trying to get that part of me under control. It is bad and I am a bad elephant trainer.)

2. There are few or no good things in the world.  Nothing we can get, anyway, that are going to be worth it.  (There is nothing in the world that the elephant and the rest of me can find to enjoy.  No peanuts.  No cabbages.  No rivers to swim in.  No sun to sun in.)

3. And there never will be.

Now this is, baldly put, wrong.  And #1 is the root from which all of this crap springs.  It tells an evil story: "I am bad.  I am not good enough.  I am not strong enough.  People hate me and won't help.  They're selfish. And they don't know.  And anyway, there's no good stuff around that someone like me can get and enjoy.  And so I have no future."

This is what a little child sitting on a balky, hungry, resentful elephant thinks, and then, feels. (or the opposite of that)  And the child, and the elephant, and everyone else, knows that all of this depression-scripted stuff is wrong.  It's just evil whispers in a black time.  It's something dark to tell one's self so one doesn't have to keep trying.  So one doesn't have to try something else.  To try to talk one's self out of growth.

We're dumb.  We think we would somehow have to change utterly, in order to be happier and stronger.  But we're us.  And we want to continue to be ourselves.  So we do a lot to try to retain our selfhood, even though we're miserable.  Because it's all we think we have.

We think we have nothing else.  But that's wrong.  We have an elephant.  In fact, it's a part of us that nothing and no one can ever take away.

And we don't have to change.  We don't have to listen to other people.  We don't have to achieve what they achieve, and do things the way they do them.  We don't have to mute, or stuff, or lock away our true selves.  The trumpeting, miserable, angry, despairing elephant.  Starved and locked in the dark.  Quite the opposite.

We have to listen and talk to the part of us that is the elephant.  Know and be known.  It is powerful.  It has feelings.  It has needs.  And it never forgets. Maybe it doesn't want to balance on the ball to make the kids laugh.  Maybe it wants to knock over the wall instead.  Maybe it's been telling itself that very thing in its dreams.  Freedom dreams of knocking over all the walls.  Well, it probably can.  And maybe it should.

And it doesn't need to transform into a trained poodle to do it.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Just A Christian Thing

I was seventeen years old, and I knew what most of the words in the bible were.  I knew there was no church but ours, and that ours was not merely a church.  I knew that I needed our church to get a wife and children and raise them to be successful, decent, healthy people.  I knew that I definitely wasn't supposed to be able to connect with the others at school, and luckily, I couldn't.  I knew that I definitely was supposed to be able to connect to the others at church, but despite me, I couldn't. I knew what something was wrong with me and that I wasn't normal.  There was something.  School and church agreed about that. I knew that that something would keep me from ever finding true love with a wife, a home and children.  And I knew that what was wrong with me was me.   And I knew I couldn't bear to be anyone but myself.  It was like secretly being gay, only I was publicly being me instead.  And I knew that there was no place for me and no happy ending. And I knew that I wanted to be dead.

I didn't really want the responsibility of killing myself, but I knew that I didn't want the responsibility of trying to live the next day, carefully not fitting in at school and carefully fitting in at church.  And I knew that what I felt wasn't normal because I wasn't normal.  But I started to suspect that my reaction to everything was, itself, a normal reaction.  And that being ok with everything would not have been.   And I knew that no one was in control of everything. No one was there for people like me. No one could do anything. 

The doctor was from our church and he knew that there was nothing wrong with our church and so if I couldn't cope I obviously wasn't normal and needed pills.  I decided that I knew that I could not take pills, as I needed to sort out whatever it was, and not numb myself to it.  The psychiatrist I then went to knew that I should be partying and going to movies and non-church things.  I knew that I could never do that, and to do so would lose me my tenuous membership at my church, to match my lack of belonging at school.  And so I stopped seeing him, said I was fine now, and continued to want to be dead.  And I knew that no one was able to speak with me about any of it.  I knew that people had personas to carefully keep up, and that they needed to avoid any appearance of not being normal themselves.  And I knew that I had to get through it myself.  Me and God.  I knew He was supposed to be able to help. And so I dealt only with Him from then on.  I knew I couldn't trust anyone else. Not a single person.

And I knew that, if I got through it, with God's help, that I couldn't bear to think of others in my position, being alone.  I knew that there must be others, although I had never met any, or if I had, they had not identified themselves. I knew that I wanted to find such people and let them know that there were more of us. How many more? I pictured a miserable seventeen year old, likewise along, perhaps female, and knew I wanted to help her, and live together for the rest of our days.

And the years went by.  I endured not fitting in at church, to match my not fitting in to the world outside it.  I knew that I was who I was, and that there was strength in my design.  And I knew that that strength that had been built into me terrified people, and that any system that could not deal with someone who was only as slightly off-centre as me was weak.  Scared.  Flawed.  Lying.  Hiding things.  

And I learned that there seemed to be about as many people who could not fit in as could.  And I learned that many people get miserable and lost and disconnected.  And I listened to and spoke with many of them.

I didn't know there would be so many.  Of all ages, races, cultures and genders.  I didn't know that mainly only the female ones would and could think and talk and feel about these things openly, instead of drinking and making money and fighting with everyone and hoping to die without ever having to deal. I didn't know that some people were able to cry about it all, and that this helped them a bit.  

I didn't know that, as much as I had been raised to be, and naturally was, unable to fit in to the world around our church, that that world would accept us anyway.  I didn't know that there was, in human dealings, a small hope for a modicum of fairness and forgiveness and mercy.  I didn't know to stop looking for it in Christian circles.  I didn't know that I would be kicked out of my church entirely, along with almost every friend and relative I ever had.  And I didn't know that we would survive.  I didn't know that some of us would simply recreate the same environment we grew up in, only with us in charge.  I didn't know that others would find they quite enjoyed churches and groups very different from our own birth culture and would immerse themselves headlong into those. I didn't know that others would love Jesus but never really be happy at any church besides our own, but remain infinitely happier "going nowhere" than going to ours.

I didn't know we'd talk, a bunch of us, using computers, some of which we carried around in our pockets.  I didn't know that everybody would be allowed to talk, even if some of us were women and most of us were excommunicated and shunned, forever deemed church defects, rejects and trouble to allow into the midst.  I didn't know many of us would share and connect on screens and never meet up in the same room.  I didn't know there'd be so many suicides.  I didn't know there'd be so much addiction.  I didn't know there'd be so many divorces.  I didn't know that the things the church folks did to us, we'd generally go on to do to everyone around us.  I didn't know the church knew everything all along and didn't care and wouldn't ever openly talk about change, forgiveness of reconciliation.  I didn't know there'd be joy possible anyway.

I didn't know I'd meet the hypocrisy, the enforced cheerfulness, the blindly-trumpeted flawed utopian dogma, the need to seem normal and ok at all times, at the workplace, on the street and everywhere else.  

I thought that was just a Christian thing.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sunday Morning Sermon on Atheists OutChristianing Christians

All those people who live lives characterized by weakness and lack of integrity, without having any knowledge of the bible, will also reach the end of their days and die, having had no knowledge of the bible to guide them. But all who have walked paths of weakness and lack of integrity with full knowledge of the bible will be assessed according to what the bible tried to say to them. 

For it is not the believers of the message of Jesus who are acting well as far as God is concerned, but the livers of the message of Jesus who are acting well. For when atheists, who do not have the bible, just naturally do what the bible teaches, and act well, they are a bible to themselves, even though they do not have the bible. They show that the message of the bible is written on their hearts, while their conscience also weighs in, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them whenever God assesses the inner essence of men through his judge Christ Jesus.

You call yourself a Christian and claim to rely on the message of the bible and claim identity in Jesus Christ and to know his message and to support what is Christian, because you are instructed from the bible. You are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the bible the embodiment of knowledge and truth.

You then who teach others, why have you not taken the time to teach yourself? While you preach against shadiness and insincerity, are you yourself shady or insincere? You who say that one must not condone adultery, do you condone adultery by appointing adulterers to have the rule over you? You who insist that all fetuses be allowed to grow into children because all life is sacred, do you then resist contributing any money toward the health care of these same children to preserve their lives once they have been born? You who demand freedom of religious expression, do you seek to rob atheists and Muslims and Buddhists of the right to practice their own world views, and to live completely free from yours? 

You who claim to find your personal identity in the message of the bible? You folks are dishonoring God by not living in the spirit of its message. And now the name of Jesus Christ is a joke and a curse among the atheists because of you. The word “Christian” now means “self-serving, hypocritical bigot” to many people.

Now, a Christian upbringing certainly is of value if you live according to the message of Jesus, but if you live in a way Jesus never would have, showing none of his heart, your Christian upbringing becomes atheism. And, if a man who is an atheist lives according to the message of Jesus, will not his atheism function as Christianity? Then he who was never raised Christian yet lives in a way that is very compatible with the message of Jesus? He will rightly condemn you who went to Sunday school as a child but grew up to become people who do not have the heart of Jesus. 

It doesn’t make one a Christian to merely try to seem like one outwardly, nor is Christian upbringing only an outward and physical thing that has to do with attendance at church, one’s lifestyle and how one votes. No, a Christian is one inwardly, and Christianity is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not achievable through doctrine, lifestyle restrictions or political positions. A true Christian’s standard of excellence and decency is not set by his fellow churchgoers, but by God.

Then what is the point of being a Christian? Is there any value in a Christian upbringing? It is valuable in every way. To begin with, Christians were entrusted with the New Testament, which contains messages from God about real things. What if many Christians live according to a new church culture they have invented which has little to do with the New Testament and the messages in it? Does their church culture nullify the efforts of God to reach out to human beings and help them sort out their lives? By no means! God would still be telling the truth even if every single Christian were a compulsive liar. (So tell the truth.) It is written,

“That you may be justified by your words,
and win the case when you are accused of anything.”

But if our missteps, lack of integrity and strength of character serve to showcase the excellence of God, what shall we say? That God is unfair to get frustrated with how flawed and messed up we are? (I speak simple-mindedly, as if God were merely a human being.) By no means! For if God had to simply accept dishonesty, exploitation and weakness and treat them exactly the same as he treated honesty and excellence, how then could he assess and heal the world? He would have to “tolerate” it and leave it messed up. 

But if even against the backdrop of my two-faced, mean-spirited insincerity God's truth rings out and makes it clear who he really is, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? Aren’t I doing good by making God look better than me? And shouldn’t we all occasionally do shady things to try to make the world a fairer place?  Well, some people correctly notice us doing that and have a problem with it. Their criticism is fair. 

What then? Are we Christians doing any better than anyone else in the world today? Than the Muslims, atheists and Sikhs? No, we aren’t. Not at all. For I have already made the point that all, both Christians and atheists, live daily lives characterized by weakness, corruption, jealousy, exploitation and darkness, as it is written about all of us human beings, right through the bible:

“None is excellent, no, not one; no one truly understands; no one looks for what God intended for human beings and for the planet.
All have wandered from the path; together they have become corrupt; no one truly lives decently, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive and manipulate one another.”

"The venom of rattlesnakes is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of ill-wishes and resentment.”

“Their hands are quick to backstab others; when they leave a room they leave misery and chaos behind them, and they have never understood the way of peace.”

“They do not value God as they go about their day.”

Now we know that whatever the bible says, its audience is those who value the bible.  And it works toward reaching the point where no one in the world will be left with anything further to say, and the whole thing will be held accountable to God and his standards for love, fairness, excellence and honesty. For by obeying rules in the bible no human being will ever be justified in God’s sight, since through the bible comes a deep knowledge of our flaws and the fact that we need Jesus, and not just some handy rules to follow.

But now the excellence of God has been shown entirely outside of the pages of the bible, although the bible talks about it too — the excellence of God is seen through what happens when any human being places hope, faith and trust in Jesus Christ and what he wants to do for all who accept him. We ourselves, as well as God the father, and his son Jesus Christ, all alike exist outside the pages of the very bible which speaks the truth about all of us. 

For there is no distinction: all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s standards, and are therefore only justified by his grace as a gift, through the rehabilitation that is in Christ Jesus, whom God sent out to pay for our recovery in the coin of his blood, so that we could receive this gift by faith. This sending of his son to die for us was to show God's excellence and fairness, because in his divine forgiveness and generosity he had passed over our flawed lives and how messed up we still are. It was to show God’s decency, to those of us living in 2016, so that he might be known to be just and the justifier of anyone who has faith in his son, Jesus, who came and died to excuse and salvage us.

Then what role do our careful Christian lifestyles play in being accepted by God? Simply put: they do not count at all. By what kind of life path are we reconciled to God? By a careful Christian lifestyle? No, but by a lifestyle of faith, reaching out after Jesus Christ, person to person. For we believe that one is justified by faith in the real person Jesus Christ, quite apart from all concerns as to rule-following and bible teaching. 

Or, is God the god of bible-believing churchgoers only? Is he not the god of the regular folks also?
Yes, he is the god of the regular folks also, since there is only one God for all of us— one God who will justify the Christians by faith, and everyone else through faith too, in exactly the same way.
Do we then throw out the bible because of this faith in Christ it presents to us as our only option? By no means! On the contrary, we elevate the bible by investing our heart in what it has to say.

(after having been "corrected" as to the thoughts in this piece, and accused of "over complicating" things and of showing off and spewing rhetoric, I have had to point out that I am simply paraphrasing the majority of Romans 2 and 3 and so they are accusing the Apostle Paul of these things, really.  His name is Paul, and this is between y'all.)