Author: revbjbecker

Minister of the Universal Life Church, Art Minister, Rational Humanist Minister.

Made Up

1280px-Flag_of_Esperanto.svg

I am not a Pastafarian, so I can’t really speak on their behalf. I would like to talk about them for a little, though. 

The other day on the Universal Life Church Ministers’ home page, I read an article about a Pastafarian minister reading the invocation at some public meeting. Fair enough, if you feel that meetings of the town council or similar public institutions need the oversight of a supernatural being to fulfill their function, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is as good as any other, I suppose.  

Or is it? 

You see, in the article, it was pointed out that apparently the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster was instituted as a kind of spoof religion, a take-off of other beliefs. So the question was raised, is Pastafarianism “real”?  Which in turn raises the question of whether any belief system is “real.” And what constitutes reality in this case?

Let me hasten to say at this point that if you are a believing Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan, or anything else, I am not casting even the faintest shadow of a doubt on your sincerity. We believe what we believe, for whatever reasons. But let me begin by examining the belief in things that are “made up.” In other words, the belief in things whose beginnings we know about. 

Which, by the way, includes Christianity.

I have said I am not a Pastafarian. I am, however, an Esperantist, that is, I speak Esperanto, the language created in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, to be an international, secondary, auxiliary language to facilitate interpersonal and inter-communal communication. It is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. Estimates vary as to how many people are fluent, and what exactly constitutes fluency, but numbers have grown significantly recently through the use of the internet and language courses such as Duolingo. Duolingo used Esperanto as its first experimental language when the app was launched, precisely because it is one of the easiest languages to learn. After all, it was made to be easy.

Now here’s the first point: Esperanto is clearly “made up.” We know when it was written, by whom, and what it is based on. In this respect it is like the Mormon Church. (Except that Zamenhof never claimed any heavenly guidance in his efforts to create a new language.) 

The point is often raised by people who for whatever reason are opposed to Esperanto that it is not a real language. But how exactly would one tell the difference between a real language and one that was not real? People write and read Esperanto, converse in it, write scientific papers in it, broadcast radio programs in it, pray in it, recite poetry, cook recipes, sing songs, hold meetings, make love, and rear their children all through the medium of this so-called “unreal” language. It is estimated that there are over a thousand people for whom Esperanto is their first language—their mother-tongue. For them, Esperanto is entirely real. With an estimated two million speakers worldwide, there are nearly four times as many people who speak Esperanto as speak Welsh. Never tell a Welshman that Welsh isn’t a real language. 

It seems to me that Esperanto passes the test of realness by virtue of use, numbers, and history. People died because they spoke it, which indicates a pretty strong level of belief, I’d say.

Now, every speaker of Esperanto knows it is a constructed, artificial language. At some point the ones brought up in Esperanto learn this. This does not make it any less real.

Might not the same be said for Pastafarians—especially the ones brought up in that noodly faith? In the matter of faith, of conviction, it is the quality of belief that is important, not the quality of the thing believed in. After that, it’s what you do with that belief—that conviction—that matters. How what you believe leads you to act.

So with that in mind, let us consider what we believe in. 

Our society is based on certain ideas, convictions that are not questioned, which I have referred to as the mythos. Every culture has its mythos, and ours is no exception. One of the base assumptions of the mythos is that the mythos itself is “natural.” We do not question our mythos, because it is the set of assumptions upon which we base everything else. In fact we use the mythos to test the reality of other things, ideas built upon that mythos. 

We may argue over which party is the most democratic, or the best (And boy! Do we argue!) but we always work on the assumption that we are a democracy.  Do remember, though, that statistically speaking what the majority of people in the country or state support has almost no bearing on the laws our government enacts. The fact has been clearly demonstrated that our governing bodies work almost entirely to the benefit of a small percentage of the population and not the majority. This is neither here nor there. We say we are a democracy, so we must be.

But what if our mythos is no more “natural” than Pastafarianism or Esperanto? What if our assumed core beliefs are just as artificial as they are? After all, to the speakers of Esperanto and (presumably) the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there is no way to tell the difference. The language and the religion, work just as well as any other “natural” system. And that’s the whole point: none of our systems is natural. They are all constructed, just like Esperanto.

I chose to learn Esperanto. I find that it is useful, enjoyable, flexible, interesting, and it allows me to reach out to people whom I would otherwise never contact—just like any other new language. And just like any other new language it allows me to think in new ways, to have different understanding than I had before, speaking only English. Looking at the world through a different language, even a made up one, changes the way you see things. 

The same, I presume, would be true of religion.

So how about politics?

Or economic theory?

Or value system? 

What, if instead of attacking someone because they say they are a Socialist, we look at this idea and see if it works? Not just assume it’s bad, or wrong, but really honestly look at it? And even if we don’t want to do that, how about seriously looking at our own capitalist democracy and see if it’s really doing what we want it to. Even remotely. 

I often find it incomprehensible that when people learn that I speak Esperanto, they attack the idea. In what possible way is Esperanto a danger to any established language? How can it possibly hurt anyone, to learn a means of expanding your horizons and communicating with people you would otherwise never be able to reach? Why, in short, do people (especially native English speakers) feel threatened by Esperanto?

Could it be because it makes them question part of their underlying mythos? Is that why they scream at anyone speaking Spanish in a shop? They really can’t believe very much in their mythos, if it’s that fragile, can they? If it can’t stand up to one, tiny, made up alternative? And if their faith in their mythos is so weak, what exactly do they believe in? 

Isn’t it more honest to admit that you are pretending? To accept that you don’t really believe that our country is a democracy, and that it has all the answers? Or that our confessed religion is leading us to act in selfish, distructive, bigoted ways? And if that’s the case, why pretend at all?

Because, of course, admitting that we are pretending would require us to change. After all, it’s so much easier to pretend to be a True Believer, when it gives you permission to be a total dick. 

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Esperanto flag by Gabriel Ehrnst GRUNDIN – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=447664

 

Believe It or Not

Gargoyles

Last time, I talked about my friend John and the idea of friendship and the nature of belief. 

Because believing in something is different from knowing something. As John and I sat talking I knew I had a glass of beer in front of me. I also knew that John was my friend. But this knowledge was predicated on the belief that friendship exists. Because, other than our experience of friendship, there is no way to prove it exists. And in fact, as an object, a thing of atoms and mass, friendship doesn’t exist. It only exists in our minds, or in our hearts, if you will.

Now for John, there was a time when Friendship, as a concept, didn’t exist. He hadn’t really experienced it, so he didn’t believe in it. It took a “Leap of Faith” for John to accept that the bunch of writers, musicians and artists in our D&D group could be his friends. Because, since you can’t see it, or taste it, or smell it; you can’t measure it, or weigh it, or touch it, there is only one way to prove the existence of friendship: by being someone’s friend. You have to live it. You have to believe in it.

There are many intangibles like friendship that we take for granted in our lives.

Do you believe in Good and Evil? Or maybe their more common form, Right and Wrong?

Do you believe in Society?

Do you believe in Democracy?

Do you believe in the Law?

How about the Truth? Do you believe in that? And is believing in the Truth different from believing in Facts?

The fact is, I was drinking beer. The truth is, John is my friend. I can show you a photo of the beer glass. I can’t record my friendship in any way, except here, by telling you about it.

I can prove a fact. I can’t always prove the truth.

The trouble is, people today confuse the truth with facts. They think because they believe that something is true, that makes it a fact.

Do you believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world? Because that is a matter of belief, of opinion, possibly of faith, not of fact. By many standards, the US is far from the best. Infant mortality? Way too high. Inequality? We’re not all that hot. Standard of living? Depends on who you are. Freedom? Now there’s really a question.

Let’s take the matter of Law. Now laws are things that exist but have no physical being, which is to say they aren’t real. They are conventions, agreements, standards, sets of rules, if you will, but they aren’t real in the way that a glass of beer or a bullet is real.

Which means that like friendship, the law can exist only to the extent that we agree that it exists. And the only way that we can understand this thing called law is by our experience of it. And like friendship, how you experience the law depends a lot on who you are.

If you are an educated, white, adult male in the United States, your experience of the law is going to be rather different than if you are a teenage black girl. Or even an educated, black, adult male. In fact, if you are anything BUT an educated, white, adult male, the chances are your experience of the law will not be, shall we say, as pleasant?  Hispanic transgender? Not good. Arabic anything-at-all? Risky.

And since, like friendship, the law only exists to the degree that we experience it, for some people in this country, we don’t have a legal system, we have a privilege system. And whether you believe in the law or not kind of depends on how you live it. Like friendship.

How about education? Oh, we have schools, alright. You can prove that. Schools are facts. Education is an opinion. And once again, whether you have an education or not depends on your experience of what happens in the school. And that depends on a lot of things too. Like where you live. What your religion is. What your skin color is. What gender you are.

I frequently say that the most important things in our lives, the things like friendship, and society, and love and trust are the intangibles. The things that only exist because we believe in them. Because they make all the other things, the tangibles, possible.

But here’s a funny thing about that. Let’s think about Justice. Which is supposed to be connected to the law, but sometimes seems to be something completely different. Let’s assume that as a society we believe in justice. But for some members of our society, justice doesn’t exist? Why doesn’t it exist for them? Is it because they don’t believe in it? Or is it that they don’t believe in it, because they have never experienced it?  Or is it that they don’t believe in it, because we don’t believe in it for them.

You see how much justice is like friendship? It’s not enough that we believe in it for ourselves. We have to believe in it for everybody. You can’t believe in friendship while not being anyone’s friend. You can’t believe in love without having a loving heart.

And you can’t believe in justice and not grant that justice to everyone. 

OK, let’s say justice is a little complicated! How about fairness? That doesn’t exist either, unless you practice it. And you can’t be fair to half the population and not the other half. Because half-fairness is unfairness. Half justice is no justice. Half equality is inequality.

What makes our lives worth living, what makes our lives possible, are these intangibles, these all-important myths that we pretend are real. These truths that we hold to be self-evident. If we don’t have them, we have nothing. But we only have them if we believe in them and live them. Pretending doesn’t cut it. You can’t say you believe in friendship and act like a dick to your friends. You can’t say you believe in fairness and rip people off.

You can’t say you are a Christian, and then break every teaching your Bible gives you.

You can’t say you believe in justice, and then deny justice to someone because of their sex, or religion, or where they were born.

Justice doesn’t exist except in the act of justice.

Kindness doesn’t exist except in the act of kindness.

Love doesn’t exist except in the act of love.

Believe it or not.

Beyond Belief

Friendship2

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

A-notre-dame-fire-paris

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

 

RainbowCrop

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.