If you’re a hammer…

I recently watched a 2016 TED talk about confirmation bias, delivered by a researcher named Julia Galef. In it, Galef characterizes two approaches to information, calling one “the Soldier” mindset, and the other, “the Scout.”

The Soldier, Galef explains, reacts to everything with adrenaline, and is fueled by the need to protect herself and defeat the enemy. The soldier employs motivated reasoning, which allows desires and fears to shape how the Soldier interprets information, defending what works for him, and shooting down what doesn’t. As in an actual battle situation, the desire to win strongly influences the soldier’s judgment.

The Scout, on the other hand, is led by curiosity rather than motivated reasoning. In a real-life battle scenario, the Scout needs to collect information accurately, and see what truly exists — bridges, trees, reinforcements, bunkers. Outside of battle, the Scout mindset does the same, evaluating what is in front of him without making false assumptions or dismissing potentially pertinent intel.

Unlike the Scout, the Soldier operates on confirmation bias, which Psychology Today tells usoccurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true… This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.” (For more on confirmation bias, and how it makes us “prisoners of our assumptions,” click here: Psychology Today)
b249f345-7f54-4483-a543-4b13dc20830fConfirmation bias is an interesting concept, and it affects every aspect of our lives. You only have to look at the political discourse on social media to witness people’s willingness to buy into, or reflexively disavow, virtually any idea or fact. I’ll sum up those 80 million arguments for you, in case you’ve been unplugged for the past twenty years: If it furthers my candidate, I’m all in. If not? It’s a load of crap, and you’re a despicable idiot for believing it.

But even beyond the political minefield, confirmation bias is widespread, and presents distinct challenges to specific undertakings. When pilots train to navigate by instruments rather than by sight, for example, they must learn to trust what the instruments say, rather than the biased information the pilot’s brain provides. In a low visibility situation, the brain may say “Up is this way,” while the instruments tell a very different story. Trusting the instruments becomes a matter of life and death: without proper instrument training, the average pilot, in low or zero visibility situations, lasts only 178 seconds before entering what is known as the “graveyard spiral.” 

Read a 1st person “graveyard spiral” account from an experienced pilot here.

Why do our brains do this? Because as powerful as they are, our brains take in only snapshots of information, leaving us to fill in the gaps with ideas based on our experiences, prejudices, biases, and beliefs.

“But I’m not a pilot, so confirmation bias doesn’t apply to me.”

Well, hang on a second. It does matter, because confirmation bias is everywhere — not just in catfights and cockpits.

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Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks

In the study of literature, confirmation bias stands in the way of students’ ability to see nuance, understand context, and get at authorial intention. Sadly, it keeps work from authors like Flannery O’Connor out of classrooms, because the prevailing bias among young people at the moment is that the same code of social ethics they live by now has always existed. It hasn’t. But if your bias is that is has, or that there should be no tolerance for the evolution of human society, then you read O’Connor’s work out of context, devalue it as the writings of a racist, and ignore the author’s efforts to reveal the comeuppances her flawed characters receive. (And by the way, those character flaws, more often than not, include feeling superior because of white skin.) unnamed

Confirmation bias is a problem in biblical criticism, as well. In my seminary experience, we were constantly reminded to evaluate the lens through which we were reading Scripture, and assess how it was affecting our understanding. Here’s an example of confirmation bias at work: If your bias requires that you see your own Christianity as superior to your friend’s Judaism, you’ll read much of the New Testament as a repudiation of Jesus’ own Jewish identity, rather than an effort to radically disrupt the social status quo. Perhaps the two ideas are, in fact, supported by the text, and intrinsically linked? You won’t know, if your lens allows you to see only one.  

Galef doesn’t get into literature or theology, but she does point out, in a video on her website (Julia Galef Videos), a confirmation bias she calls the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In the brief video, Galef asks us to consider the faulty thinking that allows us to say, for instance, after ten years of laboring unhappily in a particular field, “Well, I’ve invested so much time into it, I might as well stay.” The Sunk Cost Fallacy is what pushes us, she notes, to read an entire book, even when we’re disenchanted by the first 100 pages. It keeps us doing what we’re doing, even when it’s wrong for us, because we don’t want to “lose” the investment of time, money, or energy we’ve already made.

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But you know, it was above water for a long time…I’d hate to abandon ship prematurely!

In the novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years, the protagonist, Beth, is at a crisis point, and goes to a therapist, who reminds her that fear is often the real enemy of happiness, keeping us mired in situations that don’t work. Beth asks, “Well, then how do we move past fear?”

The therapist’s advice is to begin by evaluating your options differently. Rather than assess a particular course of action by its potential downsides, she says, it makes far more sense to weigh the possible upsides.

In Galef’s scenario of sunk costs, this would mean contemplating a career change not by clinging to the time already spent, but by looking at the possible benefit: finding work that is fulfilling and meaningful to you. As Galef puts this essential question, “Do you have a good reason to stick with what you’re doing? Make the choice that leads to the better outcome for you.”Related imageIn the Scout mindset, which Galef advocates, self worth isn’t tied to winning, or being right or wrong.

And this is critical, because “winning” and “being right” rarely lead to health, happiness, or even wisdom.  The human condition is to screw up. To fall, and to have to dig deep to find the strength to get back up. That’s the story the Bible tells us, and it’s the plotline that underpins every great work of literature, every remarkable film, every memorable life story.

As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail.” But the truth, of course, is that only nails are actually nails.

Those other things, that we’re identifying as nails? They’re something else altogether – possibly something that would be much better suited to our lives. 

To watch Julia Galef’s TEDtalk, click here: Julia Galef TEDtalk

 

In the Ring with Rodents

On the bulletin board in my home office, there is a clipping from the Wall Street Journal that has yellowed and curled up at the edges.  It is a profile of an Old Town, Alexandria, VA Federal-style mansion for sale, with photos and a brief interview with the owner.  

The owner was selling it because her husband had died and her children had moved on.  Her garden, a centerpiece in the annual tour of homes, was a big selling point, and the owner was quoted as saying that the garden was the thing she would miss most about the house.

When asked by the WSJ what she would not miss about the home, the owner answered without hesitation, “The squirrels.”  

The little varmints had tormented her for years, she said, eating her flowers and wreaking havoc in her carefully planned and painstakingly maintained Eden!  

When the reporter pointed out that the woman was moving to a new home only a few miles away, and thus there was a great likelihood that squirrels would also exist at the new place, the homeowner replied, “Yes, but they will be different squirrels.”

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Smug bastard.

I love the ridiculousness of this logic, which I’m sure the owner herself fully recognized. It is a reminder of how beneficial it can be to change just one factor in the equation of our lives, in order to get closer to the results we’re looking for.

Change is a good thing, the currency of innovation.  Corporations — traditionally the last places to embrace change — now encourage frequent lateral moves, to increase employees’ exposure to the company and broaden their skill set. Sabbaticals, once a reward for years of slogging away in academia, are increasingly seen as crucial to revitalizing research and reenergizing scholarship.

Gone are the days when a man retired after fifty years of doing the same work, and went home with his gold watch to putter in the garage and await death — and that’s a very good thing.  Most of the people I know in their sixties and seventies are on their second, third or fourth incarnation, discovering interests and aptitudes they never knew they possessed and drawing on decades of experience to tackle new challenges.

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After years of toil as a librarian and a CPA, Jean and Pete are now bounty hunters in Mexico.

Two of my closest friends, a husband and wife team, moved a few years ago to a state that, I can say with 100% certainty, neither had ever before considered visiting, much less living in.  The ability to say YES to this new adventure required an arms-open approach to change on their part, because change, for all of its inherent benefits, can be extraordinarily frightening.

Saying yes can be the hardest thing in the world. And sometimes we’re so bogged down in what we’re doing — managing families, maintaining homes, fighting squirrels — that we lose sight entirely of the possibilities around us, so focused are we on the pavement under our feet.

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Change may require new environs, but you won’t be lost.

Remember Eddie the Eagle?  Back in England, he plastered walls for a living, had no team, no sponsorship, and no high-tech equipment other than his Coke-bottle glasses, but at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada, he represented his country in the ski jump, the first time England had ever competed in that sport.  

Aided by the Austrian and Italian ski jump teams who took mercy on the Eagle and gave him decent skis and a helmet, Eddie stood up at the top of the jump, his very presence a paragraph in the record books.  I remember watching him as he prepared to launch himself into the ether, holding my breath — not because I hoped he would shock the world by capturing the gold, but because I hoped he would survive.  And he did, launching himself into the air and, as Franz Lidz recalled in Smithsonian Magazine, “plummeting to the ground like a dead parrot.”

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Since then, Eddie the Eagle has opened a lot of shopping centers, appeared sporadically in the tabloids, toured with a Finnish heavy metal band, had some plastic surgery, and attended law school. The money he earned from his notoriety is long gone, and the Olympics powers-that-be instituted a minimum distance requirement to bar any wannabe Eddies from emerging from, say, Djibouti or Eritrea, to steal attention away from the athletes who’ve devoted their lives to their sport. 

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Also Eddie the Eagle. Not sure how he feels about his name being used.

For many, the story of Eddie the Eagle is ridiculous, and nothing more — and I will concede that there is certainly a great deal of the absurd woven into it.  But at the end of the day, this plasterer from England said YES to pursuing his dream, and there is something very admirable in that.  He changed the trajectory of his life by being willing to look foolish and fail — in front of the entire world!

But perhaps there are easier ways to revitalize our lives than risking them, better ways to reconnect to our interests than hurtling off a nearly-400 foot ski jump?  [Or maybe that is your passion, in which case, go for it, as soon as you update your life insurance.]  Maybe for the rest of us, we could find the same rewards by simply saying YES to a new opportunity.

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Space exploration? I’m just in it for the NASA diapers.

My favorite interview question, which I posed in every business profile I ever wrote, was “What did you want to be when you grew up?”  The answers were always funny: the CEO who wanted to play baseball, the ad exec who wanted to be a professional fisher(wo)man, the international business owner who wanted to be a backup singer.

The best part of these answers, however, was what inevitably came up next — the creative ways these people had managed to work their dreams into their wildly successful lives: the rec league baseball team, the monthly bass fishing trips, the church choir.

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Nana is sorry there are no cookies, dear, but she was too busy being strapped to a stud and free falling to bake for you.

So consider this: maybe it’s time to put one toe out there, by changing a small thing in your life.

Perhaps it will be as easy as sketching while you watch the evening news, taking a class, writing a story, reconnecting with an old friend, attempting a new language, painting, playing baseball, picking up a racket — and seeing what the payoff is. Maybe your life will require something much larger.

But if you dare to remember what it was you used to want to be, and then take a step in that direction, at the very least, you’ll be battling new squirrels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Signs of Spring

I was playing a game of 20 Questions with a friend some weeks ago, and all of the questions were based on how well we actually know one another. One of mine was “What’s my favorite season?” and my friend replied, “Easy. It’s Spring, because you say Spring is the time of renewal, rebirth, and resurrection.”

That was the right answer. And couldn’t we all use a little Spring right about now? 
In that vein, we’re visiting the archives, to Spring’s arrival two years ago…

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Spring arrived this past weekend. Spring is my favorite season. There’s such a sense of renewal and promise to Spring that you can’t help but feel hopeful. I parked myself outside on Monday for a couple of hours and accumulated a little bit of a sunburn and a few more crows’ feet, both of which were preferable to the tuberculosis I was destined to pick up on the Theology floor of the library, where a couple of undergrads were hacking up their lungs like they were AWOL from a sanitarium. (Seriously, guys, Jesus is not shielding us from your germs. Go to the Health Center! … Or at least back down to your area of the library.)

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My Beautiful Broken Brain – now on Netflix!

Last week, when it was still winter, I was supposed to be doing some light theological reading (that’s a joke; I’ve yet to encounter any theological reading that can be characterized as “light,” or any that hasn’t made me want to stab my eyes out with a seafood fork, for that matter), but I watched a documentary on Netflix instead.

The film was called My Beautiful Broken Brain. It chronicles a year in the life of Lotje Sodderland, a young woman living in London who suffers a hemorrhagic stroke that leaves her near death and unable to communicate. After months of grueling work to recover the ability to speak (albeit with serious trouble recalling words), Sodderland is left still unable to read or write, and with serious vision, hearing, and sensory processing difficulties.  

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To make matters worse, Sodderland’s professional life was based on communication: she was a producer at an ad agency, was developing a documentary film, and was an avid reader and socializer.  

And then, poof. Her life was forever changed.

When we first meet Sodderland, she’s just a few days post-stroke, freshly awake from a medically-induced coma and major brain surgery.  She looks at her iPhone, having re-learned how to use the Record feature in the hospital so that videos could function as her brain in the absence of memory, and says,“Okay, I’m alive.” Then she smiles and gives a thumbs-up. “I’m not dead. That’s a start.”

Always a fan of his work, one of the first articles Sodderland struggles to make sense of is a profile of filmmaker David Lynch, to whom she sends a video clip of herself saying hello. To Sodderland’s joyful surprise, a conversation of sorts ensues — Lynch emails a response to her video message — and a year or so later, the two meet.  (Lynch eventually executive produced the documentary about Sodderland, as well).

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For Sodderland, stripped of the skills and abilities that formed the foundation of who she believed herself to be, life after the stroke is a series of setbacks and challenges. One of the setbacks is so startling, and so severe, that I marveled at Sodderland’s ability to retain any sense of hope at all.

She gives a huge amount of credit for that hope to Lynch, who helped her move from viewing her post-stroke life as a series of drastic limitations to understanding her life as new and dramatically different, but loaded with infinite possibilities.  

 

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Sodderland now sees her life as demarcated into pre- and post-stroke eras; but as difficult as the experience was for her and her friends and family, Sodderland is at peace with what happened to her.  

“It’s like, Okay, I’m never going to be the same as I was before, but then nobody is. Things change constantly for everybody. This was a very dramatic change and it happened very suddenly, but you have to accept that change is part of life,” she said, in a Vogue interview. She dictated an essay for The Guardian to her iPhone, saying,  I see my stroke as a kind of rebirth; unexpected and painful, but also more vivid, filled with purpose, meaning and potential.” 

Her friendship with David Lynch helped bring spring  — and a sense of hope and the possibility of renewal — back to Lotje Sodderland. And while we’re not all lucky enough to be pals with successful filmmakers, we all have meaningful people in our lives, and the possibility within us to be reborn. 

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Let’s hope that it won’t take a catastrophe to get each of us to our own personal Spring, to push us towards a sincere commitment to rebirth, renewal, and resurrection. After all, if Sodderland can lose everything that made her her, surely we can also find purpose, meaning and potential in our own circumstances, no matter how wintry they may look at the time? 

As the credits rolled on Sodderland’s story, I was reminded of the way my friend Susan ends every yoga class, by reminding us of the infinite possibilities that surround us in every moment. 

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Those possibilities are, of course, the opportunities we have every day to choose to begin anew, to walk away from disappointment and hurt and regret, to leave the past behind us, and be born into something bright and full of promise.

So no matter the weather outside, my hope is that each of us will seek the signs of spring in every season of our lives — and recognize the possibility of rebirth, renewal, and resurrection that lives within us.

Come on, Spring! Show yourself, in all of us.

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For more information on Lotje Sodderland: Lotje Sodderland, Vogue interviewLotje Sodderland, The Guardian. For more information on the film: My Beautiful Broken Brain.

 

Be quite undone

I’ve been thinking a good bit about Edwin Muir lately. Muir was born in the part of Scotland called The Orkneys in 1887, and lived there, and in central Europe, until his death in 1959. He worked steadily as a translator, and is the first person to have translated Kafka to English, but he never got much acclaim for his poetry during his lifetime.

But just now, when we’re engaged in an agonizing national exercise of accusation and refutation, allegation and contrition, Muir’s poem The Transfiguration keeps humming in my ear.

The imagery, I think you’ll agree, is beautiful throughout the poem; but it’s the final stanza that kills me, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read all the way through.

A transfiguration, according to those fine folks who compile the Oxford Dictionary, is a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. 

Reading Muir’s poem, I hope you’ll remain hopeful, as I do, that even though no betrayal can actually be undone, it is possible to transfigure, to move from darkness into light, to enter a more beautiful or spiritual state.  And furthermore, that the possibility of transfiguration — the opportunity to move from darkness into light — exists not just for victims, who must unburden themselves of accrued anger, shame, self-reproach and grief, but also for perpetrators, who must unlearn predatory behaviors, confront internal demons, come to grips with past actions, and commit to honoring the sanctity of others in the one, brief life God has granted us all here together.

 

The Transfiguration

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch 

Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists 

As fresh and pure as water from a well, 

Our hands made new to handle holy things, 

The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed 

Till earth and light and water entering there 

Gave back to us the clear unfallen world. 

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness, 

But that even they, though sour and travel stained, 

Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance, 

And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us 

Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined 

As in a morning field. Was it a vision? 

Or did we see that day the unseeable 

One glory of the everlasting world 

Perpetually at work, though never seen 

Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere 

And nowhere? Was the change in us alone, 

And the enormous earth still left forlorn, 

An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world 

We saw that day made this unreal, for all 

Was in its place. The painted animals 

Assembled there in gentle congregations, 

Or sought apart their leafy oratories, 

Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,

As if, also for them, the day had come.

The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath

The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart

As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps

Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;

For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’

And when we went into the town, he with us,

The lurkers under doorways, murderers,

With rags tied round their feet for silence, came

Out of themselves to us and were with us,

And those who hide within the labyrinth

Of their own loneliness and greatness came,

And those entangled in their own devices, 

The silent and the garrulous liars, all 

Stepped out of their dungeons and were free. 

Reality or vision, this we have seen. 

If it had lasted but another moment 

It might have held for ever! But the world 

Rolled back into its place, and we are here, 

And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, 

As if it had never stirred; no human voice 

Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks 

To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines 

And blossoms for itself while time runs on. 

But he will come again, it’s said, though not 

Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things, 

Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas, 

And all mankind from end to end of the earth 

Will call him with one voice. In our own time, 

Some say, or at a time when time is ripe. 

Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified, 

Christ the discrucified, his death undone, 

His agony unmade, his cross dismantled— 

Glad to be so—and the tormented wood 

Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree 

In a green springing corner of young Eden, 

And Judas damned take his long journey backward 

From darkness into light and be a child 

Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal 

Be quite undone and never more be done.

 

Try, try, try again.

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, but extremely gratifying. I’ve had a long list of speeches I saved to watch when I had a minute, and one of those was Brené Brown’s recent sermon at National Cathedral.

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It’s a 17 minute sermon, and I’ve linked it at the bottom. But there are some highlights I want to bullet point, in case you don’t have time to watch the full video:

  1. Brown argues that we are neurobiologically wired to take care of one another, and inextricably connected to one another — connected across all socioeconomic, geographic, and ideological barriers. This connection, she says, cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten. 
  2. When connectedness is forgotten, loneliness — which is the greatest predictor of early death, beyond even obesity and alcoholism — sets in. I’ve written about the Harvard study on longevity and connectivity; read about it here: What Makes a Good Life?
  3. We are increasingly sorted by ideology into bunkers, and the more sorted we are, the lonelier we are.
  4. The opposite of community is dehumanization. Dehumanization, when we fail to appreciate the human qualities — like thoughts and feelings — of others, begins with language. Brown makes a great point: the fight against dehumanization should cross all boundaries. In simple terms, if it’s not okay to call Hillary Clinton names, it’s also not okay to call Ann Coulter names. (Despite what you might have heard, both are human.) 
  5. We are called not to separate ourselves from one another, but to find the face of God in everyone we meet.

As I watched Brown’s sermon, I thought of a passage from the book I’ve been working on. In it, a priest is writing a letter to a friend, urging her to forgive herself for her mistakes, as well as forgive someone who’s hurt her deeply. He writes,

When I think about how difficult the going can be between two people, even two people who love one another, a lyric from the libretto of Les Miserables comes to mind – have you seen it? I caught it in Vienna when I was visiting friends from my days at University there, so I know the text in German, meaning this will be a translation of a translation of a translation (much like the Bible!). 

The snippet I’m referring to is at the end, a rather poignant scene between Valjean, who is dying, and Eponine and Fantine.  The last line is this: “Und vergeßt nicht, die Wahrheit steht geschrieben, Zu lieben einen Menschen heißt: das Antlitz Gottes sehen.” 

Can you dredge up enough college German to appreciate the beauty of those lines?

“But don’t forget the truth that has been written: to love another person is to see the face of God.” 

Only in loving others do we experience the revelation of God in our lives. Of course, sometimes the people closest to us make loving them downright difficult…but still, we are called to try, and try, and try again.

When the wires of connectivity come loose, repair them. And if they loosen yet again, never give up working to repair them. Try, try, try again.

Brené Brown at National Cathedral

From nothing, something.

As I mentioned in Often Lost, Forever Found, there are some sermons that send me scurrying for a pen and scrap of paper. This past Sunday was one of those, and immediately after church, I asked permission to use what I heard as a springboard for what I’m sharing with you now. 

First, though, I should tell you that I was in a beautiful cathedral in a state I’ve been to only once before. (I was there for an amazing organization, which you can learn about in The Grace Card). The cathedral didn’t feel ‘foreign’ to me, however, because one of my dearest friends was preaching, and I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with one of my besties. There’s something about that presence of much-loved friends that can make anywhere feel like home. 

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This is a photo of me and my first friend. He looks thrilled to know me, no?

This was the message of the sermon: The first creation account in the book of Genesis tells us that In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2, KJV)

From these 39 words, we have a compelling story, particularly if you know that “the deep” was, in ancient times, an idea that encompassed fear, chaos, and the threat of the unknown. In fact, in the Babylonian myths that inform the Genesis text, Tiamat, the goddess of primordial chaos, has to be slayed in order to make room for the creation of the world.

There is a long tradition, then, of ‘the deep’ representing everything we fear: loss of control, disorder, a world gone mad.

In 1968, as my friend pointed out, America seemed to be sliding into the deep. The VietNam War was raging and American men were being sent off to fight and die in a country they couldn’t find on a map. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been gunned down, only a month after delivering a speech in which he said, prophetically, that upon his death, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity.” Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The USSR had invaded Czechoslovakia. Student protests in France and in Mexico, at different times and for different reasons, had turned deadly.

The world of 1968 must have seemed as close to sliding back into the primordial ooze as ever before. Chaos played out on the nightly news, and if there was anyone in control, you certainly couldn’t tell. If there was ever a time for questioning the existence of God, much less asking whether God had given up on us once and for all, 1968 was that year.

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But on Christmas Eve of 1968, something extraordinary took place, 118 miles above the Earth. Transmitting from space, Frank Borman, the Commander, William Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot, and James Lovell Jr., the Command Module Pilot, opened up the Bible.

Looking down on the Earth far below, where virtually every corner of the globe was experiencing some form of chaos and violence and hopelessness, and where the disquiet of the unknown encroached on all sides, the Apollo 8 astronauts read the first ten verses of Genesis, and reminded the world that we had experienced chaos before. 

And they reminded us that from the chaotic nothing, God had created something wonderful.

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Earth rising, as seen from Apollo 8. Thanks, NASA.

I wasn’t alive in 1968, and I didn’t know this story. If you were, and you heard this broadcast, I hope you will share your memory with me and with the other people who read this post.

And whether you were alive then or not, I hope you’ll carry this story forward with you, as a reminder that God has the power to subdue the chaos both within and without, and from the nothing you may be experiencing now, create something wonderful.

Listen here to the broadcast: Apollo 8 Reading.

Often Lost, Forever Found

 

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One of my New Year’s resolutions was to live bravely, including sharing some of my work, and asking you to share it, as well, if you’re so inclined. Thinking about living bravely, I was pondering my character’s struggle to move beyond feeling lost, and thought I’d start by sharing this excerpt:

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     The organ music began, and I noticed that while I’d been lost in the past, the pews in front of me had filled up and the choir was lined up in the back of the church, ready to process. I stood with the rest of the congregation and when I caught David’s eye as he walked past, I couldn’t help but grin. 

     The sermon was about King David in the Bible, and how as king of Israel, David had done some pretty shifty stuff, like send Bathsheba’s husband off to the front lines of battle to get killed so he could have Bathsheba for himself. As flawed as the biblical David was, though, God raised him up to be a great leader. The point being, Father David said, that even when we feel furthest from God, too damaged to be repaired, too far gone to be retrieved, God has us in sight.

     “The grace of God extends beyond forgiveness to restoration,” David said. “The story of King David reminds us that while our flaws are known to God, so are our hearts. So is our potential. So are our possibilities. We may feel lost to ourselves, but in God, we are forever found.” He bowed his head for a second. When he raised it, across the sea of heads between us, his eyes met mine. “May this hope of restoration live within you and me, now and forever more. Amen.”

     We went to a bistro on the outskirts of Chapel Hill after David said goodbye to all the people who lined up to talk to him on their way out, and returned his vestments to the closet next to his office. As soon as we ordered, David handed our menus to the waiter, turned to me, and smiled.
“How are you, kiddo? I have to say, you look good for someone who never made it home last night.”
“Thanks,” I said, and laughed. “Hopefully that wasn’t obvious to everyone in the church. I feel surprisingly good. I was with Porter, by the way. Not that way – nothing salacious!” I said, in response to David’s raised eyebrows.
I didn’t know what to say that might explain the conversations I’d had with Porter the night before, or how I now felt about him. I alternated between thinking I loved him and wanted to grow old with him and wishing I’d never met him in the first place, sometimes ricocheting from one stance to the other within the span of a single minute. So while I was feeling good about Porter that morning, I didn’t want to go on record. Instead I said, “I liked your sermon. I felt like you were talking directly to me.”
“I was,” David said, nodding. “And to myself, and to everyone in there. Feeling unsalvageable is a universal plight. I think everyone goes through it at one point or another.”
I thought about this for a second. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something, David. Do you believe in fate? Or that there’s some larger meaning or scheme behind what happens to us?”
“If you’re asking whether I think there’s an unseen force that guides our lives to a pre-ordained destiny, the answer is no, not at all.” He shook his head. “But I do believe that God works in our lives, in ways we often don’t recognize and can’t fathom.”
I waited for the waiter to put my iced tea and David’s coffee down before asking what he meant.
“I think God wants the best for us, and often intervenes to put us back on track. Think about how many times you’ve met just the right person at the right time, or had a premonition that kept you safe? The hand of God is all around us, and I believe our lives unfold with intention and purpose, regardless of whether we can see or understand that purpose as things happen.” He gestured towards the small stainless steel pot of cream and I passed it to him.
“Maybe,” I said. “But the weird thing is how often life turns on a decision that seems so small and inconsequential. Good decisions, like if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have met this person, who ended up changing my life.” I used my spoon to push a lemon wedge down into my glass. “But bad stuff, too. Like if I hadn’t felt hungry and seen a McDonalds, I wouldn’t have turned left and gotten hit by a train. Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“That’s what life is,” David said. “A series of small decisions. Small moments that add up to big things. Precisely why we all need to be more intentional about putting truth and kindness and joy out in the world.” He took a sip of his coffee. “You don’t know how the words and actions you choose lightly might affect someone – and affect them profoundly.”
 I nodded, thinking of all the times I’d been carelessly, sometimes unintentionally, cruel. For far too long, my life had been an endless attempt to feint and parry and posture and finesse my way out of being vulnerable, and I knew I’d left scars on people I truly loved. 
“So how’s the forgiveness going?” David asked. He flipped the lid on the pitcher of cream and peered inside.
“You’d be proud of me, David. I honestly have forgiven Porter. It was stupid, and we were young.”
“Funny, isn’t it,” he said, “how easy it can be to forgive someone else, and how difficult it is to forgive ourselves?”
“What do you mean?”
“Other people disappoint us,” David said, “and we cut them some slack, and grant them another chance. But make that left turn to McDonalds and get hit by a train? You can beat yourself up forever over that, huh?”
“If you’re still alive to do it, yeh, I guess so.”
“Wouldn’t it be smarter to simply rejoice that you survived?” 

(The Shallows, 2018.)

**

As you might guess from the excerpt above, there are some Sundays when the sermon sparks an idea, and I scribble notes on the Visitor card. One sermon that got me scribbling was based on readings from Jeremiah and Luke.

Jeremiah, you’ll remember, is a ‘major’ prophet (a qualification based on quantity) from the late 600s-early 500s BCE. God was unhappy with the Israelites, because they wouldn’t stay faithful (they kept veering off to worship the Baals), and charged Jeremiah with prophesying their destruction.

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For Yahweh’s sake, people, we’ve been over this! You gotta stop messing with the Baals!

But in the midst of Jeremiah’s message, there’s a surprising opening, a possibility: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. (Jer 4:27)  Even in the face of all of the wanton idolatry and misbehavior, God wouldn’t make a ‘full end,’ allowing those who wanted to return to the covenant to do so.

The Gospel reading was from Luke 15:1-10, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

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From a lesser-known text entitled “Mister Woollington takes a seriously wrong turn on the road to Bethlehem.”

The shepherd, you remember, leaves the 99 other sheep in order to recover the lost one; the woman who has 9 other silver coins lights a lamp and sweeps her home to find the one coin she has lost. In both stories, what is lost must be found.

Speaking of the shepherd, my priest said, “Now, a good business plan would allow for the loss of one sheep out of one hundred. And morally, we could argue that one could be sacrificed for the safety of the majority. But for God, neither scenario is acceptable….The shepherd searches until the lost sheep is found, and the woman searches until the lost coin is recovered. The story is never over until what is lost has been found.”

I started thinking about how easy it is to believe, when we’re young and shiny and new and full of promise, that we are worth being sought, worth being searched for, worth being recovered. And how very easy it is to believe, when we’re not quite so shiny and new, that we’ve depreciated over time, that our sins have compounded, and that the investment God made in us at the moment of our birth has paid back a really crappy return.

But from everything Scripture tells us, God won’t stop searching until we have been found. And if you think about that — that whatever we’ve done in the past and whatever we are doing now and whatever we will do in the future, God still thinks we are worth time and consideration — you can barely take it in. That’s unconditional love! That’s chesed — the amazing, relentless loyal love that God had for the Israelites, and has for us.

Every single day, God believes we are worthy of being recovered, returned, and restored. Can we make it a goal for 2018 to start believing the same of ourselves, and of each other?

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A Christmas Wish.

How’s the Advent stillness going? 

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I have to say, it’s been going surprisingly well on my end.

I’ve tried my best to embrace the spirit of Advent, the brooding and the quiet anticipation, and now, with the 4th Sunday of Advent upon us, the anticipation is almost over and the grand event — the celebration of Jesus’ birth — is upon us. Hooray!

[This is an unusual overlap, the 4th Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve. The Episcopal News Service did a story this week on how churches are handling the scheduling conflict, trying to meet everyone’s Advent and Christmas Eve needs without working the clergy to the point of irreversible exhaustion. The article yielded this wonderful quote: “It’s the Episcopal Church. Everything we do leads to debate,” said the Rev. Keith Voets, a New York City priest who helps moderate a Facebook discussion group on Episcopal liturgy.” Nicely said, Fr. Voets. It’s what makes us great.]

 

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“Point of order? I’d like to yield my remaining minutes to my pet dragon, who will explain why clergy who fail to celebrate Advent and Christmas Eve fully, on the same day, without compromise, should be eaten.”

Having made it almost all the way through a peaceful, reflective Advent, I’ve started thinking about Christmas, and what it is, exactly, that we’re celebrating on Christmas Day.

Obviously we’re celebrating divine love made human when we celebrate the baby in the manger. We’re all celebrating what’s to come — the ministries and teachings and healings in the life of the adult Jesus, as well as the sacrifice that Jesus would eventually make on our behalf.

But that’s a lot to express, and of course, what would eventually happen in the life and death of Jesus wasn’t known to anyone but God at the moment of Jesus’ birth.

And so I began to wonder, in the wee hours of last night, (thank you, insomnia!), what the common denominator might be between all those things — the divine love made human, the life and teachings, the sacrifice —  that would allow us to distill the Christmas celebration down to one word or sentiment?

What is it we’re really worshipping, and singing about, and celebrating? What is it that the baby Jesus represents, that keeps millions of people around the world celebrating, year after year? 

I kept circling back to one thought: We’re celebrating the arrival, and renewal, of HOPE. images-1.jpgI’ve written a lot about the importance of hope, as well as the difference between optimism and hope, which are often, mistakenly, used interchangeably.

I think Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of The Anatomy of Hope, summed up the difference very well in an interview with NPR. He said, 

An optimist says everything is going to turn out just fine… But in fact we know that things often don’t turn out just fine.

Hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed, it has no illusions. It sees all the difficulties, all the problems, in a very realistic way…and then, through those troubles, through those problems, it sees a possible path to a better future.”

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Jerome Groopman. Brilliant, bearded, bespectacled, adorable.

Bishop Desmond Tutu also draws a distinction between optimism and hope. In 2009, he was interviewed by a man named Laurence Shorter, who was writing a book called The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life.

Shorter was certain that Bishop Tutu would share his outlook and worldview, but when he introduced himself to Tutu as an optimist, the Bishop’s response was this: “I’m not an optimist. I am hopeful. Optimism can turn far too quickly into pessimism if conditions don’t go well. Hope… is different!”

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Look at that smile! Would you really argue with Bishop Tutu? No, you would not.

Hope is different.  It is what allows us to be able to put disappointment behind us, and to believe – to really believe — in the promise of a new beginning. Hope is the certainty that things will not always be as they are now.  Hope is the knowledge that, despite the darkness we may find ourselves in currently, the light is always out there, shimmering on the horizon.

The arrival of Jesus into the world was hope made flesh. It was a possible path to a better future in the guise of a baby; a baby born under less-than-ideal circumstances, in a world that seemed, at times, very dark indeed.

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And so, all these years later, we’re still waiting, still pushing forward, still searching out the possible path to a better future.

As we celebrate Christmas, and the arrival of God’s love for us in the form of a human baby, we also, and perhaps most importantly, celebrate a renewal of hope. Hope that allows us to once again believe that lux in tenebris lucent — that somewhere out there, a light shines in the darkness.

 

So my wish for everyone is that hope takes up residence in your life this year, allowing you to see a possible path to a better future in every instance of darkness you encounter.  May you never lose sight of the light.

Thanks for reading, and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Listen to Dr. Jerome Groopman on NPR here:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1638913

Read the Episcopal News Service article here: Advent & Christmas Eve – ENS

Read about the importance of hope in medicine here: Et lux in tenebris lucent

Advent Brooding

Advent came late this year. It started at the last possible minute, this past Sunday, which means we had a little extra time for post-Thanksgiving activities, like digesting entire green bean casseroles and writing people out of our wills, than in years prior.

Now, though, it’s time to get our collective acts together, and get ready for Christmas. Not by frantically shopping, baking, and shrieking (the traditional “Christmas in America” formula), but by settling in for some quiet reflection.

If you’ve been playing along at home, you know I traditionally stink at Advent. What is meant to be a period of watchful waiting has always been a time of intense, panic-filled, often smoke-filled,* weeks. Our culture makes it extremely difficult to find the quiet required by Advent, seeing as how the holidays arrive in stores on the heels of the 4th of July, and by this point in December, we could construct new dwellings from the flyers and catalogues that have been clogging up the mailbox since October. And don’t even get me started on that manic episode set to music that seems to be playing everywhere, Carol of the Bells…

(*Yes, I do realize that ovens have timers, thanks.) 

But this year, I have vowed to do Advent differently, and began by making the trek to a beautiful service of Lessons and Carols in the company of a dear friend. The choir was amazing, which is no doubt what inspired us to sing 80s music at the top of our lungs all the way home. (My extended remix of Adam Lay Ybounden wasn’t available, obviously).

Then, in the spirit of Advent peace, I chose not to respond to my friend’s text about his NFL team of choice beating my team of choice with the same level of snark that I would usually deploy. Proud of myself, I did feel the need to make sure he knew that I was sparing him the snark in honor of Jesus’ imminent arrival, just in case he failed to note my uncharacteristic restraint… but still, it was an Advent win.

images.jpgThe church teaches us that during Advent, we’re waiting for two things: the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the return of God to this world. Here’s a little something that my friend David wrote some years ago that explains the dual nature of Advent nicely:

This holy season is all about two “comings,” or two advents.

The first advent took place at the birth of Jesus — that great event that we will celebrate in a few weeks. The other advent is the second coming of Jesus into this world. When that will be, only God knows.

Thus, Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate the first coming, but are also waiting for something else that has not yet come. The first coming, the birth of Jesus, was a message to all humanity that God had entered this world through Jesus Christ , who, because he died on a cross and rose from the dead, will come again. Jesus’ victory over death is what Archbishop Cranmer refers to as “the life immortal,” and what Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, describes as “eternal encouragement and good hope.” Because God loves you and me, God came into the world in the form of a human being. Because God loves you and me, God is going to come again.

And so we wait…. But because of Jesus Christ, we can wait with a great sense of hope and expectation.images-7.jpgIn the creation story of Genesis 1, we’re told that God creates the world by breathing God’s ruach, or spirit, over the formless void of the universe. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (KJV Gen. 1:1-2)

There’s a particular sense of anticipation that exists in the darkness and the deep, the world without form. My Old Testament professor described it as a still, suspended state, the way a bird broods, sitting on the nest in quiet anticipation of the start of something new.

And while we are talking about particularly New Testament events when we talk about the birth of Jesus and the coming kingdom, that same sense of brooding, that quiet and still anticipation, that we find in Genesis 1 is present in our observation of Advent, when, as David wrote, we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also the arrival of something new, something anticipated, something not yet arrived.221776-Henri-J-M-Nouwen-Quote-The-Lord-is-coming-always-coming-When-youSo my wish for you, for me, for everyone we know, is that we find it in ourselves this year to celebrate a peaceful, quiet, brooding Advent.

And that we retain that sense of wonder, of expectation, of anticipation, of certainty, that something new and wonderful lies waiting on the horizon, long after the season of Advent has passed.

(In case you haven’t heard it in awhile, here’s Adam Lay Ybounden.)

You’re Baader-Meinhofing Me.

You’ve experienced Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s that odd occurrence when you hear some obscure factoid — say, for instance, that the bark of the redwood tree is fireproof — and then, bizarrely, find yourself encountering this information again and again.

Everywhere you turn, for no discernable reason, people are talking about redwood trees! Your neighbor casually mentions taking a trip to California to see the forests. Your dentist follows up his reminder to floss with a non-sequitur about tree bark. Your latest copy of National Geographic arrives and it’s all about how the  bark of the majestic redwood tree helps it resist wildfires!

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Here are some redwood trees, resisting fire. Cool, huh? Want to know why they’re fire resistant? Google that sh*t, kids.

You start to think, what the heck am I supposed to do with this information? Why, all of a sudden, is my entire life centered on redwood trees and their fire-resistant bark? I’m just trying to live my life here in inner-city Detroit, and there are no redwood trees here, fireproof or otherwise!

Scientists, as you’d expect, have an answer for us about why this happens.  

The key to Baader-Meinhof, they say, is that our brains seek out patterns in the world. In doing so, they de-emphasize things that don’t uphold those patterns, and overemphasize the occurrences that do. 

Fun fact: According to scientists, an unromantic bunch if there ever was one, this also explains why people in love repeatedly encounter the name of their beloved, or something they associate exclusively with him or her.  (Pffffttttt, science! We all know that happens because our beloved puts those reminders in our path!)

 

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Scientists. Smugly sucking the fun out of phenomena since always.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many scientists prefer the term “frequency illusion” to “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.” I think we can all agree that this is an example of a time when we should ignore scientists, because Baader-Meinhof sounds much, much cooler.  

Another neat fact is that the term “Baader Meinhof” comes from the surnames of two founding members of a West German domestic terrorism group. As the story goes, one of the scientists originally researching this phenomenon heard someone mention the Baader-Meinhof Group twice in a short period of time, and applied the name of the group to the syndrome. Tuck that little nugget away until you can use it in Trivial Pursuit.

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What’s got me thinking about Baader-Meinhof, though, isn’t redwood trees, or fireproof bark, or even scientists and how they keep injecting facts into everything and ruining our cockamamie theories that are much more fun. 

It’s this:

DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE.

Why? Because I’ve had numerous conversations lately, with people older and wiser than I am, that all riff on this theme. Even the Wall Street Journal got into the act: the front page of the Off-Duty section this past weekend was “101 Things to Do Before You Die.”

As different as all these conversations were, they had some important themes in common. Like what, you ask? Well, that… 

Life is short.

The unexpected happens.

You shouldn’t put off …

making the change,

making the effort,

making the connection,

making the choice

….that you’ve slated for another day, because

tomorrow

simply isn’t guaranteed.

And, furthermore, even if you’re lucky enough to get the tomorrow you’re counting on, it may not look at all like you’ve imagined.

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Buddha. Thinking deep thoughts since the 6th century BCE.

If you’ve had the experience of losing a beloved friend or relative far too early, you already know that nothing — NOTHING — in life is guaranteed.

But what are you going to do with this knowledge? If you know that tomorrow isn’t a given, and your time here is short, and there are no do-overs…what are you going to do about it?

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You might seek a new pasture, even if getting there is tough.
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You might decide to be the driver of your life, not the passenger.
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You might attempt to reach new heights, even though doing so is risky.

This isn’t about advocating change just for change’s sake, or disrupting your life simply to disrupt it, or chasing money or fame or any other meaningless marker of “success.” It’s not about being perpetually discontented.

What it is about is being happy with where you are and what you’ve got, and counting your blessings on a daily basis, but also realizing that sometimes life brings it to your attention that you’ve gotten comfortable with something that isn’t quite right. 

Sometimes, the universe pushes you to the edge of a cliff, or shows you a different way, and says, “Okay, now what are you going to do? Will you retreat in fear, or leap and soar?”

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Look at you, soaring! It’s what you were created to do.

Weighing the opportunity cost of making a life change should begin with the potential upside, not the possible downsides.  

And when the potential upsides are great, the downsides diminish, and so does the fear that too often keeps us in a rut.

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Fear at the wheel: “I took a wrong turn somewhere, but I guess I’ll stay here. I’m used to it….”

The truth is, if you keep putting off going for the things that matter to you, chances are really good that you’re going to miss out.

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James: full of truth, but a bit of a downer as a dinner guest.

We all have areas of our life that need our attention, things we need to change. We all need to the occasional reminder that the “safety” of the known isn’t really safety at all, but rather the deceptively comfortable place where we slowly fade away. 

In the historical perspective of the universe, we’re only given a very short window of time to make our mark, to live well, to love one another, to be what we were meant to be.

That’s my Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of late.

A brain seeking patterns? Maybe.

Or maybe something more. 

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