The lesson of the Question Mark

Question Mark Butterfly

Question Mark Butterfly

Our experiences in life have a profound impact on our beliefs, because experience will always trump belief when it can’t be explained otherwise. The same applies when the explanation isn’t convincing or is dismissive of the experience. My favorite though is when the catch-all logic is “coincidence” is argued by those who have no better answer. This has always been my difficulty with science and its pedantic dependence on known facts. If there was just a little wiggle room, I think we’d all be better off. Of course, humankind’s need for order would be in shambles if that was the case, because chaos remains order’s mortal enemy.

I’m going to make a point here about something that happened to me many years ago that left me questioning everything I believed about the cycle of life and life’s beings. This is going to be hard to swallow for some, but hey, I’m an old guy who doesn’t really care what people think anymore. But first, a little contemporary background is needed.

So let’s begin with a couple of stories that have been in the news lately. One is the bold proclamation that science has finally figured out how monarch butterflies know where they’re going when they migrate. To review, monarchs overwinter in specific locations in Mexico every year. They leave the milkweed patches of, let’s say, Michigan, fly to their winter location in the Autumn and return, even to the same milkweed patch, in the Spring. These butterflies then breed and die. The new brood also breeds and dies. The next brood (or sometimes a third) will take up wing and return to the very same trees in Mexico.

Of course, this seems preposterous to the scientific mind, so experts have been studying it for many, many decades. And now reporter Victoria Gill’s headline for the BBC emphatically declares, “Great monarch butterfly migration mystery solved:”

Lead researcher Prof Eli Shlizerman, from the University of Washington, explained that, as a mathematician, he wants to know how neurobiological systems are wired and what rules we can learn from them.

“Monarch butterflies [complete their journey] in such an optimal, predetermined way,” he told BBC News.

“They end up in a particular location in Central Mexico after two months of flight, saving energy and only using a few cues.”

Prof Shlizerman worked with biologist colleagues, including Steven Reppert at the University of Massachusetts, to record directly from neurons in the butterflies’ antennae and eyes.

“We identified that the input cues depend entirely on the Sun,” explained Prof Shlizerman.

“One is the horizontal position of the Sun and the other is keeping the time of day.

“This gives [the insects] an internal Sun compass for traveling southerly throughout the day.”

Wow! Who knew, right? This conclusion is exactly what I mean about that lack of wiggle room, for based on what science knows about life, the migration of the monarchs has to be cued in ways that we can understand. Hence, the sun, because, well, the butterflies require some form of navigation. The professor wants to build a robotic monarch that tracks the real thing throughout the entire migration. The BBC article is pretty bold in its proclamations, but other reports of the findings are laced with disclaimers like “might,” “could,” or “maybe.”

Nobody would even think to suggest that these butterflies already know the way, because they’ve been making the same trip since the earliest winters of North America. But that’s impossible, right, for these are “different” individual butterflies.

Now let’s move to another story in the news recently, about the progeny of Holocaust survivors who seem to carry the trauma of their ancestors. From the Guardian’s report “Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes:”

The conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.

The article points out that the topic is controversial, and it poses the fascinating albeit perplexing question, “Can you inherit a memory of trauma?” Fun stuff, eh?

To human beings, life is linear process. We exist inside the dimensions of time and distance, and therefore are subject to the rules that govern them. Does all life exist as such? Even our understanding of things around us is based on this, which is why we feel such a strong need to anthropomorphize everything under the sun, even God. The accepted human narrative is based entirely on this linear focus, until one begins to stick one’s hand into the dark matter of theoretical chaos or even that which appears practically chaotic. And what about matters psychological or spiritual or, oh my, the things of the soul? Science stays away, because, this is the stuff of unscience, myth, and superstition.

Can you inherit a memory of trauma or is it just there? Can monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico and back without a map or guidance system?

Permit me to digress for a moment. In the Biblical story of Abraham, there was a “priest of the most high God” named Melchizedek. This was before God had revealed Himself to humankind through Abraham, so the guy is pretty interesting although we know so very little about him. He’s identified as “king of Salem” and we know he fed Abraham. We also know that Abraham paid a tithe to him as a priest, and this is significant for Christianity. In Psalm 110, which is regarded as Messianic by both Christian and Jewish scholars, David writes (of the Messiah), “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” So David justifies the priesthood of the Messiah by referencing the guy to which Abraham paid a tithe, which was way before any Abrahamic priesthood was established. Therefore, Melchizedek’s priesthood is “higher.” In citing this reference in his letter to the Hebrews, the writer (perhaps Paul) makes this statement:

A person might even say that Levi [the father of the priestly tribe] himself, who received tithes, paid tithes through Abraham [the father of all Israel and of all who believe], for Levi was still in the loins (unborn) of his forefather [Abraham] when Melchizedek met him (Abraham). Amplified Bible

This is fascinating to weigh and consider. It feeds my imagination and demands further exploration. What if mysteries of linear life can be explained by Life that isn’t linear? One that exists outside the confines of time and distance, where everything can take place at the same time and in the same place?

As George Carlin used to say, “These are the kinds of thoughts that kept me out of the good schools.”

Which brings me finally to the story I wish to share with you today.

I moved to Louisville in 1979 to work for WHAS-TV and spent two years there. It was the best of times in that I’d scored my first full-time on-air job as host and producer of PM Magazine. It was the worst of times in that my relationship with Eileen was being tested severely. I was also drifting back into a lifestyle that wasn’t healthy for me or the relationship, and I was pretty much adrift. In the summer of 1980, I was in trouble deep inside, and I felt helpless to do anything about it.

1980 - Climbing aboard my finger

1980 – Climbing aboard my finger

This picture reveals what happened one summer day that year. A Questionmark butterfly landed on the railing of our apartment and just sat their. Questionmarks are smallish rusty brown butterflies with a silver mark on the back side of its wings in the shape of a question mark. These butterflies are normally quite skittish, but this little guy was VERY friendly and exhibited a strange habit. He’d fly off the balcony, do a clockwise circle around the lamppost closest to us, then jump and do a clockwise circle around the other lamppost, and fly up to the peak of the roof of the building across the courtyard from ours. He’d sit there for awhile and then scoot back to our balcony. He would crawl onto my finger before repeating his little act.

The next day, I was out sunbathing, and he returned and landed on my chest. He then proceeded to jump off the balcony and repeat his circling of the lampposts, flying to the roof opposite ours, and return to the balcony, landing again on my chest. This went on for a few days, and then he was gone.

In the weeks that followed, I had a dramatic born-again experience and threw myself head-first into study and writing music for a Christian band across the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. It was an Autumn, Winter, and Spring that was unforgettable. Life got much better, and I began to question my career in media as I was being recruited to work for a large Christian ministry. Then something very strange happened.

I was out in the sun on our balcony in the summer of 1981 when a small orange-brown butterfly hovered over the balcony and landed on my chest. It was a Question Mark, and it sat there opening and closing its wings as I laid there stunned. I laughed and said, “Well, hello there, fellow. Did you come back to see me?”

At that moment, the butterfly leaped into the air, made a clockwise circle around one lamppost and then the other, and then shot up to the peak of the roof across the courtyard and sat there for a few moments before jumping back into the sky and racing back across to my chest. I was absolutely stunned, and I encouraged him to climb onto my finger. I stood up and walked to the railing. He jumped off my finger and repeated the exact same acrobatics. This went on for awhile, and then he was gone. I’ve never since felt quite as connected with the universe as I was that day. And I still marvel about what happened in an event that defies any logical explanation other than “it was merely a coincidence.”

I don’t think so, and I firmly believe this was a messenger from a higher place sent to assure me that everything would be just fine – and it was. I want to add that Question Marks appeared two other times in my life as I was going through difficult decisions. Of course, I wasn’t in Louisville anymore, so these events could actually have been coincidental, even though one was inside my garage above my workbench, just sitting there on the wall opening and closing its wings.

But nothing can explain the airborne dance of the butterfly at the Louisville apartment complex. It couldn’t have been the same butterfly, or could it have been? They don’t live that long, so perhaps this was a relative who somehow “inherited” the same trait. Well, cough-cough, that’s not possible either, so perhaps we’re simply all trapped in the Matrix, and there’s no such thing as “new” broods of Question Mark butterflies. Maybe they all just repeat the same habits that they gained in previous seasons of doing their thing? Nah. Too “out there.”

Or maybe not. Perhaps those two butterflies – if they were really two – were brushed by the spirit of the Creator to minister to me during times of need. Nah, that’s ridiculous.

The truth is I just don’t know. Nobody does. But isn’t it odd that we’re thinking that the progeny of those who survived Auschwitz inherit the trauma of their parents? Maybe it’s because they were there with them (in their loins) and actually experienced the real thing. Isn’t it odd that scientists now say the Monarchs are guided by the sun? Maybe they know the way, because they’ve been there before. Folks, the reality is we know squat when it comes to this stuff. We placate our imaginations with science, but the secret things belong to God.

And you’re either okay with that, or you’re not.

The futility of the darkened glass

darklyOne of my favorite thoughts from the Bible is that we “see through a glass darkly” in our human experiences. Now, you can find all sorts of meanings about this depending on which version of theology you embrace, what church you attend, or whose commentary you choose to read, but to me, it identifies the absurdity of trying to control one’s life.

In order to have control, one must know at least the immediate future, so as to avoid tripping along the path from here to there. However, this simple teaching – that we’re unable to see ourselves or our lives as life sees us – reveals the vanity of our efforts. What we want is some cosmic flashlight that will cut through the darkness and light the way, but that is the textbook chasing of one’s tail.

We’re happy to trust God and His promises, as long as He lets us in on the plan. We beg for guidance when, as Brennan Manning used to say, what we really need is trust. “Give us a roadmap,” we plead, “so that we can plan accordingly.” We have control over so very little in life, but it’s never enough. We don’t want to get whacked downstream, so we hope for knowledge of when to duck. This path is fraught with problems and danger, yet we pursue it until the very end.

The result, as Blaise Pascal wrote, is that we never really live. The best we can do is hope to live, and so, like a butterfly we chase across life’s flower beds, happiness eludes us. It’s only available in the here and now anyway, but we’re all worried about what’s next. This is the life trap that addicts know so well, but it is by no means limited only to those who suffer this terrible affliction. I thank God for the knowledge gained through recovery that I am a spiritual being on a human journey, not the other way around. This has opened the door to the study and practice of being a better human than trying to be more spiritual, for in this reality, there is nothing I can do as a human to “be” more spiritual. The quest of recovery is not to quit the object or event to which we are addicted but rather to learn how to live without it. It begins and ends with learning to “live life on life’s terms” and not our own. Most people don’t know that the author of our AA literature, Bill Wilson, added a fourth line to the serenity prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” “Thy” has always meant “Life” with a capital L, which is another term I use for God.

This constant staring at the darkened glass is a human insecurity born of our insistent demand for our own perfection. We’re on a quest to be spotless, even though we know it’s an unachievable goal. We need be perfect, because we can’t stand the way we feel about ourselves or our lot in life, and if we can’t actually BE better, we can at least LOOK better. We live a life of “what ifs,” and we just know that it would somehow be better, if we could just perform at a higher level. We gauge our internal feelings by what we see in others, unaware that they, too, are just as imperfect as we are.

These are the challenges of what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he compared humans to amphibians, able to exist in two differing realms simultaneously. We humans tend to think in linear terms and live within our senses, which is why we feel comfortable with an anthropomorphized God sitting on a metaphorical throne. But we also live in the spiritual dimension, where this “dark glass” doesn’t exist, because there is no yesterday or tomorrow in the spiritual realm. The spirit exists in an eternal here and now. Time and distance are created dimensions, linear concepts that trap us in a world we can’t control, and yet we insist we must. The pursuit of happiness is, after all, a self-evident human right, right?

Like much of life, however, this is a paradox, for happiness depends on what’s happening, whereas the state of being happy, joyous, and free is one that doesn’t depend on external circumstances whatsoever. This is the place of human contentment, a safe zone to which we can retreat 24/7 to find rest and safety. Notice how David prays for this in Psalms 43:

O send out Thy light and Thy truth
And let them lead me.
Let them bring me unto Thy holy hill and to Thy tabernacle.
Then will I go unto the alter of God,
Unto God, my exceeding joy.
Yea, with harp will I praise Thee, O God, my God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
Why art thou disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
Who is the health of my countenance and my God.

This isn’t some great mystery. It’s David retreating to his place of safety, away from the things that trouble his soul, and into the arms of God’s perfect grace and peace. The concept is so simple that it confounds the very human souls for which it is intended and why David felt it necessary to remind himself through this Psalm.

And I hope that by sharing this today, I’ve reminded you, too. The darkened glass can never satisfy.

Our poor, poor ruffled feathers

angrytsmHere is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World. This one is personal, and I hope you understand.

Our Poor, Poor Ruffled Feathers

I’ve been stung by my use of the word “ignorant” in my writing over the years and once again recently. My intentions are not to insult, but that’s the way I come off to some. However, my only desire is to share knowledge, and at least part of that process is the ability to understand, be taught, or “receive.” I apologize for the personal umbrage I’ve caused, but I’m pleading for a little more from my readers. Please hear me out.

The power of personal media

I had the good fortune of spending a few minutes today with Amy Wood, the social media pioneering TV News anchor from Spartanburg, South Carolina (WSPA-TV). Amy has an enormous following online and was a very early practitioner of personal branding. Far more people in the market follow Amy than the TV station she works for, which is the point of working social media as a single entity over a “brand.” Her father recently passed away, and the outpouring of love she experienced online was absolutely overwhelming. Enjoy the next 16 minutes and learn a few of Amy’s secrets to success.

The Artist’s Lament

The Dreamers are the saviors of the world.

The Dreamers are the saviors of the world.

I believe the early part of the 21st Century will be known for its shift to the arts and the imagination that seems to flow through artistic people. I wrote about a “Right Brain Renaissance” in 2006, and this is a continuation of that. Basically, the left brain people have “managed” us into quite a pickle, and they don’t have a clue on what to do. The West suffers from a failure of imagination like no other time in history, and, as James Allen wrote 100 years ago, “The dreamers are the saviors of the world.”

There’s an artist in everyone, but only some are artists, or Allen’s “dreamers.” These are people who touch Richard Adams’ Unbroken Web of creativity that is available – for free – to anyone and everyone. Consequently, creativity belongs to no one, which means that ideas belong to no one. There is no such thing as “intellectual property” for one who touches the realm of the creatives. The price for the ability to bask within the Unbroken Web is that you’ll probably never be rich, although there are plenty of those who try, based on what some gifted people bring back with them. Artists often suffer in their own lifetime only to have their work reach extraordinary value after their gone. It may seem a steep price to pay, but most of those who touch this realm would give anything to touch it once again.

In today’s explosion of creative thought, however, the undeniable loss for individual dreamers is acknowledgement of what they find in the realm of creativity. Provenance often goes to the one who speaks loudest, is best connected, or already has a significant following, and this is a shame, because those people are rarely in the “starving artist” category. Perhaps this is just another part of the price one pays for living with one’s head in the clouds.

But it doesn’t make it right. Sigh.

A bluegrass miracle to start the new year

The Heaton Brothers in Neal Lynch's basementA few days ago, something remarkable happened that I thought I’d share. It’s a testament to the wonder of hyperconnectivity for my generation. I think this kind of thing will only be experienced by those who’ve not grown up with the Web, so these kinds of stories will gradually disappear, but that’s just a guess. Here’s what happened.

Neal Lynch, the brother of a high school girlfriend contacted me via Facebook inquiring if I had been a member of the River City Singers from Grand Rapids, Michigan during the 1960s. Facebook is the source of reconnections so plenty these days that this one would simply blend in with the others were it not for the fact that I’m able to pass it along to you. Neal lives in California, and the circumstances under which he contacted me are remarkable all by themselves, but The Great Horizontal — the connected culture we’re just beginning to know — is what made this possible.

I wrote back that I was indeed a member of that band, whereupon he sent me two photographs of myself and my two brothers playing our music in his basement. He was 12-years old at the time and shortly thereafter picked up guitar and has been playing ever since. The photos were made from old Kodak slides and are the only high-resolution, digital color pictures of the three of us playing together. The ONLY ones, and I’d never seen them before. These pictures blew my mind, because I was able to zoom in and closely examine facial expressions. The experience really took me back to when I was 18-years old. All that I am, I was back then. The experiences I’ve had in the last 47 years have shaped only what I do, but all that is really me — the gifts, the spirit, the emotions, the soul — can be seen in these pictures.

I sent copies to my two brothers and heard back from older brother Jim (the guitar picker). He told me that he was so blown away that all he could do was go sit in his back yard alone and think about our lives as a bluegrass band. I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The Heaton Brothers in Neal Lynch's basementWords cannot express my appreciation for the way Life has engineered this and especially to Neal for contacting me. In the picture to the left, you can see me, as my daughter told me via Facebook, “lost in the music.” This is true, but “lost in the music” can also be a form of “hiding from everybody,” which took a big emotional toll on me over the decades that followed.

My two brothers and I are not close. The Vietnam War broke up our band, and we all went our separate ways. It has been one of the biggest regrets of my life, because I really did and do love my brothers. That fact is inescapable when examining these pictures. We were really good, and to quote Marlon Brando, “I coulda been a contender.” Bluegrass is a music meant to be played, not just listened to. I haven’t had a banjo in many years, but this may inspire me to find something at a pawn shop. I’m playing an old Gibson Mastertone in the pictures. That instrument is worth a lot of money today.

This event in my life has reinforced everything I believe deeply about the enormity of this “second Gutenberg moment” in the history of Western Civilization. We may spit and snarl and fight it all the way, but this “Great Horizontal” is transforming everything about our culture. The more open we become, the harder it is for anybody to live a double life and to present bullshit as a cover story for one’s life. We have to rethink everything, and I envy those who are just entering adulthood, for life will be very different for them when they reach my age. The naysayers shout down change, usually because they have something to lose in terms of their position vis-a-vis everybody else.

I’m incredibly hopeful for tomorrow, because truth weighs far less than falsehood, and we’re all ridiculously overweight. That’s what my view of postmodernism is all about. These pictures have helped me in the ongoing journey to find my truth, and I am forever grateful.