What’s the State of YOUR Nation?

How are you feeling about the country you live in?

Last week, in North America, we had two celebrations of nationhood in four days: Canada Day on July 1 and the U.S. Independence Day on July 4. That got me thinking about a custom followed by all U.S. presidents in one form or another: an annual State of the Union report. Each January, the president comes before the U.S. Congress and declares that “the state of the union is…,” then details an agenda for the coming year. Almost always, the president declares that “the state of the union is strong.”

But why should the president be the only one to assess the nation? Wouldn’t it be good for us to pause, reflect, and assess our own feelings about where we live?

So let’s do it—Choose Your Own Adventure® style.

Here’s what I mean. I have my own thoughts about the nation where I live (the U.S.) and I’ll share them below. If you want to read my thoughts, scroll down. If you’d rather skip them and speak out, go ahead. Pause. Reflect. Then try out these questions: What’s the state of your nation—the one you live in, or your country of origin? What moves you? What distresses you? Use the Comments link below, or email me privately, or join my Facebook feed.

 

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If you decided to read my thoughts, here you go:

The state of my union, today, is ambivalent. Deeply ambivalent.

On the plus side, I’ll start with me and baseball. Every baseball game in America begins with the national anthem. Everyone who attends is asked to stand in respect and remove their caps. When I’m at the ballpark, I take an extra step that many others also take: I put my hand over my heart.

I do this in remembrance of the attributes that, to me, truly make America great.

They include the vast expanses of wilderness and open space and fields and unutterable beauty in so many corners of the U.S.

They include the can-do spirit exhibited in abundance by Americans when we are being our best selves. The spirit that has led to so much innovation and productivity and moving humanity forward.

They include the dedication to liberty that is our nation’s bedrock. When humans are free to pursue their own dreams and visions—more than that, when they are free to embark on the journey to become their best selves—so much good can happen.

And yet…on the minus side, America today is so far from its best self.

One could say it’s always been far from its best self, because of the oppression baked into our DNA: the racism, sexism, marginalization of anyone who is different.

But I think we’re further away than in most times. For one thing, I see outrage and overt hatred in abundance. There is a white-hot intensity in our public square that makes it treacherous to navigate. We respond to tweets and posts in social media at our peril, particularly if our own opinion is even slightly different from that of the original poster.

This makes us less free—ironic, considering our supposed dedication to liberty. When we are not free to act or speak out or explore, the path to our best selves is blocked. Many people, weary of the battle, simply decide it’s no longer worth the effort to speak up or listen or keep abreast of the news. We lose their hearts, minds, and voices, and we are the poorer for it.

That’s just what we’re doing to ourselves—let alone what our leaders and institutions have done to fray our social fabric with policies that demean the humanness of individuals and actions that foster cynicism.

That’s why I’m ambivalent, here, now, in this particular nation. What about you? And if you’re ambivalent, have you found a way forward, a way that works for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.

Walking in the Spirit, Not the Letter

The teaching is merely a vehicle to describe the truth. Don’t mistake it for the truth itself. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.    –Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I am wild about the works of James Joyce. I’ve read Ulysses four times. I got halfway through Finnegans Wake. If that doesn’t qualify me as a fan, I don’t know what does.

You may have heard that Ulysses—all 783 pages of it in my edition—takes place in a single day in Dublin. The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, walks the city’s streets from about 8:00 in the morning to maybe 2:00 the next morning, and the pages of Ulysses are stuffed with what happens around him and within his mind. Besides the dozens of colorful characters and the often baffling prose, Ulysses is (from where I sit, anyway) a paean to the everydayness of being human, warts and all.

For many years, devotees have traveled to Dublin to walk Bloom’s circuitous path and mark the events of that day. Having to attend a convention there recently, I departed with my head full of doing the same. I would visit the pubs he visited, track the funeral procession in which he took part, etc. It would be, without question, the climax of my trip.

I never really did it.

Instead, I couldn’t stop making my own wanderings. The walk between City Centre and my room at a Ringsend guesthouse was filled with charms and eccentricities: the serenity of the Grand Canal, the grin of Mattress Mick on his store’s sign, the stone bridges, the Padraig Pearse pub (named for a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence), the hardscrabble apartments that lined the way, the stone church that fronted the cobblestone street—one block long with two barber shops—where I slept each night.

Yes, I visited (and thoroughly enjoyed) the James Joyce Centre. I did pop in on a couple of pubs mentioned in Ulysses. But most of the rest never happened.

Was I missing out?

At first I thought I was. But then it occurred to me: I wasn’t walking where Bloom walked, I was walking as Bloom walked. I was wandering and wondering through the streets of Dublin. Different streets, same kind of wander. The spirit of Ulysses but not the letter.

It got me thinking about the journey of faith.

Amid its rollicking bawdiness, exhilarating final soliloquy, and profound depth, Ulysses has become a kind of sacred text for me—not in the sense of telling me about God, but in the sense of (like the Bible) helping me grasp what it means to be human. My walks taught me that the book, though brilliant, is a touchstone. I use its wisdom to find my own path.

This, to me, is the way the spiritual life works. We read the texts, we draw out the wisdom contained therein (helped by the Spirit behind all things), and we let it guide us as we find our own way. We live our own lives, not the lives that came before.

Perhaps that’s why many sacred texts are so bewildering. The Bible is rife with cross-currents, many of which clash with one another. The Tao Te Ching and Sayings of the Desert Sages are often cryptic though unutterably deep. Mystics speak in image and metaphor. A Buddhist text cautions against excessive attachment to anything in life—including one’s conception of the Buddha himself—by saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”

Perhaps these texts shock and baffle to point the way—sort of—and then let us find our specific path. Maybe by treading this way, we learn to hold the texts and ourselves lightly. We look where the finger directs us, and walk toward the moon.

 

Why Didn’t God Make Us More Significant?

Last year I turned 60. That’s two-thirds of the way through my natural lifespan, if my genetics are any indication. The milestone led me to an insight that likely hits most people at some point:

When all is said and done, my contribution to the world will be tiny. Very, very tiny.

That’s true for all of us, or nearly so, when we look at ourselves through the vast arc of human history and the ever-expanding universe. A select few have altered the course of humanity: Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the wheel. Even our most brilliant scientists—Einstein and Newton, for instance—have revealed to us what has always been true.

Please note that I said tiny. Not zero. I’ve come to believe that every last one of us, from prophets and monarchs to the destitute to the unborn, have some kind of effect. Most of the time we never know what effect we’ve had; half the time we don’t even know we’ve had an effect. And yet even the random smile at the right moment may accomplish more than we can imagine.

For me, St. Monica is the role model of this. Her main achievement in life was to pray for and shadow her wayward son. She took this humble mission and made a life out of it. We might never have heard of Monica were it not for the writings of that son: Augustine, one of Christendom’s greatest theologians.

This does leave us with a question, though. Assuming the existence of a God who created the world and all that is in it—including human beings—why didn’t God make everyone like Augustine? Why isn’t everyone significant? Can you imagine how much more progress we would have made by now as a species?

Several answers come to mind. You can take the atheist’s approach and say this is one more bit of evidence against the existence of God. You can wonder whether God did this to instill humility in the very fabric of our existence. Given how essential humility is to our survival—it fosters cooperation, empathy, love, and other good things—this argument may have legs.

But what haunts me is another explanation altogether: God is just not that into efficiency.

This strikes me as liberating. If God is not efficient, we don’t have to be efficient either, not with the general course of our lives. We do not have to climb a ladder to achievement or success. In fact, maybe nothing much “of substance” has to happen at all. What we are called to—as I’ve been learning, oh so slowly, for years now—is not results, but faithfulness; not the achieving, but the doing.

This gives us the freedom to screw up, to explore, to follow God where we hear God leading, to not worry whether it’s “going anywhere” or “moving forward.” It aligns us with the larger reality of our tininess: because our impact will be small, our boldness in taking initiative can be great. We don’t have to hesitate at a big change or decision as though the course of history depends on it—because it probably doesn’t.

Yes, there are things we must attend to: matters of justice and mercy and the everyday stuff of getting through another day. This too is part of our tiny place in the universe. If we can embrace that tiny place, we’re looking at a life that is far more joyful.

We’re the Product of Many Forces, but We Are Not Helpless

For the months of March and April, I’d been in an odd place spiritually—not traumatic, just unsettling. Sorting through it took some serious work: a number of journal entries, an intense session with my spiritual director, an intriguing metaphor or two, a great deal of turning over the situation in my head.

Also for the months of March and April, winter kept threatening to stay through summer.

Two weeks ago we had our first warm, sunny day. Poof. Odd place gone. Euphoria washed in. I was happy as a clam. It was just seasonal affective disorder. All that inner work and mental energy wasted.

Or was it? Not quite. The reality was more complicated—and more beautiful—than that.

For one thing, the sparkling sunshine reminded me of a humbling truth about us humans. Our lives take place in a context, consisting of myriad systems that affect us profoundly and are beyond our control. The weather impacts our moods and lives. So do our genes, the state of our health, our birth order, the places we’ve lived, the political/media climate, etc., etc., etc.

Buddhism has a fascinating way to think about this, summed up in the phrase causes and conditions. The way Buddhism sees it, there’s no such thing as a permanent self, or a permanent anything: we are just the product of the ever-changing causes and conditions that shaped us and continue to shape us.  

So…did your parents suffer from depression? That could account for your dark view of life. Are you an only child? That may impact the whole way you deal with self and others. Do you live in Indonesia? You’re almost guaranteed to see the world differently than if you’d spent your life in Sweden.

I find this oddly comforting. It fosters humility: a clear-eyed view of who we are in a very large and complicated universe. It tells me that I can’t take myself too seriously, that I must embrace what is true about me.

Perhaps that sounds fatalistic. But it’s not.

Even if winter-in-April did factor heavily into my malaise, I can still learn from it. All that journaling and spiritual direction and reflection is practically a requirement for contemplatives anyway. Paying attention to the work of the Divine Spirit in our lives is what we do.

And we don’t do it just for ourselves. What we learn inwardly can equip us to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s part of how spiritual direction operates: the profession calls us to spend time on our own inner work, so we can more deeply hear the inner work of our directees.

Buddhism also notes that we can affect the causes and conditions, as well as the other way round. No wonder one of the “eights” in the Noble Eightfold Path is right action (inspired in part by right mindfulness, which is closely connected with contemplation).

A whole complex of causes impacts us. But we can reflect on what happens in that complex. And because of that reflection, we can act more clearly, more decisively, more effectively for the good of the world.

Discomfort with Easter

I have never liked Easter.

Deep down I’ve known this for years but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. After all, Easter is when we Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead and all it implies: new hope of a new life, God’s victory over death and evil. We sing hymns with words like exult and joy and especially alleluia. What’s not to like?

I never had a good answer to that question. For decades I went through the motions, hoping for some real joy to emerge. I attended church on Easter and sang like everyone else. I meditated on the resurrection to glean what meaning I could. Nothing really took hold.

This past Sunday, while driving to church, the reason for my discomfort with Easter suddenly hit me:

It’s all too tidy.

Total victory for the forces of good. The devil loses, God wins. The details are still playing out centuries later, but a joyous ending is assured.

I’ve seen movies with endings like this, and they make me crazy, because life doesn’t work that way.

From everything I’ve seen, life is messy. Good people do stupid things, sometimes with catastrophic results. Nasty people do heroic things out of the blue. We strive to get along with co-workers and neighbors and relatives who stir up ambivalence in our hearts. We compromise in so many places to get through our days. The most tragic events of our lives can bear fruit in our souls—but they’re tragic nonetheless.

The Easter story is not like this. So I don’t trust it.

But here’s the rub: I am devoted to a faith that declares the resurrection to be true—one of the foundational truths of the whole tradition. If I want to align with my home faith tradition, and I do, I can’t just toss the story out. I have to stare it in the face, to hold the tension between the centuries-old truth and my decades-old discomfort—not trying to resolve it, but seeing what emerges, even letting the story change me.

I have no idea how this will come out, or how long it will take. In the meantime, I’m riveted by the resurrection story in the gospel of Mark (16:1-8)—the original text, without the satisfying ending glommed on. Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in this passage. We simply read of a young man in a tomb telling three women that Jesus has risen from the dead. And how did they react? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Fear. Amazement. Questions, undoubtedly. That’s one hot stew of emotions. Like my own.

The solidarity I feel with these women and their reactions gives me a shard of hope. Maybe my response to Easter is not abnormal or abhorrent, but simply human. That’s what the Christian story does so well: it reminds us of our humanity in all its lovely tangled mess—including the joy that, every now and then, rises to the surface.

Downsides of the News Blackout

Two months ago I wrote about my latest idea for a news blackout. (It’s more of a dark-brownout, really.) So how’s it going?

Well, my blood pressure’s probably down. My anxiety level certainly is. I’m more focused on what I’ve been called to do: prayer, writing, spiritual direction, the occasional money-making project. There’s also an emotional buffer in place: I can scan the news these days with more resilience than I could in the past.

Lately, though, I’m seeing some downsides. For one, I catch myself thinking things like “Seems like the president has calmed down in the past few months.” Or “Congo is in trouble again? Who knew?”

Of course, it’s not that the president has become more stable, or that the Congolese conflict popped out of nowhere. It’s just that I haven’t read about them.

Even more distressing: On two compelling, heart-tugging stories of the past month or so—the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package bombs in and around Austin, Texas—I barely noticed until several days into the crisis.

That does not sit well with me. These are teens we’re talking about. I have friends in Austin.

Beyond not sitting well, this newfound obliviousness presents a larger quandary. My faith tradition calls me to stay engaged with the world, to care about the lives of all people, especially the most vulnerable. (I’d put high school students and Congo’s poverty-stricken masses squarely in that category.) If there’s one theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that’s almost impossible to ignore, it’s God’s passion for the poor and at-risk.

And yet…and yet…there’s the lower blood pressure. The easing of anxiety. The healthier state of mind, which not only benefits me personally but equips me to engage with others more deeply.

So it looks like neither extreme—near-total news blackout, near-total news immersion—will work for me. But I’m wondering where the middle ground might be, and whether it’s too delicate a balance for any human to hit with precision. If I let a little more news in my life, it’s almost automatic to let in a little more, and then even more. Before I know it, I’ve reopened myself to the toxic maelstrom that our public life has become.

I’ll probably continue to tweak my current approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore the longing that maybe we all have: for a less intrusive world, a less chaotic world, less toxin in the news stream.

What about you? How are you managing the news these days?

What Would Happen If You Dropped Everything?

What if you were asked to drop everything and go in a different direction?

It’s amazing how often this crops up in ancient stories. To wit:

  • The Hebrew prophet Jonah preaches destruction to the Assyrian city of Nineveh; the inhabitants drop what they’re doing and repent of their wickedness.
  • Jesus calls a couple of fishermen to follow him; they drop their nets and go where he goes.
  • Wealthy Indian merchants encountered the Buddha, heard his wisdom, and instantly joined the Sangha (the community of his followers).
  • A young Jewish man named Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus—until a heavenly vision inspires him to drop everything and become a follower of Jesus.

What gives here? It’s hard to make sense of these stories when seen through the lens of 21st-century America. Even if we sensed a need to switch directions, most of us would consider it carefully, weigh options, draw up pro-and-con lists, consult family and friends, pray or meditate on it, and draw a conclusion. That’s a pretty mature way to do it. So why all the drop everything bit?

I have no idea what these stories say about decision-making techniques specifically. I do, though, hear a larger message that the immediacy of the stories dramatizes: this thing—whatever you’re dropping everything for—is more important than anything you’re doing, so stop NOW and pay attention.

To put it another way: every now and then, something—or, I would say, someone—breaks into the routine of our daily lives, no matter how good and virtuous those lives are, and commands us to listen, reflect, rethink. On occasion it changes our lives, whether immediately or (more often) over years.

If that sounds scary, well, it is. The good news: we always have the option to say no. The better news: there’s one great reason to say yes—one thing that turns the uncertainty of it all into adventure, and the worry into joy.

That one thing is the essence of the One we’re dealing with here: God, the Universe, Emptiness, whatever term you use.

In short, we’re dealing with Love itself, or the Reason to love. So wherever we go, whatever path we follow, we follow Love. Wherever Love leads us, it may be bumpy, it may be challenging, it may terrify us, but it will be good—for ourselves and whatever corner of the world we influence. No wonder the Bible’s First Letter of John tells us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Many people have done this sort of thing, more than you’d think. It’s what moves a New York financial executive to become a monk, or a successful copywriter to write more fruitful things for much less pay (no one I know, I assure you ; ), or a young gourmand to follow Jesus into the wildest wastelands of the Algerian desert. Sometimes it’s not even as outwardly dramatic as this: the new direction might look “normal” but represents a profound shift for the one who’s called to it.

Has this sort of thing happened to you? How did you respond? What difference has it made in your life?

Finally, an invitation. I’m starting to collect stories of people like this for a book project. If you’d like to share yours—or if you know someone whose story might fit—feel free to get in touch.

Dialing Down the News Intake to Sane Levels

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because, well, they sort of made me, bubbling to the surface early in the morning of January 1. And they quickly coalesced into a catchy slogan:

More zazen. Less input.

Zazen is a form of Zen meditation in which you sit and focus on the breath. We can talk about that some other time. Today it’s the less input that occupies me, because it drew my attention to an aspect of media that drives people crazy—and, possibly, a simple way to manage it.

I like news. Typically, my wife and I would wake up to NPR, check headlines during the day, and settle down in the evening to our daily dose of BBC World News America and The PBS NewsHour. In between we’d read our excellent local newspaper and a newsmagazine or two.

Last year it all became too much. The daily drama. The endless coverage of the daily drama. The extraordinary depth of punditry over a presidential tweet.

For someone who’s hypersensitive to mental overload, this was like a tidal wave. So when less input came to mind as a resolution, it pushed me to consider ways to reduce the input. And I realized something about today’s news reporting:

There’s a lot of repetition.

Take the current Russia investigation. In a hypothetical week, media outlet X might kick off Monday by reporting what happened over the weekend. On Tuesday, you hear analysis of the latest developments from a U.S. senator. Wednesday brings three historians drawing on the lessons of past investigations. On Thursday someone from the White House leaks a small detail relating to recent developments, and reporters interview other reporters to find out what it means. To wrap up the week, the president tweets about the investigation, and the analysis machine goes into overdrive.

Does your head hurt yet?

Very little of this is bad in itself. Each bit of reporting can be invaluable to someone, sometime. But no one needs all of it.  

So I’m trying a different way to consume news—to stay aware and save my sanity—by eliminating the repetition.

In this new regime, we’ll focus on a concise weekly summation of the world’s news from The Economist. If something calls us to dig deeper, there’ll probably be an article on it in that week’s issue. Or a segment on the NewsHour. We can lightly scan the headlines, educate ourselves on local news, and screen out the rest.

These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I’m sure we’ll vary it once in a while. And obviously, I don’t know if this approach will work. But it’s simple to try. What do you think?

The Day God Became Not Special

Dear Reader: this post is about Christmas, and it may strike a chord with you especially if you struggle with Christmas. Or if you’re struggling in general. It’s dark at first, but if you know dark like I do, that won’t faze you. The second half gets brighter.

This past year, I’ve been led repeatedly to one big lesson.  I didn’t think of it in terms of Christmas till this morning.

The big lesson is, weirdly enough, summed up in the words of a bumper sticker: Always remember that you are wonderfully unique…just like everybody else. It’s the everybody else part that’s captivated my soul this year. Despite all my delusions to the contrary, I keep coming back to the truth that I am not special. I am just like everybody else.

Two-thirds of the way through my natural life span, it seems likely that I will live out my years like everybody else—breathing, sleeping, eating (preferably at diners), working, taking up space, trying to make my one-person’s contribution to the world. When I die, I will almost certainly fall into the category described by the writer of Ecclesiasticus:

 There are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.

In other words, not special.

Now here’s the breathtaking part. The Christmas part.

Christians believe that in an average backwater on a contentious fringe of the Roman Empire—in a stable, no less—God became a human being.

In other words, God became not special.

Think about that. We’re talking the Source of all that is, the Ultimate Reality, the One who is special in a way no other being can possibly claim. Becoming not special.

That’s pretty amazing all by itself, but there’s more. Having become not special, God knows what it’s like to feel one’s not-specialness in one’s deepest self. So we can peer into our own not-specialness and sense that God is with us in it.

It is hard to express how much we need this withness.

You see, our not-specialness can lead us to despair. We’re born, we live, we’re average, we die. Ultimately, we do a lot of this alone. What’s the point, especially when life is so difficult?

The Christian tradition has answers for that—good answers—but they’re not part of our story today. The story today is that God responds to the question, to our temptation toward despair, with withness. With a connection, a communion that is closer to us than our own breath.

No one wants to be lonely. We all want to be with. This is being with at the core of our being. Being with the Source of all that is. The answer, in so many ways, to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We could hardly ask for more.

Joyous Christmas, everyone.

 

 

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.