Rough and Rowdy Ways

I love music. It can be so beautiful and so powerful. I particularly love songs that capture pieces of my soul, that reflect my thoughts or emotions or that give voice to what I have heretofore found to be inexpressible.

At one point in my life, I have been religiously Christian – a true believer, performing the outward ordinances and keeping the observances that kept me “in the fold” of the religious community of which I was a part. I am no longer part of that religious fold, having undertaken a journey marked by three wayposts.

The first was the day that I decided guilt was a worthless emotion and to which I would no longer pay any attention. Before then, I had always felt guilty – even before I was religious. I always fell short of someone else’s standard, be it my father’s or my religion’s. I simply became tired of feeling guilty, always worried that what I was doing, or even what I was, was not good enough or what it “should” be. Why spend my entire life ashamed that I am not something that I simply am not? Why, indeed, would God create me the way I am, and then spend every resource trying to convince me to be something else?

The second was the day I learned that the opposite of love is not hate; it is shame. The problem when you feel ashamed of being different from a social construct is that it is very difficult to question the social construct. Ingrained in a young child is the law that a child must conform to his surroundings and not the other way around. How is it that as this child grows that he would question this most fundamental of laws? However, I finally began to accept that my problem of being ashamed wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. It was the authority figures that had surrounded me – first, my father and later, my religion. I physically left my father when I could and emotionally broke free somewhere along the way (normal boyish yearning for what can never be aside).

As to my religion, and despite the use of terms such as “authority” and “leader”, I realized that such people were neither. They neither had “authority” over me; nor did they “lead” me, unless I chose to follow, unless I gave them control. Putting aside uniquely religious doctrines and observances, fealty to which is required to be embraced in the religion and which in my mind have little real import, what authority is required to love God, to love your neighbor or to care for the widows and orphans? If this is true religion, what place does authority take, other than the position that it wrests for itself? A sad discussion for another day.

Having broken the spell of being a “subject” to this “authority”, I realized that if something makes me feel ashamed, I can correct that problem, not by “repenting” and better conforming myself to the thing that makes me feel ashamed, but by jettisoning the thing that makes me feel ashamed. Reject that which evokes shame and embrace that which kindles love! I am what I am. If God made me, and I am this way, who am I to be ashamed of it? I used to think that life was about “growth” and “development” in the sense of changing “bad” things about me and becoming “better”. Now, I think that’s largely bullshit – life is about discovery and acceptance. What others term “growth” is what I think occurs when you discover who you are and you learn to accept it. This is not a cop-out to excuse “bad” or hurtful behavior, either – my point is simply that love is much more powerful and motivating than shame. In particular, when someone uses shame to try to control or force change, examining their self-interested motivations becomes much more important than when “constructive criticism” is motivated by love. In the latter you can trust, in the former you can’t.

The third was some years later as I was running on the treadmill in my company’s gym and a familiar song played over my ipod. The song is “Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart. The opening lines are these:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Acceptance requires humility since all of us eventually find out that what we are includes things of which we are not proud – tempers, jealousies, desires, fears, weaknesses. For whatever reason, this day these lines cleaved my shell and sank deep into my soul. I felt peace, and I felt prepared to stand before God, exposed, without shame, simply asking “Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” I no longer felt any desire to mask these parts of me, to pretend that they didn’t exist or that they weren’t so bad or that I could overcome them by just choosing to act differently. Always acting, ever acting, forever – well, no more.

Few songs have the ability to capture so much of what I am in so few words and with such an exquisite arrangement combining music and song and silence and wonderful pacing changes and hauntingly beautiful exclamations:

Down in the valley with
Whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go
These are the places I will always go
I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started
Oh-oh…

This journey, as chagrined as I am that it has taken me so long to come so short a distance, has brought me to me. Or to paraphrase T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know [ourselves] for the first time.

God

When it comes to religious matters, I have been alternately atheist, agnostic, religious, spiritual and now, again, agnostic. I will likely alternate between spiritual and agnostic for the rest of my life, but it is very unlikely that I will adopt religiosity again.

I have had powerful spiritual experiences, three of which I would like to relate. In the first, I was having unprotected sex with my wife and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that I shouldn’t be doing it. At the time I didn’t know why it “should” be so. Afterwards, we found out that my wife became pregnant from that liaison and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that our child would die. At first, I didn’t say anything to my wife about it. Eventually, we both admitted to each other that we had had very similar feelings at similar times. Weird, right? We had the child and he almost died, but there came a point, after saying a prayer in the hospital, that I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that he would be okay, and he was and is okay many years later. Amazing, right?

The second story is less dramatic: I was interviewing for a new job and I felt really great about it. My wife felt really great about it. But I didn’t get an offer. I know what you’re thinking: cool story, bro.

The third story mirrors the second, except that I knew I would get the job and I had sort of known for years that I would work at this place (a place I drove by often and always somehow knew I’d work there someday). I did get the job.

The interesting thing about these stories that I’ve been pondering for some time now is how these stories reflect confirmation bias. All of these experiences (and other similar experiences) included a “feeling” about a turning point that would eventually be resolved factually. Two of these experiences resolved in ways that I “knew” they would. The other resolved incongruently with my prior feelings on the matter.

In short, these spiritual experiences, though the substance of them was factually resolved, were such that they were open to interpretation as to meaning, and the meaning was supplied by me both during the experience and also afterwards, subject of course to revisionist history. In each case, at the time, I was more religious and more spiritual than I am now, so in each case, I interpreted my feelings at the time as promptings from God. But what to do about my feelings about that job that I didn’t get? Like a rock in my mind’s shoe, it triggered my natural defense mechanisms against cognitive dissonance and…presto!…I rationalized away the discrepancy. After all, who has known the mind of God?

But this has always been unsatisfactory to me. What if my defense against cognitive dissonance had cut the wrong way? How is it that a guiding principle of my life should rest on an assumption? If I assume God exists and guides me or if I assume that religious authority is correct, confirmation bias tells me that I’ll find the evidence I need, or interpret what evidence I have in such a manner as, to support my a priori assumption. This…this just isn’t me.

I have always been more like Job: “Surely I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.” (King James version of Job 13:3; other versions translate as “argue my case with God.”) And I would expect God to respond to me as to Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together…” (King James version of Isaiah 1:18, other versions translate as “let’s settle this” or “let us discuss this”.) In other words, rather than starting with the assumption of a perfect God and finding supporting evidence or explaining away deviations as due to my human limitations, I’d rather start with something I know: I know that I am experiencing via my physical senses, my reasoning capacity, and my emotions, and maybe it is my conception of God that needs to change to fit what I experience.

Certainly my experiencing is fallible, but why would I choose to question that which I know notwithstanding its limitations, as opposed to that which I do not and cannot know, but which I assume to be limitless? In either case, why would I denigrate that which I am, particularly if God made me this way? If God wishes me to understand, wouldn’t he show me in a way I can understand? Imagine God, walking around the busy streets of Manhattan, allowing himself to be totally visible, but only in wavelengths of light other than visible light and ranting (inaudibly to us), “Why the fuck won’t you idiots acknowledge me?” It’s a ridiculous concept. Why is it any less ridiculous to waive away serious questions by reference to the “mysteries of God.”

Mysteries, my ass. Listen God, if something’s that important, you should just tell me. If you can’t, it must not be important. I can’t believe in a god that is as provincial and petty as many religions, or at least religious adherents and authorities, make you out to be.

Discovery

It’s amazing how people compromise,
Not just about what to eat or what to watch or what to do,
But about themselves.

They do what other people want them to do,
What other people think they should do,
What other people manipulate them to do,
Worried about what other people will think,
Whether that be
Assholes
Advertisers
Authorities or
Acquaintances.

Learning your authentic self
Seems like it should be some easy thing.

But it’s not.
When you do find your authentic self,
You’ll notice that it speaks
Continuously,
Quietly.
Some religions call this a still, small voice.
Some the Holy Spirit.
Some a conscience.
Some a chi.
Whatever it is, when you listen to it,
It frees you.
It is the ultimate truth that will set you free
From the walls of your own prison
Made for you by you.
It frees you from attachments that never should have been made.
It frees you to love, genuinely and unconditionally, for the first time.

I used to think that love was the great healer.
That if only other people would love me unconditionally
I would be healed.
Some people do love me unconditionally
In their own ways.
And as it turns out,
It’s not enough.
It’s never enough.
I thought it their duty to love,
To accept,
To embrace.
And I came to expect it,
To need it,
To demand it.
But it wasn’t enough.
It just made me greedier for it.
More, always more,
And better, do it better.
My own version of a needy, greedy childish asshole.

I thought it would fill the hole left by my mother
Who loved me unconditionally, surely,
But whose love wasn’t enough to save me from my father.
He wasn’t terrible
But, oh, he was damaging.
Like an ignorant giant fool
Stumbling and stomping his way through a village
Crushing tiny souls and tiny dreams.
How those dreams oozed
And squished,
Splattered into oblivion.
“What? That bothers you? Don’t be such a pussy.”

But you can only chase love for so long
Before you begin to realize that it retreats
From your relentless advance.
It is a thing to be given and not taken after all.
Continuing to chase becomes
Tiring
Disheartening
Desperate
Irrational
Smothering.
I become my own ignorant bumbling fool
Crushing the souls of those
Pouring themselves into the black hole of my soul –
The taskmaster overseeing a Sisyphean demand.

Even catching unconditional love won’t heal you.
Won’t revive those broken souls and those broken dreams.
Even though it is a mother’s duty to unconditionally love her son
It is not sufficient
For happiness
For healing
For being whole.

That comes from within.
From a laughing joyous acceptance of yourself
Even when you want to hide from yourself with shame by
Eating too much
Drinking too much
Drugging too much
Working too much
Fucking too much
Gaming too much
Watching too much
Escaping too much.
Shunning the escape
Abandoning the chase
Permits those scary moments
When you meet your authentic self,
When you chat about
What it is that you really want and need
And the responsibility for your happiness
Shifts from all those others
To you.
To a very lonely, fearful you.
Embracing your authentic self
Frees you from others’ demands
And frees you from being demanding of others.
It brings you peace and love
Internally, where it is needed most
And permits you to radiate peace and love.

Your authentic self is beautiful
And worthy.
You don’t need another’s validation of these facts
By their love and acceptance of you.
It wouldn’t be enough.
It’s never enough.
Until the love and acceptance comes from you.

I am not a Good Person

I recently read this piece on The New York Review of Books website about poet W.H. Auden. I’ve never read any of Auden’s work, nor had I even heard of him prior to reading this piece, upon which I came in quite a roundabout fashion.

Although the entire piece is recommended, I wanted to focus on one passage that highlights some of Auden’s thoughts on the nature of evil.

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

My wife often says to me, “you’re a good person,” or “you’re a good father.” My response is usually troubling for her: “No. I’m okay, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a good person.” I don’t know that I’ve ever really been able to clearly articulate to her why I feel the way that I do – why I feel that I am probably okay, but that I would hesitate to pat myself on the back and think of myself as “good”.

But this piece and this passage excellently express why I feel the way that I do. I’m not a “good person” who can divide the world into good people and bad people. I’m just a person who generally makes good decisions, but I can have (and have had) terrible thoughts and emotions and urges, and I occasionally make bad, or even hurtful, decisions. Labeling me as “good” implies that I have achieved a certain status via my past actions or decisions and that, once in that box, I have “made it.” I have arrived.  I.  AM.  GOOD.  [echoing].

That’s just not the case. And it’s not the case with others, either. If you ever watch a movie, particularly children’s movies, you may be struck that the “bad guy” always announces himself as such, or it is somehow otherwise easy to spot the villain. This is not how it is in real life, and it is surprising to me to see adults, particularly the talking heads on TV and in positions of power, assume the same simplistic view of good and evil.

Real evil, if there is such a thing, doesn’t announce it itself. It is something of which we are all very capable. It is probably something that we would attempt to justify or clothe in gentler robes. The reason real evil becomes hard to spot or that it can be justified is because there are truly very few things, if any, that are “pure evil.” Even taking a human life, typically the most taboo or “evil” action that a person can take, can be labeled either good or evil depending on the identities of the victim and the perpetrator, the context and even the audience. 

Pope Francis, part deux

“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; if you aren’t a conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”  – Some Guy

Some Guy is a guy I work with who said this to me once. I’ve thought a lot about it, trying to understand what he meant by it. It’s clearly not a statement of fact. It’s not really an opinion, either – it’s more than that. I finally settled on the idea that it’s a statement of values.

I don’t know whether he would view it this way, but my interpretation is that the words “liberal” and “conservative” do not necessarily mean in the political sense that they are used these days in the United States. In this instance, “liberal” is more about social change; and “conservative” is more about social stasis.

Viewed through this lens, the statement is one about how young people, with little at stake, are more open to seeing the harshness of the costs of the existing economic and political system and, in particular, the harshness borne by certain groups disproportionately. Whether by compassion, thirst for wealth or power, or some other motive, young liberals are also more open to changing the status quo, which inevitably means a shifting of wealth and power from those who have it to those who do not. In this context, it is obvious why the older generations, with a lifetime of accumulated investment in the existing system, would rationally resist change and the resulting shift of wealth and power.

I suppose this tension is natural, and I don’t propose any fix for it. As I wrote above, I think the statement is ultimately a statement of Some Guy’s values. Maybe at one time he smoked pot, walked around naked at Woodstock and spoke of free love, but he now loves his couch on wheels of a Lexus and his fat 401(k).  Maybe he feels guilty; maybe he feels like he got the best of both worlds; who knows?  Anyway, to the Pope!

Pope Francis, it would seem, would disagree with Some Guy, with his call for a more equal distribution of goods to the world’s poor. In an earlier post I made the claim that my only problem with his statements was his faulty understanding of what a “free” market is. Well, I was wrong.

The more I thought about it, the greater the dissonance it suggested to my mind. Pope Francis, it would seem, calls for those with wealth and power to give some of it up for the good of all. That is all fine and good, and he can believe whatever he wants.

But my question now is this: is the Catholic church included in that? He moved out of the fancy papal digs to live in a hotel, he drives a beat-up Peugeot or whatever, and he’s been lauded for doing other such humble-ish things.

But I’m not buying what he’s selling.  Imagine the vast wealth of the Catholic church – the church properties, the church residences, the cars, the furnishings, the jewelry, cash on hand and who knows what else. Has he done anything with them? Has he taken any of the savings that he’s generated personally (savings only in the sense of not spending so much money as his predecessors) and given it to the poor?

What would really impress me is if the Pope followed the instruction to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” Matthew 19:21, King James Version. I assume that is entirely in the Pope’s control, but is that what he suggests? Is he leading by example?

Or…or is it that he, the head of one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations on Earth over the last 2000 years, has only called on all the other wealthy people and powers to give up some of theirs? Is it offensive of me to suggest such a thing? I don’t think so; after all, 2000 years gives you plenty of time to rack up a few skeletons in the closet – selling of indulgences led to Martin Luther’s revolution; what will priestly pedophilia and its cover up lead to?

So, if Pope Francis really cares for the plight of the poor and really believes that redistribution of existing wealth is the cure, I call on Pope Francis to put the church’s money where his mouth is, lead by example, and fulfill scripture to boot.

On dealing with assholes

One day a long time ago after reading a talk I had given that was dripping with hopeful optimism, my father remarked to me something along the lines of “You’re still young and growing.  It sounds like you’re still trying to find your way.  You’ll eventually realize that life will make you colder and harder.”  He was right.  Sort of.

Sometimes in our sanitized, modern Western life, we lose connection with just how dangerous and uncertain life is.  Infant mortality rates are an easy proxy to use for perspective.  Historical estimates are 200 deaths per 1000 in a good year and over 500 deaths per 1000 in years of severe drought, famine, disease or war.  By comparison, in 2006 in the U.S., the infant mortality rate was 6.7 per 1000 (right in between Slovakia and Chile).

While our harsh environment has been somewhat tamed and we have, as a result, become more “civilized” (but compare what happens when the power goes out for an extended period, and we are perhaps not so civilized after all…), we still struggle for our existence. We fight for survival or promotion in our workplaces; we fight for the best terms in our agreements; we fight for mates; we sometimes even fight for toys for our kids for Christmas, even trampling others to death to do so.  This modern manner of survival can seem just as cold and hard emotionally as a subsistence existence can be physically.

But it does not automatically follow that it makes each person cold and hard in turn.  Depending on the coldness and hardness of one’s circumstances and one’s predilections, one certainly could become colder and harder in general.  But another way to respond is to remain warm and open in general, while growing in that wisdom that permits us to navigate rocky shoals without getting bashed against the rocks. Coldness and hardness can be situationally appropriate without condemning one’s soul to a boorish existence.

I find my greatest happiness in relationships – with my wife, my children and my closest friends. These relationships all require my genuine warmth and openness and would be impossible if I were to allow myself to grow colder and harder.  At the same time, I have spent enough time in the rough and tumble world of big cities, big money and big egos that I can detect an asshole by the faintest whiff.  Sometimes you have to deal with assholes, so you do.

You first try reason, and dealing with a reasonable asshole can be bearable if not downright pleasant.  Most assholes at least have the vision to understand that not every situation calls for the same tactic, so if they see that a party cannot be bullied and insists on reasonableness as the standard, they will meet you there. Some will push the boundaries at every turn, while others have the brains to size you up and adjust accordingly to avoid wasting energy on someone who cannot be bullied.  Do not be mistaken – they will take every inch you give, and they will push for the next inch. This is particularly important if your asshole is a repeat customer. Your first interaction will likely determine the pattern for the rest of them, and a poor first performance will consign you to misery for the rest of that relationship.

Sometimes, however, the successful assholes think their asshole-ness is the sole cause of their success, so reason will not work – they just make demands as of a right and are belligerent until they get their way or get as much as they can.  At that point, you just have to strap yourself in for a shitty ride, grit the process out and wait for the day that the asshole exits your life stage left. Sometimes you’ll win; sometimes you’ll lose, but in either case, your life will NOT be the better for it. Such is the price of dealing with unreasonable assholes.

Fortunately, unreasonable assholes are few and far between, and it pays great dividends to try to marginalize them as best you can. If your livelihood or success depends on an unreasonable asshole, my advice is to GET OUT.  Get out as fast as you can. It’s just not worth it; there is always another bus. Life is too short, and if you choose to hitch your cart to an unreasonable horse’s ass…well, you’ll get what’s coming to you – a cartload of horseshit.