Monday, October 12, 2015

Stockholm Syndrome

This blog has been mostly off-topic lately, as things related to faith and atheism have been far from my mind for awhile, but I had an a-ha moment today that IS on topic, and seemed worth saving.

It's been about 16 years since my last experience of leaving church.  The first time, it was the result of going off to college, followed by a slow unlearning of my childhood faith.  The second time was recorded here.  Since then, the emotional cycle has involved feelings of loss, anger, disappointment, and regret, not necessarily in that order.  But today I've felt a bit of relief in realizing that it was probably inevitable.  Somehow I think inevitability might be a pretty good pain reliever.

If I put myself back into my pre-college believer mindset, my mindset looks something like this:  I believe certain things about God and Jesus.  These things are important to me, and are the most important aspects of who I am.  They influence everything about how I live my life, including my values, friends, voting habits, and ethics.  I gain a lot of validation from those who are like-minded.  Part of the value of going to church is that I'm surrounded by those who value what I value, and believe what I believe.  At church, we worship God together, gaining strength to face the outside world.  The world is an adversary, but here, among other believers, there is life and community.  We can relax here.

From this perspective, it's no wonder that an adding a non-believer to the mix would cause problems.  No matter what song we sing, or verse we read, or testimony we speak, the non-believer is out there, not buying any of it.  The non-believer doesn't have to say anything, or argue with anyone.  Just by virtue of using the word atheist, the non-believer reduces my most cherished things to little more than a fairy tale.  To the non-believer, my prayers are to an imaginary friend.  My songs aren't falling on the ears of anyone but the church attenders, and the only thing guiding my behavior is my conscience.  The non-believer insults my core being without having to say a word.  And no matter how watered down we make the concept of God, or The Word, or Light, to the non-believer, it's all the same: As far as they can tell, it's not real, even if they wish it could be. 

From this perspective, a lack of trust is easy to understand.  It makes sense that to be part of the club of believers, the person should actually be a believer.  It also makes sense that it would be difficult to be vulnerable around the non-believer, or care much what the non-believer has to say.  Why trust someone who thinks my most cherished beliefs are no more real than Bigfoot?

From this perspective, showing up was a mistake.  But it's a mistake that's easy to remedy for all involved.  Nobody should have to feel mocked by implication. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

5w6: We're Here, We're Repressed, and We Don't Wanna Talk About It!

A few months ago I was introduced to the Enneagram, a personality test with a lot of interesting things to say, with a touch of new age woo mixed in just for fun.  As with all of these tests, some of it is spot on, some of it isn't, but there were parts that put words to aspects of my personality I hadn't had words for.  For that, I'm abundantly appreciative.

Per the Enneagram, I'm blessed or cursed to be a type 5, sub-titled the Investigator, or Observer.  The website sums it up this way:

We have named personality type Five The Investigator because, more than any other type, Fives want to find out why things are the way they are. They want to understand how the world works, whether it is the cosmos, the microscopic world, the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms—or the inner world of their imaginations. They are always searching, asking questions, and delving into things in depth. They do not accept received opinions and doctrines, feeling a strong need to test the truth of most assumptions for themselves.

That last sentence sounds noble when it's phrased that way, but it's not necessarily a positive personality trait.  The way it presents in me is that almost everything that goes into my brain gets filtered through a series of questions: "What's this person's motive?  Who are they trying to persuade?  If nobody that's listening is likely to disagree, why are they saying it?  Why is everything mindless signaling with no authentic discussion?  Am I just signaling? I think I hate my in-group."

This kind of filter makes it REALLY hard to be a joiner.  Because everything goes through the filter, I tend to summon objectivity in times when it's damaging to me and others.  Since my brain examines things 50 different ways all at once, I'll find a piece of what someone has said that isn't true, or isn't entirely honest, and I'm not always good at keeping that realization to myself.  For example, I'm a reluctantly pro-choice person.  But the way most like-minded people discuss the issue is so frustrating!  My options are usually to be the asshole that disagrees with everyone, nit-picking trivial points until everyone wishes they'd never brought it up, or to shut up and repress it. 90% of the time, I go with the latter.  

Repression is probably the area where the Enneagram has been most helpful.  Once the type 5 is separated into 2 categories, the description looks like this:

The 6 wing brings an orientation to detail and technical knowledge, along with the tendency to think in logical sequence. Especially intellectual, far more analytical than Fives with a 4 wing. Can be loyal friends, offering strong behind-the-scenes support. Kind, patient teachers, skillful experts. May have a sense of mission and work hard. Sometimes project an aura of sensitive nerdiness and have clumsy social skills. When defensive, they can be unnerved by the expectations of others. May like people more but avoid them more. Especially sensitive to social indebtedness. Could have trouble saying "thank you." Fear of taking action, develop "information addiction" instead. Ask lots of questions but don't get around to the decision at hand. When more entranced, they develop a suspicious scrutiny of other people's motives but can also be blind followers. Misanthropic and Scrooge-like when defensive. More able to keep their feelings cut off in a constant way. Can be cold, skeptical, ironic, and disassociated. A Five's 6 wing can be phobic or counterphobic. Counterphobic 6 wing brings courage and antiauthoritarian attitudes. When defensive they may mock authority, or angrily tell others off. Tend to "push the envelope," experiment, find what the limits are.

The last year has been rough.  Most of my life has been fairly free of strong emotion.  It's just how I've always been.  The highs aren't that high, and the lows aren't that low.  For whatever reason, I've become a much more emotional person, and it's the worst!  Some of the emotions are recent and identifiable.  "That awful thing happened, and now I'm sad."  Easy enough to identify.  Some of the emotions are decades old, and I had no idea they existed.  For example, I've been getting back into disc golf again, and watching YouTube videos of various tournaments trying to pick up mechanics and habits I can emulate. Putting those into action on the course, I've gotten a lot better really quickly.  I had the best round of my life over the weekend, and on the way home I was able to identify an emotion that's about 20 years old.  

As a kid, almost everything came easy to me.  I was one of the top picks on the playground for just about any sport, and won various awards in little league.  My formative years produced a healthy confidence that has served me well my whole life.  But in 8th grade, my natural abilities succumbed to the earned-through-practice abilities of others, and I was no longer king of the ball field.  Until this weekend it had never occurred to me that losing my status as athletic phenom had caused any kind of pain.  I just moved onto other things like choir and youth group, preferring to stick with things I could excel at.  But playing that round of disc golf, and playing it well, brought back feelings of pride I hadn't felt since I was 14, and with that, the feelings of loss that never surfaced all those years ago.  How strange it is to find a mystery inside your own head.

A writer I enjoy developed what he calls the typical mind fallacy, wherein people tend to project their own mental processes onto others, then judge others' actions based on how they think they themselves would have handled the situation.  Becoming aware of my own feelings could be a great way to break out of the typical mind fallacy.  Some of you wonderful people have the ability to recognize and deal with your feelings in real time!  Crazy!  My task to is to remember that next time I want to roll my eyes because someone freaks out over something little.  Yours is to forgive me if I take a year to get over something that seems little to you.  It's likely that even the smallest emotion looks like a kraken to me.  And I don't have any experience fighting krakens. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Herding Cats

My empathy skills are not very good, but I think I have enough of it to say this: being a church elder is really hard. Being a Quaker church elder is even harder.

I imagine a leadership role in Quakerism is a bit like herding cats.  Quakers tend to be ex-something else.  Some find Quakerism as an escape from an oppressive conservative tradition.  Some find value in it as a more ritualized form of Unitarianism.  Still others come into it entirely ignorant of what Quakerism is, but insist that their own ideas fit within Quakerism just fine, thank you very much (this is me).  Like I said - cats.  A cornucopia of chaos.

Liberal Quakers are so leery of anyone having religious power, that elders become little more than bookkeepers with a title.  Evangelical Quakers tend to go farther.  Elders volunteer to organize and lead meetings, help people deal with spiritual crises, and resolve internal conflicts.  When outside groups want to blame the pastor for decisions made by the whole church, elders are there to take the proverbial bullet.

Sometimes, conflicts arise that don't have easy answers.  Or any answers.  Elders can be presented with complaints from one person against another, and as an elder, sometimes there isn't a right thing to say.  From the congregation floor, it's easy to pick a side and lob bombs.  Elders don't have that luxury.  Their job is to look after and care for everyone, even the person on the "wrong side."  Sometimes this means taking criticism that isn't theirs, even if the criticism could be nullified with a few simple sentences.  Because to pacify one person often means casting someone else in a bad light, and an elder doesn't do that.  They can't.  And that's hard.

Recently I watched an elder walk an amazing tightrope.  While being kicked out of the broader religious organization, this elder defended the elders of the broader group.  She did it politely, but her point was strong; These elders have been handed an impossible task.  They made a choice.  I don't like their choice, but they had to make a choice, and they did.  They probably wish the choice had never been presented to them.  But as elders, impossible choices come with the title.  The conflict begins with the bomb thrower, not the defense system.

In my recent difficulties with church, the elders had a hard situation presented to them that they didn't ask for.  I liken it to a parent with 30 kids being confronted by one child complaining about another child. The parent may feel it most prudent to approach the complainee with the complaint, and see if the parent can resolve it as an intermediary. Another parent might have said, "don't make me the referee, talk to your brother directly."  Either choice makes sense.  And if you haven't been confronted with that situation before, and it hadn't occurred to you that it was even possible, it's hard to place much blame on the parent no matter which decision is made.  I certainly don't.

Blame is not a word I like very much.  In the internet era, we seem to feel like if we can strongly connect the out-group with enough blame, we can absolve our own responsibilities for things that go wrong.  Personal relationships, including church relationships, should be an area where we don't look for blame, even if we can find it.  And what good does finding  blame do for us?  Does it solve the problem?  Does it heal wounds?

I've discovered recently that I process things via images.  Some people think in sentences, I think in pictures.  For awhile, I envisioned my future a bit like a hallway.  Certain things were set in place, and were likely to be there for a long, long time.  Now in my mind, my future is an open plain.  There's not a lot built up on the horizon.  Options are open, and the city is behind me in the distance.  Out here on the plains, it's up to me to process my pains and internal conflicts.  It's up to me to decide what's healthiest and most likely to bring happiness.  Who am I?  Who do I want to be?  With whom do I want to surround myself?

My hope is that the church will ask these same questions.  Who are we?  Who do we want to be?  With whom do we want to surround ourselves?  And I hope they will do this without looking for blame for past events.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Ask me again," said the Rabbi

Enneagram Type 5 - The Investigator

Thinkers who tend to withdraw and observe
Enneagram type 5 - The InvestigatorPeople of this personality type essentially fear that they don't have enough inner strength to face life, so they tend to withdraw, to retreat into the safety and security of the mind where they can mentally prepare for their emergence into the world. Fives feel comfortable and at home in the realm of thought. They are generally intelligent, well read and thoughtful and they frequently become experts in the areas that capture their interest. While they are sometimes scientifically oriented, especially with the Six wing, just as many Fives are drawn to the humanities and it is not at all uncommon for Fives to have artistic inclinations. Fives are often a bit eccentric; they feel little need to alter their beliefs to accommodate majority opinion, and they refuse to compromise their freedom to think just as they please. The problem for Fives is that while they are comfortable in the realm of thought, they are frequently a good deal less comfortable when it comes to dealing with their emotions, the demands of a relationship, or the need to find a place for themselves in the world. Fives tend to be shy, nonintrusive, independent and reluctant to ask for the help that others might well be happy to extend to them.


A year ago, I delivered a message at West Hills Friends the Sunday following the 2014 Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions.  I was unusually optimistic, expressing hope that the expulsion that once seemed inevitable might be avoided, and unity restored among people who claim to be people of peace.  A year later, West Hills has been kicked out, and I am processing an indefinite departure from West Hills.  Here's a rough timeline:

In September of 2014, following the loss of Griffin Huber, I applied for membership at West Hills Friends Church.  I'd not intended to ever apply, but in the midst of tragedy, Sarah and I both felt that we were just as affected by sorrow as everyone else, and to refuse to called a member, for me at least, felt like petty stubbornness.  The process, as had always been explained from the pulpit, was that a person applies for membership by notifying the church elders of a desire to become a member.  The person meets with 2 of the elders for a clearness discussion, which centers around 2-3 queries.  The queries don't have right answers, but the discussion about them should make it clear to the applicant and the elders whether the person should be a member.  It's also been said that becoming a member is simply recognizing that a person already is operating as a member.  If the applicant and the elders are clear to move forward, the applicant is brought before the church to be recognized.  People are invited to comment about the person for awhile, and finally an elder asks if everyone is clear to approve the person as a member.  In the time we'd been there (2 years at this point), everyone who applied had become a member.

Sarah and I went through our process separately.  I thought this was important, as our journeys and worldviews are very different, and our interactions within West Hills had been very different as well. I met with 2 elders, went through the queries, and we were all clear that I was already a member of West Hills, and we agreed to move forward.  The elders met as a group, and all were clear that both Sarah and I should be members of the church.

We were scheduled to be brought before the church the Sunday before Christmas.  The Wednesday before, we received an email from one of the elders that opened like this:

Dear Ryan and Sarah,

I’ve got some difficult news-- a member of our meeting has come forward with serious reservations about Ryan’s membership, specifically as you might surmise, around his atheism.   We (the Elders & (pastor)) hear that these concerns are serious enough that they would present a block to reaching unity on approving Ryan’s membership at the rise of meeting this Sunday.  

It is our sense that the most constructive next step is for the Elders to arrange a meeting to hear these concerns in person, and to share our own discernment, and see if that is sufficient to open a way forward.  

One thing I've learned about myself in the last year is that I'm awful at predicting my feelings.  My initial response to the elder was essentially that this was no big deal.  I could be patient, and understood why it might be hard for someone to handle an atheist as a member.  I didn't feel much of anything about the matter until a month later when a listening meeting was scheduled for people to discuss the general topic of membership.  At this meeting, I heard such gems as:

"This is Jesus' clubhouse.  And if you're not cool with this being Jesus' clubhouse, perhaps this isn't the place for you."

"I recently sent (the pastor) an email asking, "Are we even a Christian church anymore?""

"If all it takes to be a member is to be a good person, someone could just join the rotary club."

Following this meeting, my emotions caught up with what my mind already knew.  This was not going to work out.  You can only clumsily try to fit a square peg in a round hole for so long.  Eventually it becomes obvious that one of these things is not like the other.

My anger about the situation wasn't so much that someone had an issue with atheists.  This is common.  Fundamentalism isn't reserved solely for actual fundamentalists.  I knew this already.  What got me the most was that someone was allowed to exert control over me anonymously.  I wasn't told who was objecting to my membership.  They didn't have to face me, or know anything about how it might affect me.  They got to complain without their name being known, then walk away.

(It's an unfortunate irony:  People had enough information to block my membership because I did what everyone is constantly asked to do.  I participated.  I spoke.  Had I never given a message, or been open about my ideas, I'd be a member right now, just like the other atheists who are members at West Hills.)

I stayed home for a few Sundays.  The elders and pastors bent over backwards to apologize for how things went, and did their best to make me feel wanted.  Eventually one of them told me enough information that I could figure out who was blocking my membership.  I don't know if that made it easier, but it was nice to know.  It wasn't anyone close to me.  Wasn't even anyone I'd ever had a conversation with.  Still, Quakers speak as a group.  If they decide something, they do it with consensus.  If they decide not to do something, like approve someone as a member, they also do that as a group, even if it's only a handful of people holding up the majority.  This allows individuals to exercise an extraordinary amount of power over others.

For the last six months, I've waffled a lot.  Some Sundays it seems like it would hurt more to show up somewhere unpleasant than stay home, so I stay home.  Other Sundays I go because I miss people, and that's the best place to see them simultaneously.  Either way, the trust is gone.  The feeling of "I'm affected as much as everyone else" has been replaced with "I'm the only person in the last 10 years to have their membership blocked."  That very few people knew about any of this didn't help.  I've chosen not to speak about it publicly.  I don't know how.  There are people who are quite content to share their pain out loud, and eat up the attention this brings.  I'm not one of those people.  It's uncomfortable, and requires vulnerability, and I suck at both of those things.

Last week, Northwest Yearly Meeting decided to "release" West Hills from the yearly meeting.  Some people felt like a freed hostage.  But most felt some level of pain and rejection.  As usual, at first, I felt nothing.  I've been emotionally detached from West Hills for so long that I don't identify as one of them.  This didn't feel like personal rejection.

As people began to express their feelings about being kicked out, my feelings started to surface also.  But they haven't been feelings about NWYM.  They've been feelings about membership rejection, and the loss of a trusted community.  These people get to grieve their loss together.  I had to deal with mine alone.  I understand their pain, but in a way, I resent it.  The group that rejected me has been rejected.  While this isn't really what happened (the first part, anyway), it's how it feels.  And it's hard to listen to.  The membership process is still the same.  It can still be used to bludgeon someone else.  The gatekeepers can still gatekeep, and nobody knows they're doing it

I showed up to Quakerism looking for a way to quit being so afraid of death, and for my kids to be given the chance to ask God questions in an LGBT affirming place.  That first part of that mission has been quite successful.  Sarah will continue the second part.  In the process, for awhile, I found a community of people that felt like they were my people.  Eventually it became clear that they aren't.  After all, Quakers think God is guiding the group decision making.  With that as a central tenant, I was naive to think that as someone who doesn't think anyone is guiding anything, it would be possible to have both worldviews in the same church indefinitely. I'm persuaded that we have little to no control over our thoughts.  Faith is a kind of thought over which I have no control.  But to the faithful, thoughts matter more than anything else.  To be faithless among people who need their faith more than they need people does not seem like a good match.

Shortly after the listening meetings at West Hills, my small group of elders talked about moving forward with my membership.  They seemed mildly surprised when I told them I was no longer interested.  With West Hills having been kicked out of NWYM, and with the elders and pastoral staff having no appetite to appeal that decision, I'm hopeful that people will understand why after all of this, continuing at West Hills seems like a poor decision.  I've waffled too much already, and am likely to tell people different things about how I'm doing depending on the day they ask me.  I don't think I can get clarity if I'm begging the question by continuing to show up.  I'm giving myself the rest of the year to do other things with my time.  I've got a lot more hiking to do and books to read.  I'm hopeful that the time away will confirm that I'm making the right decision in walking away, or give me the perspective I need to try again.

Some day, I want to feel like this:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

How to Invert Your Paradigm

1.  Try to fit somewhere you don't belong (like a carnivore at a PETA rally, or an atheist in church)
2.  Spend obscene amounts of time pretending that the internet is where life happens.
3.  Quit doing both of those things.

The more solitary life has a ton of upside.  Last week I read Sam Harris' short book Free Will, which argues that it doesn't exist.  In any form.  I'm still thinking about it, but so far I find it persuasive (but of course, I had no choice). Today I started Steven Pinker's 800 page behemoth, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which tries to make the case that we live in the last violent time in human history.  Books are great.  I wish I hadn't neglected them as much as I have.

I am finding that without the worries about in-group approval, the way I think about ideas is changing.  It's been ages since I discovered a new idea, and bounced it off someone in real life rather than throwing it into the cesspool of social media to be devoured or liked.  This is how people change, I think.  We have epiphanies of our own, on our own time, and the space to bat them around for awhile.  Some of my epiphanies are antagonistic towards my liberal tendencies.  Others are health or family related.  But with the scope of my universe lessened as much as it has, these ideas can be given more mind-space, and room to grow.  Suffice to say, I'm happier than I've been in a long time.

One aspect of the shrunken universe is almost nobody reads these entries, which I love, truly.  If you're one of the few, here's a band I fell in love with a few months ago.  They've been great company.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Absence is the Reward

It’s 2031, and the house is letting out a sigh.  We’ve been halved by time, with just the older half left here to think and remember.  Morgan and his dorm room seemed made for each other.  Taylor was so happy to drive him there.
“They’re gone,” I half-whisper to Sarah.
“Yes,” she replies, admitting it, but barely.
“I’ve waited for this day for 18 years.  Getting my freedom back, I called it.”
“I remember.”
“It really is freedom, in a way.  From this point on, their choices are completely their own.”
“They always were completely their own.”
“No different from us, I suppose.  I keep thinking about something I told you before we got married.  I used to say, ‘I’m not wired to parent a kid with a disability.  I don’t have that kind of patience.  I want you to understand that from the beginning.’”
“You did say that.  Irony’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
“Yes.  The universe could have at least been up front about it.  Bi-polar was a cruel way to sneak up on us.  Everything was flowers and laughs and hugs, until it wasn’t.”
“Nobody expects the inquisition. Or a mood disorder.”
“She was just so…cruel.  How can a person be expected to be emotionally attached to someone who says they hate them all the time?  It’s best dad on earth in the morning, worst dad at night.”
“I don’t have an answer for you.”
“For many years I tried to focus on two things.  One, she didn’t choose it.  To be born, to have the disease, any of it. And two, my response to it was nobody’s responsibility but my own. I didn’t choose the disease either, but I did choose to bring her into this world.  The fallout from that decision wasn’t my choice either, but how I dealt with it was only my choice. Do you think I dealt with it well?”
“Do you?”

“I don’t know.  But I worry about it all the time.  Every child deserves happy memories.  I hope I gave her enough.”
It’s 2015, and things are looking up.
As a kid, as much as the video games an TV shows were often the highlight of the day, it was the friendships and adventures that stick to my memory. Building a triangular fort out of tongue and groove boards in the back yard, hiding under the ivy behind the school, throwing my bike off a retaining wall just to see what would happen when it crashed. We didn’t have the internet then, of course.  In hindsight, would it have made life better?  These days I doubt it.
I’m trying to come out of the fog I’ve been in for the last six months.  Shutting down the online chatter has been an unexpected joy.  With the noise gone, my mind centers on simpler things.  The people I want to talk to, I talk to, and in person.  The causes of so much pain are gone with a simple button click.  Why was it so hard to realize it would work that way? 
I do a lot of walking these days.  The neighborhoods by the office are quiet, with enough turns and hills to make it interesting, and enough shade to be merciful when the sun is shining.  On my walks, the schools are full of kids too young to be bogged down by phones and apps.  They run around without a care, pushing each other on swings, choosing friends based on kindness and cooperation rather than opinions about social issues.  We could learn from these kids.

I’ve been running the facets of my life past a simple question: is this person, group, church, job, website – are they making me happy?  And if not, why are they part of my life?  Who decided it was acceptable to surround one’s self with things that make life worse?  It’s a simple litmus test, but the answers can be difficult.  Some of these burdens have been around a long time.  To live without them seems foreign.  But as I’m learning, sometimes the hardest part is the separating.  The absence is the reward.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

how bitterly you will miss it

and when his tiny head 
emerged from hair and folds of skin

i thought to myself 
if he only knew 

he would climb right back in

like i do

The train wrapped 'round the zoo, lights dancing off her eyes as we got lost in them together. Discovering God and each other, she beamed with life, and I beamed of her.  First kiss on the porch, she drove away, wrapping the memory in permanent time.  Nobody tells you when it happens - write this down.  On this day. On this night.  You will never again be so in love.  So..happy.

Hiding behind the theater door, so small as I bent to kiss her hand.  The statements made in nouns would be replied to with philosophy and telekinesis.  Call and answer, question and mark.  As if conspiring with my DNA, she knew everything, spoken and not.  Again I forgot to write it down - you will never again be so completely understood.

now that my blushing bride
 has done what she was born to do

it's time to bury dreams and

 raise a son to
 live vicariously through

Waiting again.  Always waiting.  Meet me outside the door, I'll be out in a second. The hours kept tied to that rope, dangling before the mouth of the lion, never finished off but hoping for it.  The poems and romance and hope and desire, pulled from me like a car in a lake.  Write this down, you fool.  You can't possible know what she is stealing from you.  And how bitterly you will miss it.

With a playful grin, she skipped around me, matching every line on the list.  All the musts, none of the can'ts, it all made sense.  She'll sit with me, happy to be there.  I'll sit with her, constant and unchanging.  If we never change, this will always work.  She hasn't read the things I forgot to write down, and I haven't hers.  It's for the best.  We say forever, and we mean it.  Time and again, we mean it.  She would have been happier with me at 17.  Perhaps I would too.  She will always be owed an apology for him never showing up.

the sperm swims for the egg

the finger for the ring

if i could take one back
i know what it would be
I do

The kids are out for awhile, the house is dark.  You look within for the gear that puts you in drive.  But more and more, your key is small and the lock is a galaxy. You cycle through the compartments of your life - surely one of them must have the joy joy joy down in your heart.  Keep digging, you say, you'll find it.  People have found motivation from much worse than this.  Shut that whine down, you ungrateful coward.  The job and the family and the shunning and the gates and the weight - this is not who you are. You used to care about things, and you will again.  You used to have an unshakable confidence, and you will again.  You used to matter, and you.will.again.

You still have the ground.  It will take you in, and blend you among the stars and the soil that came before.   You will be part of something bigger.  Something everywhere.  As Shakespeare's question arises more and more, for now you take on the form of lighthouse light, spinning in circles, clinging with debrided fingers to the hope that soon there will be something to shine on, and that it will stay for awhile. And it will.

italic lyrics by D. Bazan

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dark. I Am Not Afraid.

White light
Maybe time to go.
Surrounded by all my love, dozing off
Persuaded by my mother’s fear
Deathbed sinner’s prayer.
Fingers crossed.
I will not lay in bed
With a wheel turning in my head
Trying to figure out the spread
On someone else’s bet
 When she finally broke, everything stopped for awhile.  Her frozen raspberries melting on the plastic plate, neglected because it’s hard to eat during a storm.  “The queen,” she said, “she tells me to do things.  I hear her in my head, and she threatens to do bad things to me if I don’t listen.”  She’s handing me the key, hoping I can be trusted with it.  Years of instructions from the real, and counter-demands from the imaginary.  Threats of punishment from each.  “I feel like I’m the most sensitive kid in school.  People tell me that all the time.”  I am not prepared.  Her little heart resting in my hands, and tear-filled eyes begging me to make it all stop.  This is your fork in the road, dad.  Choose wisely.
 Dinner’s on the table
Your mother’s at the door
Kids are watching TV
You’re never needed anymore
You’re never needed anymore
You’re never needed anymore
Telephone is ringing
Bill collectors buy and sell
I may not be in heaven
But you’re in hell
Rising to speak, one by one, they measured the gate by chapter and verse.  Which color sends the message correctly? How tall should it be?  We travelers listened with guarded ears.  Are they speaking of us?  Do they know that we can hear them?  The lines are drawn more clearly.  A smaller door, they say, with a height requirement. If we make it small enough that nobody else can enter, then nobody else can ruin it.  We travelers move on, nomads by requirement, not by choice.  The trouble with fences, we say, is they ruin whatever they’re guarding.  By the time the fence is up, there’s nobody waiting to enter.  Besides, we’re just not small enough to fit.
 Ok, I’ll lay here a little while
If you’ll promise to run our history
Through my head
When my horizon flipped
Started making lists
And I’m never gonna rest in peace
In your debt
I will not lay in bed
With a wheel turning in my head
Trying to figure out the spread
On someone else’s bet
 At night, the thought of my last bed comforts me.  Cold. Dark. Quiet.  Consciousness gone, a brief flickering in an otherwise empty space. With no memory of before, and by then, no memory of the past, my natural state resides there, in the nothing.  We are out of character above ground, feigning importance, daring to think these trials and feelings have value.  As I fall asleep, my anchor is that place, in that bed.  Of all losses and pains, harms and gains, I have found comfort in the only thing that can’t be taken away.  

Italic lyrics by D. Bazan

Saturday, January 31, 2015

9 Kinds of People an Atheist Should Not Marry

NYC Pastor did Christians a huge favor this past week, gently laying out exactly who they should and should not marry. I think this is a great idea.  If anything is worth our time in this world, it's telling other people what is best for them.  In that spirit, I humbly present the 9 types of people that we atheists should never marry.

1.  Virgins

  Life is short, people.  And when you were younger, you had these grand ideas of meeting your unchewed bubble gum, or rose with all its pedals, or whatever weird metaphor your youth pastor read in that month’s Focus on the Family.  And it sounded nice.  You’d get to plant your flag on acres of unscathed farm land.  And like Edward Norton in Fight Club, you dream of destroying something beautiful.  But what Pastor JimmyJohn didn’t tell you is that after a brief, disappointing moment, your spouse is no longer that person, and you’ve got to spend the rest of your life with someone who might like totally different things than you.  Like, they might expect you to do THAT every single time.  Or refuse to do that other thing, EVER.  As atheists, we know this life is all we get.  And how tragic to risk incompatible sex forever cuz somebody thought their body was a metaphor for bubble gum.

2.  Younger People
  Sticking with the theme of life being too short, have you MET today’s young people?  Holy shit!  They use words like tumblr and micro-aggression, and if you’re like me, you aren’t sure if these are acronyms or graduate level college courses, but either way, you have no idea what they are, and are too curmudgeony to look them up. But more importantly, by marring a younger person, you’re increasing the odds that you’ll die before they do.  When we atheists go through our existential crises about death, we often find comfort in Buddhist notions of matter becoming different matter, where our bodies go back to the earth from which it came.  In this way, we gain immortality, sort of.  And if I’m reading today’s younger people correctly, they mostly want to cremate everyone, and that’s just not gonna work for us.

3.  People who believe in hell

     Now, this might seem intuitive, but let me suggest this could be a worse idea than you’d think.  There you are, out and about with your spouse, probably looking for that last Stephen-King-back-when-he-called-himself-Richard-Bachman book for your collection, when it crosses your mind that your spouse thinks your afterlife will consist of that too-much-wasabi feeling all over your body, forever and ever and ever.  And you think, “well that’s not very nice.”  But your spouse still married you, so how does that work?  How does spouse transition from passionate boot knocking to “Sure is a bummer ze’s flesh is gonna look like pea soup on a slow boil forever”?  You aren’t quite sure how spouse does it, but it must take a special kind of intestinal fortitude, and you’re probably not mentally strong enough to match wits with such a monster.  PASS.

4.  The Unemployed

Because life is short, and it’s all we’ve got, one of our imperatives as atheists is to maximize our life experiences. Some of life’s experience are really expensive!  I’d really like to para-sail off the top of an Egyptian Pyramid someday.  If you’ve never searched Priceline for Portland to Cairo airfare, gird your loins, cuz it’s a hefty number.  To truly maximize these experiences, you’re going to need free time for your travels, and if your spouse isn’t bringing in any money, that means YOU have to make all of it, significantly decreasing your ability to maximize those experiences.  My advice: if possible, marry someone independently wealthy.  Then BOTH of you can do all the things without the cumbersome anchor of a day job. 

5.  People who don’t get angry

Remember when you became an atheist, and dealt with all those nasty emotions around the idea that you’re totally gonna die and rot in the ground and that’s the end of it because you don’t have a soul?  At least for me, those emotions didn’t go away just cuz Thich Nhat Hanh made me feel better about dying.  Sometimes it’s totally appropriate to spend the day pouting in the dark cuz you totally used to think there was a celestial mansion with your name on it, and but now you know the only mansion you’re ever gonna be associated with is AS the mansion for a worm colony that calls itself the The Collective.  If your spouse can’t mourn that loss with you, I wouldn’t trust ‘em with a pet, let alone my hand in marriage.  I mean, have you SEEN the movie Bernie????

6.  Richard Dawkins

7.  Agnostics

You know how Neil Degrasse Tyson is totally an atheist, and gets mega street cred from atheists cuz he knows all the things, but won’t use the word atheist because he doesn’t want all the consequences of using that word in public?  Boooo!!!  Agnostics are like your friend who is one class away from a masters degree, but won’t write that last paper cuz he thinks having a graduate degree would put him too high on the privilege scale, so he spends his whole life telling people how he’s one class away from a Masters.  Just be who you are, dude!  Being married to an agnostic would be like living your whole life in the comments section on a YouTube video about vaccines.  Why would you do that to yourself?

8.  Feminists
Let me say it for you: WHAT????  Allow me to explain – We atheists get a lot of our activism cues from the internet and atheist organizations.  And these sources have made it clear that the most important uses of our time are activities like getting cities to take down crosses put up by grieving parents and widows.  With our sacred public streets being desecrated by religious symbols, if your spouse-to-be thinks causes like feminism are a higher priority, perhaps they should not be YOUR highest priority.

9.  Anyone who has ever stayed at a hotel
  Just like memorial crosses in public, hotels are another bastion for religious people trying to haunt us with their religious texts.  People who stay in hotels contribute to this cycle of indoctrination.  Personally, when I’m with a group on a trip, I sleep outside on an army cot.  I position large signs around the cot letting everyone know why I’m out there.  Most mornings I wake up with Sharpie on my face and my signs have been turned into tombstones with childish names written on them.  But it’s totally worth it!

I trust that this list will help you in your search for an atheist-friendly spouse.  As Vermin Supreme once said, you should trust me, because I do know what's best for you. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Light in Our Enemies

8 months is long enough, right?  Let's do this. 

Over the last few months, I've spent a lot of time attempting introspection.  This isn't something that comes naturally, but with help from sites like Slate Star Codex, I'm getting a little bit better.  Today I want to talk about two ideas that Quakers talk about a lot: loving our enemies, and the light within each person.  

Enemy love is a foundational component of Christianity, but it should also be a foundational component of humanism.   Insofar as love means an honest attempt to empathize with, respect, and treat well, we should do these things for people with whom we disagree, our who may think poorly of us.  I'm going to treat these as presuppositions, and hope you share them.  

Treating those we disagree with well is really hard.  Like, really really hard, you guys.  Have you tried NOT rolling your eyes when relative X says something about how the polar ice caps have never been bigger?  Super hard.  But of all the areas of self-improvement I've tried to implement, respecting the person I disagree with has been the most rewarding.  

Respecting the opposite-minded is crucial if we really believe our mantra of light being present within each person.  I'm using light as a vague metaphor - feel free to substitute whatever makes sense for you. Acknowledging the light in each person requires us to admit that on some basic level, we're all equally important, valuable, and worthy of respect.  When I mock your ideas, or assign motives to you unfairly, I'm lessening your standing in my eyes, so that my own standing can improve.  It seems so impossible to us that an equally intelligent/smart/wise/valuable person could disagree with us on such important issues as religion, politics, or music that to eliminate that cognitive dissonance, first we must correct the hierarchy.  You're down, I'm up.  I ensure that you're down via sarcasm, allegation of impure motives, or casual dismissal.  From there, I clobber you with whatever nugget of infallible wisdom I'm disseminating that day, then assume you'll roll over and play dead.  Rinse, repeat, viva the in-group! 

And this all makes a ton of sense!  It really does.  If there's anything that comes natural to us, it's finding new and creative ways to solidify the line around our in-groups, and cast apostates into the out-group. But the result of following this natural tendency is that nobody gets convinced to change their mind.

If the goal of important conversations is to reach the point that action can be taken towards our desired outcomes, shouldn't the efficacy of our persuasion methods be under constant scrutiny?  It's here that the Quaker ideals of enemy love and the light within each person come in so handy.  If I want to change your mind, I have to be the kind of person you're willing to allow to influence you.  And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think a picket sign or a Facebook post is how that kind of trust is built. If I'm going to persuade you, I have to first respect you, and listen to you, and give you an equal chance to persuade me.

So let's talk about the light within each person.  A variation of this is that we should look to protect and love those who are commonly called "the least of these."  In the Bible the inference is usually that "the least of these" are children, or immigrants, or the poor, or the sick and dying.  More recently, this has grown to include the LGBT community and racial and gender minorities. We usually don't think these people are "less," rather that they have a more difficult ladder to climb to reach the playing field the rest of us are already using.  And this is true, of course.  These groups have a tougher road.

But this is where I want to challenge us to think differently.  For us - those of us who consider ourselves liberal, or humanists, or progressive Christians - in our worldview, these are not "the least of these."  For us, our natural sympathies extend to these people.  A lot of the time, it's EASY for us to love them.  We've probably already been involved in causes related to them, and we did it because it's obvious we should.  We recognize their humanity, see that their road is tougher, and do our best to improve their situations.  And these are things we should be doing!

My thesis is that if we want to improve our communities, countries, and planet, we have to go beyond what's natural or easy for us.  We have to recognize our natural biases, and fight against them.  We have to fight the urge to scream into our echo chambers.  We have to fight the urge to re-blog a bumper-sticker meme on Facebook and think we've contributed something meaningful.  I submit that what's meaningful is listening to someone we disagree with so long that we can finally understand why they think what they think, and then be able to say, "I acknowledge that you're a decent human being, and your opinion stems from a worldview that make sense given your experiences, even if I disagree with it with every fiber of my being."

For us, loving the least of these should mean more than believing in rights for immigrants or LGBT people.  For us, loving the least of these should mean seeking out and LOVING the Ted Cruz in our family.  It should mean finding a way to RESPECT the local equivalent of Ann Coulter or Fred Phelps.  This is how minds are changed.  If we can't love, or at least respect, the equality, humanity, and capacity to reason possessed by those we disagree with, I don't think we can claim to be after social change.  We're after social affirmation.  Social affirmation is easy.  Social change is hard.  And because it's impossibly, maddeningly hard, it deserves our most serious consideration.  

I want to change the world.  And I want the world to change me.  First goal - make friends with, respect, and love, my own personal Ted Cruz.