The Other Reason “Spotlight” Is Still Relevant Today

Every year my wife goes off on vacation, and I use the time to catch up on Oscar-winning movies from years past. This summer I saw maybe a half dozen, all of which were superbly made, one of which stood out: Spotlight.

In case you haven’t seen it, Spotlight chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It can be painful to watch, as we viewers get to relive the horror of the successive revelations—starting with a handful of priests and blossoming into a worldwide scandal.

Horribly, that scandal is with us even today, which makes Spotlight still relevant. But it’s still relevant for another reason too: its in-depth look at investigative journalism. The sources I’ve read (in The Atlantic and The Washington Post, to name two) attest to the movie’s accurate portrayal of the drudgery, doggedness, and gems of discovery that make for good investigative journalism.

If anything, that portrayal is more relevant in 2018 than in 2015, when the movie hit theaters. It carries two lessons that we desperately need to hear nowadays, long and loud and often.

First lesson: we need good journalism. None of us have the time, means, or energy to gather the full picture on all the news stories that impact our lives one way or another. That’s why we have journalists: to find those stories, explore them in depth, and report them to us.

In another era, this assertion would be dismissed as obvious. It’s not so obvious anymore, thanks to our post-truth culture, and that carries ramifications for all of us. Journalists must prioritize accuracy and thoroughness and fairness in their reporting (as, I think, the vast majority of them do now). Those who would pervert good journalism—the purveyors of deliberate misinformation masquerading as news—need to get their slimy fingerprints off the internet, NOW.

The rest of us get the second lesson: we must stop denigrating good journalists. If they are our source for the stories that impact our lives, and we have trained ourselves never to trust them—worse, to consider them the “enemy of the people”—who else do we have? The default, nowadays, is to revert to the sources who agree with our current beliefs. It’s as if we think, “All media are the enemy, except my media.”

Can anyone else see the absurdity of that?

Is there bias in the media? Sure. The media are comprised of humans—from corporate owners right down to reporters— and humans have biases. Should that prevent us from listening to them? Not at all. We can listen skeptically, pay attention to several sources from different perspectives, read international media as well as that in our own country, suss out who provides the greatest depth and balance. By doing so, we can get as close to a full, accurate picture of the issue as it’s possible to get.

This process is time-consuming. But it’s doable. It may also be essential for the health of our world.

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

Summertime, and the Livin’ Ain’t Easy

Every single summer I do this.

Most summers in my part of the world, the heat and humidity build up sometime in June and then just hang in the air until early September. Soon after the onset, I am journaling about my sense of lethargy, of drift, of wondering what I’m missing and where my life took a wrong turn.

I know I do this because I ran a search through my journal today, looking for summer and then humidity. You could almost cut and paste my complaints from 2007 into today’s entry. I am drop-dead consistent in my (relative) summer indolence.

If you’re a better person than I, you’re probably thinking, so what? Let it go. Summer was made for kicking back. You can’t be productive all the time.

You’d be right about that. In fact, it’s the punchline for this article. But I have a problem getting there, and so do we—especially we Americans.

I don’t have to tell you it’s become a 24/7 world. So many Americans, at least, run through their days at a frenzied pace. As a client of mine once admitted to me 30 years ago—in a relatively slower era—“I’m trying to stuff in as much as I can.”

Why do we do this? I can only speak for myself with any authority. Like many Americans, I’ve inhaled a culture that puts the highest priority on productivity at every step. Stay busy, the culture says, make every moment count.

And when I fall prey to that, I lose sight of some things.

I lose sight of the millions of Earth’s inhabitants who don’t live that way. They take siestas because it’s stiflingly hot at midday and working in stifling heat (when you don’t have to, and you’re not built for it) is stupid. They cherish work-life balance with an emphasis on life. If they can be OK with sluggishness and downtime, so can I.

I also lose sight of what I’ve learned from faith and spirit. My Christian tradition tells me that even God rested after creating the world. That’s not the sort of example you want to ignore. A key insight from the same faith tells me that whoever I am is good enough, owing to God’s extravagant and boundless love. My zazen practice has opened my eyes to an immense, impermanent cosmos that will continue to expand and change whatever I do.

Every year I get twitchy about my “indolence” during summer. Every year I have to remind myself that it’s OK—OK in the context of summer’s heat, OK in many parts of the world, OK with God. Do you have to do this too? If so, how do you get yourself to a place of OKness with it all?

The Second Step Toward Dialogue Is a Doozy

People ask me what my book is about. I tell them it’s about how to change from the inside out so you can talk with people who drive you nuts.

They say, “Boy, do I know someone who could use your book.”

That response always makes me laugh. So I’m reluctant to admit there’s a problem with it.

I’ve seen the problem repeatedly over the past two years—ever since the 2016 presidential election changed so much about the way we talk (or rather, don’t talk) and live with one another in the U.S.

Over and over again, on social media and at family gatherings and after church and who knows where else, I hear people bemoan the state of America’s public square. We are so polarized, they say. No one talks anymore. Everyone shouts at each other. The world is filled with outrage. If only we’d listen.

This recognition of our parlous state is, I think, the first wobbly step toward dialogue. You have to know there’s a problem before you can start to resolve it, right?

The dead end comes in the (usual) second step.

Right after no one talks anymore etc., many people follow up with some version of it’s the other side’s fault.

I heard it again at a gathering of relatives recently. One person, a brilliant and ardent conservative, noted the lack of dialogue and proceeded to lay the blame on the political left. At my (liberal) church, the talk shifts from “how bad it is” to bemoaning the right’s contribution.

By the way, these folks have a point. People at the ends of the political spectrum especially, left and right, are contributing to this climate. But while the faultfinding is correct, it’s not useful. It’s a second step that takes us nowhere.

These days I’m pondering a different second step—a step my book alludes to. It asks, how am I contributing to the problem? Or, even better: how can I change so that my contribution inspires harmony rather than hostility?

Let’s be honest. This second step is a doozy. It asks people to look inside themselves, and that’s not always a pleasant view. I know because I’ve done it.

I think a framework of faith and spirit can help here. At their best and fullest, many of our faith traditions encourage us to “examine ourselves” in an effort to become better versions of ourselves. Ideally the process is gentle—not about guilt and judgment, but rather about self-discovery, a flowering of one’s deepest self in a way that makes a difference in the world.

That can be a magnificent adventure. I know because I’ve done it.

If people could take this useful second step, it might change things. But how do you take it? And how can those of us who’ve gone down that road support others as they take that step?

Those are the questions that challenge me right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do You Have Trouble Forgiving?

So do I. Maybe it’s because of the toxic family script I inhaled as a child: “Backmans never forgive.” Or maybe, being hypersensitive in general, I’m hypersensitive to “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In other words, I get hurt and it sticks.

I do know that forgiveness is required of me as a Christian. One part of the Lord’s Prayer—“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”—implies that if we don’t forgive, it’ll cost us.

And yet getting to forgiveness seems well-nigh impossible.

All this came to mind when an article in Tricycle, a Buddhist journal, caught my eye. Author Gina Sharpe ruminates on the general landscape of forgiveness before describing three practices that can foster it. Here’s part of that landscape:

Forgiveness does not gloss over what has happened in a superficial way…. It’s not a misguided effort to suppress our pain or to ignore it. If you’ve suffered a great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief and outrage and sadness and loss and pain. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our hearts. It honors the grief and it honors the betrayal. And in its own time, it ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.

Sharpe’s forgiveness practice grows from the same ground:

As you do the following forgiveness practices, let yourself feel whatever small or large release there is in your heart. Or if there is no release, notice that too. And if you are not ready to forgive, that’s all right. Sometimes the process of forgiveness takes a lifetime, and that’s perfectly fine. You can unfold in your own time and in your own way….  Forgiveness is an attitude of welcoming and inviting and spaciousness rather than some emotion that we pump up in our bodies and minds and hearts.

I read all this and thought, This is something I can do. It acknowledges the sheer difficulty of forgiveness. It describes forgiveness as I’ve experienced it: time-consuming, slow, requiring attention and effort. Most of all, it gives me permission to take my time, to do only what I can, as long as my heart stays pointed in the general direction of forgiveness.

I offer this to you in case it helps with your own struggle. But I’m also noticing something else here. For all their emphasis on forgiveness and its importance, the Christian scriptures don’t really describe how to go about it. For me Sharpe’s article, with its Buddhist framework, is yet another example of how different faiths can feed off and illuminate each other when they’re allowed to play in the same sandbox. Have you experienced this too?

Dialogue and Dublin Billy

For a few days in June, Billy and I ate breakfast at the same café. It’s in the working-class neighborhood of Dublin where I was staying for the annual conference of the International Listening Association. I only knew Billy’s name because someone shouted a good-morning to him in the street, the way people do in that neighborhood.

Billy was very old and stooped and evidently near blind. He held his morning paper an inch from his face. We had only one interaction, and I won’t soon forget it.

That morning I wanted to catch up on some news, so after ordering my Irish breakfast (a carnivore’s delight) I looked through the papers on the front counter and picked up the Irish Times. From what I could tell, it’s a solid newspaper, with good in-depth reporting. I turned to go back to my table, which required me to walk past Billy.

He sort of growled at me.

I’m not sure whether it was his diction, his accent, or my hearing loss, but I could not make head nor tail of what he was saying. He said more and, while doing so, pushed his newspaper toward me. The proprietor gently informed me that he wanted me to take the paper, so I did.

It was the Irish Mirror.

The Irish Mirror is a tabloid, with stories often associated with tabloids. There was a news item on the Taoiseach (the head of Ireland’s government) on the front, and then page after page of celebrity news and local murders and what beaches to visit and a great sports section in the back.

This is the sort of paper I don’t pick up when I want to catch up on world news. Yet there was Billy with his hand outstretched, maybe trying to say, “You don’t want to be reading that liberal trash in the Times. Here. Here’s a good paper.”

I wasn’t about to refuse Billy’s offer, so I took his Mirror. And I couldn’t help grinning to myself as I walked back to my table, because Billy had retaught me an important lesson in dialogue.

Here’s the lesson: if I want to understand people who disagree with me, I have to read their newspapers. Or watch their TV news. Or check their internet sources. When I do, several things happen. I get a deeper glimpse into the way they think. Often I find that their opinions make sense within their own worldview.

And sometimes, I find that their opinions make sense to me—or at least I can imagine a “reasonable person” thinking the same things. All of a sudden my mind, and my heart, are just a little more open to them.

That openness of mind and heart, of course, is exactly what’s missing from our American public square. Imagine what might happen if millions of us had more of these Billy moments, or at least were open to them. How far could we go in healing the rifts and bridging the divides that are damaging our country so?

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.

 

* * *

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.