Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Going to Pet the Rabbits

NOTE: This is about me and my discovery of something about myself. It is not intended to be an attack on anyone or their faith. If you read this and choose to be offended, I'm not going to take responsibility for your choice.

I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years.

It was a memorial service for the little daughter of a friend - a girl who had a degenerative condition which was expected to take her by age two. She made it almost to seven.

I can't imagine the kind of strength it must take to care for someone with a condition like that. I've known a number of people who have carried that burden, including my friend Karen, who didn't develop her condition until she was in her twenties; her mother had to watch her decline from a healthy young woman until she passed away last February. When I think about it all, it hurts; and I'm weak, so I don't often think about it. But my friends who are in that situation don't have the luxury of simply turning away and going back to a life like mine - they need to be strong and face it every minute... and they need to draw that strength from somewhere.

So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor.

Being a memorial service, it was all about the family's comfort. The songs they used happened to be mostly familiar to me, because I grew up with them; "Amazing Grace" and "It Is Well With My Soul" were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
by Horatio Spafford

That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.

But I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about Heaven.

And I started to feel angry and creeped out. Because listening to him speak, and toss out all of those Great Truths that pastors must keep in their repertoire, I bristled at the undercurrent of what he was saying.

It wasn't just that he kept referring to God and Heaven as if they are real things - like I said, I grew up with that stuff, and came to terms with it long ago. I think of it as the poetic license that grief and comfort require of religion. It was something else. Two things, actually.

First, I felt like this service was being used against me. My very presence was being co-opted by this man to accuse me - not personally, but as part of the group. He took the liberty of declaring that "we are all here to affirm what we know to be true - that there is a God and He is in control" - things that I don't know to be true, and do not affirm. This was a lie, and what's more, his body language and use of repetition and verbal sleight of hand showed me that he knew it was a lie.

This pastor didn't know me or what I believe. His descriptions of Heaven, and his logic for "proving" its existence, while being tolerable in the context of comforting the family, were cheapened by his assertions. His repetition of that idea, and his flowery and alluring descriptions of the things that the little girl would now be doing in Heaven - that all rang even more hollow.

It reminded me of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" - the pastor was George, spinning the fantastic story of a promised ranch full of puppies and bunnies, and I felt like Lenny. If you take a moment to review the plot summary, I'm sure you'll understand why I say I felt creeped out.

As for the second thing, the thing that made me angry, well that's more complicated... and it has more to do with my "atheist conversion experience."

Remember, I already expressed immense respect for the strength required of people who have to deal with something as painful as what my friend has dealt with. Raising ANY child is a challenge and a non-stop roller-coaster of fear, risk, and heartbreak - interspersed with just enough joy to make it worthwhile. But for these parents, that joy can be bitter and elusive - and even a victory can be tragic.

To do what they do - to survive and thrive as my friend has done - is a pure triumph. We cheapen these things in our culture with our perpetual tabloid stories and Lifetime or Hallmark "disease of the week" movies - but these are quiet, epic heroes who are doing the impossible. I don't blame any of them for leaning on something that I don't believe in. In the past I've made the mistake of referring to their faith as "a crutch," but it really isn't that. A better analogy would be to compare it to weight training or long-distance running; rather than a prop to support them, it is conditioning for facing reality in the long term instead of the short, escapist bursts the rest of us can get away with.

Look again at the first verse of "It Is Well With My Soul" and tell me which is easier - to look objectively at yourself from the middle of your pain and simply "decide" to accept it, or to tell yourself something comforting and poetic that helps you move past it? Most healthy and otherwise happy people I know can't face the prospect of a vast, cold, empty Universe that doesn't care about them; how do you expect people under tremendous pressure to cope without giving that Universe a name (God) and convincing themselves that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is hope and love and joy in it?

There is - but it's hard to see unless you work at it.

So, no - I don't balk at all when people need to draw strength from these ideas, and I don't think it would be helpful or kind to "correct" them when they tell me (and affirm to themselves) that it came from Jesus or God - or the Magic Feather they clutch in their trunk. The truth is that wherever they think they're getting that strength, it's coming from within themselves - and being humans, it is an amazingly deep well. (Doctor Who says so all the time!) So why am I angry at the pastor for playing into this helpful world of hopeful poetry?

My own break with Faith came when I realized what a logical cheat God was. Well, not God, but those speaking on His behalf. (Poetic construct that I believe Him to be, none of my anger is really ever directed at "Him" anyway.) Those pastors love to tell us that everything good comes from Him, and is solely to His credit. Without Him, we are not capable of anything at all. And what about all of our failures and sins etc.? That's all on us. Me, specifically. Or you.

(Today, I heard the pastor lay blame for the tornados and flooding going on in the Midwest on our wicked ways. Very comforting, indeed.)

The important idea here is, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try - or even if you don't try at all - God gets all the credit for your "goodness" and you get credit for the bad stuff... right down to horrific weather phenomena. It's a logical trap designed to prey on those who need to tell themselves that there is a source of strength outside themselves. To defy the pastor is to put the source of their strength at risk; to question his logic is to risk their faith in themselves. So the pastor tells them their own strength is an unreliable and dangerous flaw, and that they should trust in God - and someday, we'll have a ranch where we can pet the rabbits. Just like Lenny.

As I grew up, and realized that maintaining my faith meant I was expected to surrender to this double whammy of self-denial, I balked. Obviously, I assumed at first that it was just my sinful pride talking, right? Except... I came to understand that the source of my "slackerdom" stemmed from distancing of responsibility from myself, and placing it in this God who seemed not to take care of my homework or my auto maintenance and bills without a heck of a lot of assistance from me.

But I don't mean to trivialize this concept. I watch people suffer through these awful things in life all the time. They call on their God all the time, and sometimes, when they stop crying and dig down deep, they find something inside themselves that gets them through. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting go - of becoming the water, if you will - and they can cope. Then they thank God for it.

You can believe that is God, if you want to, and if it helps you get through whatever you're facing, who am I to rip that away from you? But it still bothers me because denying our successes and only claiming our failures robs us of something vital. It denies that we have that strength in the first place, and by taking away that faith in ourselves, we are weakened.

So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about God, and about her strength, and I realized that I, as a non-believer could see something in her that no Believer really sees. They pay lip service to her, but then steal her credit and attribute it to God - a construct meant to put a happy face on a cold, brutal Universe.

And while they were doing that to her, I realized that as a non-believer, I can see what is really divine.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Don't Understand It, So You Must Be Wrong

I have three anecdotal threads to tug on today. The concept isn't necessarily limited to the discussion of "Global Warming" or "Climate Change" (or whatever we're supposed to call it), but 2/3 of the anecdotes came from that discussion:

1. By coincidence, I was involved in two unrelated conversations at work where the person I was speaking with dismissed the idea of global, man-made climate change/warming (whatever poorly marketed descriptive term you wish to use) in this manner:
I just don't think we should make policy and harm our economy based on bad science. I mean "the hockey stick"? Come on!

2. I was driving my 8-year-old somewhere, and she began telling me what she learned in class about the environment:
When you drive, the gas from your car goes into the ocean and pollutes the moisture; then the moisture from the ocean pollutes the water we drink. And that's like drinking gas.

3. Then this morning I enjoyed this XKCD comic:

These three ideas caused a glimmer of Truth to flicker in my admittedly thick cranium - that glimmer being that despite having the science horribly wrong, the 3rd Grader was basically correct: driving cars does cause environmental damage. She's dead wrong on the mechanisms at work, the chemistry, and even the vocabulary ("pollutes the moisture"?); and she's got no idea what the relative impacts of auto emissions on the hydrological cycle might really be. But car exhaust does have an effect on the planet - and some rough guesses (based on data available at indicate that there are about 62 million cars which might be operated on any given day. So, her basic premise is essentially true.

Of course, what will the 3rd Grader learn if you try to correct her science? (See the last panel of the cartoon again.)

But this is the nature of the "debate" I see going on regarding the impacts that mankind has on our complex systems of atmosphere, water, and biodiversity. Those of us who aren't scientists have to have this stuff explained to us - I don't do the research, I don't have a degree, and I have an admittedly imperfect understanding of what I am told. And when I try to talk about it - especially when I try to figure out what information CAN be trusted in this discussion - I feel like the 3rd Grader being challenged by the skeptical student from the cartoon.

In other words, the more I read and try to figure out "ground truth" in the whole Global Warming discussion, the more I see people dismissing the real science offered by the "professor" because of the poor understanding the other students have of the issue. And that gives me an uncomfortableness.

It seems to me that if everyone who claimed to be interested in a rational approach took a rational approach, we could quickly establish what the "facts" are: that there are a LOT of people on the planet, and that their various activities have a complex, but calculable impact on said planet; that the sum of these activities *might* be causing problems that could put us in danger; and that there might be some choices we could make that would mitigate these dangers. Most scientists agree with the first fact. Even the scientists I have seen cited as "global warming skeptics" don't question that mankind is causing rising temperatures; and then there are the doubters who actually DO their own research and convince themselves in the process.

There are plenty of folks in the general public who will refuse to concede any ground because they see this as a political issue; but the "wacky liberals" are in the company of rational conservatives on this one, and even the solution that our politically motivated deniers attack most aggressively was first implemented by one of their own. I have found that these facts won't protect you from the scorn of those who insist there is no consensus, and that by buying into the idea that humans are damaging their own habitat you are falling victim to the money-making machinations of a vast, environmentalist cabal.

(One has to wonder how the non-profit environmentalists intend to make all of this money, but if one can ignore the multi-billion dollar oil industry's interest in promoting this conspiracy theory, then I suppose one can just as easily find that motive. I think it goes deeper than just the oil companies, though.)

I don't expect anyone to take my word for any of this. The discussion is all Out There - and I'm just a poor 3rd Grader trying to make sense of it. I can recommend a guide to the talking points. I can offer my opinions, and my poor approximations and explanations. But in the end, not understanding the real costs and the real damage that we are doing will most likely cost more than any steps we might try to take to avoid them.

I just hope our skeptical students will give their professors the opportunity to explain it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lb4Lb#8: The Unauthorized Biography of Tadmaster

Well, I thought about the Army,
Dad said, "Son, you're fucking high..."
More than 10 years ago, I was a U.S. servicemember stationed in England. I stood a rotation of 12-hour shifts, and had a house full of small children and a pregnant wife. Our unit was remotely deployed, so we frequently had to drive 2 hours to get to our home base - where we had our medical appointments, Air Force admin stuff, shopping for U.S. foods (that we could afford), and what not. Life consisted of long, boring stretches interspersed with ennui and tension, depending on the whims of our leaders.

But we had friends, and we tried to keep each others' spirits up. One of them gave me a pirated cassette tape of a new album he had been digging. He knew I liked Ben Folds Five, and I was happy to give this new album a listen, even with the long, odd title: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

I should warn you,
I go to sleep.
That first line in that first song spoke volumes. God, I knew exactly what this guy was singing about - feeling disengaged from everyone and dropping out, while at the same time feeling turmoil and passion within that you couldn't get out - because it made you shut down.

I remember trips down to base where I put this increasingly battered cassette into the player, and sang at the top of my lungs, tears spurting out of my eyes, fist pounding the left hand piano part on the dashboard. "I know it seems that I don't care/But something in me does, I swear!" That catharsis kept me awake - and probably alive, since Narcoleptic adventures on the roads of England are not conducive to survival.

No, I don't believe in God,
So I can't be saved.
Each track revealed a different piece of my own back story. I was still new to being a father and husband, and being a selfish college prick was still fresh in my mind. The wreckage of relationships, the bemusement of dealing with drama that others felt and I didn't, or the simple honest truths about myself that I was learning to come to terms with - like my skeptical non-theism - had now found a soundtrack.

Everyone knows that music can do this; it's not unusual to find songs that capture some vital thing about you and help you remember it or relive it. But it's rare that you find a whole album that does it. This is music that helps you understand and embrace the things about yourself that you were avoiding. The things that you would be embarrassed to admit were causing you pain, because that sounds like something one of those self-absorbed hipsters would say.

And no one wants to be seen as a self-absorbed hipster, right?

If you're afraid they might discover
Your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past
They'll never send you home
Your Redneck Past
Everyone has something they think they need to hide. Isn't it wonderful to find that the best way to keep it all hidden is to put it out there where everyone can see it?
These songs were never about me, of course. They aren't necessarily about Ben Folds, either, but they are revealing. The appeal for me has always been the way he is so open, honest and deep in his writing. But at the same time, these songs were funny and self-deprecating. You don't write about what a fool you think you are unless you've accepted that about yourself, and learned to enjoy it.

And that's where this album took me. Through the agony and the irony, it gave me something to relate to, and then held up a mirror so I could laugh at the Mess I was in, and appreciate the good things I had.

And how we just made fun
Of those who had the guts to try and fail
At the end of the day, I realized I was trying. I wasn't doing a great job of avoiding failure, but I was trying. You can always do better - that's the point. You will always have failures, big and small.

And for me, having a biography in song helps get through all of that. That's why I've bought this album several times - making up for that pirated copy that sits in a box in my basement, now.

Sweet dreams, Reinhold Messner, whoever you are!

Just the three of us took flight that night
Uncle Richard, me and James Earl Jones

And the pilot he gave me a blanket
And the tall dark man sang to me in deep
Rich tones...

Goodnight, goodnight sweet baby
The world has more for you
Than it seems
Goodnight, goodnight
Let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams