Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Past Woes, Present Treatments

My apologies for the time it has taken to write a post. This week has been extremely busy with one medical appointment after another. As a means of processing what I have recently experienced, I’ve decided to write about the experience.

I’ve begun to move beyond the most immediate hurt. For a time, I was momentarily fixated upon a very specific part of my life. That was to be expected. Colloquially, I call those times “the abuse”. Now we confront more sublime memories, each part of the trauma of day-to-day living. These are death by a thousand cuts, the little hurts that pile atop each other.

My early days existed in a state of unyielding isolation. Others made overtures of friendship, but I was too fearful to enter their company. I was a loner, the bookish kid in the corner. I read the way some of my peers chewed gum, constantly and conspicuously. As is often true with children in bad circumstances, I was able to escape my unhappiness by embracing the fantasy that existed in between the pages. My intellect took shape in solitude; my emotional intelligence lagged behind.

Human contact terrified me. This was never truer than when dropped off at school, or on days the family attended church. We arrived as a more or less intact unit every Sunday morning roughly around 9. Each of my siblings and I were dispersed to different Sunday School classrooms. I would stay in a dark, fusty smelling room comprised of whitewashed cinder block walls long enough to escape the eyes of my parents, and then run away.

Fortunately, the church had a graveyard adjacent to it. Ducking down, my knees resting on the immaculately mowed grass, I hid. Crouching down behind to a gravestone, I was hidden from sight. No one could find me there, or so I believed. My hiding place became common knowledge with time, and my parents eventually arrived to energetically and exasperatedly send me on my way once again. Eventually, I found I could tolerate a full hour’s worth of bible stories, warm juice, and other kids my age.

Stories like those come to mind now. Those fears are the ones we attack now. They do not surrender easily. As I follow the fingers of my therapist, tracking, seeking to push my eyes from side to side, they melt away to nothing. These miniature agonies are the most persistent, the kind inclined to reassert themselves between sessions. I try not to be frustrated, but frustration is often the most tenacious feeling of them all. It has attached itself to old wounds in all sorts of ways.

My therapist is a tiny, grandmotherly woman with a pronounced German accent. I believe she has a bit of a speech impediment, but I wonder if the discrepancy I detect is a result of her being foreign-born. Otherwise, I can’t help but notice how much she resembles the sex therapist Dr. Ruth, both in cultural identity and in stature, though she’s a bit less boisterous. Every week we spend ninety minutes reprogramming my brain. That fact might be more distressing if I wasn’t so dissatisfied with its current configuration.

EMDR is designed to activate the brain by focusing on strongly negative feelings. In addition to the eye motion segment, I am asked to frequently rate the severity and intensity of both negative self-talk and positive self-talk. It’s very easy for me to find flaws with myself. A brain accustomed for most of a lifetime to entertain constant insecurity takes a while to be won over to optimism.

The goal is to eventually feel better about myself internally, without as much need for external gratification. Each of us may require some validation by others to make us self-confidence personified. Neither therapy, nor medication has ever been successful at resolving this problem. At times, I admit I almost have a perverse need to cling to these self-defeating thoughts. Chronic pain can produce symptoms of masochism. Convincing myself of my own inherent value will be the greatest challenge.

Monday, February 27, 2012


I will not be posting here tomorrow. In a few hours, I will be taking part in an overnight sleep study. Because I have a prominent family history of sleep apnea, the test will determine conclusively whether or not I have it as well. Should a sleep disorder be detected, it is likely that the disorder has exacerbated other health concerns.

Having answers instead of questions would be welcome news. Should I have sleep apnea, soon I'll have my own CPAP machine!

Disability Rights in Faith Communities

The fundamental argument over the past few weeks has been whether government has a right to overrule the practice and beliefs of religious groups. As we know, the Catholic Church has been allowed to restrict access to contraception for a long while. Even though a majority of women use birth control, the Church has refused to bend to popular will. Government sought to step in to provide what would seem to most as commonplace and unspectacular. Instead, an influential institution decided to stir up another skirmish in the culture wars.

If we are to be fair, religious groups and places of worship have long been given sufficient leeway. The Founding Fathers wished for a government that, as historian Ron Chernow put it, “passively tolerated” organized religion instead of directly intervening in its affairs. This decision was itself a reaction to the power, exclusivity, and influence of the state Church of England. The Anglican church long held an especially limited tolerance for other religious groups. Those who formed the United State of America felt a lasting anxiety, due to a peculiarly British dislike of Catholicism, which was often contemptuously condemned as “Popery.”

Returning to where we began, beyond reproductive rights or deep seeded prejudices, faith groups have been consistently allowed to discriminate. In particular, this includes one overlooked segment of the population: people with disabilities. Mark I. Pinsky’s recent book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion addresses the problem. “…Small or medium-sized congregations, which are the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the United States, are effectively exempt from provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Large gatherings, which include megachurches, are required to fully accommodate the disabled. Most others, however, are not required to make sufficient arrangements and, accordingly, they do not.

This compromise measure in the ADA act has enabled houses of worship to consistently overlook the needs of those with limitations. The act has been the law of the land since 1990, but is long overdo for an overhaul to keep it up to date. Legislation aside, the attitudes of congregations are regularly the primary stumbling blocks. At times, even the mildest of changes has been greeted with open hostility and contempt. Fearful of reform in any form, reasonable requests to accommodate the disabled are often opposed and blocked.

My own Quaker Meeting has recently wrestled with making changes to the main Worship room, a historic, but acoustically problematic space. Friends with hearing problems have long asked that something be done so that they might be able to hear each First Day Worship’s vocal ministry. I feel certain that making a welcoming space for people with disabilities could grow the Meeting. But I have had to recently concede that people can be fixated upon their own dislikes enough that they do not see the greater gain beyond. A few modifications here and there might very well provide the renewed vibrancy and energy that many Friends have long desired.

Still, one cannot overlook one looming impediment: money. Cost alone can be exceedingly prohibitive. Membership among many faith groups is in decline. Often, congregations lose a member for each one they gain. Membership rolls reflect this phenomenon. Even with a sufficient number of frequent attenders and members, often only a small minority contribute money. With limited resources, 20% of the congregation strains to support the demands and needs of the other 80%.

If houses of worship are financially unable to make these needed reforms, then other avenues need to be considered. Soliciting money makes many people queasy, but it may be unavoidable. Depending upon charity alone reminds me of an argument from another time. Herbert Hoover, himself a Quaker, believed that churches, charities, businesses, and relatives ought to aid those out of work. His perspective was that of strict government non-intervention. Franklin Roosevelt, as we know, had a very different approach. The New Deal established a precedent that government must intercede where the private sector fails.

Should houses of worship refuse to make a space for disabled citizens, who or what will step in to ensure that they can? Though the Catholic Church asserts a degree of influence because of its size, wealth, and historic importance, it does not dominate American society. This country is home to multiple faiths, multiple cultural traditions, and very diverse houses of worship. Would it be feasible to expect government to subsidize the very means by which disabled people can be fully integrated into faith communities? Many have been waiting for years and may be waiting much longer.

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

-Billie Holiday

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Southern Belle Ideal

Regional identity may not hold the same prominence it once did, but its distinctions are often extremely pronounced. Since I’ve lived elsewhere, I’ve been able to attain some needed distance and perspective. I still feel as though I am a foreigner, living in a strange land, one with very different societal priorities.

Though it has been years since I lived close to the place of my birth, I find I still carry with me a particular way of looking at the world. Over the past few weeks, my thoughts have returned to the particular mix of gender roles and gender expectations commonplace to a part of the country I will always call home.

Where I grew up, the roles of women were frequently stratified and closely governed. It was unusual to observe much overlap between social groups. The popular girls, for example, were held accountable to a set of very specific rules. Many of these had to do with educational achievement. They could be smart, but not too smart. They could make passing grades in school, but were careful to never make all A’s.

Intelligence and intellect came second to cosmetics pursuits like wearing fashionable clothing, flawlessly applying makeup, and other behaviors that placed a particularly emphatic priority upon outward appearances.

Girls who couldn’t inhabit this world felt like second best, shunned and ignored. Some focused on their studies in defiance of the system of priorities that had been long established. This attitude barely disguised a frequent anxiety caused by not belonging and not being good enough. Some young women saw outside the world of mean girls, competition, and power grabs. They went about their lives accordingly.

Others were forever resentful that they were not included and were made to feel shame because of it. Sometimes a profound fear of rejection and inadequacy were lasting side effects. It was my experience that these beliefs rarely stopped at high school. Often they were carried forward for years.

I didn’t need to look far to observe prominent examples of these traditional attitudes. Yet, I rarely observed gendered opinions and life stories that didn’t often include conflicting points of view. My grandmother, for example, in many ways defied the stereotypes of her age. Raised by four brothers in the middle of the Depression, she’d had to be tough in order to survive. To many, she was seen as the dictionary definition of a strong woman.

However, her opinions towards gender roles were extremely indicative of the time in which she came of age. My sisters, in addition to all existent female cousins, were regularly given two especially questionable pieces of advice and commentary. Her attempts towards indoctrination, if you will, began at a very young age. Each of her female progeny were told that to get a man, all a woman needed to do was dress up and act dumb.

And, rather frequently, they were belittled about their supposedly oversized hips and thighs. All of this was part of the Southern Belle ideal. Men were not supposed to have their intelligence threatened or challenged. Beauty standards were an element of a similarly unreachable ideal of body image.

I’m sure that cultural standards like these are not entirely unknown elsewhere. It’s been my observation that, elsewhere, overlap within identity groups was quite possible. I’ve been told that in other cities, states, and regions, it was entirely possible to be both a cheerleader and a valedictorian. As I listen to the stories and anecdotes of others, I wonder how and where things are changing, and for the better. Every hierarchical social system, in adult life and in adolescence, elevates a few and leaves out many others.

The examples learned early in life make a powerful impact upon young women. These formative years often determine the direction of future interpersonal decisions and ideas about the self. The challenges that lie before us vary considerably. Some of them are true more or less everywhere, and some of them are very specific to location. Any strategies adopted will have to take both into account.

Quote of the Week

"I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed."-Alexander Hamilton

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Video

This is the one and only story I have of significance regarding a close brush with music fame. Verbena were Birmingham, Alabama's, closest thing to rock fame. The album from which this song is found, Souls for Sale, was released in 1997. As an aside, I was in high school hell at the time and used my albums as a kind of salve. In a very small, extremely incestuous music scene, Verbena rose to the top. Souls for Sale was at least released on Merge. This gave it indie cred, which built enough of a buzz for the group to be noticed.

The story might have ended here, but an unexpected face entered the picture. Dave Grohl, who had by now started up the Foo Fighters, took an interest in Verbena. He even produced their second album, Into the Pink. With the former Nirvana drummer pushing this unknown act, Verbena promptly signed up to Grohl's label Capitol. Despite having a big name pushing it, their sophomore effort was still mostly a dud. It resembled, as many noted at the time, a kind of poor man's Nirvana.


Hey, yeah, come on get in the car
This song goes out to no one but me
But I'll try just to sing a little harder

Hey, come on get in the car
Don't you wish that we could go for a ride, well
Hey, come on get in the car
Do you wanna bet?

It's the same your words
You get addicted I'm free

Another guess that you're gonna get smarter
This song goes out to no one but me
But I'll try just to sing a little harder

Hey, come on get in the car
Don't you wish that we could go for a ride, well

Hey, come on get in the car
Do you wanna bet?
Hey, yeah, come on get in the car
Hey, yeah, come on get in the car

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Child's Claim to Fame

There goes another day
and I wonder why

You and I
Keep telling lies

I can't believe a word you say
'Cause tomorrow's lullaby

Can't pacify
My lonesome crying

Make believe is all you know
And to make believe is a game

A child's reign
You've changed your name

So sadly I watched the show
As I see what you became

Truth is the shame
Too much fame

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cultural Narcissism and Toxic Fame

Mental illness often has a biological, inherited component. Though I am not usually a person inclined to self-promote, my own personal story of disability has been featured in a recent book. In it, four pages are devoted to the intersection of bipolar disorder and religious belief. While the book was being compiled, I wrote out, and then submitted a summary of my life. About half of it was used in the final version. As a society, the way we perceive of mental illness shows up in truncated fashion, often because we haven’t felt comfortable connecting the dots.

Much of our popular understanding of mental illness comes from works of narrative fiction. Authors like Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath documented their own symptoms and struggles in novel form. Their books were emotionally powerful because they lifted the shroud of secrecy and shame. In their time, honesty on this scale was profoundly shocking and often disturbing. Mental illness was never to be mentioned in public for any reason. One side of my own family has regrettably taken this same approach.

I’d much rather confront a different sort of brain disorder, one not necessarily confined to depressive episodes and histrionic displays of mania. Most people who do not have mental illness, or who don’t have family members with it find it harder to completely understand. I’d rather shift the focus to an illness upon which we might all be able to relate. Namely, I’d like to talk about the long term psychological impact of a life spent in the public eye.

Periodically, our attention is consumed by another celebrity coping inadequately with substance abuse. More recently, it was Whitney Houston. In time, it will be someone else. Rather than referencing an underlying psychiatric diagnosis like depression or bipolar disorder, I’d like to propose that celebrity itself is toxic and unhealthy. We’ve given that idea lip service for a long time, but have never really examined the problem in the detail it deserves. The amount of money and number of basic livelihoods involved in a billion-dollar industry likely extinguishes any debate before it even has a chance to get started.

What follows is a very real personality disorder, one which is a learned behavior, not an inherited biochemical disease.

Acquired situational narcissism (ASN) is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity.

ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society: fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.

"Millman says that what happens to celebrities is that they get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back at other people."

In its presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its support by large numbers of others. "The lack of social norms, controls, and of people telling them how life really is, also makes these people believe they're invulnerable," so that the person with ASN may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse and erratic behaviour.
No one is born with ASN. Though a person might be inclined to some of these symptoms beforehand, celebrity makes them much worse. We shoulder some of the blame. Though we do not sell drugs to those in the public eye, nor encourage their worst qualities, we are nevertheless their enablers. Every time we placate people who have an already inflated and exaggerated sense of themselves, the problem gets worse. Don’t get me wrong. We should hold sympathy in our hearts. Still, efforts to make needed changes are limited unless we back them up with accountability.

Lashing out verbally or in written form is a popular form of civic discourse. That is not what I mean. All we’re really doing is taking part in a cultural version of Orwell’s Two Minute Hate. Celebrities often only exist as a popular, easy means to project our own hopes, desires, and frustrations. We might feel better afterwards for having vented, but the cycle never ends. A celebrity does something foolish or says something foolish, an outpouring of boos and cat calls are heard, and we’re right back where we started. Entirely rethinking the idea of fame is the boldest proposal of all.

For all of the hate and disgust they produce, we allow celebrities to act recklessly because they stand in for us. Daily life for most of us is full of relatively bland responsibilities like a job, children to raise, and bills to pay. Our criticism is as much envy as it is disgust. Ours is a love/hate relationship, and the pendulum swings freely and frequently.

Even with all the wealth spent every year for promotion, even with the constant rumors about pregnancy, even with the massive speculation about sexual orientation, even with spurious rumors in the tabloid press, even when great opulence and financial gain completely eviscerate someone’s privacy, we have no reason to take the bait. This conduct of ours feeds a dual addiction. The mass of us live lives of quiet desperation. Our co-dependent beliefs must come to an end. Until then, we’ll be burying another star who was overwhelmed by the pressure cooker of fame.

Funny Mostly for Birmingham Natives (Like Yours Truly)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion

At long last, now in publication! The book includes 64 separate stories. Mine happens to be number 20. The book was set up like this. I was first asked to write a more or less narrative summary of what life is like with a disability. I began it early in life and concluded in adulthood. The summary ran around 1,000 words in length. About half of my words are preserved in the final draft. Present also is the perspective of my mother, who contributed her own account.

In the book, I represent my faith, Quakerism, and my Monthly Meeting in Washington, DC. A Friend who until recently clerked (led) the committee of which I am a member kindly sent along her remarks. These are also enclosed in the final draft.

The anthology's author, Mark I. Pinsky, was respectful in his questions and skillful in combining different perspectives into a compelling whole. From start to finish, the draft proof I approved took the form of published book in about six months. At a little over five pages in totality, mine is one of the most lengthy in the collection. I'm glad to be a public face of bipolar disorder and I hope it inspires others to seek treatment.

Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion is published by the Alban Institute.

My Apologies

I simply didn't have the time to post today. Try me back tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Welcome to the Working Week

Now that your picture's in the paper
being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that
you have ever desired.

All you gotta tell me now is
why, why, why, why?

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh, I know it don't thrill you,
I hope it don't kill you.

Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it 'till you're through it
so you better get to it.

All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin'
for their big day to arrive.
But if they knew how I felt
they'd bury me alive.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you,
I hope it don't kill you.

Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through
it so you better get to it.

I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.

Sometimes I wonder if we're
livin' in the same land,
Why d'you wanna be my friend
when I feel like a juggler
running out of hands?

Welcome to the workin' week,
oh, welcome to the working week.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The patience and persistence of activism

Every now and again, as in the birth control debate still smoldering, glaring examples of inequality come before us. The sight of a male-only religious panel arguing against contraception before Congress is one of these. Without the addition of even a single female voice, the spectacle makes it clear that we are still living in a man’s world. With such damning evidence, even men can no longer deny the fact. It should not take something so blatant to reveal an otherwise long standing truth. We often arrange our priorities wrongly.

Many issues pertaining to women are segregated, compartmentalized, and assumed to only be of importance to exactly one sex. When news stories break that are much more visually subtle (and they often are), these topics are usually discussed in a relatively small circle of discourse. Books about Feminism, women’s rights, and the like find themselves relegated to a tiny corner of a bookstore. Unless you knew precisely where you were looking, it might be entirely possible to walk right by. This ghettoizing effect has long been present, to the complete consternation of those who would bring these discussions to a much larger audience.

Those who tirelessly push the discourse upon what often seems like an apathetic world have my respect and my sympathy. I myself seek to enlighten others along the same lines. Because I am a man, I sometimes have the ability to affect the attitudes and perception of other men. If I am successful, others keep what I’ve said in mind, at least for the short term. But once they’ve gone to work, watched television, or slipped back into traditionally male assumptions and patterns of belief, my hard work is blunted. It’s now time for me to try again.

My Great-Grandfather was a minister. He was once asked why he consistently preached sermons that referenced the same several passages of Scripture. His response was that, in his mind, people needed a constant reminder of the lessons contained within them. He conceded that it was easy for everyone, with time, to arrange their priorities incorrectly. Religion, for him, was an essential corrective to get people back on the right track. He expected that people would routinely stray, and he structured his sermons accordingly.

Persistence may be our strongest ally. We expect much of other people, just as we expect much of ourselves. When we cannot make the immediate, measurable impact we desire, we become frustrated. I don’t believe that our sights should be set lower, but rather that we understand a core truism. The process of reform and progress is unceasing. What we accomplish today may only be truly visible with the passage of time.

Establishing equality must continue, but we may need to begin with the understanding that humans can and will sometimes disappoint us. Believers will backslide. Politicians will pander for the sake of their office. People will quickly forget the lessons they once claimed to revere. Hypocrisy will take the place of sincerity. The same crowds singing Hallelujah on Sunday will yell for crucifixion on Friday.

We may need to periodically modify our plans and goals. None of that which stands before us should discourage from our greater goal. Embrace the challenge.

The Civil Rights era folk song “Eyes on the Prize” was originally a hymn named “Gospel Plow”. The title of the latter is adapted from the Gospel of Luke. The specific verse reads—“But Jesus told him, anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God."

Its lyrics were later adapted by activist Alice Wine in 1956. Two stanzas summarize the devotion, passion, and drive that must be the mainstays of all who would further the state of humanity.

Now only thing I did was wrong
Stayin' in the wilderness too long
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

The only thing we did was right
Was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quote of the Week

“You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”-Eleanor Roosevelt

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday Video

I'm so happy 'cause today
I've found my friends
They're in my head
I'm so ugly, but that's okay, 'cause so are you
We broke our mirrors

Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I'm not scared
Light my candles, in a daze
'Cause I've found God

I'm so lonely, but that's okay, I shaved my head
And I'm not sad
And just maybe I'm to blame for all I've heard
But I'm not sure

I'm so excited, I can't wait to meet you there
But I don't care
I'm so horny, but that's okay
My will is good

I like it - I'm not gonna crack
I miss you - I'm not gonna crack
I love you - I'm not gonna crack
I killed you - I'm not gonna crack

I like it - I'm not gonna crack
I miss you - I'm not gonna crack
I love you - I'm not gonna crack
I killed you - I'm not gonna crack

I'm so happy 'cause today
I've found my friends
They're in my head
I'm so ugly, but that's okay, 'cause so are you
We broke our mirrors

Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I'm not scared
Light my candles in a daze
'Cause I've found God

I like it - I'm not gonna crack
I miss you - I'm not gonna crack
I love you - I'm not gonna crack
I killed you - I'm not gonna crack

I like it - I'm not gonna crack
I miss you - I'm not gonna crack
I love you - I'm not gonna crack
I killed you - I'm not gonna crack

Friday, February 17, 2012

Room Enough for Both at the Table: Reason Rally

At the end of March, many prominent atheists plan to march on Washington, DC. Among them is famed firebrand Richard Dawkins and MythBuster Adam Savage. Both of these names, plus other scheduled speakers have one very large area of commonality. They are skilled in science, math, and technology. So-called left-brained individuals have a tendency to favor conclusions that can be either convincingly be proved or disproved. That is the logic upon which their thoughts are often based.

People who work in the sciences and in mathematics often think in terms of purely correct and purely incorrect. This is a somewhat crude rendering of a complicated truth, but I seek to make an argument. People who excel at numbers and figures can always take pride and comfort that every equation works out perfectly, should one first discover the proper series of steps. Likewise, the same thing is true if one wishes to balance a chemical equation or calculate precise quantity. Left-brained people intuitively gravitate towards resolutions which contain an element of perfection.

Right-brained people, however, live in a much messier world. For them, many inherent and indisputable truths exist in shades of grey. They are believers in a kind of world without cut-and-dried solutions. Right-brained creativity takes a theme and expands upon it, instead of working within the close confines of a system. To them, it is unrealistic to expect outcomes so easily solved. Every metaphorical math problem upon which they work always leaves a remainder. Each scientific discovery has a hidden flaw or even multiple flaws.

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are usually where atheism is most popular. To some, the concept of a mysterious, unpredictable, sometimes confusing God does not compute. However, merely because brain function strongly differs from person to person does not mean that a Higher Power is a fiction. I have met left-brained people who have a strong belief in God. Often, this is the result of having survived some crisis like a severe illness or a personal tragedy. A universe of indisputable evidence and methodology is not much help when no answers can be found.

In the South, where I grew up, atheism was often a protest against the predominant religion of the Bible Belt. Rural areas, in particular, are mainstays of conservative Christianity. Foremost among these groups are the Southern Baptists, who hold a strong majority of church-going believers even today. Those who rejected what they saw as a limiting and a very narrowly defined view of individual liberty often flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve seen many a copy of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” in their personal collection.

I’m not fearful of the growing scourge of the unbelievers. Those who would receive the message are those to whom I speak. People who would push it away are entitled to their own views. Atheism, much like Theism, takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a temporary way to contradict past hurtful teachings. Other times, it arrives and is practiced for the rest of one’s life. Predicting inevitable outcomes along one’s Spiritual journey is a futile gesture in the end. None of us truly know the direction our life will take. No system shaped by our hands provides a satisfying answer.

Until that day, all of us can learn from each other. The muddy, messy, inexact world of the right-brained can learn from the precise, conclusive, and pinpoint reality of the left-brained. And in the middle one finds God and the limits of human understanding. God is both comprehensible and infuriatingly difficult to fully realize. Theology and scientific knowledge need not be mutually exclusive. We ought not form opposing camps, digging in for the bombardment to follow. Instead, we should acknowledge the mystery of systems beyond any telescope or any collection of moral teachings.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Today's Placeholder

I submitted this to GOOD Magazine over two months ago and received no word. I assume this means I didn't pass muster. Even so, I'm quite proud of this story and am pleased to share it with you. Be forewarned. It is much more lengthy than most things I post.

She Had a One-Track Mind

I met her at a house party that began in the early evening and lasted late into the night. After my share of them, I’ve begun to notice a pattern. Attendance seems to arrive in waves, spaced periodically throughout the evening. People arrive, alcohol arrives, alcohol is consumed, people excuse themselves, and alcohol may or may not depart with them. Another wave goes through shortly thereafter.
Like me, she showed up early by herself, not part of any group invasion. Knowing only one other person, I found myself, as I always do, in search of interesting conversation and appealing company. As it turns out, I did most of the talking that night. There was enough of an attraction present between the two of us to keep me there longer than normal. Usually, I am among the first to excuse myself for home. 

I remained in her company until well after midnight. She did nothing to dissuade me from leaving.  Sometimes I don’t mind being the sole center of someone else’s attention. As evening turned into early morning, we exchanged contact information and then went our separate ways. Following that, I waited the requisite but cliché two to three days before contacting her. And I waited. And I kept waiting.

Prior experience usually states that receiving no communication within a week is usually not a promising sign.  But I really liked this girl, so I tried to stay patient. By ten days I was beginning to feel abandoned. Had she merely been humoring me? I had given up ever hearing or seeing from her again when I received a brief e-mail. Approximately two weeks after my initial communication, her response was Spartan and to the point.  It also contained what I thought was a heartfelt apology, this for the extended period of no contact.  She had, she said, been overseas and busy with work. 

I proposed a date at a trendy coffee shop frequented by young professional types. Her reply was surprisingly prompt this time and we set a time. My expectations were high, perhaps more than they ever had any right to be. Even so, I’m afraid I could never have foreseen the outcome. Here is what I mean.  On the occasion of this, our first date, I started several usually interesting discussion topics. Most people who I encountered immediately caught on, contributing their own opinions and experiences. She stared at me blankly with each one. 

So I was forced to improvise and try different options. Nothing was making as much as a dent at first.  I began to get a little worried. Working the topic eventually around to what she did for a living, a decision made nearly in desperation, she became instantly animated and talkative.

After fifteen minutes or so of conversation exclusively centered on her occupation, I realized something as revealing as it was disheartening. Work wasn’t just a fixation; it was her only real interest and passion. The effect was robotic and dull. 

In Washington, DC, people of this make and model are not uncommon. Type A overachievers, they are experts in precisely one specific area of their lives, and often surprisingly underdeveloped in many others. Still, I had to hand it to her. After listening to her happy chatter, I had to concede that she was obviously very good at what she did.  

But when I threw out a pop culture reference, something fun and seemingly popular, like 30 Rock, I was told that she’d never seen it. She probably would eventually see an episode, that is, once she was a little less busy. An hour’s worth of conversation had already let me know that this was an event unlikely to ever occur.

Not certain what to think, I made sure to take my traditional survey of at least three female friends. This is my normal means of achieving dating insight. Their consensus opinion was that perhaps she was afraid of anything that involved emotional intimacy, work being a relatively safe outlet. This I tried to understand.  I generally do seek to be sympathetic.

Having been granted advice that was so consistent and uniform, I decided to take a different tact during our next meeting. I prepared for our next encounter with much deliberation and preparation. I again aimed for something classy, a Thai restaurant that had received high marks with all to whom I’d mentioned this outing.   

I went into our second date the same way that I readied myself for exams in college. There must be some way to reach her, I mused. I must be overlooking something obvious. Unfortunately, for all of my preparation, this date was to be even worse than the one before it. She was in a strange, hyper-competitive mode all night, acting as though every action or thought of mine was somehow intended to attack her self-esteem.

In a way that was a touch condescending, she corrected my grammar and pronunciation when I made the slightest of missteps. By doing so, she seemed to be trying to prove that she knew more than I did or that she was more precise. 

Typical of this was how I innocently asked her what time she arose in the morning. I had casually mentioned that I often woke up around 7:30 am every morning to begin writing. Merely curious, I asked her what time she began her day. Her response was, “Well, 8 to 8:30.  But I’m not surprised that you would get going earlier than I do.” 

The words themselves can be interpreted as matter-of-fact and harmless, but it was how she said it that mattered. Her tone of voice was darkly sarcastic, needless caustic, I thought. To be honest, I never really believed that the time one rubbed sleep out of eyes and poured the first cup of coffee mattered all that much.  How was I intimidating or threatening? I didn’t even work in her career field. 

To be blunt, I found myself mostly bored, frankly, with her work stories. They were always different, but also always the same. I now no longer believed that she was simply not comfortable enough with herself to focus on anything other than work. Work was her sole interest and the only aspect of life she focused upon deeply and cared to entertain. She was really that one-track and monolithic.     

Excusing myself from the table, I headed home. I knew that I had tried, at least. Disappointed, I tried to picture where she would be soon. I could see a bright future ahead with pay raises and upward mobility.  Maybe she just didn’t know how to be in a relationship. Never once in several hours’ conversation did she ever ask me about what I did or even who I was. Relationships are give and take, and even the first night I talked her ear off, she never indicated then anything I said was more than amusing distraction. I know I deserve better than that. 


I'm not feeling my best, but I feel useless not being at least a little productive.

Congratulations, you have won
It's a year's subscription of bad puns.
And a make-shift story of concern
And to set it off before it burns

My opinions.
My opinions.
My opinions.
My opinions.

And there seems to be a problem here.
A state of emotion seems too clear.
You rise and fall like Wall Street stock
And you have an effect on our peace talk.

Our opinions.
Our opinions.
My opinions.
My opinions.

Now there seems to be a problem here
The scale of emotions seems too clear
Now they rise and fall like Wall Street stock
And they have an effect on our peace talk

My opinion.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Few Words on the Death of Whitney Houston

This must be a slow week for news, because I would have never believed that the death of Whitney Houston would be a four day story. Multiple stars, television commentators, talking heads, and even politicians have weighed in with their opinion of the deceased. Some of them are inflammatory, but most are forgettable. I myself do not understand this rush to canonize a recording artist who made as much news for her flaws than her strengths. But if there is room yet for one more analysis, I will now contribute my own

Whitney Houston meant more to me in a far earlier place in her career than in her later life. A child of the ‘80s, her earliest hits played constantly on the local Top 40 radio station. I recall the songs of that era well. They were a large part of the soundtrack of my childhood, seemingly always playing in the background. I remember that my mother owned a silver Mercury Cougar, which regularly took me and a sister to school and across town. It is that experience, riding along while listening to the radio, that I remember most and for which her material holds the most meaning. In contrast, the apex of her fame, in the early 1990’s, passed for me without much notice.

The year of her height as a star, 1994, I was far more interested in Nirvana and alternative music. If anything, I was openly contemptuous of Houston’s commercial pop. To this day, I have to say that I’m not much of a fan of hers and never really was. I can appreciate her vocal technique and powerful set of lungs much more than her musical output. Like many who live in the limelight, it was inevitable that her best days would someday reach an end. She died well past her prime and at an age where comebacks are far more difficult.   

Ten years later, the name Whitney Houston drifted back into my consciousness, but for a very different reason. I was living in Atlanta now. The couple had purchased a house and had chosen to settle in what had become a city that welcomed black professionals. Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown were constant sources of gossip, for all the wrong reasons. Most of the public disapproval focused on their allegedly poor parenting styles.

Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina was said to be treated as an afterthought. According to widely spread rumors, the child, who barely qualified as as teenager, was often sent to the mall by herself with a credit card. The implication of the speculation was that her parents were otherwise too busy with their own issues and problems. Two people who could barely set appropriate boundaries for themselves could not be reliably trusted to do the same with their daughter.

It is inevitable that upon the death of someone famous, we grant the recently deceased sympathy and respect. While people like Bill O’Reilly who’ve made their name for being contrary and offensive might differ, most of us have commemorated this passing as a celebration of a person’s creative talents. Still, we do need to remember Whitney Houston’s life in its proper context. Her struggles with addiction caused a sharp decline in her own star.

An often defensive interview in 2002 with Diane Sawyer showed a troubled soul in a state of denial. Ex-husband Bobby Brown has charted a similar course. His own demons have stood in the way of his own once promising career, making him less famous for an especially thin recording career than for a pattern of erratic, outlandish behavior.

Celebrity provides us any number of cautionary tales. Whitney Houston’s death has been compared to that of other talented musicians, women whose personal problems and substance abuse caused them significant, long lasting problems. In the end, she, Whitney, was the person she harmed the most.

Statistics show that only 13% of the chemically addicted ever reach and then sustain full recovery. Usually, drug and alcohol problems disguise much larger issues. Whether Houston confronted these issues personally is unknown and may forever be so. I am more struck with the tragedy than eager to point fingers.


I have the flu, I think. Stay away from me. When I feel better, I'll resume posting.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Quote of the Week

"Fame or infamy, either one is preferable to being forgotten." Christopher Paolini, Brisingr

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Message to the Meeting

I'm going to be traveling tomorrow to NYC. In case I don't have the opportunity to post, please accept this in its place. _________________

Hello Friends,

While we are contemplating the Spiritual State of the Meeting and other important issues, I thought I might share a story from my own life. Within the past few days here on the listserve we’ve talked about assumptions, appearances, and judgments. I'd like to share an anecdote, which I hope draws together several pertinent threads of discussion.

Some years ago, I attended a Church who counted among its members a very talented musician. She played the harp professionally and had the natural skills to show for it. Much of her identity centered on the instrument she played. Even her personalized license plate reflected the emphasis that being musical and having the necessary talent played in her life.

To me and a few others, she always came across as aloof and distant. I never was sure how to approach her, or how to even start a conversation. Our paths crossed several times, and as one might expect, each time, my impressions were not favorable. She seemed perpetually standoffish, perhaps even smug or condescending. In short, I thought she was a snob.

We never interacted socially outside of Church. However, little did I know, that would be soon to change. One routine day in the middle of the week, I had an appointment scheduled with a specialist. After arriving, I took my normal seat out in the waiting room. Looking closer, I saw that she was there as well. Deciding to strike up conversation once more, I briefly mentioned the reason I was there. I could have never predicted what happened next. She grew instantly excited, talkative, and warm.

It seems she had been visiting specialists for years, having no luck at all, and trying to successfully manage a chronic illness. After she made the connection that I, too, had been through similar circumstances and challenges, her entire attitude towards me changed. I will never forget how she gave me a spontaneous and energetic hug, rushing towards me almost as a child would do. Finally, someone else understood her frustrations. Amazed, I accepted her hug graciously, astonished at the sudden transformation.

When her name was called and I was once again alone in the waiting room, I began to completely reevaluate my initial beliefs about who she was. Instead of a person who could not be bothered to even say hello, I recognized that she had been in lots of pain over a very long period of time. We all cope with pain in different ways. And I found myself wishing I'd been more understanding earlier, even granting to her the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to judge before we are given a full presentation of the facts.

In the Light,


Couldn't Resist

Click to embiggen.

Saturday Video

I jump outta bed and pull down the shade
I used to have such sweet dreams 

now it's more like an air raid.
I see the opposition clear - I see them stare
I don't care - it doesn't matter to me - I never think about it

Slip out of myself like a shadow and somersault thru walls
I can't tell, it's really so odd
Is this spring or fall?
Your wine is just sour grapes

Pour me a glass anytime I'm not there
Careful Careful

I'm not bitter I just get so sore
I need that girl more and more
'Cuz when she whispers in my ear

It gets so hard to get out of bed
It's more than I can do.
If someone must work today, let it be you.
All this confusion hit me like a dare but I don't care.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Few Thoughts on the Contraceptive Compromise

I don't have the time today for in depth analysis, but I do have a few thoughts to share.

EDIT: I think the compromise agreed to is excellent, but I still don't like giving in to the Religious Right.

  • If the Obama Administration had stuck to its guns more consistently, compromising on contraceptive rights wouldn't be a big news story. Nor would it be a potential campaign issue. Now, the Administration seems weak and without much of a backbone.
  • On second thought, in an election year, pandering to the Right like this is a part of the game.
  • Religious groups, in this case, Catholics, that would insist government reflect its beliefs have no right to be outraged when government tries to do the same thing to them.
  • Compromise ought to be an attempt to appeal to a majority in the middle, not cater to the loudest, most partisan, least reasonable voices.
  • To the best of my knowledge, Quakers have no current affiliation with hospitals or clinics. There are, of course, many Friends schools, colleges, and universities. Liberal Quaker institutions of higher learning likely already offer contraceptive services to women who desire it. More ideologically conservative Evangelical Friends may not.    
  • The difference between Catholicism and Quakerism is that the latter has always more strongly emphasized individual interpretation of faith. Catholicism, as often rendered, insists upon strict observance of uniform mandates for all, from the top down. This may explain why the Orthodox Catholics are so vociferous in their opposition.
  • Obama's leadership style often gives me room for concern. I wonder if he is too nice, too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. I would prefer a more resolute President who digs in his heels. But, having read both of our President's books before I cast my vote in 2008, I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. I honestly think he does believe that there aren't red states and blue states, even now. He must still cling to the notion that we can always find agreement somewhere. The sentiment is admirable, but I doubt more and more whether it really works in practice.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Yesterday's Post, on Second Thought

What I wrote yesterday was unusually passionate and abrasive for several reasons. While I do not regret what I wrote, I wonder whether I should have recorded my remarks a little differently. In this post, I'll try to be more specific and measured. Let me expand upon my initial thoughts. I'll try to be more compassionate, though I still feel annoyed.

What follows below are my primary reservations. It frustrates me to no end trying to schedule Quaker events and to encourage greater participation here in DC. Many people move here for the short term. They deliberately do not put down solid roots, aware from the beginning that they aren't staying here for good. Establishing leadership continuity is greatly hamstrung, in part, by having to constantly retool and revamp with brand new faces. I often interact with people who desire a degree of power, but are not very effective at their position of authority. They are the only ones who step up, so I have no other choice. 

A working system would include the presence of other Friends who didn't need me to constantly show them what to do. In short, I strongly desire people with initiative. I cannot make people develop enough self-confidence that they can grow into their designated role. I cannot encourage more responsibility with Friends who are very inconsistent. I cannot teach anyone how to be decisive. Moreover, leaving important decisions to be made by a very large and often noncommittal group is not a tenable solution.

Among Young Adult Friends, it has been unnecessarily difficult to even locate other leaders. An exchange of proposed ideas with others who have these crucial skills cannot proceed until this is established. I can't do everything by myself. It is true that most people in the group merely wish to show up at a scheduled time and place. They have little to no inclination to make a decision, one way or another. Nor do they have any interest in being involved in the active planning. In this situation, leaders must step in to decisively determine what we should do.

They must recognize their duty to assist in planning events, conferences, and functions. Speaking for myself, I have rarely seen any leaderless system succeed. Even with its emphasis on egalitarianism, Quakers still have designated titles for those in positions of authority. The leader of a committee is a clerk. Clerks direct the business of each committee, in its own separate meeting and during day-to-day interactions. Leaders are rare, under any circumstances, but they exist and they need to work together. Without them, I have learned the hard way that nothing gets done.

Part of my annoyance is a frustration over what seems like misplaced priorities. For example, I do recognize that those in grad school must devote a majority of their time to their studies. I was once in that boat, too. However, I did learn to resurface periodically to be among a community of loving people, so to recharge my batteries. When I did not, I found that my schoolwork overwhelmed me. Those with such stringent time demands require, in my experience, effective and healthy ways to prevent burnout.

As I've structured them, Quaker functions are a haven from the daily grind. I'm not unsympathetic to those currently in the middle of graduate studies. I remember how much work it was for me. I had four to five books a week to read, papers to write, journal articles to critique, seminars to attend, and somehow the rest of my life had to fit into what was left.

My expectations would be lower if it weren't for what I consistently observe. Many people have approached me over the past three and a half years. Each of them usually says the same thing. "I'm looking for a community," they say. "I'm looking for an outlet for my Spiritual life and for my social life. I don't know anyone here and all I do is work."

The need to form lasting, deep friendships exists, but I have to consistently encourage others to unpack established habits. I try to make people see outside the box.

I will always be critical of DC work culture, because I find it toxic and noxious. Working too hard is not a virtue. It is a health risk. The people who know how to put in their time and then go home were not the ones of whom I was speaking yesterday. They recognize a very important fact. There is always work to do, but then again, there will always be work to do. It takes a strong-willed and disciplined person to recognize this. Someone who is adequately self-aware recognizes that working later than one’s office mate should not be a competition. The longer one's office light stays on after dark will not eventually win one the Nobel Prize.

Unhealthy attitudes like these bleed over into my work, because such people come home too tired for much else. They have nothing left in the tank, but still feel a strong need for religious community in their lives. In this respect, I have done all that I can. These people are going to have to make an important decision. They will need to decide whether they will choose their career or their faith community.

"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life--whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn't life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Wealth and the racial income gap

If hard work alone was sufficient, many of our societal problems would already be fixed. Many people come to our Nation's capital to make a difference. However, the hard truth with which I opened speaks in opposition to the fundamental workings of Washington, DC, culture. Often, people involved with the process are self-styled experts, obsessed with detail and willing to put in excessive hours for their crusades. Whether or not this is a healthy way to channel altruism and sacrifice is a very different issue. Working too hard at the expense of one’s emotional and physical well-being seems a little counter-intuitive. I know am not the first person to bring light to this.

Of course, I have my own reasons to be critical. The dominance of a competitive, workaholic attitude presents problems for me in my own religious activism. People desire a Spiritual life, but cannot easily pull themselves away from their jobs. It is difficult to form a sufficient leadership structure when people can only devote a certain amount of time and energy beyond their daily responsibilities. Community ought to be an ideal state, one where vocation does not jealously intrude.

The most profound irony of all is that many DC workers will put in upwards of eighty hours a week, or even more, in order to produce strategies to provide someone else an adequate and stable community. This rather curiously ends any possibility that they might have the same for themselves. Martyrdom is one particular manifestation of the beast.

If DC had a native religion, it would be predicated on a combination of sacrificial labor and a rough concept of Salvation by Works. Many precepts and recitations of faith would be included and required for all.

If I put my nose to the grindstone enough, I will win my way into heaven. Bad things won’t happen to me if I work harder. I have no tolerance for ignorance. Ignorance reminds me that I am imperfect. I’m an expert. I can’t be inadequate. I must be exacting and precise about every detail, no matter how inconsequential.

Beyond this world, it is often helpful to see the broad view. Washington is a rigidly hierarchical and racially segregated city. Much of the affluent white population is transitory. Setting up stakes here for short periods of time, the economically fortunate expect that their stay will pad a resume. They want greater education, or the experience of a time-limited job. But, whatever the case, one segment of the city’s population goes about its life obsessed with its own concerns. The world must be made safe for bureaucracy.

Take a peek underneath, and one sees a substantial, largely native African-American population, many of whom are the descendants of manumitted slaves. Several generations have lived in the area for years and years. One might call them the working poor. They drive buses, prepare food, distribute free newspapers, and provide much of the needed manual labor. Without them, the city would grind to a halt. Wealthier people hardly give them a second thought. I stride by them on my way from place to place. They consume only a few seconds of time, and inspire limited analysis. I imagine I am no different than most middle-class white residents of the area.

A 2009 report conducted by Insight Center for Community Economic Development provides a telling picture of the problem. “For every dollar of wealth owned by the average white family, the average family of color only owns 16 cents.”  Conclusions do not come more cut-and-dried than this. The tiny, highly specialized universes of non-profits and government agencies which call Washington home sometimes seem to be working at cross-purposes.

The report continues. “While our culture is obsessed with money and wealth, there is little popular understanding of why wealth matters. Having wealth is not the same as being wealthy.” The African-American comedian Chris Rock would heartily agree, no doubt adding a little more to it. In his words, “the white person who owns the color blue is wealthy.”

Here’s one more extremely telling fact. According to the aforementioned report, in 2007, the average net worth in a white household $170,400. Latino households had a net worth of $21,000. African-American households had a net worth $17,100. This was before the impact of the Great Recession, from which we are still emerging.

If we cannot end poverty in America, we will not end it in Africa. If the income gap does not shrink, poverty will persist everywhere. If access to credit and the ability to concentrate wealth is not granted, the average Federal Government employee is simply wasting his or her time. These are the realities that we have not wanted to own up to, usually because they require sacrifice beyond a single-minded devotion to policy wonkitude. Anyone can follow the system, but it takes a truly courageous person to stand it on its ear and try something new. Leaders are always welcome.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Living with the Masses

I did a studio version of this earlier last year. Here's the live version.

Living with the masses
Will always get you down,
And next to me they're teaching classes
On how to really bring me down

I never asked for a neighbor like you,
To run around and around like a wrecking ball,
Is there some renovating you should do,
Maybe you should cut in the dark with your table saw?

Always going faster,
Than the others down the road,
You should bring out the sand blaster,
So I can really hear your workload.

I never asked for a neighbor like you,
To run around and around like a wrecking ball,
There's so many others just like you,
You're like the sights and the sounds of a nuclear war

The bomb bay doors are opening
And soon they will be falling all around
The bomb bay doors are opening
And soon they will be falling all around

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Decline and Fall of Occupy DC

This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper- T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

If local news reports and person on the street interviews were any indication, the city was thoroughly tired of Occupy DC. What had seemed so momentous for a while was revealed to be nothing more than a few hundred people gathered in a city square. With time, even believers became skeptics. A city weary of what they saw as much ado about nothing began to turn on the demonstrators.

The promise was outstripped by the reality. Only a very small, increasingly frail minority of Occupiers fought to keep the dream alive. Saturday morning, awakened at dawn, they looked more tired than outraged. A brick hurled in the face of a police offer made more of an impact than the series of nonviolent marches that had preceded it.

No one wanted to admit it, but the game was up. One by one, almost every other sustained encampment had been forced to disband. There was a palpable sense among most that the handwriting was on the wall. Protesters knew they were being allowed to stay for only a little while longer. No one knew when the hammer would fall, but recognized by process of elimination their eventual fate.

And by its conclusion, Occupy as a physical presence was not nearly as interesting as the analysis it prompted. As an intellectual exercise, Occupy had many phases and levels of discourse. Cynicism was always prominent, but apologists pushed back hard for a time.  But even they abandoned their perspectives when a real, coherent mass movement never materialized.

There were more people in my high school graduation class than at any time in McPherson Square. Even in my most optimistic days, I’ve never thought that seven hundred people have enough influence to redefine the direction of the world.

We wished for much more. Fellow Quakers threw themselves into action. Meals were prepared. Tents were purchased. Much brainpower was devoted to an asymmetrical, leaderless organizational structure. It was, however, necessary to acknowledge that hopes alone could not overcome simple realities. Occupy seemed to know how to fight for people, but not to fight alongside with people. The average hard-working DC resident might be able to buy a few meals here and there, but that likely was the extent of their willing participation. 

The movement simply did not have the resources and, more critically, the ideas to facilitate greater growth. Every morning, men and women on their way to work filed past the demonstrators. The two groups were distinct and separate. They never met.

I am fairly certain that many of the full-time Occupiers were being subsidized by someone. And by this I do not necessarily mean the government, by way of unemployment checks. Donations, benevolent parents, and personal savings are also strong possibilities. How else could one afford the ability to be a revolutionary? Without mainstream participation, a critical mass was established very quickly, one that reached capacity and then stagnated. 

With the collapse of Occupy, I wonder how history will record what happened. Will we remember the campers or the hyperbole, the commentary or the collection of tents? I sense we have not yet fully comprehended the spirit that caused so many spontaneous demonstrations. These outpourings of anger and indignation proved to contradictory, both widespread in their presence throughout the country and each singularly limited in influence. When all is said and done and when new grass sprouts in McPherson Square, will we say that we have observed the limits of public protest in the Twenty-first Century?

Bear With Me

I'll have something up later.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Quote of the Week

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."- Jesus of Nazareth

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Human Assumption and Spiritual Gifts

Written for my Meeting.

Hello Friends,

Ought to, need to, should, must.

These are the basic building blocks that, one by one, form routine assumptions. On a daily basis, I admit that I regularly make these sorts of judgments. Over the course of my life, I have been conditioned to do so. Those of us who have the great God-given gift of intellect and analysis often expect much of ourselves, and also others. We expect certain patterns to be followed and rules to be enforced. Those who deviate from the norm have a tendency to invoke confusion and sometimes even our annoyance.

Part of the drawback of judging someone else is that you're not always privy to the full story. If someone voices an opinion I find offensive, for example, my first thought can be very harsh and unforgiving. I assume that they certainly know better than that. They must be acting antagonistic or contrary on purpose, merely to be difficult. Yet, sometimes, simple ignorance is at fault. 

I believe I've written once before about Hanlon's Razor. It's a maxim for daily living, a bit of helpful advice and logic that has served me well over time. It reads: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.  Don't assign to incompetence what might be due to ignorance. And try not to assume your opponent is the ignorant one -- until you can show it isn't you. Ironically enough, few people see themselves as malicious.

We don't want to be incompetent, either, because that speaks to our basic worth as people. We don't want others to be incompetent, because that only reminds us of our own human limitations. Fear of inadequacy is true for many, but especially true for those who live in Washington, DC. We're used to being experts. We are proudly informed and heavily literate creatures, after all. What would we be without these skills?  

Among intelligent, driven, committed, and precise personalities, opinions and statements routinely contain the very same elements noted above.  Ought to, need to, should, must. And along with these four is still another: how could you not?

Three and a half years ago, I was still learning about Quakerism. I couldn't quote George Fox or Margaret Fell by memory. I didn't really know what a Monthly Meeting was or how it differed from a Yearly Meeting. Seasoning was just something I applied to a chicken before baking. Part of my education involved learning about the personalities at Meeting. 

At first, I didn't know anyone. It took a while before I learned the unwritten rules of vocal ministry that govern every Meeting. I wasn't aware of the particulars of committees, or even sure who served on them. And perplexedly enough, there were persistently common themes in much of my dialogue with other Friends.

Ought to, need to, should, must. 

Friends, I honestly try as best I can to humble myself before God. The phrase "God-fearing" speaks to me as I write this. Before I go further, I should add that many people misunderstand the basic meaning. It doesn't mean to be fearful or scared of God, but to give God his due. In my opinion, I'm not the one in control of my life's direction, nor will I ever be. 

The gifts that are bestowed have a source beyond even my hardest work, even my own best diligence. This is, to me, the very definition of Grace. One can't earn it, no matter how many hours one puts in, advanced degrees one achieves, or study one devotes to the art of perfection.  

In the Light,