Saturday, January 16, 2010

Good or not?

It’s an easy, perhaps deadly, trap to fall into, to think that when something good happens, it’s for good. A trap that doesn't so much involve falling into but struggling up to.

As if good were a plateau, that if I can only toil hard enough to reach the top, get on firm ground, I’ve arrived. At good, for good.

It’s a lifelong battle for me. Particularly in my high school years, I learned to fear something good happening, because it was inevitably followed by bad, as though I were being punished if I so much as dared to note a good event, let alone enjoy it.

Good evening out with my friends? Sure to be nullified when I returned to a full-blown argument at home, beyond my control, between my siblings and/or parents. Physical violence between my brothers, emotional violence between my parents. Someone ending up in jail, my mother threatening suicide.

I was, for good reason, considered a pessimist.

Lately I’ve been attempting to recast my thinking, so that I don’t automatically assume the crash position when I detect feelings of contentment, even joy. Freeing myself from that attitude, I realize the flip side: I might dare to think that if something is good, it will—must—continue. Not only that the state of grace could be eternal, but that what I, with my limited human perception, see as good, is ultimately good.

Corollary: can I accept that seemingly bad events could lead to good? then good events could also lead to bad?

Much of various religions’ rules involve ways to stay away from the edge of the plateau, so as not to risk falling off. It’s all well and good to posit that actions have consequences, but good is not a plateau, so following the rules simply doesn’t guarantee either that bad won’t happen or that it isn’t a part of life and growth. There’s no edge to fall off.

Contributions to my musings:

1) I've been rereading the two-book “epic” by Mary Doria Russell—“The Sparrow” and “Children of God.” A thorough spiritual exercise in one person’s dark night of the soul that looks at this issue and others in a tremendously far-sighted, rich and poetic way. A most rewarding read (a true page-turner), which I commend to all.

2) The earthquake in Haiti, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s self-serving abuse heaped upon unimaginable suffering.

Can I accept that good follows bad and bad follows good, without ironclad cause-and-effect? It seems like a no-brainer, but as soon as I think that, I’m back in the trap: Aha! I’ve figured out God’s ways. I’ve defined the ineffable.

Back to “I’m limited by my human perceptions and lifespan.” All I can do is try to make good choices, knowing that good things happening to me might not be the result, and then I make more choices.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Humbug

Most years I say, “Bah, humbug!”

This year it might even be justified, but strangely, I don’t feel like it. Most years, my list of “shoulds” has far outweighed my list for Santa. But then, I was raised to not believe in Santa, so my puny wish list is no sign of virtue. And I don’t want to display a list of completed shoulds as evidence of my virtues. Because, ouch.

This year, as usual, I’ve waited to observe Christmas until, well, Christmas. Today is but the first of twelve days of Christmas, so I’ve been quite happy to ignore all the frantic preparations of the commercial, non-Advent flavor, preferring gentle penitence to be followed by pleasant reflection upon the reason for the Christian version of winter revelries. (When I “do” Advent, that is.) That, actually, is one of the reasons I’ve taken perverse delight in echoing Scrooge anytime between Labor Day and Christmas Day.

The other reason is that I can’t plan my way out of a paper bag. “Bah, humbug” is camouflage for “I can’t deal with it!” I surrender (early and often) to my seemingly congenital lack of ability to prepare, and even get some smiles out of others, by uttering those three simple syllables.

But this year… this year I showed signs of preparation. Truly. I baked several batches of futzy, time-consuming Norwegian Christmas delicacies (hah!), with plans to make more. Maybe my evil twin freaked out and staged an intervention to prevent me from further exposing my hitherto-hidden lack of Scrooge-osity. My secret is out.

Or, it would have been, had I not gotten the flu. I left work Monday morning, suddenly aching from head to toe. The aching has subsided only today, and the fever broke sometime during the night.

This meant a) no more baking; b) no trip to Michigan for Christmas with hubby’s family; c) no church.  Serious enough to warrant a “bah?”

But here’s the icing on the cake sidewalk:

My son is moving back to Chicago from southeastern Minnesota. His dad drove up to help him with the packing, but the weather up there right now is anything but helpful—full winter storm conditions, last I heard. Then his dad’s car developed a problem that must be fixed, and the soonest it can be fixed is Monday. Probably this would warrant a “humbug,” no?

So that makes this the first Christmas I haven’t shared with my son in 25 years and the first one my husband hasn’t shared with his daughters. However, it is also my first Christmas as Wife with New Husband, and he is gallantly assisting me through my illness and recovery.

I’m with my love (though also being with his family and my son would be preferred).  All things considered, perhaps I can alter my seasonal muttering to “Merry Humbug!” Suddenly switching over completely would be just too shocking.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why we gather at the table

“We gather around the table not to escape the world’s problems, but to escape the world’s answers.”

This is a my perhaps faulty memory of a quote from this morning’s sermon, of an unnamed Episcopal bishop. I wish I had the exact quote and knew whose it is.

But as I have come to expect from wise spiritual leadership, it is helpful, and I look to this type of insight precisely because it doesn’t follow the usual discussion. Instead of arguing about whether it is an escape, it says there is another solution. It presumes that there are other answers, and this is a way to look for them, to ask different questions.

Merely an appetizer, a foretaste of the feast to come.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What would it take to make us give up our most cherished belief?

This was the question posed in several sermons by a former rector of my former parish. He used it at least a couple of times as a lead-in to a fable of Edwin H. Friedman, which, along with that question, has been on my mind a lot lately when following the discussion on legalizing gay marriage.

The rector was addressing certain beliefs held by parishioners that must have given him great frustration. I’m not so much frustrated with an opposing viewpoint (disclosure: I support gay marriage) as I am intrigued by the character of a discussion itself. Any discussion, really, that provokes heated exchanges and where beliefs are so strongly held that new possibilities, new insight are unwelcome.

Due to copyright laws, I won’t quote the entire fable, but will try to give you a flavor of it.

“One evening a man came home and announced that he was dead.”
The fable relates how various friends and family members try a number of tactics to persuade him otherwise. Sometimes they think they’ve come up with proof so overwhelming that the man could do nothing other than change his mind. Eventually they hit upon the idea of bringing in the family doctor, who has known the man from his childhood.

“[He] asked the man in a no-nonsense way, “Tell me, do dead men bleed?”

“Of course not,” said the man.
The doctor proposed that he make a small cut in the man’s arm, promptly dressing it so that he need fear no infection. The man agrees to the procedure.

With everyone watching anxiously, the doctor deftly slit the flesh, and blood came spurting out. There was a gasp of joy throughout the group. Some laughed, others even applauded, though a few seemed rather to be relieved.

The doctor quickly dressed the wound and turned to everyone, saying, “Well, I hope that puts an end to this foolishness.” Everyone was congratulating the physician when they suddenly realized that the man was headed for the door. As he opened it, he turned to the group and said, “I see that I was wrong.” Then, as he turned to leave, he added, “Dead men, in fact, do bleed.”
See, now I’m congratulating myself on having put forth something that will surely make all the unreasonable people out there come to their senses. This should show them how wrong they are.

But at the same time, my inner voice says, “How do I know that my belief isn’t the one that needs to be given up?”

What would it take to make us give up our most cherished belief?

From Friedman’s Fables, by Edwin H. Friedman, The Guilford Press, pp. 55–58.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Small lesson from a loss

Chicago lost its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. The loss is not huge for me and neither is the lesson: Though I’m past the half-century mark, I still indulge in magical thinking. Surprise! Watching the Election Night celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park I got caught up in the “yes we can” fervor. Somehow that feeling transferred to Chicago’s Olympics bid. Having backed a winner in November, I guess I came to believe my support was no longer a curse. That sense must have remained in my subconscious, because it didn’t occur to me to test it by openly rooting for the Cubs, Sox or Bears. Then there was Oprah’s season-opening bash on Michigan Avenue. See? We’re important—we have television cameras and other stuff on the street that makes us look like we’re playing with the big boys. World-class city, you know. Home sick from work yesterday, I watched the IOC’s voting. The sense of inevitability I had matched that of Election Night. Same thing, right? Anticipating a similar outcome. Nope. My support of Obama and watching the election returns had nothing to do with his win. My certainty of a Chicago Olympics (granted, bolstered by the oddsmakers’ confidence) couldn’t guarantee Chicago’s win. But it took Chicago’s abrupt, seemingly rude, elimination to make me aware of this unhelpful impulse. Magical thinking is something we’re supposed to outgrow, if we follow normal development of emotionally healthy humans. Yeah, well…

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Am I back?

The Bag Lady was wandering in the wilderness for two years, wanting to blog but easily distracted and derailed. Long story short—I've finally managed to 1) get off my duff; 2) figure out my password; 3) check settings; 4) start typing. Maybe I'll write about it eventually, but right now here I am.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Future breadwinner and citizen

Another troubling occurrence in my Observatory of Human Behavior: On the el this morning, two young women took seats in front of me. I didn’t pay attention at first, but the one who did most of the talking became a subject in my observatory. Her voice sounded as though she were pre-adolescent, though her companion appeared much older. Between the inevitable cell phone calls and her witty comments to her friend, I came to think that her emotional age matched that of her voice. The train’s destination signs were wrong on the front car, though the other cars’ signs were correct. In this situation, the train operator has to announce the correct line and destination at each stop to correct inevitable confusion among riders. After the second time or so, the talker in front of me asked, “Why don’t they just change the signs?” It doesn’t require a whole lot of time on the CTA to discover that equipment malfunctions frequently, especially the destination signs. As we traveled, I discovered from the virtual monologue of the young woman that she is a college student, apparently at DePaul. DePaul is a respected university. She complained that her psychology class wasn’t at all what she expected. She’s studying marketing and thought the class would help her in the psychology of marketing. Instead it was geared towards supervising. To her, utterly unimportant information. Future Manager From Hell in gestation! She just can’t keep her eyes open in class. Nor could she keep her eyes open in a class on multiculturalism. “Purple Line to the Loop,” the operator gamely announced yet another time, when we arrived at Merchandise Mart. “This is the Loop, Dumb Ass!” said the wise one. Uh, no. The Loop, not synonymous with “downtown Chicago,” is bounded by the el tracks in a, well, loop (Lake Street on the north, Wabash on the east, Van Buren on the south and Wells on the west). The next stop put us in the Loop. I suppressed the surprisingly mild urge to correct her, maybe because I feared that it would have been wasted breath. What would it take to shift her paradigm? Yet another person being “educated,” to what effect? I do tremble to think that if something way less than rocket science blows by a person, what kind of footprint on the earth will that person leave?