Beyond Belief

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The other night at the pub, because it seemed to come up in the conversation, I asked my friend John, “Do you believe in Friendship?” His answer was a very firm “yes”. After all, we are friends, and were we not, I might not have asked him the question.

It was a bit of a set-up, I admit.

But in John’s case, an important one. Because as he said himself, not all that long before, if asked he would have said just as firm a “no”. Because until he started hanging out with our writers’ group and D&D sessions, John really didn’t have that many friends. What is more, he didn’t believe in friendship. He was better off without the nuisance of other people.

And when you come down to it, why should he believe in friendship? Why should any of us believe in something that we can’t put our hands on? Friendship has no mass, no molecules. Unlike light, it is neither a wave nor a particle, and you can’t see it. It takes up no space, has no weight, and is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. As far as physical existence goes… well, it doesn’t.

The glass of beer I was holding as we talked clearly existed. The glass, the beer, and the drinker (me) were all there to see – to weigh, to measure the volume (decreasing), to smell and taste. But the reason we were there drinking together, the only reason I might add, was one we couldn’t prove.

But that is the nature of belief. If you can prove something exists because you can see, hear, smell, or touch it, you don’t have to believe in it. Belief is reserved for things you can’t prove. I didn’t have to believe in the beer or John, because there they were.

And yet of all the things there, the thing that was the most important couldn’t be proven to exist. Because without our friendship, John would not have been there to ask. I wouldn’t have been there either, because I don’t drink alone as a rule.

As we talked more about friendship, John made the observation that it was really difficult for him to come to believe in friendship. He hadn’t experienced it in any real way, I suppose, and so he had decided that it really didn’t exist. And after all, the fact that other people said they had friends meant nothing. Some people believe the earth is flat, and I believe them to be stupid. But their belief isn’t going to convince me of anything.

Besides, the spherical nature of the earth is something we can prove, so I don’t have to believe in it.

Friendship, however, requires an effort to believe in. You have to make an effort to make friends. You have to make an effort to trust people. You have to take the risk of liking people if you are going to be their friend.

And what if they don’t like you? What if you believe that you are just basically unlikable – not worthy of friendship?

This was how John felt. And his belief that he was not worthy was just as strong as his new belief that I am his friend. But it was a belief he had to give up. In order to believe in friendship, he had to give up believing that he was unworthy of friendship.

And giving up beliefs is harder than learning to believe. If learning to trust people is hard, giving up the habit of distrust is harder. Because very often the things we believe in are given to us before we understand what our belief entails. Sometimes even before we realize that they are our beliefs. I think most things we believe in are like that.

We grow up with beliefs that are given to us when we are young. We believe our parents love us. Mostly, I hope, because we have evidence that it is so. But in some families, maybe not so much. And perhaps, in those families, people grow up not believing in love.

We grow up believing that we live in a free country, though often with less evidence than that we have a loving family. And since very few have any experience of any other country, we don’t really have anything to compare it with. We just believe in it. Because…. It’s always there.

Same thing with God. If you live in a family that goes to church, you believe in it. If you live in a family, or a community where Santa Claus brings you presents on the night of the 24th of December you believe that – until some kid two years older than you laughs and says, “You don’t believe in baby things like that!” (That kid, by the way, is being a dick.)

If you are forty years old and say that you believe in God, however, the fact that somebody who’s forty-two, says, “You can’t be serious!” doesn’t make much difference. When you are six, and someone doubts Santa, it sets you thinking. God, somehow, doesn’t get questioned so often – even though Santa has been bringing you presents for as long as you can remember, and God has done squat as far as you can tell.

Not that I am calling into question the reality of God. That’s for you to decide. But it’s interesting that the quality of belief is different, isn’t it? Santa, no; virgin birth, yes. Easter Bunny, no; resurrection, yes. Where is the difference – for you?

Socialism, no; Capitalism, yes?

Maybe, for some of us, not believing in the Big Things we’ve always believed in is just too difficult. Losing that belief would cause us to question too much. If capitalism isn’t the best system, what else do we have to look at? What if our laws aren’t just? What if our society is rife with inequalities? What if we aren’t living in the best country in the world? We might have to do something about that. It’s easier to stick with what we think we know.

But John had to give up something well known and, as far as he knew, true. He had to give up the image of himself as a fat, clumsy, unlikable nerd. And in fact, it wasn’t until he couldn’t stand the pain of believing these things that he found the strength to change and to risk finding something better to believe in.

Friendship.

Hope.

Who knows, maybe even love.

But when it was too painful to stay as he was, he took a leap of faith.

And he got a pint of beer out of it.

Funny thing, that. Friendship, hope, love and faith…You can’t prove they exist – not the same way beer exists.

But you can’t live without them.

Any more than John could.

 

Conflagration

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This week, Notre Dame burned. One of the things interesting about this sentence is that I don’t have to say which of the many churches dedicated to “Our Lady” was involved; there is only one Notre Dame. It is probably the most iconic church in history, which is why the reaction in Paris and around the world was so marked: people wept, there was horror and outrage. Over and over I read comments starting, “I’m not Christian/Catholic, but that church….”

Yes. That particular church. Somehow, whatever our nationality, whatever our religion, or lack of one, we all somehow feel a connection. We feel that that church is ours. Because, of course it is our church. It belongs to the whole world. It is, as I said, an icon.

But an icon of what?

To Catholics, no doubt, it is an icon to Christ and the Virgin; to Frenchmen, it is an icon of France; to Parisians, Paris. But to an Art Minister in Seattle? Well, let’s just consider that word, icon.

An icon, in its original meaning is a holy image, venerated as an aid to devotion. It has come to mean any symbol, but let’s stick with the more traditional meaning. Something venerated, not just for what it stands for, but for its own sake. Notre Dame is the symbol of Notre Dame.

So just what do we value when we value that old building? Well, its age, its place in history, its architecture. We value its status as a work of art and as a fantastic cooperative effort. We venerate Notre Dame, because it is an example of mankind at its best. Beautiful, sublime, spiritual, artistic, cooperative. So many people working together for so many decades to produce something so wonderful! Notre Dame ceased to be strictly a cathedral ages ago. It is a monument to our common humanity. To our ability and our drive to rise above our limited selves and to create together something so vast, so wonderful, so beautiful.

So iconic.

I love the idea that god created mankind in her image; because if we are the image of god, then we are creators. And if you believe that man created god in our image, it still amounts to the same thing: the best of us is our creative spirit. The spirit of Notre Dame. No wonder even atheists wept to see her burn!

As the world watched the spire fall, the reaction was wonderfully uniting, if gut wrenching. Even in destruction, Notre Dame united us.

Then came the day after.

It didn’t take long for the relief that the destruction was less than feared to be replaced by the voices of discord. “Why is everyone donating to Notre Dame, when the Al-Aqusa Mosque burned on the same day? Why are the rich giving millions to restore Notre Dame, while thousands are starving in Yemen? If you want to give money to a burned church, how about the ones in Louisiana?” All legitimate questions, but kind of miss the point.

You can’t tell people how to feel. You can’t prejudge what someone else thinks is important. Religious buildings all around the world are important to the people who are involved with them and deserve help if we wish to help. You can’t tell people to rebuild churches they are not involved with; but we are all involved in art like Notre Dame – because it is art. It doesn’t matter what the original stimulus to build was.

By and large, icons are works of art, and art is about making things that transcend their mere physical attributes. This can be said about all human creation. Notre Dame touches us all, because it is a symbol of all we can be, all we can do, if we act collectively.

We do not know the names of the builders of this cathedral, and they did not expect to be remembered. Masons, carpenters, metal workers, laborers, cart drivers, glass makers, sculptors, painters, farmers, the list goes on and on, all devoted their time and effort, yes, for pay, but more importantly for the sake of the building itself. For a hundred and eighty-two years, generations of people worked for the glory of god to put up that phenomenal building.

In 1163, when the foundations were laid, the people who worked on the project had a Catholic world view. To them, working together to build the cathedral was a no-brainer. Their whole understanding of Paris and the whole world was linked to that religious foundation. That common understanding, that common goal was what made Notre Dame possible. And the building is a monument to that unified vision.

But we don’t need that medieval world view to appreciate the result. In fact, the world that names Notre Dame a World Heritage Site doesn’t have a medieval mindset. We, in the twenty-first century share almost nothing with the medieval population of Paris; except that, like them, we can do wonderful things if we act together. In fact, I say that we can accomplish anything if we act together. All that’s necessary is a common will – a shared sense of purpose.

We are not going to be building cathedrals for the glory of god any time soon. We could, if we had that shared vision, but we live in a divided age – an age where almost any subject creates an argument. As soon as someone says, “I want to help rebuild Notre Dame,” someone else says, “That’s a waste of money! Give your money to my favorite project instead!”

It’s not the money nor the technology that holds us back, it’s the common cause – the shared understanding of who and what we are. It isn’t a case of, “Together we can do anything.” It’s a case of “Unless we are together, we can do nothing.”

I’m not saying we need a resurgence of religious belief so that we can solve our problems. Religion is just one  story we have made up to believe in. Monarchy, nationalism, democracy, fascism, communism, religion, these are all ideas that we as people have created – stories we tell ourselves to give a foundation to our civilization. With these stories as a shared basis, we can build the pyramids, or the Great Wall, or Notre Dame. With these stories, we have tamed the wilderness, built cities, erected monuments, and reached for the stars.

What we really need these days is a better story. Maybe if we stop shouting at each other long enough to listen, someone might come up with one.

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The image of the falling spire of Notre Dame is from the Chicago Tribune.

Spectrum

 

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I told my students the other day, “The first rule of color theory, is that all color is relative. But there is another rule that comes before the first rule. That rule is: value first.”

In color theory, we don’t actually use the word color much, because it is too inexact. “Red” is too vague a word to describe the four-dimensional visual event caused by using a certain paint in a picture. Instead, we talk about hue – the place in the spectrum of the paint, or value – the lightness or darkness of the hue, or saturation – the intensity of the hue.

Color names try to push all these distinctions together. Pink is a red with white added. Scarlet is a red leaning toward orange. Puce is a pink with violet in it and black to make it desaturated. Color names try to combine the first three dimensions of color: hue, value, and saturation.

Then there is the fourth dimension: what the color is compared to. A given pink next to a blue looks orangish. Next to orange it looks violet. Next to white it looks dark. Next to black, almost white. The way we actually perceive the color changes according to context. Color is always relative. This is why the first rule of color theory.

We use names to pin them down: red, orange, yellow. But words limit our thinking. Clearly, if there is an orange, it is distinct from red and yellow. However, orange doesn’t exist except as a blend of red and yellow. And how can you distinguish between a really red orange and a really orange red? There is no visible dividing line – one color blends into the next. Naming conventions don’t matter. Naming something blue merely means that it’s bluer than something else and really, really NOT orange.

We use the word spectrum to describe a lot of things: the political spectrum, the autism spectrum. How about the gender spectrum? Or the racial spectrum? Or a religious spectrum?

We do the same thing with these spectra of abstractions as we do with colors – we give them names and think that names the differentiate them from each other. We think that because this is called blue, it can never ever be green. But wife and I used to argue about a hue of teal that I saw as blue and she insisted was green. In the end we agreed to call it glaucus. This didn’t change the hue, but it stopped the arguments.

Giving something a name doesn’t change what it is, nor how you see it. Calling someone a name, doesn’t change who they are. If you are called Henry at birth, and later decide you are Joe, it alters nothing.

Telling someone on the left of our political spectrum that they aren’t liberal enough is kind of like saying. “You, Red! You aren’t the saturation I like! You are Pink!” What does that even mean?

We talk about blue and red on the political spectrum. Are they any different from blue and red on the color wheel?

Are male and female any different from green and orange?

All yellows are either greenish or orangish, depending on context. All greens are partially blue and partially yellow. People are the same. Why is Barack Obama called the first black president even though he is just as much white as black?

Whether you are talking about race, or religion, or politics, or gender, we are each of us, all of us, somewhere on the spectrum. Our particular flavor or person is a mixture of a lot of things – hue, saturation, and, yes, value.

Which brings us back to the rule that comes before the first rule of color: value first. Because of the way our eyes work, the amount of dark and light has more impact than the colors. When you are making art, how relatively light or dark something is compared to its surroundings is more important than what color it is. This is why black and white photographs or films work so well. If the colors are slightly too red, or blue, or green, it really doesn’t matter, but if the picture is too dark, everything changes.

And that is why I would like to suggest that the rule that comes before the other rules is most important. Because (play on words here) values matter more than where you are on the spectrum.

Are you a conservative? Fair enough. But what are your values? How do you treat people? When do you give honesty a space in your life? What about charity?

Are you a socialist? Excellent! How tolerant are you of other people’s ideas? Are you generous with your time to your friends and family? Will you cut someone a little slack if they don’t entirely agree with you?

Is your heritage Spanish? You do realize that there’s a fair chance of some Visigoth blood in your background along with the Basque, Greek, Moroccan, and Jewish? Me, I’m German, which means mostly Scandinavian, with a big dose of French, Dutch, German, Hunnish, and probably Ostrogoth, along with a dash of Etruscan and Pole. Probably. Who knows?

Take green and add a dash of yellow, and it’s chartreuse. That’s called a tertiary color. We are all tertiary humans. Every last one of us.

So think about the rule that comes before the spectrum. Values first.

At one end of the value spectrum we have every decent person who has changed the world for the better.  

At the other end we have dicks.

Values first. The rule that comes before all the other ones.

Toxic

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For something like a year and a half I have been posting my sermons on this blog. Mostly they are meditations on the things I see around me: essays on not being a dick. And I want to say right up front, that I believe that every time each one of us refrains from being a dick, the world is a better place.

And although the world might not improve drastically because you don’t cut in front of someone on the freeway, I believe that you are yourself changed each time you don’t get angry, each time you refrain from saying something hurtful, each time you make a point of putting someone else first. I certainly believe that whenever you treat someone the way you would like to be treated, you are better for it. Certainly their life is improved, but so is yours, because being aware of how your actions impact others makes you happier. It makes your life more pleasant.

Whenever you stop yourself from being a dick, you are being what the Buddhists call mindful. Mindfulness is the awareness of the world around you, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. What this gives you, the non-dick, is the ability to live in the precious moment that if unnoticed, will speed past, leaving you the poorer for a bit of your life you threw away.

“Live in the now, dude!” If you take a second to ask yourself, “What would a dick do?” and then decide not to do that, you are slowing your life down for that second. In that second you are mindful, and the minute that follows – the minute when you don’t drop your garbage by the side of the road, when you don’t ignore a colleague just because she is a woman, when you don’t cut in front in traffic, that next minute is a moment of peace for you. A moment of happiness.

I honestly believe that’s all we have to do to start making all of our lives better.

But it’s not all that we can do, and I want to talk a little about that right now.

The guy who throws his half-empty McDonald’s shake into my front yard is a dick.

The girl who takes hers home and puts it in the garbage is not a dick.

And the person who sees the garbage by the side of the road and picks it up, is an anti-dick.

The guy who stops his friend from interrupting their female colleague and says, “Hang on, let her finish,” isn’t doing much, but he is being an anti-dick. Because the interrupter is being a dick.

In our apartment building there is a rubbish room on every floor for the garbage and for storing the recycle for pick up. It’s only a small room, and what with pizza delivery, the Amazon boxes, the flat pack furniture, and the paper grocery bags full of cereal boxes, it gets filled up with recycle really fast. By Friday evening it’s hard to even get near the garbage chute. I love the guys who come Monday morning to clear it all out, believe me. Who I don’t love are the neighbors who ignore the instructions to break down cardboard boxes and just dump them in front of the biodegradable bin. I mean, come on now!

So yeah, the neighbor who leaves his boxes piled up? Dick.

The neighbor who flattens his boxes and stuffs them up against the wall behind the bin? Not a dick.

The guy who takes his box knife with him and flattens other people’s boxes? Anti-dick. (That would be me, by the way.)

And yes, this is really trivial. But our days are filled up with the trivial, and doing something about the trivial helps, too. If flattening boxes is one way to make the world just a little better to be in, it’s worth doing. It’s easy. All it takes is mindfulness, a little time, and a box knife.

Moving the abandoned shopping cart out of the parking place and putting it into the collection area is trivial. Letting the person with one loaf of bread go in front of you at the check out is trivial. Goodness knows, just holding the door open for someone whose arms are full is trivial, but I’ve been glad of it. And I’ll bet there are a lot of you that have been glad of a trivial act of kindness.

A trivial act of kindness is remarkably easy. Less easy is standing up to intervene when some dick is insulting a counter worker because he thinks she’s too slow, but we need to do that. Even harder, perhaps, is standing up when our political leaders seem to take misogyny in younger men as some kind of god-given right and attack the women who complain about it.

It seems to me that whenever a man says he was sexually assaulted as a boy, it is taken as a matter of fact, but when a woman finds the courage to do the same thing, she is doubted, insulted, threatened, and shunned. Any man who makes that kind of a judgment, without any information to go on, is a dick. And if he’s a person in a position of power, he’s a king-dick. Holding yourself or your group to a lower standard than you demand for others is the exact opposite of the Golden Rule. Legally, morally, spiritually, socially, individually, it is toxic. Poisonous.

And the only anti-toxin we have is to be an anti-dick. Because that social poison is killing us.

The good we do doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just make good someone else’s bit of dickishness. Maybe we should be like the anti-dick organizations that “adopt” a stretch of I-5 and clear up the mess. Just chose a piece of your life where you won’t let people drop their physical, emotional, political, or sexist garbage. Maybe at work. Maybe at the roadside. Maybe at your local Starbucks. Maybe just in the recycle room.

Be an anti-dick when you can.

But at least, you know, in the first place…

Don’t be a dick.

Dog Collar

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A week ago I went to the Puyallup Fair. We go pretty much every year, to look at the animals, eat the mandatory scone and see the rodeo, or listen to whoever is in concert that strikes our fancy. This time we went to see a horse circus. It’s kind of our end of summer birthday treat.

As it happens I was wearing my minister rig: pretty much the Man in Black with my  little white flash of dog collar. As we were going along the fairway, someone called out, “Hey, Father!” I was talking to my wife at the time, and my hearing isn’t so good, so it took a second to realize what I had heard, so I turned, but couldn’t make out who had called. I gave a general wave in what I hoped was the right direction, and we passed on. If it was you who called out, I’m sorry I missed you.

Remembering this the next day, my wife asked, “Is it just Catholic Priests who are called Father, or other ministers as well?” I answered that basically, priests are called “Father” and ministers “Reverend,” more or less. So Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox are Father, and Lutheran, Unitarian, Baptist and the rest are mostly Rev. And soldiers call everybody “Padre.” Really, though, there isn’t any rule.  

“Why do most people call ministers Father, then?” she asked. I’m not sure, but I think it’s because (especially here in Cascadia) many people aren’t religious, or at any rate, don’t go to church, and so get their ideas from the TV or movies, and for some reason those like to show Catholics. Better costumes, I suppose. Except on the BBC, where everyone is C of E, except Father Brown.

If somebody calls me Father, I ask if they are Catholic, and if yes, tell them I’m not a priest, because it matters to them. Anyone else, they can call me whatever they like. Just as long as they aren’t a dick about it. But what is interesting about this is that people do respond to the dog collar. Always positively.

Sometimes they want to talk, sometimes just say hello, sometimes to ask where my church is. Well, as you know, I don’t do the church thing, so I just say I have no brick-and-mortar church; I’m just online. Here. But the interesting thing is, my impression is people like to see priests, or ministers, or whatever. I know I always feel a little lift when I see a Buddhist monk around town. I’m glad they are there, doing their thing.

I think this is because, even though we are a very secular society here in Seattle, and most of the people I know are atheists, the reaction to somebody wearing a dog collar is positive. This is because, as I like to say, it’s a badge, declaring, “I’m more interested in values than things.” And in a world where we are bombarded by advertising exhorting us to go buy and consume and fulfill ourselves by wanting more and earning more, people like to be reminded of something else. Even if they think, “How can you possibly dedicate your life to a fairy tale?”  They like to see ministers or priests doing their thing.

Because, after all, a dog collar is a kind of advertisement. And yes, ministers are selling something, in a way. But I live in the hope that most of them are selling the ideal of knowing the value of things, and not just the cost of things. Perhaps the simple idea of treating the people around you well. Loving your neighbor, even. Something like that. Not being a dick, anyway.

Goodness knows, priests as people, and churches as institutions are fallible, venal, sometimes corrupt. And there are some ministers out there who are in it for the money, or worse. And this is why, I sometimes think, many ministers have stopped wearing their dog collars in public. Because …. well. They don’t want to catch the flack. Being a minister isn’t very cool, after all. It’s kind of antiquated. Pathetic, really.

Only there isn’t any flack that I can see. Only polite interest. Maybe even an ironic thought that though they can’t believe in anything, it’s kind of nice to think that maybe someone else does. Call it God, call it the Good, call it Buddha. Whatever you want to call it, I think people kind of miss it. And they want somebody out there, putting some effort into making the world a better place. Even if that very notion is really old fashioned and out of date.

But some things never go out of date. Like treating others with respect. As individuals, not as members of a group. With compassion. As you would like to be treated yourself. You know, with kindness. Fairness. Honesty, maybe. Sympathy and understanding. Honor. Virtue, however you define it. Love. All the things that are also fairy tales, but that make our lives not just better, but possible. And it really doesn’t matter where you get your inspiration to believe that a life of values is a happier one than a life of consumption, making the statement that you believe in something beyond the physical is welcome in our society.

After all, if God is a myth, so are Democracy and Freedom. Fairness and honesty don’t exist, except in our hearts and in our minds and in our actions. The Golden Rule has no mass, no energy, no physical existence.

Dickishness is an attitude, not an atom.

Which is why I wish more ministers wore their dog collars. In the 20 years I have lived in Seattle I have seen two men showing their colors. One Lutheran Minister we gave a lift to, and one Catholic Priest, striding along like Father Brown on a case. It’s why I go out with my dog collar, especially if I plan to see someone in anyway connected with what I believe is my vocation: to teach the love of beauty and creativity, of honesty and compassion, and of not being a dick.

Because sometimes someone on the street will call out, “Bless me, Father!” And if he wants the blessing of a rational humanist art-minister, he’s welcome to it.

Can’t do any harm. And to refuse would be the act of a dick.

 

Old White Man – Identity and Identity Politics

 

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There’s no getting around it; I cannot claim to be young, and my family background is almost 100% northern European, and although I was frequently mistaken for gay as a young man, and on one memorable afternoon in 1967 was propositioned by both a girl and a fellow, I can report that as far as I know, I am what they call cisgendered. Not that I knew there was ever an alternative when I was young. So, for good or ill, I am an old, white, man.

What is more, I was born shortly after the end of the Second World War, and thus count as a Baby Boomer. Strangely enough, my brother, who is only two years older than I, is, according to Google, not a Boomer. Of the four boys in my family, that label belongs only to me.

It also belongs to anyone born up to twenty years after me.

That’s the trouble, you see. Because I truly find it impossible to believe that when I was eighteen, a newborn girl and I had much in common. Yet, as we are both supposedly Boomers, we are supposed to share the same politics, the same moral imperatives, the same educational background, and the same opinions about anyone born after 1961. That, apparently, is when you get to be counted as a Generation X-er (notwithstanding that one can claim Boomer status right up to 1964). However, the brothers I grew up with should, theoretically, not share these characteristics

They are not Boomers.

Now, according to what one sees on social media, all of us Boomers went to cheap colleges, got jobs for life, have bought our second homes, and ruined the environment. We are racist, conservative, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic idiots, who despise Millennials for being entitled, lazy, and for spending too much time on their cell phones.

This should be especially true for me, because I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line and my parents were Republicans. But since absolutely none of these things apply to me, I can only suppose that some woman born in 1964 is an absolute terror and clearly a Nazi. She has to be,  to average things out, you know.

Now, I know that protesting that I do not fit any of the stereotypes shoved onto Boomers is just a bit of “Not All Men” special pleading. But when you start presuming to know what someone is like because of when they were born, that’s simple prejudice (or astrology), and it isn’t any more attractive when it’s ageism than when it’s racism.

But the thing is, the protest that not all men are rapists, or even misogynists, is actually true. Even if this truth is used to hide behind and to ignore the fact that far too many men are at least tacitly supporting rape culture by their silence. I accept that. I mean, when it comes to being abusive to people, one dick is one too many.  So though it’s true that not all men are misogynists, way too many are. Still, the basic fact remains: if you prejudge people by their color, their religion, their gender, their politics, or their age, you stand a better-than-even chance of being mostly wrong about them. This is especially true if you start projecting all the things you don’t like about the world onto a particular group and blaming them for your woes.

It’s yet another example of binary thinking, which I wrote about back in August, 2017.  I am not the stereotypical Boomer. However, because I am not conservative, I must, by definition, be Libtard, and therefore in favor of abortion, against traditional marriage, an atheist, a socialist, (which is to say, a Communist)  who’s soft on crime and secretly supports Daesh, while wanting open borders and hating our freedoms – and who definitely wants something for nothing.

Sorry, still wrong.

In fact, forget about age and race, stereotyping anyone because of a group you decide to put them in is just plain dickish. Not because it denies the individual any autonomy, but because it’s just factually wrong.

Most of my friends are younger than I. In fact, for a Boomer, I am friends with a lot of Millennials. This may be because we have a lot in common. Not everything, mind. One of my favorite young parishioners is much more politically conservative than I am. Sometimes we get close to arguing about it. But we don’t, because we know that the things we might disagree about are much less important than what we have in common. We know better than to argue about what we are, because we both know who we are.

It seems to me there is something even more invidious than putting other people into boxes and labeling them – and that is putting yourself in a box and labeling yourself. Even worse than prejudging your so-called enemies, is prejudging your friends. I fear my conservative parishioner has a tendency to agree with other conservatives simply because they are more like him than not. After all, if you agree with someone about small government and abortion, you might as well take for granted what he says about Mexicans is also true, even though your personal experience indicates he is wrong. At any rate, don’t argue with him about that, because, overall, you agree on a lot of things.

The real danger in this kind of tribalist thinking is that when you go looking for things to agree about, just to fit into your box more comfortably, you shut down your sceptical faculties, because they might cause embarrassment.

So, please, don’t put people in boxes. That includes yourself. It’s a dickish thing to do.

After all, there are boxes waiting for all of us down the line, and I see no virtue in hurrying to get into them.

Grace Under Fire

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About a month ago, I tried to write a sermon and got stuck. Mostly when this happens, I leave it for a while and then go back and try it again. This time, it didn’t work. I showed what I had managed to write to my editor, and she said it didn’t make sense.

I was blocked. Nothing would come.

Then, on Good Friday evening I was sitting in a noisy bar talking with friends about the nature of friendship and how valuable a good friend is and where we learn the values of friendship. For example, the martial art that we share together is the glue that binds us together as a group of friends. We talked about how the focus of our practice is fundamental to how we face our daily lives, how the desire to improve must be stronger than the desire to ‘win,’ how in life, as in martial arts, there is no end point toward which you travel, but only the journey.

We talked about how lucky we all are to have each other as friends – as companions on that trip. We are all very different, and the differences help. We talked about how fortunate we are in our Sensei, and how the senior students are role models for the juniors. We talked about how hard good role models are to find, especially (dare I say it?) for men. I said how lucky I am to have walked into the dojo on the day I did, and how I recognized within half an hour that I was “home.”

And my friend said, “Yes, it isn’t luck, it is a matter of grace.”

Thirty-three years ago, my wife collapsed and was diagnosed with a brain tumor while we were on vacation at my parents in the United States. We were a long way from home, broke, and with no insurance. Back in Wales, our friends did fundraisers, held bake sales, sponsored runs, and otherwise saved our bacon. They paid our bills and got us home. Back in the Teifi Valley at last, a woman from the local radio station came to interview me.

“Do you think it’s fair that your friends had to raise so much money for you?” She asked.

“Fair? What’s fairness got to do with this?” I answered. “Was it fair that my wife got cancer? Is it fair that the United States has such a useless health system? My wife did not deserve to get sick, and we do not deserve to have friends like this. NOBODY deserves friends like this. It isn’t a matter of deserts. It’s a matter of grace!”

She stood with her mouth open for a moment, and said, “Thank you very much,” and turned off the recorder.

Grace is defined as simple elegance or refinement of movement, poise, finesse; and the free, unmerited favor of God.

The two most important words here are simple and unmerited.

Simple, because in movement, whether in dance, or acting, or martial arts, or drawing, beauty doesn’t require anything fancy. The simple graceful move of a gesture will say enough and can become the foundation for any complexity you might need to add.  

Unmerited, because the dumb luck involved in finding the right place to train and meeting the right people to train with isn’t something you earn. You don’t earn points from the universe that buy you good luck. Or friendship. Or love. These things are a matter of grace. Unmerited.

I have often said that if you are looking for God anywhere but inward, you are facing the wrong direction. The source of grace is in you and in the people surrounding you. You have to be brave enough to look for the place where you belong, smart enough to recognize it, and strong enough to dig in. And then you must have the grace to treasure it, and work for it, and do your part to make it what you and your world needs.

It can be a job, or a sword school, or a Masters’ Degree course, a Dungeons and Dragons group, or a club, or a church. Or your family. Or your friends. With a little grace, it can be the whole world.

I have seen dancers and martial artists and actors and acrobats and artists move with outstanding grace. And I have seen ordinary, simple people live with amazing graciousness. And I see that in life as in art, with care and attention, the simple, learned ability to do the simple, elegant thing creates beauty. Beauty on the page. Beauty on the stage. Beauty in the street.

Grace is given to all of us every moment, and it is to be found in yourself.

What does it take, after all, not to be a dick?

Just a little grace.

 

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With thanks to Abbott and Don, who reminded me of the nature of Grace.