Thursday, October 10, 2013

Doubt everything you think you know about doubts and faith and junk.

Here we are again in the aftermath of another General Conference. Pinterest is exploding with sparkly quotes ripped innocently out of context and redesigned as meaningless fluff. Ex-Mormons and Mormon critics are pouring over conference talks like bloodhounds, scanning for any whiff of injustice or offense. Anything they find is then blown up in 96-point font in all-caps and splattered over the blogosphere. All the while, the core messages of the conference talks fade into relative obscurity. It seems we have little appetite for anything more than sappiness or scandal. There are some things that need to stop happening.

President Uchtdorf gave a brilliant talk at the end of the first session. Unfortunately, the message of his talk has been eclipsed by a single line: "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." Ironically, eager pinners and Mormon critics have both latched onto this same line. For faithful aesthetes, this line is just about as perfect as you can get. It's short, punchy and uses simple-but-genius wordplay. For critics, this line undermines everything that President Utchdorf said previously; it's the part that if you just ignore, the rest of the talk is really great.

In true postmodern fashion, just about everyone that is talking about this talk rips out some of the key words and either applies their own definitions or throws out definitions entirely. You. Can't. Do. That.

At least, not if you want to learn anything new.

The phrase "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith" is meaningful in the context of the entire talk. If you rip it out of context, you lose everything that President Uchtdorf did to define 'doubt' and 'faith.' Without that context, the words are just meaningless aesthetic, or vessels to be filled with your own meaning. This is a real setback for gospel learning, but it applies to education anywhere. If you don't allow other people to challenge your understanding of a concept, then you will only translate their ideas into what you already know. Obviously, that is a problem if you want to be instructed from a prophet.

So here's a contextualized reading, in brief.

President Uchtdorf spends much of his talk connecting faith to action. Consider these words:
"Believing in God is commendable, but most people want to do more than listen to inspirational sermons or dream of their mansions above. They want to put their faith into practice. They want to roll up their sleeves and become engaged in this great cause."
"We see assignments not as burdens but as opportunities to fulfill covenants we gladly make to serve God and His children."
"Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result. "
When President Uchtdorf speaks of faith in his talk, he is usually talking about faith as action. He knows and testifies that this kind of faith brings blessings - "we will all become better as a result." In other words, To have faith in Christ is to do as Christ would do, and when we do as Christ would do, we are all blessed. Have you heard of that primary song that goes, "Reverence is more than just quietly sitting--it's thinking of heaven above?" Well I would say, "faith is just more than just blindly believing--it's emulating Christlike love."

So when President Uchtdorf tells us to "doubt our doubts before [we] doubt our faith," I think he's referring to faith as action. In other words, don't doubt that trying to be like Christ will bring about miracles and love. There's a good chance you already know that Christlike love brings pure joy. Don't doubt it. Everyone knows that when we share our talents, gifts, and energies, "we all become better as a result." Put your faith in that. Do it.

So now I want to try to blow your mind a little bit. I already told you that you need to be open to new definitions if you want to learn anything new. Consider it this way:

"Faith requires self-doubt."

I don't know why I put that in quotes. I just made it up. Maybe I'm just anticipating that it will be ripped out of context. Before that happens, however, let me clarify what I mean. (and please note that my line would make no sense out of context.)

Faithful learning requires being childlike. It requires the student to recognize that he/she doesn't know everything about a topic. Have you seen that crazy kung-fu movie The Forbidden Kingdom? There's a part when Jackie Chan pours tea into his student's cup that is already full of tea. Tea spills everywhere and makes a big mess. The metaphor is simple: if you know everything, you can't learn sweet moves from Jackie Chan.

So please, stop taking things out of context, and come listen to a prophet's voice. For real though.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gothen

Good music is instrumental in making one happy, and there is much of such music in the world. Truly excellent music, however, is much rarer, and has a much more profound effect. Indeed, the only possible way to describe it is rebirth. To hear such excellent music is to hear music for the very first time.

I try to avoid unnecessary hyperbole, but seeing Gothen perform at their cd release show was one of the most special experiences I have ever had with music. The passion, talent, and love reverberating throughout the room was enough to make this cynical grad student melt with feeling. Now give me a chance to qualify this melodrama with some details.

I first discovered Gothen when a link to their Kickstarter page appeared on my Facebook feed. The plea on the Kickstarter was simple, if not a little pretentious: "Support Gothen in creating a wildly beautiful debut album." Putting my reservations aside, I watched the promotional video.

I don't know how, but a one-minute preview of a song from a band I had never heard of caught my attention in a way that few songs ever do. There was something special happening here that I didn't understand. I pledged immediately.

In the coming weeks I followed the campaign like an anxious teenager follows a crush. As the deadline grew closer, I was sick to think that they might not reach their goal. What would happen then? It was crazy, but I felt wholly committed to the success of these strangers. In my own small way, I helped by posting links to their Kickstarter page on my own wall. I know at least one of my friends pledged after seeing the link. Gothen reached their goal mere hours before the deadline. Though I had no idea what the end result would be, I felt like I had helped something important.

Fast forward about seven months. On Friday Gothen had their album release show at the New Echo Theater in Provo. The building, previously the location of the Provo Library, was the perfect venue. In a large room on the south side of the building, rows of chairs sat facing a large stage. It felt like going in and sitting down to hear a recital. As it turned out, the recital ambiance was exactly right.

The show was perfect in every way. I don't say that lightly. It began with the audience. The audience was not made up of a bunch of cynical twenty-somethings looking to be entertained. Rather, these were friends, family, and strangers like me who all had some degree of sincere support for these musicians. Smiles abounded from start to finish. I've never felt such a positive environment at a concert.

The joy of the audience was matched by the confidence and talent of the musicians themselves. They put on an amazing performance, every one. The opening act consisted of a man and woman singing heartfelt songs to the rhythm of a soft guitar. The vulnerable sincerity of it set the mood. When Gothen took the stage, we were already enthralled. They only heightened our collective awe.

From the first notes on the piano to the last strum of the guitar, Gothen's performance was a once-in-a-lifetime display of talent and beauty. Their kickstarter plea was no hyperbole. The album is wildly beautiful. Every few minutes I looked over to my wife, gaping in disbelief. "I can't believe this!" I'd whisper to her. She'd nod in reply.

Gothen is not made up of mere musicians, but storytellers. And they aren't ordinary storytellers, either. These are kind of storytellers that take you to places more beautiful than you thought could exist. When the band (or should I say orchestra?) played its final notes, we, the audience, jumped up in eager exultation. I never felt so grateful for artists. I never felt so lucky to witness an artist's accomplishment.

My wife and I talked quietly as we left the theater, though we mostly just savored the feeling. We both agreed that we hadn't heard anything so beautiful in a very long time. We were only grateful for these musicians for showing us, again, how wildly beautiful music, and life, can be.

Thank you, Gothen, for sharing your gifts with all of us. Thank you everyone for making it possible.



You can check out Gothen on their bandcamp page here. Please do.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Escalante, UT (photos)

In all areas of academia there is a tendency to pursue one's own narrow questions without regard to other perspectives. Linguists ignore engineers, engineers ignore sociologists, and sociologists ignore physical science altogether.


Occasionally, however, a researcher faces a problem so vexing that she cannot solve it on her own. She inevitably comes to realize that the world, in its beautiful complexity, has a way of bringing to light the limitations of specializations. 



I know of a team of engineers, for example, that gave specialized cooking tools to people in isolated villages in South America. The tools were carefully designed to meet the specific demands of the villagers and could handle the realities of the harsh environment. Rationally speaking, the tools were perfect. Truthfully, however, there was a major flaw: the villagers did not use them. In spite of their brilliance and ingenuity, the engineers had no resources for understanding the social dimensions of adopting new technology. They called the sociologists for help. 



I don't think there is anything embarrassing in this. Though we live in a nation that enshrines self-sufficiency and extols the virtue of independent living, I believe there is strength in the ability to recognize our own interdependence. 


I thought I knew Escalante fairly well. After all, I had spent hundreds of hours studying interview transcripts and relevant literature. I read everything from local histories to government financial reports. I knew about their festivals and their origins, their heroes and their villains, their conflicts and their tragedies. And yet, when I finally went there, I realized that I knew very little. There was a life in the town that could never be captured through any kind of methodological reduction. I put my books away and walked around.


As I walked around the town and the surrounding areas, it finally struck me why there is conflict here between new lives and old lives. Intellectually I always understood the conflict and its reasons, but seeing the beauty of the place and its history, in person, opened my mind in a new way. 


It's like your favorite song. You love that song, and because you love it, you protect it from harm. When other people listen to the song you fear that they are unworthy, or that they might not appreciate its beauty, or that they might even defile it. It's more than a song to you. It's something sacred. 


These rural towns are no less than temples. They are holy lands, no less than old Jerusalem. And like Jerusalem, they attract pilgrims and spark controversy. For whenever there is a holy place, there is always the question of power: at the end of the day, who will have control of it?


Sacred space is not easily shared. Indeed, in many cases, sharing is expressly forbidden. How then are we to live, when so much of life is sacred?


We could secularize the world and bring everything under the reign of rational thought and equanimity. But who would want to live in such a world?


At the end of the day, perhaps we need fewer solutions and more understanding. I'm not so naive as to believe that if we just talk about our feelings then everything will be okay, but I do believe that it is much more difficult to murder your neighbor when you know him as a co-existing human being. Maybe then, when we start building relations instead of rhetoric, we will start to have the insight necessary to meet the challenges that seem utterly impossible on our own.


here's to that hope.


(all pictures taken with a canon rebel t3 on 6/1/13 - 6/2/13)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flowers for Algernon

I read a lot of short stories in grade school, but few struck me like "Flowers for Algernon." As a bright and eager young boy, I shared Charlie's great enthusiasm for learning. I marveled at his incredible ability to soak in knowledge and I desperately wanted to be as smart as he became. I wanted to be a genius like him, and probably for reasons not far removed from his. When it became apparent to me that Charlie was going to lose all the knowledge he had accumulated, I was devastated. I so valued intellect that the loss of it seemed unbearable.

On the timescale of a life, little time has passed. A blip. A step. I'm maybe twelve years older. I'm still just a babe! I wonder how much I have changed since I first read the story. Perhaps little. I'm a graduate student. I read hungrily and I foolishly dream of one day becoming a great scholar. And yet, something is different. Tonight when I read Charlie's story the things that impressed me in middle-school didn't have the same effect. I didn't care much about Charlie's mastery over dead languages and mathematics and literature. I didn't even care about his expansive vocabulary and poetic language (though I did admire it). The story wasn't about a dumb man getting smart and then getting dumb again. To tell the truth, I don't think I can even say what the story is about. I'm not sure I want to attempt it. It is about so many things, more than I could list. It's the kind of story you hold with you as you go through life. It's the kind of story that, if you hold onto it, will give clarity at certain moments.

Here are some of my favorite quotations. This is from the expanded novel-version.

"I dint know mice were so smart." (6)

"Dr Strauss said I had something that was very good. He said I had a good motor-vation. I never even knowed I had that." (7)

"Prof Nemur says if it werks good and its perminent they will make other pepul like me smart also. Maybe pepul all over the werld. And he said that meens Im doing somthing grate for sience and Ill be famus and my name will go down in the books. I dont care so much about beeing famus. I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me." (9)

"You cant eat before a operashun. Not even cheese." (10)

"The more intelligent you become the more problems you'll have, Charlie. Your intellectual growth is going to outstrip your emotional growth." (33)

"I'm a human being, a person--with parents and memories and a history--and I was before you ever wheeled me into that operating room!" (112)

"This day was good for me. I've got to stop this childish worrying about myself--my past and my future. Let me give something of myself to others. I've got to use my knowledge and skills to work in the field of increasing human intelligence. Who is better equipped? Who else has lived in both worlds?" (139)

"Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But now I know there's one thing you've all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn." (173)

"And as I lay there with her I could see how important physical love was, how necessary it was for us to be in each other's arms, giving and taking. The universe was exploding, each particle away from the next, hurtling us into dark and lonely space, eternally tearing us away from each other--child out of the womb, friend away from friend, moving from each other, each through his own pathway toward the goal-box of solitary death... But this was the counterweight, the act of binding and holding. As when men to keep from being swept overboard in the storm clutch at each other's hands to resist being torn apart, so our bodies fused a link in the human chain that kept us from being swept into nothing.... Alice knows everything about me now, and accepts the fact that we can be together for only a short while. She has agreed to go away when I tell her to go. It's painful to think about that, but what we have, I suspect, is more than most people find in a lifetime." (205)

"But why am I so irritable? Especially when Alice is so good to me?" (206)

"Why am I always looking at life through a window?" (207)

"P.S. please tel prof Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at him and he woud have more frends. Its easy to have frends if yo let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.

P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard." (216)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"They civilize left, they civilize right...

...'til nothing is left, 'til nothing is right!"

Left? Right?

Both sides are terrible, and they have more in common than you might think.

The right blames illegal immigrants, welfare collectors and the left.
The left blames rich people, uneducated people and the right.

Maybe the real problem is us, if we actually believe that all our problems lie in any one group, and that "fixing" the "problem" group will save us. I don't think I need to dig up historical examples to prove how devastating this thinking is. You are already thinking of one or two right now.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Historical Inevitability: Idol Worship

You know what drives me crazy? Arguments like this:

"This is the inevitable cycle of history running its course, yet again."

Or this:

"I can predict how things will look in twenty years: gay marriage will be completely legal... it’s inevitable."

Or this:

"They have no sense of historicity... Get on the right side of history."


I find it funny that in a nation that has all but embraced secularism, so many politicians, reporters and academics resort to a mystifying deification of history to defend their arguments. Whenever I see prophecies like the above quotes, I imagine something like this:

"The Judeo-Christian God is dead, but fear not! We have replaced him with the knowable God of history! In the coming days he will judge the world, and woe unto them who shall be found on his left side!"

Maybe gay marriage will be universally legal, but relying on the God of History to defend one's contextual advantage is little more than bullying. For those making these arguments, come on. Everyone knows that the only inevitable things in life are death and taxes. Furthermore, whatever happened to the investor's warning that "past performance is no indicator of future results?"

The only way that the future is "inevitable" is if people make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we truly value rationality, then let's hear it, and stop with the idol worship.

*I understand that individuals and groups opposing gay marriage also draw on religion to justify their arguments, but there are acceptably rational arguments too.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"IT'S A [TOLERANCE] TRAP!"

Of all the comments I have heard regarding last week's general conference, the one I have heard the most often (or at least most loudly) is some reaction to President Packer's comment on the "Tolerance Trap." While some commentators simply asked for clarification, others seemed to dismiss President Packer's words out of hand. In response to these questions and reactions I offer my own reading of President Packer's talk.

This is not an attempt to pad President Packer's message or perform "mental gymnastics." Rather, this is my sincere interpretation of a message that I believe deserves more pondering and meditation than it has heretofore received.

So here I go.

Here is the controversial passage:

"Tolerance is a virtue, but like all virtues, when exaggerated, it transforms itself into a vice. We need to be careful of the “tolerance trap” so that we are not swallowed up in it. The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity."

"Tolerance trap." Tolerance trap? What? Before I answer that question, I want to back up a bit. Let's start at the beginning of the passage.

"Tolerance is a virtue."

I don't think anyone was arguing with President Packer here, but I wonder if some listeners passed over this phrase and forgot this part of his message. Tolerance is more than something we merely tolerate. It is a virtue, and as a virtue, we seek to cultivate it! We tolerate difficult challenges because we know that they stretch us and help us grow. We tolerate misbehavior in children because we know they are still developing and learning. We tolerate people who behave in ways we disapprove because we know that they are children of God and we love them. We tolerate our own imperfections because we know that we are doing our best and we can become perfected through Christ. Without tolerance we would prevent our own growth; we would be unduly harsh on ourselves and others; and we would be cut off from those around us. In an imperfect mortal world, tolerance is a beautiful and necessary virtue. I am grateful to President Packer for pointing that out.

"Like all virtues, when exaggerated, [tolerance] transforms itself into a vice."

Virtues can become vices. I don't think this is an earth-shattering idea. Chastity is a virtue, but could it become a vice? Sure. If we believed that celibacy was the only way to live, or if we believed that sex was dirty and sinful in all occasions and we forgot its central role in marriage, then chastity would surely become a vice. The same goes for tolerance. If I tolerate too many difficult challenges in my life, I may be "running faster than I have strength." If my five-year old pees in my face and I just endure it and shrug it off, I am probably doing him and everyone he meets a disservice. If I become too tolerant of antagonism or bullying, I may be unnecessarily enduring destructive patterns of abuse. If I become too comfortable with my imperfections, I will severely limit my personal growth. I am grateful to President Packer for the warning.

"The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity."

I imagine that this sentence juxtaposed with the part about the "tolerance trap" is what ruffled a few feathers. Why did President Packer have to bring up gay marriage in this context? Sometimes I get the feeling that there are those who believe that President Packer is an old fuddy-duddy apostle who severely hates gays and will condemn them at every chance he has. I can see why persons who think that way would be upset. Setting aside the claim that President Packer is a bigot, let's look at other reasons for this example.

First, we should ask ourselves whether President Packer is talking about same-sex marriage. The answer is probably yes, but not necessarily exclusively. It is clear that in this context President Packer is using the term immorality exclusively to describe violations of the law of chastity, but "legalized acts of immorality" include more than same-sex marriage. Adultery, for example, is a criminal offense in only 22 states, which means it is legal in the other 28.

So, President Packer is warning us that when it comes to violations of the Law of Chastity, we ought to be wary of letting our tolerance become a vice. This begs the question, then, how might tolerance become a vice in this scenario? In my view, President Packer is simply making the point that God's laws do not change with the laws of the land. A nation (and hence, a culture) might find a sinful act permissible, but that does not mean that it ceases to be a sin, or that the consequences of the sin do not disappear. Do we need to tolerate people that break the Law of Chastity, as it has been explained to us? Yes, of course we do. President Packer made this clear in his example of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery ("neither do I condemn thee"). Does our tolerance become a vice if we forget or stop believing that violating the Law of Chastity is a sin? Yes, it does. (Remember, Jesus said "go and sin no more." He did not say, "it's all cool. You go do what you want.")

This assertion might give way to another question: why is it important to not forget the reality of sexual sin and its consequences? First and foremost, President Packer probably wants us to avoid committing sins ourselves that we may be tempted to believe are permissible. In addition, could it be that President Packer would rather that we encourage others to avoid sin, rather than celebrating sinful behavior? I have said nothing of laws here; I am simply speaking of our interactions with our friends and family. If we believe in the reality of sin, is it not better to love and encourage righteousness, rather than to love and encourage sin? It is up to us as Latter-day saints to learn to love others without discounting the consequences of sin. Admittedly, it is not an easy task.

Final thoughts

So how do we do it? How do we tolerate without going to far? If I may be so bold, I will offer a few of my  thoughts. First, obviously, we need to build a little tolerance. Tolerance demands love and kindness. No Latter-day Saint should be caught condemning or shaming anyone for anything. Second, we need to remember that we aren't Jesus. A precious few of us are numbered among his judges, but most of us are just his disciples. And even those of us that are judges are only judges for our stewardship. In other words, none of us should be running around shouting "Go and sin no more!" to all the people we think are sinning. Third, we need to be tolerant of each other. Actually, I'm going to repeat that one in caps. WE NEED TO BE TOLERANT OF EACH OTHER! I am a Latter-day Saint. You might be a Latter-day Saint. President Packer is a Latter-day Saint. We are all in this together! Sometimes we say dumb things. I say a lot of dumb things (ask my wife!). Sometimes (often?) we as Latter-day saints let each other down. We need to be tolerant of that. We need to accept the fact that each one of us has an imperfect knowledge and lives an imperfect life in an imperfect body. There is no way we can build Zion if we are not tolerant of each other. When we trade tolerance for cynicism, we lose the ability to learn by faith and trust in one another. Each of us has spiritual gifts, but without tolerance for one another we lose the opportunity for "all [to] profit thereby." This is a tragic loss. Finally (returning from the tangent), we must remember that sin is sin, and learn to tolerate like Christ without assuming Christ's authority to judge.

President Packer is the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I, and perhaps you, sustain him as a prophet, seer, and revelator. I believe in his apostolic witness and calling. He is not an old fuddy-duddy whose counsel can be discredited because he said something offensive in the past or because his message has lost its popularity. Neither can he be dismissed because we expect him to kick the bucket soon. I condemn no one for questioning the meaning his words. In fact, I am grateful for the questions, because they encouraged me to explore his talk in a deeper, more meaningful way. This has been a spiritually rewarding experience for me. Perhaps this is a manifestation of what can happen when we live with tolerance.

Friday, March 29, 2013

20 MINUTES TO AN AWESOME SPRING

SPRING IS HERE PEOPLE! ARE YOU PSYCHED?

I am psyched, but I understand that some people are not yet psyched. Here is a helpful guide for those people who have not been able to shake the winter ice off of their chilly bones.

1. Listen to this song. Except, don't just listen to it. Stand up. The song starts off slow. This gives you an opportunity to warm up to what's coming. You are an icy zombie corpse waking up from a long winter. Feel the movement in your legs. Keep this up for about tw0 and a h@lf minutes. When the chorus starts, GO CRAZY! Seriously GO CRAZY! Let your body move however it wants! AAAAAAAAAA!!!!!! Okay. When the song slows down, take a breath. You haven't moved that much since last Cinco de Mayo! Listen for the words, "I'm caught up in a storm..." That's your cue! When the chorus starts, GO CRAZY AGAIN! AAUGHGH!! CAN YOU FEEL IT???????/ AAAAaaaaaaggh. Get out your crazy!!! Your soul will EXPLODE WITH 'YEAH!!'


2. IF you are like me, you seriously WENT CRAZY and now you need a cool down. Now listen to this song. Except don't just listen to it. This song isn't so jarring, so now is your chance to FLOW. SPIN around, DANCE ALL AROUND THE FLOOR. Try out those crazy BALLET MOVES you've been too scared to try. Feel the MUSIC! 'YEAH!'



3. By this point, you are probably exploding with satisfaction. You are well on your way to being psyched. You've lowered your inhibitions. Congratulations. Now it's time to meditate. Listen to this song. This time, sit down. Maybe lay on your back. Well, you can dance if you want to, but this time, you have to think about how awesome the world is! Think about your favorite places. Listen to the words! "Spring is upon us!" "The world is alive now!" "You should come back home!"


4. Okay. We're winding down here. Just one more thing to do. Listen to this song, and feel all the deepness of being human! You have love and hope and dreams! Take it all in! Just enjoy it! When you finish the song, do whatever you feel inspired to do. You are now psyched!!! Congratulations!!!


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

a modern-day interpretation of genesis 3:19

"By the sweat of low-wage workers thou shalt eat fast food, all the days of thy life."

symbols and faces

Symbols.
In blazing colors and bold type, they clamor for the attention of any passerby, ever poised to bewitch with transcendent power. Having sacrificed body and soul, they live to fight with nothing to lose and nothing to fear.

And what of those passersby? 
Paralyzed with the fear of symbolic armageddon, they throw away their bodies, their very souls, and unite with symbols upon whose arguments they can rely to guarantee eventual victory. There are no more persons in this world. Just flag-bearers. Pick a side and arm yourself with the spoils of "free thinking."

And yet, beneath the bold vociferation I hear earthy sounds and feel earthy rhythms. I look around and I see faces. FACES. More than collections of organs and flesh, these faces unwittingly challenge me, demand me to be for them, to see beyond their flags and slogans. And I, being human--how can I refuse? Is this not the work of God?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

nom nom nom

with so much to eat
I stuff in more food
before I can swallow
and the old stuff just falls out of my mouth

always chewing
never swallowing
always hungry
never satisfied

candy or caviar
the result is the same
so what does it matter
what I chews?

they say
"you are what you eat"
but what if I never swallow?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Grinch in Me

Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! tells the story of an impossibly bitter mad man who hates everything nice, including and especially Christmas. Fueled by his hate, he commits his resources to stop Christmas from coming. On the night of Christmas Eve, he slinks through Whoville and steals every material symbol of  Christmas. Despite the apparent impossibility of the job, the Grinch's heist is successful.

On the dawn of Christmas morning, just when the Grinch thinks he has succeeded, he sees that he has failed. The sound of singing down in Whoville signifies that Christmas came without gifts. Indeed, it came without packages, boxes or bags. Despite the Grinch's machinations, Christmas came just the same!

After comprehending the depth of his error, the Grinch experiences a miraculous conversion. His heart, which was previously two sizes too small, triples in size. With this new strength, the Grinch miraculously lifts the heaviest sleigh in the world over his head (saving a little girl in the process) and happily goes down into Whoville to return the stolen gifts. Celebrations ensue and the Grinch carves the roast beast. Everyone is happy.

I'm interested in this story because I think it has a lot to say about the banality of evil and the process of conversion. I freely admit that there is a bit of Grinchiness in me, and I suggest that Grinch's feelings are simply an extreme portrayal of not-so-uncommon cynicism. I also believe that the miracle of the Grinch's conversion is not simply the realization of his error, but his humility to openly recognize and move beyond his past mistakes.

Why was the Grinch bitter in the first place?
As far as I know, Dr. Seuss never tells us about the Grinch's origin. Based on my interpretation of the Grinch's actions, I offer the following: Perhaps the Grinch held an overly cynical view of human nature and was critical of selfish, consumptive practices. Perhaps the Grinch loathed the Whos in Whoville because he thought that they were a bunch of hypocritical, self-serving, self-righteous consumerist fakes. Perhaps he built his hate toward the Whos gradually, with one judgment and one critical remark at a time, until he had constructed a monolithic monument to their guilt and corruption.

Perhaps the Grinch lived among the Whos until his loathing became too large to be contained within the town, which prompted him to take up residence in the solitude of the mountain. And yet, even in the mountain, the ignorant living of the Whos in Whoville plagued him like a  stubborn rash that refused to heal, and that perplexingly constituted who he was. He was not free. He was bound to the Whos, who gave him his identity as "Anti-Who."

Why was the Grinch wrong?
The Grinch erred because he grossly misjudged the Whos in Whoville. Having focused on their consumptive and self-serving flaws, he built a biased, one-sided view of the Whos. He chose to believe that they were reducible to their love of objects. He only saw the negative. The Grinch was like the traveler who, when it was dry, complained about the dust, and when it rained, complained about being wet. The Grinch's skewed vision that failed to see anything but consumption in Whoville led him to the erroneous conclusion that Christmas was only about material things.

How did the Grinch respond? 
When the Grinch's heart tripled in size, he acted immediately without fear of humiliation. After lifting the sleigh, he rode down into Whoville and returned the gifts he had stolen. Think of that! The Grinch had just performed what was likely the most comprehensive and complex heist in the history of Whoville, and then, the next morning, he returned everything. He rode into the very town which he previously sought to destroy. With penitence and caring he faced the people he had cursed and criticized. Most significantly (to a prideful heart like me), he recognized his past mistakes openly, publicly and without holding back. And he did so REJOICING!

I think the story of Scrooge is a little better in this regard. These stories are so similar, so allow me a brief tangent. Think of it! On Christmas day, Scrooge did not quietly enter the streets, hoping that others would not see how much he had changed. He ran through the streets like a younger man, shouting praises and blessing others as he went! Rather than concealing his new heart, he held it up for all to witness. And as the story goes, all did witness that Scrooge was a new man.

Returning to the Grinch, we see that the Grinch did not sheepishly return to Whoville, but instead became integrally involved in the Christmas celebrations. At the end of the story we are told that he even took the honor of carving the roast beast. This is not passive or partial conversion. This is an active and wholehearted turn, resulting in the most pure kind of freedom.

What if the Grinch tried keeping his feelings a secret?
The New Testament teaches that "the truth will set you free," but clearly truth here refers to something more than just knowledge. When the Grinch saw the error of his ways, he felt immediately strengthened and liberated. However, that freedom remained only because the Grinch embraced the truth he had received by returning to people in humility and love. In other words, the truth will set you free, but only if you accept it with a humble heart that acts openly without hiding. Had the Grinch tried to hide his change of heart, he surely would have lost the feeling and returned to bondage. In the end, the purest freedom can't be had without a certain acceptance that you were wrong and it doesn't matter if everyone knows it.

So what?
The good news is that this terrifying experience is worth it. I said that I have a bit of Grinchiness in me, and that is true. I often entertain cynical thoughts and build criticisms of others, and I am terrified of humiliation. I have a difficult time accepting my own flaws, and thus have a difficult time moving past them. At the same time, I can say with perfect sincerity that I have, at times, experienced wholehearted, open and humiliating change. In my best moments, I have owned my wrongness and rejoiced in my rebirth. I can also say in perfect sincerity that in these moments, I have never felt more free, more light, or more happy. This is how humans (and Grinches) are made to live.

My personal resolution this year is to own up to my faults when truth reveals them. I hope to live more openly, with less secrets and more humility. In my experience, that's where happiness and freedom lie. That's what I want this year and every year. Here's to the reborn, free Grinch!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hail the white weasel! (Thoughts for a new year)

I saw a long-tailed weasel the other day. It had a long, slender body as white as the snow around it. It was all white except for tip of its tail, which looked as if it had been dipped in a cup of hot cocoa. I had never seen such a brilliantly white animal in the wild; it looked like something from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The weasel bounded happily until it saw me coming down the road on my roaring, beastly snowmobile. It instinctively dove into the nearest snowbank and vanished out of sight. 

I keep thinking about that weasel. It was a beautiful animal, and one I hope to see again. If I never see one again, I guess I'll just have to be grateful for the one chance. 

***

Perhaps the experiences that do the most to enrich life are those which we do not anticipate, that show up in unexpected places, at unexpected times. In those spontaneous moments we expand the borders of our lives and, if we allow it, we are reborn. We start anew with new vision and new values, new concerns and a new past. 

In our daily lives we can plan and prepare for many things, but planning has its limits. We can only plan for things that are known. What are the implications of living a perfectly planned life? A completely planned life would include only things that we rationally will to happen. Gone are the white weasels, the unexpected visits from long-lost friends, the freak storms that are terrifying and somehow enlivening, and everything else we do not already know. In my opinion, a completely planned life would be the most boring of all lives. Unless you already know everything in the world of any value at all, why would you want to limit yourself to your small world of experience?

It is a good thing to be organized, but organization is a tool, not a god. Happiness, fulfillment, and growth do not come from organization. These treasures belong to the person who develops sufficient compassion and gratitude to enjoy and respond to the unceasing flow of spontaneous moments. Instead of becoming organized to eliminate the unknown, become organized in order to enhance your response to the unknown. (You can substitute the word organization in this paragraph for your favorite resolution: exercising more, yelling less, etc.) 

This is not anti-science or anti-reason. Rather, it is reason best understood. We need science and we need reason, but without wisdom and compassion (which likely go together), they are tools with no purpose! Do not spend a whole year sharpening tools without ever putting them to good use!