On Being Human

Courtesy, the brilliant Nick Galifanakis.

Long ago, I made peace with the idea that ALL humans really want and need the same thing: to do the best we can with what we know. It’s the same in the physical, in the psychological, and in the spiritual. There’s nothing whatsoever “wrong” with this; it’s a healthy part of human nature.

And, in terms of judging the behavior of others, this is a wise position to take, because it strikes at the heart of what motivates people. We want to help ourselves, our families, our communities, and beyond. That only some are able to do this well is the thing that’s really wrong with our world under the sun. Sadly, these few are the ones with the dragons capable of raining down terror on the rest of us. Dracarys!

Those who associate with a God of their understanding — as a part of their teaching, training, and faith — fully grasp the significance of helping the poor and the afflicted among us. Chaos ensues, however, when even a few of these get the idea that helping others means personal loss to themselves, or even more deceptively, that the poor are somehow “out to take what’s ours.” This stance puts us at odds with God, no matter which religion we pick. It ought to concern those who do so, but it doesn’t.

For, no matter how we play it, those who are stuck in the rut of competing for what they believe to be “theirs” are at odds with others who are more giving. As a friend recently said, “It’s not a piece of pie.” Helping others is a natural behavior for humans, one that runs into conflict only when we put our spiritual selves on hold while we pursue getting what we can to better our physical lives. This produces the takers in a world of givers, and they are an abomination before God.

Luke 6:24 “But woe to you, rich ones, for you have your comfort!”

It’s a lot easier on all of us to view the realities of life through the veil of wanting to do the best we can for ourselves and our families. This knowledge (or is it a belief?) has a way of injecting compassion into those who are aware. Everybody seems to agree with the principle but not with how to bring it about throughout the planet. Resources to accomplish the task appear to the uninitiated as a zero-sum game and one that requires that I take from somebody else in order to satisfy my own wants and needs. Once I’ve accumulated “mine,” I might be able to turn my attention to somebody else. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The fear that somebody else “might” take away my piece of pie is a powerful motivator to maintain the status quo, no matter who gets stomped on in the process. This, again, is human nature gone to seed, revealing the hidden motives of selfishness and self-centeredness. And, if this is to be our stance, we are sad and to be pitied.

Those who know God, however, understand that His approach is for us to give of ourselves first in order to be filled fully via the spirit with what’s best for us afterwards (See: The parable of the garden hose). This is foolishness to the world under the sun, but those of us who also fully inhabit the spiritual see the wisdom of such an approach. God is fully committed to the poor, and that includes Jesus. You can’t go very far in reading the Bible until you encounter this truth.

And, this is why the Republican approach to religion is so off-putting to me. To them, social justice is a major weakness in governance, and why Trump puppet master Steve Bannon said in 2017:

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the democrats.”

This is a crude albeit correct description of Republican Party Politics, because it seeks to benefit the status quo and by extension, the wealthy and the haves. The sole strategic thrust of the Democrats ought to be how their opponents only speak for the wealthy and the filthy rich, and the bones they toss to white evangelicals — like abortion and religious freedom — are only offered to ensure a larger support base. Republicans, quite honestly, could give a crap about fetuses being aborted. The litmus test for conservative judges is not abortion; it’s how business-friendly they are. The price conservatives demand is support for the wealthy, and since a lot of these preachers consider themselves in that category, the match is perfect. Moreover, the wealthy give money to big churches and ministries (it’s called a tax write-off).

And, no preacher worth his salt wants to turn that down, right?

This business of being human can give us all fits, not just the poor and the afflicted, so how are we supposed to judge others? the Bible says we should “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

They’ve taken the human idea of doing the best for ourselves, our families, and our communities and turned it into selfishness.

And, it’s not pretty.

A Huffington Post reject on sexual harassment

Today, I’m publishing a somewhat tweaked version of the piece I wrote for The Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago that they chose not to publish. The reasons I was given were “the assumption of pathology and the discussion of victims’ responses and clothing choices, among other things.” I promised I would publish the piece here, so that you could judge for yourselves.

It’s already public knowledge that I’m an addict in recovery, and it’s my experience in working on my own bad habits that brings me to publish this. My single purpose in so doing is to raise awareness about a part of human life that people would — for whatever reason — choose to rather not know about. I don’t see how that does anybody any good, especially in the area of human relations known as sexuality. Besides, I’m an old man now and care much less about what people think of me than I once used to. Here’s the link:

Advice from a former serial sexual predator: In the Era of Harvey Weinstein, Break the Predator’s Fantasy!

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.