Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hold it loosely

In a culture that idolizes fame, power, and material wealth, happiness and contentment via any other means is almost impossible to comprehend.  When we act only out of a hope of personal gain or out of fear of accruing shame or guilt, then our misery is assured.  The celebrities aren't happy, those who have attained the pinnacle of our society's definition of success, if judged by their rate of substance abuse, suicide, divorce, and other signs of personal and relational stress and dysfunction.  How much less are the masses, ever in desperate pursuit of this so-called success, ever to be happy?  Is life simply a meaningless striving before an infinite nothingness as the secular humanists would have us believe?  Is there no other option but pointless misery and then death?  Is there a way to fix things?

The good news is that it isn't yours to fix.  Our society glorifies ownership as the highest good, but we were not made to be owners, but are rather stewards.  Yes, we don't reap the glories of ownership but neither do we incur the stress, cost, and worry of being the big boss, the one who must pay or suffer when the market drops or disaster happens, the one left holding the bag when everything collapses.  We are given a physical body, a personality, skills and talents and interests, relationships, and the material necessities to make it through each day and those necessary to accomplish whatever tasks that are required of us.  Anything more is beyond our scope, interest, and abilities and reaching for it only leads to depression, burn out, pride, and ultimately failure and misery.  'Ye can be gods,' said the Serpent, and our forebears reached out and took the forbidden, and indeed we became gods: the gods of Ancient Greece and Rome, of Babylon and Canaan.  Unhappy, wretched, unscrupulous, capricious, fallen gods.

Then God became Man, the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.  When man wanted to be God, the only remedy was for God to become Man.  We face the same choice as those in that ancient garden: will we abide within our appointed sphere, content to 'work and keep it,' or will we reach for the forbidden and ruin it all?  That ancient serpent promises happiness, our culture whispers the same, but of all those who have taken that fatal bite, none have yet tasted the promised nectar, finding only a bitter and wormy apple as a reward while their world collapses around them.  Let it go, whatever it is.  No material thing or human relationship is the answer to your problems or current misery.  Only by letting go can we potentially keep it.  Lose your life to find it, lose the world to inherit heaven.

Abraham trudged grimly up a hill, seemingly to destroy a miracle and decimate a promise, but up he went only to discover a greater miracle still.  In giving up his son, he kept both the son and the promise.  God gave up His son too, for us, but that Son was not spared at the last moment and we are the inheritors of that promise, the greatly blessed, though not of our own doing.  We didn't pay the Price, for we aren't the Owners.  We are called to shepherd Another's sheep, tend Another's vines, mind Another's store.  Your children aren't yours, neither is your body, your house, your car, your bank account.  You are born with nothing and nothing follows you beyond the grave, just your own naked soul which will one day give an account of how you used all that was given into your keeping. Will you find a proud and smiling Father on that Day, or a grim and severe Master, disappointed in your poor stewardship?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Put down the phone and pick up the shovel

If the nineties were cool, our current cultural atmosphere seems to be ruled by equal parts fear and anger.  We're all afraid to say the wrong thing and make someone else angry which in turn makes us angry...world without end.  I ran across this article about a new book addressing this very problem and I hope it will help people see the world we've created for ourselves and that each of us will do what we can to resolve it.  It has nothing to do with fixing someone else or changing someone else's viewpoint, rather, as the book urges, we must each look at ourselves and ask, 'how am I contributing to the problem and what can I do to change that?'  I think that's what the whole problem boils down to: we're all angry about something, blaming 'it' for our current disappointments and frustrations in life, somehow thinking that if 'it' was resolved to our liking or had been different, life would be far better.  So we hop on the internet and complain about 'it' hither and yon, until we've plastered our comments all over cyberspace from the trendiest site to the most obscure blog, while we may feel a sort of satisfaction, grim and cold as that may be, we really haven't done anything to resolve the actual problem and we're still miserable, so we complain some more.

What is this dreadful 'it' that has ruined so many lives?  It varies dramatically between individuals.  For my sister-in-law, she thinks the current presidential administration is the key to solving her problems and anyone who thinks otherwise is held in utmost contempt (like us).  For the insecure mothers among us, it could be diapers or breastfeeding or vaccines or organic or whatever, somehow feeling that shaming and bitterly criticizing how other parents do things somehow justifies your own parenting choices.  For my father it was his parents, they never gave him enough money or did X or Y that would have made his life better.  For some it is 'saving the planet,' and those of us who don't live in tiny houses or walk everywhere are little better than Hitler.  For others it is food: pick your trendy diet or avoid certain ingredients or only eat things from a certain source and all other ways of eating are completely unethical and amoral.  It can be anything, absolutely anything you are or aren't from race, gender, neighborhood, religion, money, politics, a rock band, a TV show or movie, family of origin, favorite color or pizza topping...anything that serves as the great excuse as to why your life isn't what you want it to be.  Anything you use to belittle or judge or criticize others to elevate your own value or blame for your current less than ideal circumstances is 'it.'  And everybody has one or more lurking under the bed or in the back closet, just waiting to leap out at an opportune moment.

But the truth is life isn't great or ideal, ever, for anybody.  It doesn't matter who you are, what you do, what you have (or don't), where you live, or what you like, life is hard, period.  Just look at celebrity culture if you think money or fame or success is going to make you happy: addictions, broken relationships, ruined lives, misery...  Sure, you can spend your whole life blaming your parents or the divorce or the adoption or your education (or lack thereof) or an addiction or some group of 'other' people that make it impossible for you to accomplish your dreams, but does that actually help you?  No, all it might accomplish is making others afraid or angry or discouraged when we lash out at them in frustration at our own wretchedness.  It isn't their fault, so let's leave 'them' out of the argument for a moment.  All this negativity does nothing but add to the seething mass of hatred and uncertainty already drowning our world and only furthers our own misery.  What can we do then?

Instead of lashing out against 'them,' let's turn inward and focus on ourselves for a moment.  Why are you angry, frustrated, discontent, or bitter?  Stop, falling back on 'it' as your go-to excuse won't resolve anything.  Dig past the obvious and get down deep, into the very knot in your soul.  It's tender, it hurts, that's why we instinctively lash out at others when they get too close, like an injured dog snapping at anyone who gets too near the wounded leg, even if they are trying to help.  Gently, gently, no judgement, no shame, just dig, dig, dig, and it may take a while.  We tend to bury it deep, shroud it in darkness and mist and obscurity, so much so we don't even know it's an issue.  We've all been hurt, we all carry some secret sorrow or shame, but we're all so busy pointing fingers that we don't understand we're all wounded and should be helping one another heal instead of wounding each other further.  What is it?  Bring it out into the light in all its ugly glory and let it go.  No, not forget it, acknowledge it but no longer let it hold sway over all your thoughts and actions.  Begin to heal, far easier said than done, but it is possible.  But it takes work, patience, and honesty.  Be gentle with yourself, and with everyone else too, they hurt just as much, they just don't realize it.

And someday, no matter how much it hurts now or in the interim, you will find Joy again.  Need some encouragement?  Go read Jane Eyre or Anne of Green Gables or Mansfield Park or Les Miserables or Lord of the Rings, wherein the main characters face external circumstances that range from the uncomfortable to the horrific, yet each understands, though often through much personal struggle, that it is who we are and the strength of our character that determines our happiness rather than our history or lot in life.  Bashing others over the head won't make us happy, it only makes them miserable too, so instead, let's bash our own secret sorrows, disappointments, injustices, and shortcomings over the head with all the vim we once used to scathe our 'enemies.'

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In the dog house

"Let them own dogs..." was the astonishing statement from Ms. Antoinette before she was made to pay the ultimate price for her heartless remark by the maddened hoard of infertile women.  Yes, my history is a bit revisionistic, not that many amid the tech generations would notice or care how badly I abused and manipulated historical fact to fit my own designs.  But it is a question that has puzzled me of late, not fake news and revisionist history, that would be too timely and prominent a topic to discuss on this blog reserved solely for obscure philosophical maunderings, but rather the role of dogs in society.  Stay your giddiness and warm fuzzies, we are not discussing the various merits and anthropomorphic characteristics attributed (fairly or not) to our canine companions, rather this modern notion that dogs are people, or even better than people, has been one that puzzles me significantly.  Don't get me wrong, dogs are wonderful and amazing creatures, but they are not people.  They are not a substitute for children, friendships, or good human society.  But why are so many determined that dogs and people should be interchangeable, at least on a social level?

Yes, in your theoretical vacuum inspired by cute animated stories and heartwarming CG marvels, even a pig could be good company, but then in that happy land everybody can sing and dance and the sun always shines and the bad guy always loses.  But that is not real life and no matter how many Disney flicks you imbibed as a child, I think on some level, everyone knows that to be fundamentally true.  But why does it persist?  Why do childfree couples expound upon their dogs the way society used to extol their children: complete with birthday parties, doggie spas and day care, cutting edge medical treatment, specialty foods, adoption/birth announcements and showers, countless pictures on social media...  But none of it is real, it doesn't mean anything; in the end it is all shallow, vapid, and short lived.  The dog doesn't care, he's as happy eating roadkill as that Organic Caribou and Tibetan Leeks diet you special order from those monks that hand mix each batch according to some ancient secret recipe handed down from heaven ere the worlds were made.  The owner (pet parent, really?!) might get a short lived thrill out of it, and there's nothing wrong with having a little innocent fun, but to obsess about your dog the way others obsess about their children (which also isn't healthy for either the kids or the parents but that's a whole other topic) and insisting that the whole world care likewise is the epitome of self-indulgence.

And that might be the answer right there.  Dogs shape themselves quite naturally to our personalities, behaviors, expectations, and treatment of them, in effect we create them in our own image, whereas children and people in general tend to have wills of their own which will inevitably conflict with our own.  Dogs are the easy way out.  You can kennel a dog, sell a dog, breed more dogs, train your dog to do whatever, and even euthanize your dog if necessary (no I am not advocating for human euthanasia!) but you can't do that to a child, spouse, boss, friend, neighbor, or parent, no matter how tempting, rather you must deal with the conflict and resolve it in a way that accounts for the wellbeing of all involved.  We've become such a culture of 'have it your way' that we even want our children to be as we want them rather than as they are, and in lieu of this or in fear of it, we forgo having kids and substitute 'fur children' or avoid actual human relationships in favor of our pets, it is so much easier that way but far less rewarding.  Our focus is inward on our pets, they adore us and we enjoy them, we become small and insular.  Other people annoy us, frustrate us, challenge us, humble us, they force us to grow and look outside ourselves.  The love of a good dog is a wonderful thing, but to conflate it with the relationships between people is to diminish the value of both.  Let's have our dogs and people too!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A tale worth the hearing?

My favorite stories are full of people doing the hard thing, the right thing, of sticking to the right and the good and the true even when the road seems impossible and the personal cost staggering: Jane Eyre's flight into the night, Jean val Jean turning himself in to spare a man wrongly condemned in his place, Rebecca and Ivanhoe parting ways amidst a budding romance, Elizabeth Bennet spurning her presumptuous suitors, the astonishing conclusion to a 'Tale of Two Cities,' Sam and Frodo plodding hopelessly into Mordor, Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire, when God became man to pay a debt He did not owe...to quote Sam (from the movie):

"It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the ending, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr Frodo, I do understand... I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only the didn't. They kept going, because they were holding onto something...

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr Frodo... And it's worth fighting for."

Society once held that there was such a thing as right and wrong, a standard of goodness and truth apart from any individual, cultural, or national preferences, opinions, or ideas.  Now everything is relative, based on individual inclinations, emotions, or whims at some particular moment, do what feels good or seems right to you and everybody will just get along fine...until my whims interfere with yours and then we have anarchy.  And though our cultural mood seems to say there is no truth or right or wrong, practically however this is ridiculous, imagine how you would feel if I just happen to help myself to your $100 you left sitting there, because obviously if it makes me happy I should do it, not that it makes you very happy, but hey, there is no wrong, right?  Right and wrong, moral truth, and virtue have not changed, merely our cultural observance of them.  Perhaps that is why all the stories have died.  I have yet to find a modern author that can captivate me like those who wrote the tales above.  And our modern storytelling venue, the movie, has not only fallen flat on its face but continues to sink into the murky depths of the fen it now occupies with each passing year: remakes, obscure comic book characters, sequels and prequels galore...not one good, memorable story in the bunch.  Why?

We do what's easy rather than what's right.  We must have things now (on credit) rather than saving and working and earning to own it later.  Our consumer mentality has infected not only our moral lives but our stories as well.  Sam's right, the tales worth telling and remembering are the ones where the characters stick it out through the good and bad, doing what they know is right rather than what's convenient or expedient.  Will our own tales be worth remembering someday?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

'She is tolerable, I suppose...'

“She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil and obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her -- she was only an Object of Contempt”  
~Jane Austen, Love and Friendship

While Mr. Collins may be the master of 'flattering with delicacy,' Jane Austen is no stranger to the witty criticism or comeback.  Sadly, most of us are nowhere near so witty in our own attempts, though we seem to make up what we lack in quality with quantity, much like Miss Bates and her three dull things.  While in school and sports we must each have high self-esteem and everybody is special and perfect and a winner and nothing negative is ever said, and in the media and university and workplace we must be culturally sensitive and politically correct, afraid to speak anything that might be construed as negative or critical of any sensitive group, online and in person however, our tongues are very sharp indeed, or if not sharp, at least a deadly bludgeon with which we happily whack away at everything and everyone from retailers to fellow social media addicts to bloggers and journalists and politicians.  Just check the comment section on any blog or for a given product on any retailer or sites like yelp or your favorite social media site.  The 'mommy wars' are a great example, where one mother runs down another for her choice of feeding, diapering, work or not, or whatever, because the way the former does it is obviously the only way to do things and anyone who says otherwise is a child abuser (ouch!).

But what we are all missing, whether we are of the 'no input for fear of crushing self-esteem or being labeled a hate monger' crowd or the 'running down someone because you think you know better or are better' groupie is that none of it is effective.  There is a place for constructive criticism certainly, but this culture wide addiction to insult and negativity is destructive not only to our social fabric but to each and every individual heart, mind, and soul.  It is a canker that is quickly undermining our very value as people and the cohesiveness of our society as a whole.  What can we do to stop it?  How about noticing the good, the excellent, the wonderful for once.  Instead of 'straining at the gnat,' let's appreciate the soup!

My in-laws are a perfect example: they mean well, they certainly care deeply for their grandchildren and son, but they think the best way to 'help' is to criticize and advise at every turn, making us feel like they think we are stupid, horrible parents, when truly the best thing they can do for their grandkids is to support and encourage their parents.  It is the same with every aspect of society and every relationship.  My mother learned from her mother, and so forth back into the foggy mists of time, that the only way to raise a daughter is to constantly tell her what she does wrong.  I certainly learned what not to do, but I never figured out exactly what to do and I ended up hating myself for being such an idiot that could never do anything right, certainly not a healthy habit!

I ran across this little article on just this topic.  It is very strange to me that the world has been ending since first I opened my 'Weekly Reader' in elementary school, but the cause is always different and we have yet to witness the world's last night.  Back then it was a looming oil crisis (we would have completely depleted world petroleum supplies in 50 years, but 30 years later here we are in the midst of a surplus!) and the Ozone layer was being depleted and the Rainforest was being destroyed and acid rain was obliterating our temperate forests and frogs with supernumerary appendages were a certain harbinger of doom for the rest of us...then there was bird flu and SARS and Y2K and global warming...but we're still here.  I'm not saying there aren't real problems and threats and concerns in the world or that everything is perfect, far from it, but this chronic pessimism is, well, depressing!  I think we all need a good dose of G.K. Chesterton, most especially the media.  A good laugh is just what we need, and he'd be laughing at us certainly, if he could see the muddled pinnacle our modern pessimism has attained.  So remember, above all else, if you want to make the world a better place: laugh, smile, have a little fun, compliment somebody on something they did well or right, contemplate the good and the true and pass it on to others.  Bring a little sunshine to your own dark corner of the world; be a vector of Joy!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The beauty already there

We live in an age of fixers, especially since google makes it so easy to solve every problem in three easy steps with the contents of your sock drawer.  Men are notorious fixers when it comes to relationships, or so I've heard many ladies repine, they just want him to listen, not fix them then and there.  Women aren't much better, especially moms, we look on Pinterest to discover how to easily make our baby quit spitting up (let me know the secret when you find it!) and try to fix everything from grammatical errors to plumbing issues and get impatient when we can't magically resolve something.  I think it's a drug, we get a momentary high when something goes right and we want to feel it again, bring on the problems!  Except it doesn't work every time and then frustration and discouragement set in.  We want to know we are in control, we want to know we can handle everything and anything that comes our way.  And with more technology, information, and resources at our fingertips than any generation or society has ever before possessed, our desire to succeed only grows, and so too our frustration when things don't go right.

My family has gotten into a complaining rut.  We look only for problems and things that aren't going right and lose sight of the 95% of things that are good, right, true, and beautiful.  We can't see the person for the wart or enjoy the cake because it is slightly dry or we wanted chocolate not vanilla.  Pretty petty, but it can destroy happiness, contentment, and make life miserable.  We've lost our sense of fun, wonder, and adventure and feel overwhelmed and depressed.  It's time to take off our blinders, put aside our petty complaints, and look at this marvelous world anew.  Let us be thankful someone is in our life, warts and all, and enjoy their company.  Let us be happy to have food, let alone something so extravagant as dessert!  There are sunsets, music, books, food, forests, rivers, cats, clouds, smiles, old jokes...just waiting to be enjoyed.  But we must choose it.

The world surrounds us with negativity and despair (just watch the news or read something online); it falls into our lap without effort or thinking.  We must choose the good, the beautiful, the wonderful.  We must choose to enjoy things.  We must choose to have an attitude of mirth, joy, and contentment.  It isn't just a modern phenomenon, it's a problem as old as Eden, perfection and Paradise surround us and yet the serpent whispers doubt into a susceptible ear.  Will we let that wretched snake spoil our Joy or will we choose to trust that things are not as grim as he would have us believe?

Trust, it is so hard to do in this 'do it yourself' culture.  Especially when so many never learned it at home, having no one to take care of them and depend upon but themselves, we can't trust anyone but ourselves, but that way lies misery and despair.  There are some things we can't do alone.  Laughing at our own jokes sounds rather hollow.  Enjoying a movie alone night after night is rather sad.  We need community and society and companionship and we aren't likely to find it online.  We need real flesh and blood relationships, but that requires trust.  And work.  And the risk of getting hurt.  But it is the only way to live, all else is just existing.