Tag Archives: religion

The Center of the Universe or a Tiny Speck of Dust?

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

How often does the drama in your life make you feel like the whole world hangs in the balance, ready to rise or come crashing down depending on how you come through the situation? Pretty much every day, right?

A few months ago, I had a ton of theatrics storming around my head and weighing on my heart. I was feeling the pressure of a self-imposed deadline on finishing my book, way behind but not wanting to give up writing these letters to you every week in order to get it done. It was a sacrifice I just didn’t want to make. Meanwhile, I was entangled in a web of uncertainty surrounding my job status and my future in any sort of career field. This was tied to the weight of my family’s then-recent financial instability, as my wife had quit her job to start her own business from scratch. We were in a pickle, definitely in the short-term and quite possibly the long-term, too. It did not feel good for this guy who prefers to remain oblivious to such things as personal finance and health insurance. And of course, coloring all of this and everything else was the now-typical political ignorance and outrageousness that is just America in this day and age.

In any case, it felt like this crucial life moment, like my fate and the fate of those around me hung in the balance, our lives to be forever altered by the outcome of these intermingling dramas.

In the midst of that existential three-ring circus in my head, I received an email that seemed innocuous on the surface but actually gave me quite a shake. It was my birthday, and amidst a few other calls and messages from my parents and siblings, there in my inbox was a message from my favorite aunt and uncle. “We hope this little tune helps keep things in perspective.” It was a link to a Youtube video called “Galaxy Song.”  It had the feel of something that might be on “Sesame Street” or “The Electric Company,” a playful song to educate while it entertains. Here are a few choice lines:

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see are moving at a million miles a day in an outer spiral orb at 40,000 miles an hour of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our galaxy itself contains 100 billion stars; it’s 100,000 light years side to side….And our galaxy is only one of millions and billions in this amazing and expanding Universe…..So remember when you are feeling very small and insecure how amazingly unlikely is your birth.

These lyrics completely arrested me. I know I had heard the stats before about the astounding size of the Universe, but I guess I had let their ramifications escape my awareness, because this was like learning them anew. It was a real smack in the face.

I guess that in the past, I probably used the facts about the enormity of the Universe as an argument against the half of my brain that doubts the existence of some type of Creator/God. After all, my argument went, in all of this vast “emptiness” in which we cannot find evidence of other “intelligent life” (though I definitely think we flatter ourselves with that label), surely we must have been specially created by a Divine hand, right? (I use the same type of logic when I try to convince myself that the astonishing degree of intricacy of the human body and every other organism and system on Earth is surely a sign of an intelligent Designer.)

But in this case, when I try to wrap my mind around the vastness of it all and just how infinitesimally small our planet is in the grand scheme (not to mention each of us people individually), it makes me think that not only might I not be specially made, but also that, either way, I am completely insignificant. My issues and dramas, my dreams and gifts–they don’t matter at all. They have no bearing on anything. How depressing!

But then I think, “No! I am here on this magnificent planet for a reason, and I have this overwhelming sense of significance that echoes from deep inside me. I matter! I know I do!”

But then there are the facts again, and it seems obvious that I am not even the tiniest blip on the screen of the Universe, not just historically but even on the picture of today. After all, there are billions more stars just like our sun and therefore billions more solar systems. Not “billions” as in a figure of speech or writer’s embellishment, but actual billions. My life–heck, even my planet’s life–is nothing.

And back and forth I go.

Maybe this debate–or at least the admission that there should be a debate–pains me so much because I have always felt it was my destiny to be a world-changer, an agent of progress and hope for the masses of people that I plan to reach with my words and deeds. I would like to say that I have always known that I was significant, that I was born to make a difference, to leave a mark. I have spent my life believing that.

That makes the glaring facts of the Universe’s unfathomable size so daunting and humbling. Going just by the numbers, it is impossible to claim any shred of importance. It’s almost enough to make me give up. Because let’s face it: on paper, I don’t even have a chance in this debate. I have nothing! Logically speaking, if my galaxy is insignificant, then my solar system is even more insignificant, in which case my planet is even more insignificant, and that means my own life–and especially each of my daily dramas about my job and my mortgage and my president–is surely of no consequence.

That is why I think that DENIAL must be an exceptionally strong evolutionary adaptation of ours. Think about it: given that we can know empirically that we are the equivalent of a tiny speck of dust in this vast Universe, how else can you explain how each of us feels so central to the whole show?

Honestly, doesn’t it feel like your life matters? Doesn’t it seem like the outcome of at least some of your major life decisions has an impact on the world, and that that impact is actually important in the grand scheme of things? I know it feels that way to me.

I can’t help but think that this feeling of significance and the element of denial have a lot to do with FAITH and our religious practices. Consider all of the many different religions and expressions of faith that we have come up with throughout history. At their core, they are a way to not only help us make sense of our world, but also to instill in us the idea that each of us matters, that what we do matters. Perhaps we cling so hard to these religions–despite their generally flimsy logic–because by focusing intently on them, we are able to avoid thoughts of the magnitude of the Universe and our statistical insignificance. Maybe FAITH and DENIAL are equal partners in an elaborate hoax we are playing on ourselves.

Or maybe our propensity toward both faith and denial of the facts should be viewed as more evidence that we are so significant that we have been gifted with these traits to ensure that we press on to fulfill our special destiny. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired for significance. Maybe those dreams, ambitions, and feelings of purpose and calling are the Universe’s reminder that there is more to us than any statistics can prove or disprove. Perhaps our mere existence is to be seen as enough of a defiance of logic that we ought to know better than to look at numbers to tell us our worth. Maybe we just need to trust ourselves on that, to listen to that still, small voice inside to remind us Who We Really Are.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Maybe I am no more important than any other speck of celestial dust and all of us are just interesting-but-meaningless carbon anomalies being carried along on this third floating rock from the sun. If that is the case, then I wouldn’t stress so much about the job and the house and the conmen in Washington. But the truth is that as much as my brain loves logic, the Truth of who I am rests in my intuition. Somehow, that still, small voice is the one I trust the most. And I don’t care if it is unknowingly saturated with denial. My gut tells me I have a purpose and that I am here to make a difference, a difference that matters in the grand scheme of things. If it is right about that, fantastic. If it is wrong and I am really just that speck of dust, well, then at least I will have lived out my days in the service of making life better for all those other specks around me. I am going to have to live with that. Because I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know a better way.

How about you? Do you actually matter, or is your significance as infinitesimally small as your actual size relative to the Universe? Open up your journal and allow your mind to swim in a different depth, even if just for a while. What is your initial, gut-level reaction to this question? Is there actually something significant about each of us riding here on this little planet that is floating around one star amongst the billions and billions of stars in our galaxy, which is only one of billions more galaxies? Why do you think so many people think we are special despite the evidence to the contrary? Is it arrogant of us who think this way? Do you think we would feel more or less significant if we learned that there was intelligent life on planets spread all across the Universe? How often do you find yourself conscious of how small you are in relation to the Universe, not just how you are only one of 7 billion inhabitants of Earth? Is it mostly out of your consciousness? Do you consider that a form of denial? Is that denial healthy? How much of humanity’s significance–and your personal significance–do you attach to your faith? When you look at your faith and then at the statistics about the size of the galaxy and Universe, does it make you question the basic stories behind religions more than you might normally be willing to do? How much do you trust your intuition on this matter? Does your gut tell you that you matter? How much say do your brain and logic have in the matter? Even if you knew that it is very likely that you are fooling yourself, would you still continue to believe that your life and your choices matter? What would life be like believing that none of this makes any difference at all? Are there people in your life who believe that? What do you think makes them keep going? Can we be both insignificant and the center of the Universe simultaneously? Have your thoughts on this topic changed throughout your life? Have they changed as you have processed this today? Which way are you trending? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you everything or nothing at all?

Shine bright,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you in any way today, please share it. We are all sharing this third rock from the sun, so let’s make it the best ride we can!

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!

A Godless Future: What does the next generation believe in?

DSC_1156“Atheism is more than just the knowledge that gods do not exist, and that religion is either a mistake or a fraud. Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.” –Emmett F. Fields

Hello friend,

Last Sunday, I sat in the audience at a small church with a mix of pride, joy, and utter fascination. It was “Religious Education Sunday,” the day when all of the kids from all the different age groups in the congregation get to “perform” for the adult members, a way to highlight something they had learned in their classes during the year. I beamed and giggled as my son and the other kindergarteners sang “This Little Light of Mine.” I had taught the second and third grade unit, so I watched, with equal measures of anxiety and pride, their re-enactment of a story from Buddha’s life. Next came the third and fourth graders, then the middle schoolers, and on up, each group taking their turn at the front of the chapel, with all eyes on them.

Finally, it was the seniors’ turn. They were to go up, one at a time—there were only three of them—and read their personal “Faith Statement,” or credo, which they had clearly spent much of the year working on (and obviously their whole lives developing). Of course, I love to get inside someone’s head and heart and see what they are all about, so I was truly eager to hear what each had come to believe about this supremely important topic.

After all, I was raised Catholic. The essence of my religious education was being told, “THIS IS WHAT YOU BELIEVE! DON’T QUESTION IT. EVER!!!” I never fathomed the possibility of delivering my own, personally crafted statement of my spiritual beliefs to my entire church as I finished high school.

Thus, I was absolutely riveted when the first young man–quite an impressive 18-year-old, the kind you would like to hire for that Summer job and trust that he would be on-time and not playing on his phone all day–got up, thanked the congregation for their years of support, and began, “I believe in Science.” He proceeded to give a thoughtfully composed, confidently delivered speech that detailed his beliefs and the reasons behind them. And the crux of his belief system: There is no God. I was totally fascinated. Not just at his belief (or disbelief, rather), but also at the setting he was proclaiming it confidently in.

{A quick aside here for some context. After staying away from any sort of official house of worship for about 18 years, I somewhat begrudgingly allowed my wife to talk me into trying out a Unitarian Universalist (UU)fellowship several months ago. If I had to sum up my take on the UU principles, it would go something like this: As long as you are welcoming and respectful to everyone, open to all perspectives and backgrounds, and want to work for social justice and peace in our world, you are welcome here. I think of it more as a moral group rather than an actual religion. My sense is that, at least in my particular fellowship, there are probably a lot of people who left more the larger, organized religions earlier in life, turned off by their rigidity, dogma, or narrow scope. I would guess that the vast majority of members believe in a Higher Power of some sort, but certainly not all of them. But all are welcome to share their authentic selves. I have stuck it out this far for two main reasons: 1) I wanted my kids to hear another voice besides mine and my wife’s regarding moral and spiritual issues; and 2) I wanted us to do more of the service work that we often say we would like to do but rarely find the time for, figuring that connecting to a group that can facilitate opportunities to help would make it more likely (a.k.a. laziness on my part). Okay, back to the story….}

As I joined the applause for the charming young man’s speech, I thought to myself, “Wow! An atheist! And confident enough at 18 to proclaim his well-considered beliefs to a group of adults (mostly the gray-haired variety). What a rarity!” Then the second young man climbed to the podium and proceeded to inform us that he is also an atheist. His statement was different and equally well measured, but the conclusion was the same: “I believe that God does not exist.” My head started spinning. “WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!?” I was shocked! When the final young lady stepped up, full of personality and charisma—she later closed the service with a fantastically soulful version of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” with her acoustic guitar—I was sure she would tell us that her spiritual journey had led her to believe in a God like the one I grew up with. Wrong! She, too, had decided that she was an atheist. I was floored! Again, I just kept thinking, “What are the odds?” Three intelligent, friendly, socially-competent 18-year-olds who had put serious time and effort into this process had all decided that God did not exist.

As I applauded all three of them for their graduation and the self-awareness gained during this process of creating a personal Faith Statement—indeed, I think it is a good exercise for all of us–my mind kept returning to the same questions. It had been snagged and couldn’t free itself. Over and over: “Is atheism the new thing? Just how high is the percentage of true atheists—or even agnostics—among young adults today? How did I miss this?” I was flabbergasted. Not by the atheism itself—while I believe in a Higher Power, I can see the difficulty in proving it—but by the thought that this would be an enormously important shift, if indeed it was a shift, in our culture. But is it? How could I know?

I remembered that a few weeks ago, one of my co-workers, who raises her kids in the Catholic Church, had mentioned to me that her oldest son, a college freshman, is an atheist. So, after stewing on this puzzle for a couple of days, I asked her about it. She told me that her son’s roommate at school—randomly assigned—also turned out to be an atheist. She said he has friends with all sorts of different spiritual beliefs, but she was clear that he was definitely not the only atheist among them. It began to sink in that the three kids at my fellowship might be more than a statistical aberration. Atheism could be on its way to becoming the norm for the younger generations. How did this happen?

When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t know of any atheists. In fact, so entrenched was I in doing what I was told that even the thought of an atheist scared me. It was a taboo. You might read of an atheist in a book in the same hushed tone that you would a Satanist, as though there were a shroud of Evil around it. It was dangerous. I laugh now when I think of the reactions I have received when telling people that I am not a Christian. The first thing that usually gets verbalized is, “So, you don’t believe in God??” That is quite a leap, of course, and not necessarily a logical one. But I have certainly had the sense that, at least in some company, I have been the one viewed as “dangerous.” However, I am not an atheist.

I’ve met some confirmed atheists in the long years since then and didn’t think much about it. The few times I had, I wondered why I thought it so spooky when I was a kid. Philosophically, I have come to understand that one does not need a God in order to live a happy and morally-upstanding existence. Basically, the stigma in my mind has faded and morphed into more of a fascination (I want to know everything about everyone with different beliefs than me). But still, I didn’t know I was missing the beginnings of a potential religious revolution. My mind is blown!

How about you? What thoughts and feelings come up in you when you consider the possibility of an increasingly atheistic population? Open up your journal and try to make sense of your reactions to this possible trend. I say “possible,” because although the prospects for almost every fringe belief system, hobby, and interest seem to have increased in our Information Age, I had rarely considered that atheism might be on a real surge before this week. Also, with religion not being one of those topics to safely bring up in social situations, this rise might not be recent (or even real). Do you think it is? Have you had experiences of meeting or learning about young atheists in recent years? Let’s assume, at least for the moment, that this increase is really occurring. Do you see it as a passing fad or something with staying power? If it is for real, how does that sit with you? Are you alarmed? Unfazed? Pleased? My co-worker whose son is an atheist thinks the cause of the rise is these kids seeing all of the problems that the major religions have either directly caused or made worse, leaving the kids thinking, “This is not the way to go.” Is there some merit to that argument? The kids I listened to last Sunday talked a lot about Science and preferring things that could be tested and proven. Is that a good argument? With “1” being Totally Uncertain and “100” being Totally Certain, what is your degree of certainty regarding the existence of a Higher Power? If your number is pretty high, how tolerant and accepting are you of people who still believe but are much more uncertain about it? What is your reaction in learning that people you know are atheists? How would you like your children (real or imaginary) to come to their beliefs? Do you see the parents’ role more in terms of instilling their own beliefs in their children, or more as exposing their children to the range of beliefs and allowing the children to gravitate toward their own beliefs? Is it enough to try to teach children good morals and behavior, or should a religion be attached, too? How do you think you would feel if your child gave you his Faith Statement, and it concluded that he was an atheist? Would you try to change his mind? At what point do we just let them decide these things on their own? If atheism became the norm for the upcoming generations, how do you think that would change our everyday world? Would it be, on the whole, a benefit or a detriment? I think that, whether or not this surge in atheism is real or not, these are important questions for us to consider. In either case, leave me a reply and let me know: What does the younger generation believe in? 

Believe in YOU,

William

P.S. If this letter made you look into yourself a little deeper or from a different angle, I hope you will share it with your circle. We should be mirrors for each other. Bless you.

Thanksgiving & Responsibility: Refugees & the Home of the Brave, Part 2

DSC_0061 2“The price of greatness is responsibility.–Winston Churchill

Hello friend,

Thanksgiving Week is always–for me, and probably you, too–a time of reflection about all of life’s many wonderful blessings. Seeing everybody’s gratitude posts on Facebook and getting texts from family members, it always puts me in the mindset of counting my blessings. This year was no different. Although I think of myself as habitually grateful—reminding myself every day in my journal of how blessed I am—Thanksgiving Day found me thinking in specifics about the things that make this life so magnificent.

Halfway through that day’s journal entry, I wrote to myself: “I am truly grateful for this wonderful life of mine. There is Love all around me and in my heart. I cannot believe how lucky I am to share this little world with Karla, India, and Isaiah. We have the best time together, and it makes me shudder to even begin to imagine a world without them. They are the best. And of course, my big Rutten family is all I could ask for in that department. I am also so, so grateful that I woke up a couple of years ago to the fire inside me and the need to pursue my passion and share my voice with the world. I am every day driven by that, and happily so. It is an enormous challenge, but that challenge represents the blessing of knowing who I am and what I have to give. It’s a beautiful responsibility. I’ll take it! It is plain to me in this moment that I am blessed in every way. It is a Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Life is beautiful.

It’s a pretty typical gratitude check for my journal, the kind of sentiment that has filled up many lines of many pages of many journals in the last twenty years of writing. The part that my heart keeps going back to this Thanksgiving week, though—the word that feels exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events—is “responsibility.” Yes, with all of the focus everyone is putting on being thankful, my mind cannot help but carry gratitude to its next logical step. For me, Gratitude’s child is Responsibility.

I have always been a big believer in the principle, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,a.k.a. “To whom much is given, much is expected. In my mind, if you are lucky enough to have hit the lottery in one form or another—your intelligence, your physical abilities, your wealth, your power—then you have an obligation to do the best you can with your special gift. Honor what is special about you by using it to its fullest, especially in raising up others who were not given your gift. And don’t act like you are so much better than everyone else just because you won the lottery. You got lucky. Be grateful for that, not arrogant. That’s how I see it.

Lately, my beloved America has been embroiled in the drama of the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though there is, theoretically, space enough and resources enough for a few more in this great land, we ardently demand that our borders be closed and our resources saved just for us. Mine, not yours! It is greedy and small of us. But mostly, it just feels like our response is a blatant display of ingratitude.

We have struck the geographic lottery by being born in America, where we have tons of freedoms, clean water, never wars on our soil, and relative economic prosperity. And very few of us have personally done anything to earn this stuff. We got lucky by being born here. We have so much, and we like to think of ourselves as the world’s leader (e.g. we have taken it upon ourselves to explore space on behalf of all humankind, and it is always a “U.S.-led coalition” that goes after the bad guys). And yet, when a situation like the current refugee crisis arises, we avert our eyes and sit on our hands, pretending this is not EXACTLY the time that the world needs a real leader. The world needs a beacon of light right now, and instead, we are playing small. I am embarrassed by that.

The other angle of this situation with American attitudes toward the refugees that increasingly bothers and embarrasses me is the religious hypocrisy slant. Despite liking the idea of being a melting pot, the majority of people seem to cling desperately to the idea that we are a “Christian nation.” Though I am not a Christian, I have been one, I’ve read the Bible from start to finish, and I think very highly of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. From what I know of him and his principles, my guess is that he would be first in line to welcome the refugees and help them to re-establish themselves and become prosperous and contributing members of our community.

Jesus was, if nothing else, a teacher of love, tolerance, and humility. And yet, here we are as a nation of his followers, and the dominant features of our attitudes in this situation are fear, intolerance, and hubris. I shake my head as I think how sadly appropriate the meme on my friend’s Facebook page was this week showing Kermit the Frog sipping tea, with the caption reading, “All of the Bible Belt states refusing refugees put on a Christmas play every year about a Middle-Eastern family seeking shelter, fleeing persecution…but that’s none of my business.

It is easy to have principles when everything is going your way. It is convenient to be righteous when nothing is being asked of you. Well, guess what? Something is being asked of us now. We are being asked to share. Share our compassion. Share our resources. Share our country.

For most of us, the reason we are Americans is that our ancestors came here seeking a better life, a life with greater opportunity and less persecution. Others of us are here because our ancestors were brought here against their will and sold into slavery. Whatever the case, we are all here now, and we are pretty darn lucky to be here. We are blessed in so many ways that others are not. We have good reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. Collectively, our cup is full.

The question we have to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is this: How are we going to express that gratitude? Not just, “How are we going to be grateful?” but rather, “How are we going to act grateful?” What will we do? How can we make ‘gratitude’ a verb? Will we take up the responsibility that our many blessings call for? Will we take Jesus’ example seriously? Will we lead? Or will we play small? Will we hide behind fear and bigotry, seeking only to protect what we are sure is “ours” alone? We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a loaded question.

Basically, if we really are grateful for all we have and all that comes with being an American, then we have a responsibility to help. To open our grateful hearts and share. I want to think that we are big enough to rise to that. I want to. But are we? Our day of reckoning is here. Let us reveal ourselves. I am ready to stand with my arms open.

How about you? What kind of responsibility are you feeling this week? Open up your journal and explore your relationship with gratitude and responsibility. What are you most grateful for this year? How grateful are you to live in this country? What about being an American is so special and makes us so lucky? Is it mostly about the principles that the country was founded upon? Or is it the economic prosperity and opportunities? How about the relative safety and security? If you are reading this letter, you are probably one of the more prosperous people in the world. How much of that is your own doing? Do you agree with me that much of what we have is dumb luck, that we could just as well have been born in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Syria? If this is true, then how greedy are we justified in being with “our” space and “our” resources? Where would you be now if your ancestors were shut out of America the way so many of us are demanding that we shut out the refugees now? If we are as blessed as I believe we are, don’t we have a responsibility to help these people who are literally without a country? If not us, who do you think should help them? When you turn your back on someone in need–someone whom you have the resources to help–how does that make you feel? Powerful? Or small? It makes me feel small. Are you a Christian? What do you think Jesus’ stand on helping the refugees would be? Do you think it would matter to him what their religion is? What can you do to step up today, to honor your privileges? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do our many blessings come with greater responsibilities?

Happy Thanksgiving,

William

P.S. I thank you for reading my letter. If you are grateful for it, please share it with friends.

Sleeping With The Enemy?

DSC_0541“Because the difference between a friend and a real friend is that you and the real friend come from the same territory, of the same place deep inside you, and that means you see the world in the same kind of way. You know each other even before you do.” –Laura Pritchett, Sky Bridge

Hello friend,

Do you know who Mary Matalin and James Carville are? Even if the names don’t ring a bell, if you have watched a political show in the last 30 years or so, you have probably seen one of the two as a guest commentator defending their political party and/or bashing the other party. Mary has been a top Republican operative and advisor to President Reagan and both Presidents Bush. James, meanwhile, has been a leading Democratic strategist and frequent ridiculer of all things Republican. They have been against each other in elections going back to the first Bush vs. Clinton in 1992. Their views, seemingly, could not be more opposite. They are like oil and water. So, what binds them? They are married! Yes, married. What? How does that even happen? More importantly, can it survive?

Lately I have been thinking a lot about relationships and how people with very different outlooks can co-exist. Well, it is more than co-exist; we all should be able to do that. I’m thinking more about people who are married, people who are the best of friends, who talk about everything. How could they be true to their beliefs—and openly speak about them with their spouses—without stirring up an absolute firestorm in their own home?

We all figure out a way to get through our days more or less peacefully with our neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances. That way is called denial, a.k.a. compartmentalization. Simply put, we choose to not address the topics that might make us dislike each other. Everybody knows the old adage that the two topics that are off-limits at dinner parties (or most anywhere else) are religion and politics. It’s really just an energy-saving strategy. After all, life would be a constant challenge—even more than it already is—if we had a beef with just about everybody we crossed paths with in our day.

You don’t want to know that Sally from across the street would condemn you to rot with Satan for eternity because you are pro-choice, and you don’t want to know that Jim in the next cubicle thinks that all Muslims are terrorists. They, meanwhile, would rather not know that you voted for marriage equality and stricter gun laws. They don’t want to know because they actually like you in your current, bland package. They think you are a swell neighbor and co-worker because you regularly return Sally’s dog when it runs away, and you cover for Jim when he is late. If they knew what you believed and you knew what they believed—and worse, if you continued to talk about it the way we talk about sports or the weather—the everyday, friendly banter would soon disappear. Tension and arguments would become the norm. The neighborhood and the workplace would lose their welcoming feel. So, we avoid those topics. We deny in order to keep the peace. It is simple self-preservation.

But what about at home? What about when we are hanging with our very best friends? How about just with our spouse, the one who has sworn to love us for better or for worse? Can we finally be honest about our beliefs then, or are we still forced into silence to keep the peace? Surely we are free to speak our Truth at home to a welcoming, supportive audience. Right?

What do couples do who hold polar opposite viewpoints on key political or religious matters? How do Mary Matalin and James Carville thrive and fully support each other in their marriage when their politics are so different? Aren’t politics basically an outward expression of one’s values and beliefs? And if so, how can people with such different politics be each other’s best friend and biggest fan? I am having a hard time seeing how it works. I honestly don’t think I could do it.

This issue exposes one of my biggest flaws as a human being. I am oversensitive to the point of being unable to stomach being around people whose views differ too widely from mine. I don’t tolerate disagreement well at all. I just don’t get over it. I don’t move on. When someone’s character traits or values reveal themselves to me in a negative way—whether through treating me poorly or a conversation that goes political—I shut down in a hurry. It is as though my hypersensitive system does not allow that kind of energy in its space; it’s like an allergic reaction. It happens both with people and situations. As soon as something doesn’t sit well with me, I must remove myself immediately.

It’s a strange dichotomy, too: as open-minded and accepting as I am philosophically, my heart and my sensibilities have very strict boundaries. They do not like to be violated. Not at all, I mean. It is as though my feelings are hurt by the shallowness, foolishness, and coldness of others, even when those things are not directed at me. Because of this, political and religious discussions are dangerous for me. I have very liberal positions politically. I am passionate about them, too, and have, with the help of my journal, thought through them very deeply. So, I feel like my positions are well-grounded (I have written to you before about how bad I am at compromise and how I always believe I am right, which does not exactly help my cause here). But, as everyone knows, most of the people in this country—not to mention in my family, my neighborhood, and my place of business—are not very liberal. If I chose to engage all of the people in my little world in religious and political conversations, I would soon be a raw nerve of isolation, disappointment, and hurt feelings. I would be a mess!

So, what do I do? I keep my opinions to myself in most public situations: with co-workers, most friends, and even family. I politely insert my views where I can without stirring up the hornet’s nest too much. I write to you. And I talk to my wife. Yes, my outlet for thoughts of the political and religious nature, the ones that reveal what moves me and what I am all about.

It is both sad and scary that I have but one true outlet—one human outlet, anyway—for the real me (probably a topic to unravel in a later post). But at least I have my wife. I can’t imagine not having her to share that with, to have someone. Well, no, check that. As I write that, I realize that that is not the point. It is not about having someone—I went many years with only my journal knowing my true values, and I was perfectly happy—but rather about the fact that when I did agree to make a life with someone, that I could let the guard down and know that we could have peace without all of the denial and compartmentalization. A peace without the cowardice and pretense that cheapens the rest of my peaceful relationships. A peace whose foundation is Truth from both parties.

James Carville and Mary Matalin swear that they don’t talk politics at home. I still don’t know how they pull off a marriage without that. As I said, I know it shows weakness on my part that I don’t co-exist well with people who don’t see eye-to-eye with me on things that matter most. I am not proud of my intolerance or my hypersensitivity. But I know myself. I know that–especially since I never wanted to marry and wouldn’t wish me and my issues upon anyone—if I am going to be a husband, it has to be to a partner who shares my values and understands where I am coming from politically, and gives space and respect to where I am coming from spiritually. Thank Goodness I picked a good one!

How about you? How honest can you be with the person closest to you? Open up your journal and take a look at that relationship. Who is that person? Spouse? Best friend? Sibling? Parent? When it comes to the tough topics of politics and religion, how much of who you are can you share with them? Are there topics—e.g. abortion, marriage equality, President Obama, the afterlife—that you know you must steer clear of in order to keep the peace between you? What makes these topics so toxic? Are you, unlike me, good at having disagreements about these types of issues but still keeping a very positive opinion about the other person? How much of a filter do you need in order to keep your romantic relationship peaceful and happy? How does that compare to previous relationships? How does it compare to the relationship with your non-romantic best friend? Which relationship is more honest? If you were very liberal and somehow fell madly in love with someone, only to later learn that they were extremely conservative (or the other way around, whichever is easiest on your imagination), do you think your relationship could survive, or is that just a time bomb waiting to explode? Think about all of the denial and compartmentalization you do with the people in your life—neighbors, co-workers, and family—and all of the things you completely avoid talking about. It’s kind of disturbing, isn’t it? What do you think would happen if we all spent a week without our filters on—still polite, but open and honest about all sorts of topics that now go unmentioned? Would it be refreshing or too damaging for the long-term peace in your little world? What would you like to talk more about with your loved ones? What would it take to get you to bring it up? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: Could you live happily ever after with someone whose values and beliefs were quite different than yours?

 Trust in your value,

William

Happy Everything!!!

DSC_0405“All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.” –David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

Hello friend,

“Merry Christmas!!!” “Happy Hanukkah!!!” “Happy Kwanzaa!!!” “Happy New Year!!!” “Happy Holidays!!!” It is certainly a festive time of the year in this part of the world, even if we are celebrating different things. So, which one do you say when you greet someone or bid farewell these days? Does it matter? This time of the year, I always begin to wonder.

In recent years, as the world (hopefully) creeps toward greater tolerance and inclusiveness of difference, I have noticed it become more common to hear “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings!” in advertisements or greetings. Good old “Merry Christmas” seems to be losing its fashion in many settings. When my daughter’s Girl Scout troop went to a senior citizen center to sing carols, I noticed that the set list was loaded with secular songs (“Frosty the Snowman”, “Jingle Bells”, and the like) and empty of actual “Christmas songs” like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”. I cannot imagine that would have been the case when I was growing up. There seems to be change in the air. Is it simply us becoming more politically correct, or is it something more?

I don’t know if my house is a good example, but it’s the one I know best, so here is what I can tell you from this spot on the planet. My greeting to others at my work and in the world is typically “Happy Holidays!” I very rarely wish someone a “Merry Christmas” unless I am certain that they are Christian and celebrate Christmas. I try to be aware of the language I use, and I do my best to communicate thoughtfully, especially to those I do not know.

One of my favorite annual traditions is the receiving of “Christmas Cards”. I have always loved returning to my parents’ home for the holidays and settling into the sofa for a couple of hours with the basket that houses the enormous collection of Christmas cards and letters. I read all about my extended family and old family friends that I grew up with. I am deeply nostalgic by nature, so I adore this trip down Memory Lane. I have done my best to keep up the tradition, sending out a card and letter each year almost on time for Christmas. I don’t call ours a “Christmas card”, though, at least not to myself or to my wife and kids. To us, it’s a “Holiday card” (which makes it okay when it’s late for Christmas, right?). In recent years, the photo printing companies have really jumped on the bandwagon of inclusivity, so we get to choose one of the options that reads “Peace on Earth”, “Oh What Fun”, or this year’s choice, “May Your Days Be Merry”. I hope that choices like this land well with everyone who receives our card. The letter intentionally does not mention Christmas, though certainly most of the people who receive it are Christians. Most. Not all. And I have no wish to exclude anyone with my language.

In perusing Facebook lately and seeing what people are sharing and what type of comments they are making, I have noticed a fascinating trend: a backlash against my type of political correctness (I like to think of it as simple respect or inclusion, but what do I know?). I have seen angry, bitter comments from people demanding to “reclaim Christmas” in schools and public settings, or feeling like their freedom to say “Merry Christmas” has been infringed upon by all of this politically correct nonsense, to the point that they are supposed to feel guilty for broadcasting Christmas wishes to the world. The partnering themes seem to be “Keep Christ in Christmas!” and “This is America, and that means we celebrate Christmas!” My favorite Facebook meme in response to these angry, defensive claims was one that read, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done to you.” Hmmm. That sounds both productive and logical (which means that most of us will ignore it).

I guess I am unsure if non-Christians take any offense to hearing “Merry Christmas” all the time or not. I, for one, do not. I understand that the intent of most people saying “Merry Christmas” (or “Happy Hannukah” or “Happy Easter”) is not to convert me to their religion but rather to simply spread some cheer in the way they learned to do that. I am a fan of spreading cheer, after all. Sure, I could intellectually say to myself, “Why are you evangelizing about your religion when you don’t have a clue as to what I believe?” But it is feels easier—and more forgiving, frankly—to just roll with it.

And let’s face it: although Christmas gets a lot of folks into church who don’t often go, it has become a much bigger secular holiday than it has a religious one. If we polled a million people off the street—even if it was a million Christians—I would be willing to bet that if we asked them, “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘Christmas’?” far more people would say “Santa” than “Jesus”. I am not at all suggesting that Christians should forget the origin of the holiday—indeed, I wish they would follow the message of that Facebook meme even more—but I would say that it is okay to admit that Christmas has become mostly a secular celebration. We spend months and moneys buying presents, and then we get together to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a good thing.

And for those who feel like they need some ethical ammunition in order to keep saying “Merry Christmas” to every stranger they meet, admitting that it has become a secular holiday, ironically, gives you just that support. Think about it: if we just came to see Christmas in the same light as we see Halloween, for example, you could greet folks with a “Merry Christmas” and think nothing of it. It is only when we both 1) cling to Christmas as a religious day, a day primarily to honor Jesus, and 2) press our demands to use “Merry Christmas” without an awareness of our audience, that it becomes a problem of arrogance and Christian privilege. Because there is still some denial, debate, and confusion about the first issue, I choose to steer clear of the second.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that my hope for all of you at this time of the year is that you celebrate joyfully and safely, and that you do so with an awareness that, while we are all part of this wonderful unity called the human race, we are also each unique in our beliefs and traditions. In the coming days, I will celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, and I will bid a Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends. My cousin-in-law, Justin Data, recently wrote a blog in which he invented a new holiday called “Gluttonmirthen” that encompasses the entire span between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, aptly named because that period is both joyful and completely gluttonous. Now that is inclusive (and seriously, how fun is it to say “Happy Gluttonmirthen!”? I’m just sayin’.)! And while I will go on wishing everyone “Happy Holidays” and spreading good cheer, I will try to remind myself that this is not “the holiday season” for everyone; it is simply a time when a lot of my holidays come in rapid succession. So, I say to you, whenever your favorite or most holy holidays fall on the calendar, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!!!” It is all good to me.

How about you? Are you celebrating a favorite holiday this time of year? Open up your journal and write about what makes it so important to you. Does it make you nostalgic for your youth or for family members that are no longer with you? Is it a religious or secular holiday, or a bit of each? If it blends the two, which part do you prefer: the secular or the religious? Are you at all offended when someone wishes you a “Merry ________________” if you don’t celebrate whatever is in that blank? Do you think others have a right to be offended or feel oppressed by the majority trying to make everyone celebrate the majority group’s holiday? How do you greet people hello or goodbye at this time of the year? Do you say it unconsciously, or do you choose your greeting with care and consideration for your audience? Do you think you should? Is it enough to “mean well” or at least “mean no harm” by your greeting–no matter what you say–or should you work harder to understand the impact of your words before you say them? Which way do you lean on this issue: are we all just being too sensitive about this stuff, or is it time for a major shift in consciousness to bring about some long-neglected inclusion? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is it time to just say, “HAPPY EVERYTHING!”?

Be what you want the world to be,

William

Who is God?

DSC_0880“God has no religion.” –Mahatma Gandhi

At Christmas dinner several years ago, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I was no longer a Christian. The room went silent. All of the buzzing of different conversations stopped dead. There was a collective shutdown of communication, as no one seemed to know where to go with that thought. You might think that such a nugget might stir up a provocative discussion about some fascinating existential issues, such as religion, God, or the very nature of humankind’s place in the universe. NOPE! Crickets. No one asked what I believe in, why I had left the religion, or if I had found a new one.

WHY ARE WE LIKE THIS? Why do we have such difficulty communicating about an issue that speaks to not only our very essence as a species but also to the core beliefs that define our perspectives as individuals? Let’s face it: what you believe about God and religion colors your entire worldview. It is indisputably important. Even if you don’t care much for the topic, it is affecting you as the lens through which you see the world. So, why can’t we talk to each other about it? Why can’t we tell each other who God is to us?

I suppose the pat answer is that God and religion are in the same category as politics: there is just too much emotion tied up in them, that it only creates trouble to attempt a conversation on the topic. I can understand that. Because these feelings run so deep, it is only too easy to cross someone’s line, causing either the walls to go up or the fireworks to go off. Even though I appreciate a good, challenging conversation, I understand the hesitation to the idea of bringing God up at your holiday gathering in anything other than a prayer. However, I think one of the negative side effects in always taking a pass on this is that, over decades and generations, these issues are never raised at all. We learn what we learn from our religion or school or culture, but we also come to see by example that there is no room to converse and investigate the topic. We are receptacles only. Don’t think. Don’t question. Don’t explore. Accept blindly and silently.

It seems a shame to me, though, to miss out on some deep-diving conversation. It is such a rich, grand topic, after all. So, I will make a deal with you: I will give you a pass on attempting this conversation with your friends or family members today IF you take it to your journal. Yes, your journal: the safest, most accepting and affirming place to be your beautiful self. My journal is where I have processed my spiritual journey, from religious upheaval to deep, lasting Peace.

I grew up in a sometimes-churchgoing Catholic family. It was all of the traditional Christian representations of a Father God who had one son named Jesus, and the only way to return to God in Heaven was through Jesus. My Mom was more into it than my Dad was, and we went to church often enough to know the drill. I never liked it as a kid. Too much ritual, too much standing, too long, too boring. I respectfully challenged just about everything my Confirmation teacher said regarding the rules of getting to Heaven, because it just didn’t ring true to me.

From that introduction, you might think that I bolted from the church the moment I left home, but the opposite is true. When I went to college, I started going to Mass regularly. It was less formal, and I usually enjoyed the message of the sermon—which kept me going back—but never could quite get attached to all of the ritual and dogma. Even as I moved around the country in my wandering days in Minneapolis, Chicago, DC, New York, and Los Angeles, I always found a Catholic church to attend. I really just wanted to hear the sermon; I wanted to be moved and inspired by a good speech. I stomached the rest for the sake of the speech. And the Church was all I knew.

Until it wasn’t. When I was about 24 and living in California—and going to church weekly—I started finding wonderful books about other people’s experiences of God and spirituality. A seismic shift began inside of me. I was, at long last, connecting with stories of the Divine that rang true to me and my experiences. I was seeing in words for the first time the God I had always known. My soul began to bloom, and I was on fire with this new connection I was making to my God, the one I had always felt but never had the words or the support for. It was a God who permeated everything and didn’t have the jealous, vindictive streak from the stories I had learned growing up. And because God permeated everything completely, it meant that we were all one—connected, just like Quantum Physics tells us—and that we were all (not just Jesus) fully God. I liked this God. I liked him because I knew him. Somehow reading these books caused me to remember what I had somehow forgotten.

As you might have already guessed, my days as a Christian were over in a hurry with this new revelation. I was still fascinated and totally inspired by Jesus of Nazareth, but I was just as clear that he was not the one and only son of God and that I didn’t need to go directly through him to access God. (It was an amicable break-up; we’re still friends.) In the months and years that followed my awakening—nearly 20 years of uninterrupted Happiness, I believe it worth noting–I have been an avid student of God and religions. I have studied Philosophy of Religion both in and out of university. I have read the Bible from cover to cover, the Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and other traditional holy books. I enjoy them very much. I see pieces of each traditional religion that are appealing. I quite like certain aspects of Buddhism, particularly. Still, I have come to prefer books like Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series or Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. I like to learn about Quantum Physics, because it tells me in scientific terms what the other spirituality books on my favorite shelf tell me: that we are all One, inextricably intertwined with All That Is. I actually feel as though I understand well, though, where atheists and agnostics are coming from, and I sympathize with their positions. The traditional ways that scientists have determined “proof” don’t tally well when it comes to verifying the existence of any God. We are left with philosophical arguments, leaps of faith, or trusting our guts, hoping to find, as I did, something that feels like Truth.

So, what do I call myself if someone asks? If I don’t see the conversation going very deep, I might just say, “I am spiritual but don’t subscribe to a particular religion” or “I believe in God but am not religious.” More specifically, I believe that God is pure Love and that God is All. That is, that there is nothing that is not fully God. A logical extension of this is that I am God, in the same way that Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or Krishna (or Jim Jones or David Choresh) is God. (Humorous side note: My four-year-old confirms his understanding of this concept by saying, “God’s in my ear, right, Dad? God’s in my butt, too, right?” Yes, son, God is in your butt.). In any dictionary, there is a term called pantheism. I like the way Alasdair MacIntyre explains it: “Pantheism essentially involves two assertions: that everything that exists constitutes a unity, and that this all-inclusive unity is divine.” To be even more specific about my belief, I actually prefer the term panentheism, which is found in only a few dictionaries. Essentially, it means that God is the universe in its entirety, but God is also more. God transcends the universe. “He” is both the universe and also the intelligence behind it. That works for me. All of this points me to two conclusions that I like to remind myself of regularly: 1)We are All One, and 2) The end is not in doubt. I travel happily through the world with those assurances.

How about you? Who is God to you? Open up your journal and your soul, and merge the two. How do you visualize your God? Is it an old man with a long white beard who lives in a cloud-like Heaven? Is it an invisible spirit? Does it have human-like characteristics, such as anger and judgment? Is your God found in Nature? What do you call your God (I use God, the Universe, the Divine, the All, the One, All That Is, and Life interchangeably)? How do you reach your God? Do you have to go to a house of worship? Is God found only when you bow and make a formal prayer, or do you see God in the most mundane of circumstances? Do you pray regularly? Are your prayers typically requests for things you want, or prayers of gratitude? Do you feel heard? Do you think God answers specific prayers? If so, how do you think God decides? How tolerant are you about other people’s idea of God? Do you find yourself more put-off by someone from a different religion or by an atheist? Do you think there is any way to prove God’s existence? Is the order in the universe enough to explain it, or the complexity of the human body, or perhaps “miracles”? If it is so difficult to prove, why do atheists get such a bad rap, and why is there so much killing and animosity in the name of God? How sure are you of your God? Sure enough to try to convert others to your belief? This is a delicate topic for conversation—I can attest to that—which makes it the perfect topic for a journal entry. Dive deep and find your Truth, uncertainties and all. I would love to know what you find. Leave me a reply and tell me: Who is God to you? 

Namaste,

William

The Fine Line Between Compromise & Cowardice

DSC_0144“Accepting all the good and bad about someone. It’s a great thing to aspire to. The hard part is actually doing it.” –Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

Hello friend,

A couple of nights ago, my wife shared with me some wonderful news about one of her oldest, dearest friends. Then she followed it with, “She is just the sweetest person on Earth. It is too bad she is incredibly homophobic.” Huh??? My sensibilities had just been completely offended by such a statement, and my mind started spinning with questions and challenges. How could you call someone “sweet” in one breath and then point out her severe intolerance in the next? How can you claim to be so close with someone who embraces such bigotry and not even challenge her on it? Even more, how can you even be friends with that person? What does that say about you?

These questions were flooding my mind, and I had to take a step back from the situation to keep my blood from boiling. I am probably on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to how quickly I am offended by intolerance and bigotry. I am highly sensitive to racism, sexism, classism, and in this case, heterosexism. Thus, I had to fight myself to keep from pouncing on my wife’s statement about her friend’s seemingly contradictory personality traits of sweetness and homophobia.

You see, I hold my wife to a very high standard. She runs a multicultural center and is a highly conscientious and brilliant educator in the field of tolerance and diversity. She has been a shining example for me to follow in the many years we have been together, so the bar is set high regarding the people I expect to find in her inner circle. Thus, even as I was struck a bit sideways by the mere idea of a “sweet homophobe”, I was shaken even more by the fact that this walking contradiction was her dear friend. How could she fraternize with a bigot? Where were her high-minded ideals of tolerance and inclusion? Had they been compromised? Was my wife–this paragon of virtue–actually a spineless coward?

Before I let my idealistic image of my wife crumble in front of my eyes, I needed a reality check. I needed to understand just how glass my own house was before I started throwing stones at hers. I started combing through my mind and my history to dissect my closest relationships. I wanted to know if, and to what degree, I had compromised my own standards to make friends and to keep my loved ones dear to me. Maybe I was spineless, too?

I didn’t have to look far to find examples. My family is the greatest. Of course I love them all, but more than that, I genuinely like and respect each of my siblings and my parents. I very much look forward to every chance we have to get together; these are my favorite times of the year. BUT—there just had to be a “but”—there are definitely things that don’t get talked about for fear of upsetting the applecart. Several years ago at Christmas, I mentioned casually that I was no longer a Christian. BOOM!!!!! It was like a silent bomb went off. No one has spoken about the topic in my presence since. Then there is politics. I grew up in a house that worshiped Ronald Reagan and all things Republican. As far as I can tell, the rest of the gang (and their extended gangs) has remained pretty far—some very far—to the right. I, on the other hand, lean heavily the other way on pretty much everything. So, do we have a dialogue on the important issues of our time and the way our country is going? Heck no! We stay as far away from that as possible. Nobody wants to start a fight or to risk thinking less of someone that is going to be in his life for a long time. Avoiding the conversation keeps everyone from exposing themselves. Our silence keeps the peace. Denial runs deep.

My dearly departed father-in-law wanted nothing to do with his Black daughter dating—much less marrying—a White man. It wasn’t personal–it didn’t matter that I knew him before we even dated and never had a problem with him—the rule was for any White man. He openly denounced the relationship from the start, and carried it to the point of not attending his daughter’s wedding. He was always kind to me when I visited his house after our marriage, and my wife continued to dearly love and even admire him to the day he died. Still, it was tough to wrap my mind around, and despite his friendly actions, I never quite got myself to the point of real comfort around him because I could not untangle the web that could hold such extremes of belief and action. My wife, though hurt by his disapproval, remained as loyal and loving to him as ever.

It reminds me of the way we idolize people and want to see them one way, subconsciously blinding ourselves to the not-so-heroic stuff. We see Christopher Columbus as the brave explorer and discoverer of America, neglecting the land-raping, slave-taking parts. We see Thomas Jefferson as the author of our Constitution, top-tier President, and one of the most brilliant men in our country’s history, conveniently looking right past his history of holding (and having children with) slaves. We see Martin Luther King only as the great Civil Rights champion, ignoring his infidelities. We shield ourselves from the truth in order to make things fit more comfortably in our minds. Caricatures are easier to deal with than complexities. This goes as much for our heroes as for our loved ones.

Is it even possible to have it all one way, though: to see our loved ones as entirely commendable and agreeable, to sit comfortably with everything they do and stand for? As it turns out, human beings—all of us—are complicated creatures. We are not cartoon characters, so plainly hero or villain. No one is completely clean or completely dirty. Despite our greatest efforts to paint each other entirely black or white, it turns out that we are all a big, messy rainbow of grays. If we chose only to love the pure, we would all surely be lonely souls.

So, we do our best. We love those whom our hearts can’t help but love. We love our family members through some cosmic-genetic-magnetic force that pulls us together in that “no-matter-what” way that we can feel but can’t quite explain. We love our friends because we fell in love with their best qualities when we met and now cannot simply choose to fall out; they are residents of our hearts whether we like it or not.

For all of these residents of our heart, we find a way to make peace in our mind. It is a delicate balance of trying to see the good in them without being in total denial of the less savory elements. We become managers of our interactions, chemists desperately trying to avoid a combustible mix. We choose to steer clear of conversations that will explode in our faces, only dealing with certain issues if they are thrown hard at us to the point of inevitability, and even then only briefly and tactfully. We choose our battles.

There is no doubt that it requires a certain level of denial. There are just things we don’t like to think about when it comes to our loved ones. Even more than thinking about it, we definitely avoid actually confronting the offending companion. Be honest, do you really want to have a dialogue—either internally or with the problem person—about your father’s racist comments? Do you want to address your best friend’s homophobia? How about your sister-in-law’s belief that poor people are poor because they are lazy? No, as repulsive as all of these things make us feel inside, there is no doubt that our tendency is to deflect them as best we can, steering instead toward safe harbors of conversation in the service of keeping the peace.

But how much can you swallow—how much can you compromise your principals—before you reach the point where you feel entirely spineless? The answer, of course, is different for everyone. Much, I suppose, depends upon how much we feel like we “need” the relationship (frequency of visits certainly plays a role as well). If we are willing to let it go—obviously not as convenient with family as it is with friends—we may be more willing to take the risk. Sometimes we take the risk because the relationship cannot be let go of (e.g., if you and your sibling have fought and made up a million times before, you might think one more round for a good cause is worth the family drama).

Whatever the justification, it seems that we, more often than not, pretend that our loved ones’ unacceptable views do not exist. We sweep them under the rug. It is, whether conscious or not, a compromise of our beliefs in the service of keeping the relationship. But perhaps it is really much more than a mere compromise. Maybe that is putting a nice face on it. Perhaps it is more accurate to call it cowardice or spinelessness. After all, if you are not sharing your Truth or not addressing your loved one’s Truth for fear of disliking each other, aren’t you living like a coward? It takes a lot of courage to be who you are and accept others for who they are.

That was the one part, in hindsight, that my complicated father-in-law had down. He may have openly disapproved of my relationship with his daughter, but he didn’t shut her out or stop loving her because of it. They both spoke and lived their Truth—and agreed to disagree on how she should live her life—and kept right on loving and admiring each other despite their differences. They were able to meet each other right where they were and accept the other’s beautiful complexity rather than living in denial and pretending everything was wine and roses. Perhaps that is the courage we should all aspire to. Yes, I think I will start there.

What about you? How do you justify spending time with/accepting/loving someone who holds views so antithetical to who you are and what you stand for? Get out your journal and write about your relationship with your loved ones. Which ones can you share your Truth with and fear no drama? Which ones do you not even want to hear their Truth?  How willing are you to challenge someone on their actions or beliefs? Does it make a difference if that belief regards you (e.g. your race, sexuality, politics, etc.)? Are there people you avoid at family gatherings, knowing they will say or do something that will make it hard for you to hold your tongue and keep the peace? What issues are off-limits when you get together with family? Are those issues different when you gather with your friends? Which of your relationships could withstand a challenge like this? Which relationships would crumble? What does the answer to those two questions say about how you should value the relationships in each camp going forward? Maybe you would be doing both parties a favor with a challenge. Is there one relationship in particular in which, if you don’t challenge them soon, you will pass from the point of compromising for the sake of keeping the peace to the point of feeling like a spineless coward for not telling your Truth? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where do you draw the line between compromise and cowardice? 

Surround yourself with Love,

William

Clinging to Life on Earth

IMG_1029Hello friend,

I used to feel really prepared to die. I did. I didn’t have a death wish, and I wasn’t necessarily eager to go, but I definitely felt ready. Lately, though, I have swung completely the other way. I obsess over the possibility of my death. And it is not only mine; it goes for my wife and children as well. I think about it way too much. Worry. Fear. Dread. They are all part of the package. But why? How did I go from welcoming death to obsessively dreading it? How did I get this way?

When I was a kid and young adult, I didn’t think much about death. Like most people at that age, I felt pretty bulletproof. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might die at any moment. In my mid-20s, I went through a spiritual overhaul. I spent a lot of time contemplating God and my place in the Universe, and I became much more clear about what I believed. I felt intimately connected—united–with everything. It was a beautiful way to live, really. During those years of blissful union with the Divine, in particularly rapturous moments, I found myself saying out loud, “You can take me now, God, if you want. I am ready any time.” I guess I was just really solid in my belief that, no matter what form we are in, it is All God and will never be otherwise. The end is not in doubt.

With that thought as my foundation, it really just didn’t seem to matter to me whether I was “alive” or “dead”. The difference was only a superficial one. I loved the life I was living here on Earth, but I figured the next part was at least as good, so why not? I could go either way. When I heard of people dying, I thought two things: 1) Good for them; and 2)Bless their loved ones. I went along that way for a lot of years, loving life but welcoming death. The Grim Reaper was certainly not my enemy, nothing to fear.

That all changed suddenly on a hot Friday night in August of 2008. It was not a car accident, terminal diagnosis, or some other brush with death. No, it was, in fact, a brush with LIFE. My daughter was born. My whole world changed in a flash. The sun rose and set in her eyes. I hung on every breath, and the slightest smile from her could carry me through the day. But it was not this immense joy that she—and later her brother, too—brought to my world that completely turned my relationship with death. Rather, it was the responsibility. Yes, suddenly I was completely in charge of raising and nurturing this magical little creature to adulthood, and it needed to be the most loving, joyous upbringing ever. In order for me to insure that she had her greatest friend and protector, I needed to stay alive.

In that instant, death became my sworn enemy and greatest threat. It is true that my spiritual foundation did not suddenly fall to shambles. I still believed that All is God and that the end is not in doubt. I still believed it was going to be beautiful on the other side. And I knew that everyone on Earth figures out a way to carry on no matter what the circumstances, so they would make it without me. But I couldn’t have that. The idea of leaving them behind is a torturous one for me. Everyone always says that the worst thing imaginable is having your child die. I can see that so clearly at this point, which is why I have come to obsess in my dread of my children’s deaths. I have been reading and re-reading John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars, lately. Its leading characters are kids with cancer, and I am just sick the entire time, not just in imagining my own children suffering from something so awful, but also in thinking about their parents.   What an awful, helpless feeling!

But I think that not so far down the ladder from that pain must be the idea of dying yourself and leaving your kids without you to raise them. Talk about helpless! A couple of years ago, my cousin Heide died of cancer. She was the mother of two amazing little girls. I have thought about her and her family a million times, both during her battle and, of course, after it ended. I can’t stop imagining how helpless she must have felt, knowing that she was not going to be there to nurture and watch her girls grow up and become women. I would be absolutely shredded by it. Just thinking about it knocks me into a state of shock. Unselfishly, I want to be of the utmost service to my kids every step of the way. Selfishly, it would absolutely eviscerate me to miss out on their daily magic. I want to be the shepherd, but I also want to be the witness.

It is also for these reasons that the thought of my wife’s potential death haunts me as well. As I said, I need my children’s upbringing to be the absolute best, most loving experience, and she is a crucial part of that. The kids need their mother, and she needs to be their mother. We have a vested interest in living this earthly life for a while.

Does this mean I will stop freaking out about death and return to my “Take me any time, God!” mode when they reach adulthood and no longer need the shepherd? I imagine the dread will diminish some, but not entirely, because the witness will still want to witness. I have no doubt that thoughts of missing out on their lives (and potentially the lives of their children) will keep me wanting to stick around to a ripe old age. Still, I think I won’t be as clingy to this life as I am now. My seeming desperation to live right now will more likely become a mere preference for life over death. Hopefully I can always maintain my focus on the present, secure in the knowledge that the best way to make the most of my time here is to stay in the moment rather than obsessing over the past or future, a future which certainly will include all of our deaths.

How about you? How desperate are you to keep living? Grab your journal and pen, and dig in. How do you react when you hear of someone dying? On a scale of one to ten, how peacefully do you think you would accept the news that you have only a year to live? How much does your family situation play into that rating? How much do your spiritual/religious beliefs affect your feelings regarding your acceptance of death? Has your acceptance of your mortality changed over the years? Do you think you would accept a terminal diagnosis better for yourself or for a family member? Obviously this topic is a deep and challenging one, but I believe it is very revealing and thus highly worth your while. So write! Then, leave me a reply. I want to know: Are you clinging to life on Earth?

Live like you mean it,

William