Monday, November 18, 2013

Dancing with Chaos and a Runaway Dog

I'm reading Living Originally by Robert Brumet. On November 13 I read a chapter entitled Dancing with Chaos. I had no idea how soon I would be putting that message into practice.

My son and his wife have two Rhodesian ridgebacks they love as children, and I was taking the dogs for a long walk. On our way back from Forsyth Park we passed the house of a friend whose lawn I had cleaned a few days before. I had lined the dozen or so lawn bags up against the house because the city only picked them up on Thursdays. It was now Wednesday afternoon, so I thought I would move the bags to the sidewalk for pickup. It would only take a few seconds, and I attached the dogs to a large garbage container that was already on the sidewalk.

Something happened that caused the dogs to move, and the garbage can tipped over. The dogs panicked and ran down the street dragging the garbage can behind them. It looked almost comical, like the runaway Amish buggies I remembered from my childhood. Suddenly the garbage can caught on something that brought it to a sudden halt. The larger dog, Khiri, snapped his chain leash in half like a twig and took off down the street. He turned around after 100 yards to look at me but, unresponsive to my cries for him to return, continued like a rocket in the other direction.

I took the second dog, Zara, with me as we tried to follow Khiri. He was now far out of sight. Numerous people looked at Zara and said that a dog just like her had run by a minute ago. One man told me he had turned the corner to the right and then added, "You do know where you're going, right?" It was a poorer black neighborhood and he was worried about my safety. I'd walked through that neighborhood many times with no concerns and, at any rate, had a bigger issue on my mind right now.

There was no sign of the dog and I had to return home to inform my son and daughter-in-law I had lost their dog. I felt like the uncle who drives over the kid in the driveway. We posted signs all over the neighborhood, contacted the police and animal control, and put notices on craigslist. Three days went by and nothing happened. A few people called to say a dog fitting that description was wandering through their neighborhoods in the evenings, and I spent hours pedaling up and down streets and alleyways on my bicycle. Friends also got involved with putting up posters and a bicycle brigade, but to no avail. Someone called us after midnight to say he had just seen a dog looking like the picture on the posters. We drove to the address he gave us, but there was no sign of Khiri.

I had already decided to post a blog about the experience, with the realization that no matter what the outcome was we would be OK. But I was still unprepared for the call that came Sunday morning. Khiri had entered someone's back yard and that person had closed the gate to fence him in. He then checked craigslist, saw our notice, and called us. My daughter-in-law, so stoic for three days, collapsed in tears when she heard the news. My son drove to pick Khiri up, who has been sleeping like a baby since he got home. Who knows what he went through during those three days. It is a story that ended well, even with the unexpected opportunity it gave me to dance with chaos.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Gentlemen of the Road Tour 2013

I recently had a great weekend with my daughter, son, and my son's wife at the final stop of the Gentlemen of the Road tour in St. Augustine, Florida. It was another reminder of how much I love live music, and why I need more of it in my life. Included among the many performers were Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, as well as the keynote act of Mumford & Sons.

During his show, Edward Sharpe passed the microphone to the audience and asked for comments. One girl shouted into the microphone, "Thank you for giving me a wonderful spiritual experience."

And it was the next night as we were streaming off the field after the final show by Mumford & Sons that it hit me. Actually it was a three-fold revelation. First was that every one of those thousands of young people - at 65 I was probably one of the oldest people there - had had a profound and authentic spiritual experience. As they sang "Awake my soul" with Marcus Mumford their minds were opened, their hearts uplifted, and their souls refreshed. They realized instinctively that they were united by the power of the music, connected not only with themselves and each other but with the entire universe.

My second realization was that very few of those young people would be sitting in church Sunday morning, and it wasn't just because of lack of sleep. Why should they be? Why should they listen to a traditional Christian message telling them they are sinful by nature, exiled from God and in need of salvation, doing battle every day with a devil who is trying to entice them off the straight and narrow path that will lead to paradise somewhere out in space? It is not a message that resonates with them because it doesn't fit in with their instinctive understanding of what they really are.

The third thing that occurred to me was the most amazing of all. God itself, that great Power of Love that permeates the universe, individually created each of those attendees so that God - call it the Great Spirit, Divine Mind, Supreme Being or whatever you will - could experience that concert through them. Since God is Spirit and not a personality with emotions, it does not have the capacity to feel or have experiences. When it realized eons ago that it wanted to know more than it could in its formless spiritual state, it came up with the master plan of the ages. It would design a universe that 14 billion years later would include a planet called earth to be populated by people with minds and emotions to experience all the things God longed for but was unable to such as adventure, risk, loss, laughter, sadness, anger, desire, and ecstasy. God would live within them so that it could experience everything it had dreamed about but could not actually feel all those untold trillions of years.

And it would all culminate on Saturday, September 14, 2013, with God tapping his feet, snapping his fingers, a broad smile across his ruddy face, dancing a jig with Jesus and the Holy Ghost as they joined in with thousands of their favorite people who were all singing along with the voice blaring out of the microphone,

"But it was not your fault but mine,
And it was your heart on the line,
I really fucked it up this time,
Didn't I my love?
Didn't I my love?"

Monday, August 26, 2013

Quantum Physics and the Death of a Marriage

Quantum physics includes the study of cause and effect in sub-atomic particles, things that are really small. It contrasts with Newtonian physics, which is the analysis of cause and effect in visible forces such as gravity.

Some people take Quantum physics to the level of energy and thought. They say that our sub-conscious thoughts and motivations produce results that come to fruition in our lives. Just as a screenwriter writes the script for a movie, they say, we write the script for our lives, which turn out exactly according to the script we wrote.

I know it sounds crazy, but I'm thinking about it. Is is possible that the failed marriage I described yesterday was the result of a script I wrote years ago? Could it have been a full-immersion movie written and directed by me with me as the main character, a movie that turned out exactly according to my plan?

I was in the ninth grade, sitting on the team bus for an away basketball game. The fact that I took the window seat tells you something about me. The person in the aisle seat chooses who climbs over them. The person in the window seat give anyone that choice.

A cheerleader, beautiful as cheerleaders always are, sat next to me and tried to engage me in conversation. I was painfully shy and answered in monysyllables if at all. As we got off the bus I heard another player mock her attempts to talk to me. "So, what's your name?" he mimmicked. "How are you today?"

The next Sunday I got on my bicycle and pedalled four miles to my "girlfriend's" house. Brenda was overweight and unattractive. We walked to the woods behind her house where she took off her bra and let me touch her breasts. I wanted the cheerleader, but only saw myself as worthy of Brenda.

Years later, I married the cheerleader. No, not that cheerleader but the beautiful woman I described in my last post. But did I really see myself as worthy of having a successful, joyful marriage with her, or did I only see myself as deserving Brendas?

I remember a conversation I had with my mother when I was still single, in which she asked what kind of woman I wanted to marry. My response was an angry, "I don't know." Why did I feel that anger to my mother's question? Was it because I didn't really feel worthy to be a husband?

Once when my wife told her father something unloving I had done he replied, "It wasn't because of who you are. He would have done that no matter who he was married to."

I was furious. Everybody knows that men stop being loving because they are not satisfied at home. They become unhappy when their wives stop being their girlfriends. Just ask Dr. Laura.

But now I'm not so sure. I didn't do that because of who my wife was. I did it because of who I was. And the screenplay that I wrote, the full-immersion movie in which my wife and I were the main characters, played out exactly as directed.

"Be gentle with yourself," friends are telling me. I'm not taking full responsibility for the failure of the marriage. I'm not even saying it would have worked had I been the perfect husband. But I do realize that the feelings of unworthiness I had so many years ago played a role in how things turned out.

The author of Busting Loose From the Money Game describes a Phase 1 and a Phase 2 of life. In Phase 1, he says, we limit ourselves in innumerable ways. For me, this included the belief that I was not worthy of having a wonderful marriage with an amazing woman. In Phase 2 we come to understand that we really do have great potential and are infinitely worthy.

Many people (I would even say the majority) live their entire lives without ever reaching Phase 2. For me it took 65 years. Most of the readers of this blog are much younger than that. I hope it doesn't take you as long as it did me.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Legal Separation

My wife and I are now separated. Maryland law requires a 12-month period of no cohabitation before divorces are granted, and I've left the DC area to move to Savannah. It's an interesting law - one night spent together, a single slip-up, and the 12 months commences all over again.

When I realized the divorce was probable (I would say inevitable but I don't like that word), I called Silent Unity at 1-800-669-7729 (816-969-2000 on Skype) and asked for a prayer. I was a first-time caller, but they have been answering millions of requests for over 120 years. I asked that we would be amicable and respectful to each other during the proceedings.

The woman who answered the phone prayed for that, but she prayed for much more. She prayed that there would be a fair distribution of financial assets. And she prayed that we would take a moment to remember what drew us together in the first place.

I began there. I remember the first time I saw my wife as if it were yesterday, blond curly hair cascading over her shoulders, bright eyes, her snug blue sweater. She was fun and intelligent. She was interested in international culture and foreign travel, as was I. How many people can say their first date was watching a French movie?

She wished that we could have spent the first few years just the two of us getting to know and enjoy each other. Instead she was pregnant within four months and we had four children in the next five years. We went from being lovers to full-time parents.

When we moved to a new city for my job, we began attending a church led by an emotionally and spiritually dysfunctional pastor (I recognize it now, I didn't then). He was misogynistic, although I didn't know what the word meant then. Each Sunday he would ask for a man to stand and lead the congregation in prayer.

I only realized decades later how much my wife was hurt by that experience. Why didn't we talk about it at the time? Did she try and I was unresponsive? Or was she afraid to try because she thought I would be? I don't know.

Couples often say their marriages "slowly drifted apart". Ours split apart at the seams and, like Humpty Dumpty, a plethora of ministers, counselors, and psychologists couldn't put it together again. But we were determined to stay married. I was a Pennsylvania Mennonite, and would have been the first person in my family to divorce. She was a Jersey girl, and she would have been the first person in her family not to. Each with their own reasons, we tried to make it last.

We put on a good enough show to convince most people, but some saw through the haze. "It's obvious that you and your wife aren't close," a friend said to me years ago. "You are like two people on life support," said another. "Both terrified to pull the plug."

Years turned into decades. There weren't many fights, not much shouting, just deadly silence. I can't remember the last time we laughed together. Didn't our friends notice that in social situations we never said a word to each other?

And just like people on life support, towards the end our bodies started shutting down. Communication went first, followed by conversation and shared goals and vision. The last to go was touch.

"Take a year to be alone," a friend told me recently when I told her my wife and I were no longer together. "Connect with yourself. Grieve the end of a relationship that lasted 33 years."

Good advice. And listen to Back 2 Good dozens of times, usually with the volume turned up loud.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

There's Nothing to Forgive

I recently had the experience of - well, in order to keep this from getting too personal let's make it theoretical.

Imagine you have a neighbour you've lived next to for over 20 years. The relationship isn't good. Over the years you've done things to tick him off, and he's done the same. You finally decide you are tired of the resentments and grudges you are holding, and it's time to forgive him.

So you sit down with a pencil and sheet of paper and write out a list. Twenty years ago he did this - I forgive him. Fifteen years ago I did that, and I forgive myself. Twelve years ago he did that; now I let it go. Last year he did this, but I forgive him. Just last month I did that, and I forgive myself.

You finish the list and wait for the feeling of euphoria that is supposed to come with forgiveness, but nothing happens. You think maybe you didn't do it right, and try again. Still the same result. It just somehow seems that all those things that happened over the years aren't such a big deal.

I was trying to figure this out when someone explained it to me in a way that made it all make sense. She said there are four steps to forgiveness.

Step 1 - forgive the other person
Step 2 - forgive yourself
Step 3 - be grateful for the entire experience

So far so good. But I was totally unprepared for the final step.

Step 4 - realize there is nothing to forgive, because you chose the experience.

You chose to move next to your neighbor those many years ago, and stay in that location. Over the years, stuff happened. From where he was emotionally, he did things to irritate you, things to which you responded. And you did things to annoy him, to which he reacted. Now it's time to just let it all go. But there's nothing to forgive.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Muhammad's Last Sermon

A reader recently emailed me with a question. His fiancee is Muslim, he said, so he's been learning as much about Islam as he can. When he asked her about violence associated with the life of Muhammad, she had never heard of it and read him the following quotation from Muhammad's last sermon:

"All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. White has no superiority over black, nor does a black have any superiority over white (none have superiority over another) except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim, and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves."

Before getting to Muhammad's last sermon, I'm sure the reader knows that according to Islamic law he will need to convert to Islam before he can marry his fiancee. That's not in itself a problem - raising your right hand and proclaiming I testify there is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God to win the love of your life doesn't make you a convinced Muslim anymore than saying I accept Jesus into my heart as my Personal Savior makes you a good Christian, but it does illustrate in my viewpoint a lack of equality. Muslim men can marry Christian girls with the stipulation that the children are raised Muslim, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men.

(By the way, has anyone ever asked Anthony Weiner whether he converted to Islam before marrying Huma Abedin? What's that nice Jewish boy doing there in the mosque with his right hand raised to the sky? Again I have no problem with that - a man has to do what a man has to do - but it would be interesting if the former congressman's weiner tweets weren't his only secret).

Back to Muhammad's final sermon. This Wikipedia page notes that the reference to equality between Arabs and non-Arabs and blacks and whites is first seen from sources writing in the 9th and 12th centuries CE, 200 and 500 years after Muhammad. It is impossible to know where these writers received this information, since it was not recorded by earlier historians. It also goes against both the Koran (which states that Arabs are the best of creation and non-believers are the worst of creation) and the earliest biography of Muhammad in which Abu Bakr traded a non-Muslim black slave in order to set free a Muslim slave who was not as dark in skin. It is impossible to know whether the quote about ethnic and racial equality is from Muhammad, or whether someone later made it up.

It's similar to the famous story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. When his father asked who cut down the tree, Georgie replied, "I did it Father. I cannot tell a lie."

It's a great story but it never happened. Later biographers introduced the story into their accounts of Washington's life to embellish his personality. I suspect the same happened with those who wrote biographies of Muhammad.

I did find this quote from Muhammad's final sermon quite interesting as quoted in Wikipedia:

O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah's trust and with his permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well, and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.

The above was a direct quotation from Muhammad's first biography as written by Ibn Ishaq - with a few notable exceptions. The original version reads as follows:

You have rights over your wives, and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their persons. You have taken them with the trust of God, and you have the enjoyment of their persons by the words of God.

Why would the Wikipedia article leave out the parts about beating your wives, and their being prisoners with no control of their persons? It's a rhetorical question of course - it is information the Muslim writers do not want you to have. At least my reader's fiancee will be fortunate enough to have a spouse who does not take her Prophet seriously when it comes to dealing with marital conflict. 

Abundance and Prosperity

My brother-in-law recently passed. In many ways Marty's life was different than mine. He was a master craftsman, and I can scarcely hammer a nail. I've traveled the world, and I don't know if Marty had a passport. He was a legendary Little League coach, and I've not been able to hold a favorite team (until Bryce Harper came along, that is). Marty drank more than I do, and in the end it was complications from liver failure that took him away.

Because my residence has a few more square feet than Marty's did, and my bank account might contain a few more dollars, and I'm still here and he is gone, one could conclude that my life has been more abundant or blessed or prosperous than his. If so, that person would be making a serious miscalculation.

Marty knew how to have fun. The night before his death, his family said he was laughing and joking and talking about baseball. I've never hung out at a bar with friends - one of his favorite pastimes - in my life. I spend most evenings watching Judge Judy and reading a book.

I arrived early at the church for the memorial service, and was sitting in one of the front pews when I noticed a woman in jeans and a spaghetti-strap blouse come up to slowly examine the montage of photos collected there. Her clothing made her stand out from the somber attire worn by most of the other mourners. After the service was over I walked outside and noticed her standing alone. I greeted her and said I was Marty's brother-in-law. She said she lived in the apartment next to his for the last six months. "We all used to go out partying and drinking almost every night," she said. "We had some wild crazy times."

I told her I was glad she had come to the service. "I had to," she replied. "I couldn't have stayed away."

If any of my kids are concerned that I too might be on the lookout for women wearing spaghetti-strap blouses to party hearty, have no fear. I wouldn't even know how to do it. At least not half as good as Marty. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Freedom and the Koran

My last post reminded me of another conversation during my visit to Tunisia. It was after the Arab Spring, when hopes of change were still sweeping the Middle East, and I was in a taxi driving past a large mosque. Pointing towards it, the driver said to me, "We all want freedom. Let those who want to pray go to the mosque, and let those who want to drink go to the bar."

"There's only one problem with that," I replied. "Muhammad said you can't go to the bar. As soon as people are drinking there, others will tell them that is not allowed."

As he thought about my comment I continued, "Freedom is the most important word in the world. But the Arabic word for freedom, al-huriyah, isn't mentioned in the Koran a single time."

I repeated this conversation the following day to a merchant in the Old Souk. "Of course Islam is not about freedom," he responded. "It is about al-faraid (obligations). Muslims are commanded to obey the orders of Allah. There is no freedom in Islam."

Leaving Islam by Reading the Koran

In Tunisia a few years ago I met a young man who told me that, although born into a Muslim family, he no longer believed in Islam. When I asked how this had happened, he replied it was through reading the Koran.

Intrigued, I asked for more details. He said that as he read the Koranic descriptions of Allah as al-hakim (the Wise One), al-'aleem (the All-Knowing One), ar-rahman and ar-rahim (the Compassionate and Merciful One), it occurred to him that this sounded a whole lot more like someone 1400 years ago attempting to describe God than it did God describing himself. Allowing himself to do something that 97% (my guess, not a statistic) of Muslims never dare to do, which is question the sources of Islam, eventually led him away from the religion.

Thinking about this afterwards I realized that many Christians, including the thousands who dedicate their lives to persuade Muslims to leave Islam for Christianity, would appreciate this young man's story. How many of them, however, have the courage to do the same thing he did? How many can read the early chapters of Genesis and conclude, "This sounds a whole lot more like some man looking up at the sky thousands of years ago and imagining how the universe came into existence than it does God dictating how he made the world."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Does Biblicism Really Honor the Bible?

Biblicist Christians (those who think the Bible is literally and historically true in everything it says) believe their position is the only one that truly honors the Bible. Is it possible, however, that they actually detract from the value of the text by turning it into a book of magic tricks with God as the master magician?

Here's an example, the familiar story of the Three Wise Men who came to worship Jesus. The gospel of Matthew records that a group of men in the east saw a star they identified as the star of the newborn king of the Jews. They were astrologers (astrology is condemned in the Old Testament, by the way) who believed that individuals had their own stars (not a Biblical teaching), and that destiny could be determined from these stars (again, not to be found in the Bible).

Even from the beginning, the story raises interesting questions. How many other stars had the astrologers seen that they identified as stars of newborn kings and gone to present gifts? Had they the previous year seen the star of a newborn Persian king and travelled to Persia to honor him? Had they ever seen the star of an infant king in India, and gone there to pay homage to him? Was this how they spent their summer vacations, or was the trip to Jerusalem unique? We'll never know.

At any rate, the astrologers knew that Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jews, so they came to Jerusalem to find and present gifts to this young king. Note that the Bible says nothing at all about their following the star to Jerusalem, as believed in Christian tradition. They simply saw a star in the sky, identified it as the star of the king of the Jews, and traveled to Jerusalem to honor him. It was only after the Roman ruler Herod sent them to Bethlehem that the star again appears in the Bible, guiding them to the very bed where Jesus was lying.

Imagine that you live in Apartment C, on 45 Oak Street in Philadelphia.  How could a star possibly guide anyone directly to your apartment from Washington DC? It was a miracle, Christians reply. God actually brought this star down from its home millions of light years away in the universe to make it hone in on Jesus' bedroom. It was the opposite of those giant lights you can see at the County Fair. Instead of shining into the night, this one beamed down from the sky.

To the uninitiated, it sounds more like a magic trick than a miracle. The Biblicist insists, however, that it really happened as another piece of divine evidence given to prove the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus.


A local evangelical church recently hosted a debate between two competing groups of Christian scientists on the subject of creation and evolution. The first group, called Reasons to Believe or RTB among its devotees, is a "progressive creationist ministry that promotes day-age forms of old Earth creationism". They believe that God specifically created various forms of life over a long period of time. God made the dinosaurs in a special act of creation, they say, and then much later God made the first couple Adam and Eve. In this way they try to reconcile the Biblical account of the book of Genesis with modern science.

The second group represents main-stream secular evolutionary theory with God thrown in at the beginning to start things off. They believe, as do non-religious secular scientists, that life evolved from a simple-cell organism billions of years ago. They accept the big-bang theory to describe the origin of the universe, but advocate intelligent design - things didn't just happen by chance, but God was there to get them going and guide them along.

The leader of the second group caught my attention when he said he believed in "the historicity of Adam", although not in the sense of RTB. In other words, he believes in a historical person named Adam with a wife named Eve, although he does not believe this couple was specially created by God as the first human couple on earth. The scientist then went on to give his "personal testimony", as it is known in evangelical churches. He was a hard-partying young scientist whose life was falling apart until he had his come-to-Jesus moment. The love and forgiveness of Jesus flooded his heart with joy and peace and changed his life forever, he said. The result was he was now both an evangelical Christian (hence the belief in Adam) and an evolutionary biologist.

It didn't make sense to me, and I raised my hand when the moderator called for questions. Addressing the born-again evolutionist I asked, "It seems to me that your scientific beliefs about evolution are no different than your secular coworkers at the university where you teach. But somewhere along the line you realized, "Oh crap, now I'm an evangelical Christian. I have to believe in a historical Adam who sinned to explain Jesus dying for the sins of mankind." At that point you threw all your scientific reasoning out the window and took a position based solely on faith."

The question brought chuckles from the audience, probably due to my use of the expression "Oh crap" in church (I was going to say something else, but thought better of it). The scientist replied that belief in a historical Adam had nothing to do with his initial conversion experience. It was the love of Jesus, he repeated, that attracted him and changed his life. It was only later that he came to believe in a historical Adam.

Other people had other questions and I couldn't follow up on mine, but it seemed to me that he both side-stepped my question and added fuel to my argument. The fact that he later decided to believe in Adam made it even more clear that it was a decision based not on scientific evidence but religious dogma. He was attracted to Jesus, and began to follow him. Later, as he came to understand the teachings of the church, he learned that Jesus died to pay the price for mankind's guilt. Since guilt for sin did not fit in his evolutionary training and worldview, he had to believe as an evangelical that at some point in mankind's evolutionary development he became guilty. He therefore chose to believe - based purely on faith and not on science - that there really was an Adam who once lived and sinned, and that somehow his sin affected everyone after him with the result that Jesus had to die.

I still don't understand how he can reconcile the two. Wouldn't it make more sense to see Adam and Eve not as a historical couple but as an allegory representing the close relationship people can have with God? Is it possible their leaving the garden of Eden was not a punishment from God, but their stepping out into the real world to face life with all its tragedy, beauty, and mystery? And could the serpent, rather than being a  historical Satan as interpreted thousands of years later, actually have been the friend who reminded them there was much more to knowing God than they already knew?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Was it God or Was it Fear?

Someone, I'll call him Exhibit A, recently attended a trade fair with his boss, Exhibit B. Their job was to manage the booth advertising the products of their company. Since it took two people to effectively run the table, they were inseparable all day long.

As proceedings were winding down, Exhibit A noticed a former co-worker, Exhibit C, walking across the hall towards the exit. Exhibit B blamed Exhibit C for a contract that had been lost when he still worked for their company, and the two men were not on speaking terms.

Exhibit A had not been involved in the original dispute and had nothing against Exhibit C. He wanted to walk up to him and say Hi, but immediately felt the discomfort of being on the horns of a dilemma. If he did so his boss would become angry with him, and Exhibit B's rage was both volatile and toxic.

And so Exhibit A did what any self-respecting religious person would do - and God knows I'm one of them. He sent up a Hail Mary Prayer to the Magic God in the Sky, asking for a miracle. Please God, he said, Give me a chance to say Hi to Exhibit C. And pretty please, don't let my boss know about it.

The answer came into his mind just a few seconds later. The bathroom! He excused himself, telling his boss he had to use the restroom. He crossed the hall but instead of entering the mens room ducked to the left, darted out the exit, and Voila! Exhibit C was just about to get into his car. Exhibit A ran up to him, they exchanged greetings, and Exhibit A got back to the booth without his boss having an inkling of what had just taken place.

Exhibit A told me the story as proof that God answers prayer. I don't want to take away from the mystery of the moment - maybe he is correct - but isn't it possible that something else was going on? Wouldn't it have been much more emotionally healthy for Exhibit A to simply excuse himself from the table for a minute and greet Exhibit C in the presence of his boss, no matter what his response? It might have been followed by some unpleasant moments and a long silent ride home. But it wouldn't have been the end of the world.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Ace a Polygraph

This began as an email to a friend, but I thought I'd expand it to include a larger audience. I think the steps are applicable to any potentially stressful situation, from interviewing for your first job at McDonalds to initiating a break-up in a relationship, or orally defending your PhD thesis.

Step 1 - Take four deep breaths, breathing in your nose and out through your mouth. Feel the air going into your nose, and out through your lips. Observe your chest expand as you inhale, and contract as you breath out. Notice the short space of time between each breath. Do this right now, before you read the next paragraph.

What were you thinking about as you were breathing? The answer is Nothing, because it is impossible to think about anything else while being aware of breathing. It's easy to think about things while breathing - we do it all day long - but you can't think about something else while you are conscious of your breathing. As you wake up on the morning of your polygraph, practice the above exercise.

Step 2 - From the moment you get out of bed until you leave the house, be aware of each thing that you do. Taste the toothpaste as you brush your teeth. Feel the brush running through your hair as you comb it. Feel your stockings against your legs as you put them on, and notice the touch of your shoes against your feet. Feel your feet against the stairs as you come down the steps, and really taste that first sip of  coffee as it crosses your lips. This awareness will keep your mind from doing what it desperately wants to do, run to fearful anxious thoughts. If your mind does take off in that direction, pull it back to the present.

Step 3 - Continue this focused awareness on your way to the test location. Notice the colors of the cars as they pass you. Feel your hands on the steering wheel. Follow the lyrics or melodies of the songs you are listening to. Stay in the present, remembering to pull your mind back if it lunges off to anxious thoughts about the upcoming test.

Step 4 - As you sit in the waiting room, affirm positive qualities to yourself one after the other. For me it would be the form of I am Christ and I am confidence, I am Christ and I am strength. For a more evangelical Christian it could be in the the prayer, The spirit of God is within me and I am wisdom. For a Buddhist it might be, I am the Buddha and I am success. For someone else it could be, I am connected with the universe and I am freedom. Or you don't need a preamble at all - you can just repeat, I am peaceful, I am strong. You can also eliminate negative emotions by repeating, I remove fear, I reject anxiety. I think you get the point. By the way, you can begin this step even earlier to replace Step 3 if you like.

Step 5 - When you are called into the examination room, repeat Step 1 (well, your breaths can be through your nose this time, but be aware of them). Greet the examiner politely, without trying to please or humor him or her (in my experience, they have always been male). If he asks if there is anything you want to share before the test, allow a few seconds for any thoughts to come into your mind and if they do express them to him (Hopefully it won't be, I killed my mother-in-law last week, or Three men in black suits followed me into this building and I think they are after me!).

Step 6 - At the end of the text the examiner will probably ask you to wait while he leaves the room. Again relax, be aware of your breathing or the beating of your heart, perhaps notice the surroundings in the room. Pull your mind back if it begins asking itself how you did, or whether your answers were correct.

Step 7 - If the examiner comes back and says he needs to ask you a few more questions, or some parts of the exam were inconclusive, don't panic! Just say OK, and be aware of your breathing as he begins his questions. If he tells you they need to repeat the examination at a future date, again don't worry. It will just give you the opportunity to practice all the above steps on the second day! And I am sure you will do fine.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I Love You

It was an epiphany, an Aha moment as Oprah might say. I was driving to a class where for a week we had been seriously studying twelve abilities that exist in every person, learning how to develop them in ourselves. As happens in many small classes, an intimacy and closeness had developed among the 15 or so students. These twelve abilities include things such as understanding, zeal, the capacity to organize, faith, and love.

It was love that caught my attention that morning. It's a universal emotion, practiced by people the world over. Love one another, the Bible says. Even love your enemies, Jesus added. But why is it so hard for us to tell people that we love them? Is it because the word has been so misused, has so many levels of meaning, can be so easily misunderstood, that we are afraid to use it? I've never told anyone I love them, with the exception of close family members. What would happen if I simply said to people whom I have learned to trust and who trust me, I love you?

After reaching the class I told the person sitting next to me what I'd been thinking about and then added, I love you. Her response was, Thank you. I love you too.

This is great! I thought. I turned to the person on the other side of me and said, I love you. Again the response was, Thank you. I love you too.

A few hours later the class was finished and the students were all saying good-bye to each other. As I shook the hand or embraced each one I repeated the same phrase.  I love you. The reply was always the same. Thank you. I love you too.

The thought came to me strong, like a river. You should tell the teacher that you love him. And I suddenly felt a strange resistance, a lack of comfort.

The teacher is gay. I'm a 65-year old straight guy. What was going to happen when I walked up to him and told him I loved him? And why was I suddenly feeling so uncomfortable?

I realized that his response no matter what was beyond my control, not my responsibility, but I needed to do what I was feeling an urge to do. I walked up to him, waited until he finished the text he was sending and looked up to me, and then said, Thank you. I love you.

I'm not always good at reading emotions on people's faces, but something came across his. He stood up and said to me, Is that worth a hug? And we exchanged a warm embrace.

At lunch a few minutes later, he came up and sat next to me at the picnic table where we were eating our sandwiches. With the other people sitting there, we had a good conversation.

Would he have felt as welcome to sit next to me at the table if I hadn't told him I loved him? I'm not sure, but I'm sure glad he did. 

Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Where does your mind go when it's not in the present? To the future, or the past?

Some friends recently discussed that question in a small group setting. Most people said their minds went to the future. I was the lone dissenter, saying that mine wanders to events or conversations of the recent past. Here's a recent example:

It's a few minutes after six when I roll out of bed, pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and go downstairs to make a cup of coffee. Jake is waiting for me, tail wagging expectantly. He knows it is his favorite time of the day.

Ready to go for a walk, Jake? I ask. He literally leaps in the air, all feet off the ground, in anticipation.

A few minutes later we are on the trail, ready for our four mile walk. I slow my pace, take a few deep breaths, and listen to the birds chirping. A few weeks ago I hadn't even realized the variety in the sound of a bird. Some have a high shrill tone, and others are melodious. Some have just a short single sound, repeated again and again, while others seem to carry out a melody. Some seem to sing only to themselves, while others are carrying on a conversation.

So what's this Unitarian church you visited? 

It's not Unitarian, I replied, it's called Unity.

Is it a denomination or what?


How is it different than other denominations?

Well, I think most denominations limit themselves to Jesus and the Bible. This church sees spirituality as having a wider range than that.

So they think that Buddha is just the same as Jesus?

I didn't say that. I just meant they might quote Buddha as well as Jesus. You don't hear Buddha mentioned in most churches.

That's not true.

Well, I've never heard a pastor mention him before, at least not positively.

So basically you are putting people like Eckhart Tolle on the same level as Jesus. 

No, I'm just saying that all truth is God's truth, no matter who says it. I mean, if Eckhart Tolle says two plus two equals four, and Jesus says two plus two equals four, they are both true.

So you don't believe Jesus is the only way to God? Do you believe he died for our sins and rose from the dead?

I'm not sure what I believe about Jesus right now. But I don't want to argue about it.

I'm not arguing. I just want to understand.

I wanted to say that if you really wanted to understand, you would read the books yourself, or visit the church, and then draw your own conclusions. But I knew that conversation wouldn't go anywhere, and I felt myself becoming frustrated. I didn't respond.


I take a few deep breaths, and notice the green surrounding me. I'd never realized there were so many shades of green in the woods. Each tree, each bush, each clump of grass, seems to be a different color. Some are a deep green, others light and glossy, and some seem almost translucent.

Not only that, there are so many shapes. Each tree, bush, and flower has leaves of different shapes.

A beautiful woman is jogging on the path towards me, shoulders back, head high, and chest out. We smile and nod as she passes.

There are so many stories of women who get attacked and raped as they are jogging in the woods. What should we do to someone who does that? Kill him? No, that seems a little extreme. Put him in jail for 20 years costing taxpayers millions of dollars? At least he won't be raping while he's in jail, but who knows what he'll do as soon as he gets out. Maybe we should castrate rapists. No, that's probably not a good idea. There are sociopathic and vindictive women out there. It's easy to imagine an angry woman accusing a former boyfriend of rape just to see his balls cut off. 


Jake stops, totally focused on the deer standing less than 20 feet away. They glare at each other. Jake lifts his front paw. The deer lifts his right foot, stamps it on the ground, and does the same with his left. 

The beautiful jogger passes again, this time on her way back. Looks like your dog and that deer are having a real staredown, she says.

I give a tug on Jake's leash, and we continue down the path. A minute later, I hear a rustling and turn around. The deer is following us. She and Jake repeat their same routine, with the deer stamping her feet, and I again pull at his leash. A minute later I turn around, to see the deer still following us. She and Jake seem to be infatuated with each other.

Do you know what Obama did today?

I replied that I didn't, knowing I was going to hear it now. A 60-minute commute on the Beltway listening to Fox News complain about the President is enough to put anyone in a combative mood. I wonder how to say that I actually like and respect him and his administration, and don't appreciate hearing an unending stream of negativity about him.  But I don't say anything. I just listen, trying to pretend I'm interested.


I notice the chaos of the woods. Dead trees and branches are lying everywhere in the midst of beautiful live trees and bushes. Sprouts are pushing their way upward from the ground. Birds that were alive yesterday are now dead, with Jake rustling in the bushes for their bones. The cycle continues of birth and death, chaos and beauty.

I think of the phone call I received from my daughter yesterday. One of her friends was married last August. This weekend her husband of only a few months was hit and killed while riding his bicycle.

What do you say in a situation like that? How do you try to explain that the universe - or God or whatever you call it - just pushes us into the world and then takes us back again? Some people get to live 90 good years. Others are taken at the beginning of a new, joyous life.

Jake's tongue is hanging out now - it's been almost two hours on the trail - so we stop at our favorite watering hole and he drinks from the fresh flowing stream. We come back to the house. He collapses on his bed, and I make a fresh fruit breakfast smoothie. 

Judge Not

I was recently at the funeral of a relative. It's a family where an ancient incident has resulted in a complete estrangement between two sets of siblings. Neither side has spoken to the other for years.

I was never party to the conflict, and after the memorial service greeted one of the excommunicated brothers who had come with his girlfriend. I thought it was courageous and generous of him to attend a service where his own siblings completely ignored his presence.

As we were talking I looked over at my daughter, hoping she would join us. To my surprise, she didn't even glance in our direction.

I was heartbroken. I expected more of her. I couldn't believe she had been so influenced by the hostility and hatred in the family she wouldn't even come over for a greeting. But I took a deep breath, and chose to accept the reality of the situation. I won't judge her, I thought. This is where she is right now, and that's OK.

Easier said than done. As we were leaving the church a few minutes later I blurted out, "Honey, couldn't you even say hello to your uncle?"

Her response was immediate. "But I did, Daddy," she said. "You just didn't see me. I went over to him, gave him a big hug and told him I loved him." The relief I felt was palpable.

We discussed the incident the following morning. When I told her I had made the decision not to judge her, her response was again immediate but higher-pitched this time. "NOT JUDGE ME?! Daddy, the first thing you said was, 'Couldn't you even say hello to your uncle?'"

Judge not, lest ye be judged. I think Jesus said that. And as I learned that evening, it's easier said than done.