Thanks!

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I admit I have a lot to be grateful for. I live in a beautiful part of the world, with the person I love most in the world, surrounded by friends, and my two children are awesome. I’m not hungry; quite the opposite, I really need to focus on losing some weight. No one is dropping bombs on me, or using poison gas, or cruise missiles. I have a nice big car that lets me take my in-laws to the doctor and haul things for my friends as necessary. I really am lucky.

Or maybe I just worked hard for what I have. Maybe breaking free from my past and moving halfway around the world to build a new life took every bit of courage I possessed. Maybe I studied hard, took my chances, and tried hard to do my best.

But then again, I’m an Old White Guy, the playing field has never been level for me. My background is educated professional middle class. I have worked hard and done my best at every job I’ve had, but then, it was never hard for me to find work. You might say I’ve been blessed.

But of course, to say that, you would have to believe there was someone or something doing the blessing. Fortuna. The Universe. God. Which is fine, but if you don’t believe in Lady Luck, or God, or the stars as having selected you for good fortune, what then? Is it all just random? Arbitrary?

You know what I think? I think the answer to that question really does not matter. Because it’s the wrong question. Because if you think about it, it has to be a combination of luck, effort, and social advantage. Yes, I worked hard. But if I had come from a background that did not value education and had few material possessions, it would have been much, much harder to get here. All the same, there have been times when I have been damned poor, and it took both luck and hard work to get out of that.

Because asking the question, how did I get to be here, is less important than asking, where do I go from here? What now? What is to be done? Because however you want to think about it, somehow or other I got here, and I am happy with my lot. So how do I help that spread?

It is a very human thing to want to express your gratitude by saying, “Thank God,” or “Thank my lucky stars,” Or even, “Thanks to the social structures I live in…” Though honestly I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that. Plenty of people blame their circumstances for not doing well, but few are grateful for having been given a head start. If you are a member of a religion that celebrates such things, as most do, you will have special holidays, or church services, or festivals to give thanks. And I think this is a useful exercise. Because occasionally recognizing that we none of us make it on our own, that good luck, schools and teachers, friends and family, maybe even accident play a part in our lives that makes us who we are and helps us succeed.

Even if you don’t have much, taking a minute to recognize and even be grateful for what you do have is an excellent exercise in mindfulness.  It can help put things into perspective. It is also a good way to guard against dickishness. Because if dickishness comes, as I believe it does, from a sense of entitlement, stopping and recognizing just how much you already have and how much of that comes from others, is a good way to put the brakes on.

I am grateful that I have a wife who loves me and edits my sermons.

I am grateful that I am healthy and I can enjoy good food and a beer from time to time.

I am grateful that it doesn’t always rain in Seattle.

I am also particularly grateful that I am not surrounded by dicks. That most of the people I meet are pleasant, friendly, helpful, and kind, and that they treat me as I wish to be treated. In return, I do the same. It’s a small enough bargain, but it makes all the difference.

Just think of what happens when you are in that happy place, where you feel particularly blessed by the god or goddess of your choice, or smiled upon by the stars, or just plain happy. And then somebody acts like a jerk.

Kind of sucks, doesn’t it? So don’t be that jerk.

If giving thanks isn’t part of your belief, if you take what life gives you as pure hazard, I still suggest you take a moment and think with gratitude of what you have. Who you know. What you see and smell and taste and enjoy every day, even if it isn’t much. Take a moment to sit quietly and listen. Breath in and feel the world moving about its business around you. Breath out and let your thoughts rest. Be grateful that of all the trillions upon trillions of atoms in the room, the ones that make up you are alive.

Enjoy your day. Be mindful of all the best things in your life. And don’t be a dick.

 

 

Chipping Away at Happiness

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I was buying a cup of coffee for a friend of mine the other day, and inserted my card into the chip reader. “Oh, I hate those chips,” said my friend, “I don’t know why they can’t just stick with the swipe.” Then he muttered away for a bit about stupid chips.

Seriously? I thought. You hate the chip? You actually have a strong aversion to this little bit of technology?

Now I should say right up front that I like chip and pin cards. Because I travel to Europe fairly frequently, having to swipe my US card and wait for it to be processed was always slightly embarrassing, to tell the truth. And the failure rate with swipe cards is phenomenal.

Not so for my friend. “I only have one chip card, and I’m always having trouble with it.”

Well, admittedly for a while my chip card didn’t work in the little shop downstairs, but they got a newer reader and it works fine now. But as we sat down to drink our coffees, I wasn’t thinking about how well the technology did or didn’t work. I was thinking about having an emotional response to technology.

And we all do. The car won’t start and we swear at it. The lightbulb burns out, and it’s such a bloody nuisance. And don’t get me started about traffic.

Now, the funny thing is, all of these things, the cash cards, the lights, the cars, they all make our lives easier. It’s like they are faithful servants who have no other goal in life than to help us out. They hold our money, they light our darkness, they carry us from place to place. And as soon as they fail, we blow our top.

I mean, seriously?

We act like a dick to a machine? (Which begs the question whether you can actually be a dick to a machine.)

My father would go nuts if things didn’t work. Actually, my father complained about a lot of things. Unfortunately, he often complained to my mother if little things went wrong in the house. Often things she couldn’t do anything about. Which, when you think about it, is being a dick, for sure.

He complained about other drivers. He complained about the government. He complained about gas prices. He complained about junk mail.

To be fair, he also had a great sense of humor and enthused about things too. But he complained a lot. He certainly did not suffer fools gladly. No, he really complained about people who couldn’t do their jobs up to his standard. Including his kids.

In my experience, it is best to suffer fools gladly, because you won’t ever avoid fools, and the alternative to suffering them gladly is to be a dick. And if the fool you are suffering from happens to be your debit card, you end up being even more of a dick.

Because it is so pointless to get angry at a machine. In fact, I will go so far as to say there is a real point to NOT getting upset by machines.

As we sipped our coffee I pointed out to my friend, that getting upset over a credit card is an exercise in anger. And remember what I have said about anger: it is a burning coal you hold to throw at something else. It only harms you. In this case, by making an unnecessary black spot in your day. A moment’s passing irritation for no reason at all. First you are annoyed by your credit card. They you are pissed off because you can’t get reception on your phone. Then when you get your phone to work, the website you are looking at crashes.

By now you are fuming. And why? Talk about first-world problems! But, no, come to think about it, let’s not just push these things aside as first-world problems. This irritation can happen at any level of technology.  I’m sure cavemen bitched because their spear point broke. We do expect our things to work. But getting upset with them isn’t going to make them work better! All it is going to do is ruin a little bit of your life. A moment you could have spent being content is sent down the tubes, because you wanted it to be different.

The sun is still shining (Or not, if you live in Seattle) The coffee (Which I paid for, remember) is still hot. You are with your friendly neighborhood Art Minister discussing…. Wait a minute, are we still talking about that sodding CHIP PIN?

There are two things worth considering now. One is why these things make us angry, and the other is why this is bad for us all.

We get angry at technology, because we expect it to work. It’s the expectation that is the problem here. As long as our expectations are met, we’re happy. But if this damned chip doesn’t work when we want it to, we condemn the whole IDEA of chip cards.

Personally, I think it’s a miracle whenever modern technology works. I can buy a pair of trousers with my phone, for goodness sakes! I never expect that kind of stuff to work, but it does! How cool is that? But we do, so often, expect the world to work out for us. Why? What makes you think that you are so special? Remember how that kind of thinking leads to acting like a dick? Isn’t the expectation of having things go your way what leads to dickishness? The sense that is your right to have a working credit card?

No one has a right to expect technology to work. It should work, but you don’t have a right to it. It isn’t a matter of rights. And if your chip doesn’t work, it isn’t some Higher Power or the Technology Gods picking on you. It isn’t personal; it’s a blinking machine. But too often, like my friend who is “against” chip cards, we do take it personally.

And this idea that random events are somehow the Universe acting against us builds into a defensive, negative outlook. A worldview that looks for bad things to happen. Which means we lose opportunities to be happy.  And here is the kicker: You end up being a dick to yourself. You ruin your chances to have fun. You blight the beauty of a sunny day. (Never do that in Seattle.) And more than this, you are all set up, primed, in fact, to be a dick to someone else.

And it all comes down to expectations. In Zen they say, “There is no such thing as a good day or a bad day, if the ideas of good and bad do not exist.” And what makes a day good or bad? The desire for it to turn out a certain way, that we decide. Well, you know what? The universe ain’t listening. The day is going to do its thing and so is the chip reader. And whether you like it or not… is up to you!  You get to like the coffee, even if the chip reader doesn’t work! When your car breaks down, you get to take the bus, or walk, or ask a friend for a lift. You might even choose stay where you are! The decision to be upset is yours.

We get to choose to be angry, or selfish, or disappointed or not. And being angry, being selfish, being disappointed – these states of mind lead so often to acting like a dick. And that impacts on everyone around you. Making them angry, or upset, or disappointed.

So, wake up and smell the coffee. Don’t be a dick. Enjoy the coffee and forget about the stupid chip.

PS:

 

 

King Dick (Power Corrupts)

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When my daughter was little, she used to play with the neighbors down the hill. Most of the time this was fine; they’d splash in the stream and play on the rope swing and do stuff you do in the country.  And then there were the days when she would come home in tears. Because one or the other of the Terrible Twins were being terrible.

This usually took the form of making fun of her. And because there were two of them, and they backed each other up, it could be awful. It really didn’t matter what they were saying, it always amounted to the same thing: pulling her down, teasing, ridiculing.

In short, acting like dicks.

And I tried to help and comfort her and point out that they were both short-assed little beggars and the only way they could make themselves look big was by knocking her down. Which was all true, but didn’t help my daughter much, I’ll admit. When you are the victim of bullying, nothing helps much. Because the whole point of bullying is to make you doubt yourself.

I found myself thinking about the Terrible Twins today. Because of some of the things I’ve seen on the news recently. People in power acting like bullies. Politicians ridiculing others, rather than arguing their point of view. Even dismissing and discounting people who disagree with them. In fact, using their public positions, or even worse, their positions of power, to put people down. To fire people for doing their jobs.

I’ve worked for people like that. People who want their employees to constantly be afraid of losing their jobs. People who micro-manage, apparently just so they can be critical, not helpful. People who take every question as a personal attack and become aggressive.

The King Dicks.

Now, it’s bad enough when you are an eight-year-old making fun of people. It’s bad enough when you are in high school to ridicule people who aren’t in your particular clique. It’s bad enough to steal somebody’s sandwiches out of the the break room at the office. Because all of these things are the acts of a dick. And the kind of dick who does these things most likely wouldn’t want to be treated that way. But in these cases, if somebody wants to come back at you, they can.

When you do these things to people who work for you, who are more or less obliged to put up with it, it’s much, much worse. Because your common, everyday dick knows that if he breaks the “do as you would be done by” contract, he’s likely to get some flak for it. But the King Dicks, the bosses, the police, the teachers, the politicians, the parsons, the parents even, know there can be no comeback.

And that makes it worse.

And there are some people who act like dicks just because there is no way you can get back at them.

And this just goes back to what I think is the source of all dickishness: thinking that the rules don’t apply to you. In this case, because you are the boss. You are in charge. You are better than the others. And what is more, there ain’t a damned thing they can do about it!

Now, it’s never good when people act like that. That is the source of so much pain and suffering. But it is especially bad when it is people in authority who act like that. People who are seen as role models. Teachers. Ministers. Elected officials. Because then kids and congregants and voters think that it’s alright to be dicks themselves. And, yes, “Well, HE does it!” is an excuse a five-year-old would use, but you know, there must be an awful lot of six foot tall five-year-olds out there, then.  Besides, the lesson is, “Do as you would be done by,” not, “Do like that jerk over there.”

This is perhaps the main reason for not being a dick: it encourages other people to be dicks. And the truth of the matter is, two people being dickish is nothing but twice as bad as one. A boss who is a dick, a leader who is a dick not only encourages others to be dicks, he multiplies the dickishness.

You don’t have to be Spider-Man to understand that with great power comes great responsibility.  

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And if we don’t hold the ones in power, the leaders, to a high standard, they will not just be dicks, they will be King Dicks.

 

Do Unto Others Part 3

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I’ve talked already about what I see as the causes of people acting like a dick. Which, at its simplest, is ignoring the almost universally understood Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So far I’ve talked about forgetfulness, or thoughtlessness, and anger. Now I want to talk about selfishness.

I think I might have been about seventeen, or maybe even a big, grown up nineteen when I was thinking, as you do, about the ten commandments. The first four had very little interest for me then, and no more now. They are all religion specific, and to me just give ammunition to atheists. Because I’m not interested in what you believe, remember; just in how that belief impacts on whether you are a dick or not.

So leaving aside “Honor your Father and Mother,” which is more the realm of psychology than morals, what do we have? Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie in court, and don’t covet.

I brooded about these five for some time. I found it amusing, at the very least that in the Judeo-Christian tradition lying isn’t mentioned, just not bearing false witness. Lie outside of court, just not in court. Well, OK, it screws up the legal system if you lie in court, but honestly, I don’t think any injunction other than the law is going to change things that much.

Which leaves us with murder, theft, adultery, and coveting.

Coveting is the basis of the free market system. I’m not going to say whether that makes it good or bad, but I’ll just let you consider that for a minute.

Now, leaving alone whether you think adultery is good or bad for people, I want to think about why people do these things, and I think now, much as I did fifty years ago, the reason is selfishness.

People steal because they think they deserve the things someone else has. Consider little kids in a play group. If a kid wants something another kid is playing with, he just takes it. Why? Well, he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t. Because as babies and children, we tend to get given stuff. Food. Clothing. Love. Why wouldn’t we think the world belongs to us? But we can’t live in a world run by three-year-olds. Ask any child minder why.

What happens when we think the world is ours by right? Oooh, I fancy my BFF’s husband. Let’s see if he feels the same. Bugger her.  If she can’t hold on to him, is that my fault? So, boom! Adultery. Or even just stealing someone’s boyfriend.

Now I admit that I can’t begin to understand why people kill. But surely, taking another’s life in cold blood must be the ultimate selfish act. “You are in my way; you have to die.” If you think about it, even self-defense is a selfish act. An understandable selfish act, but it is SELF preservation.

Coveting, wanting something someone else has… now that I have to group with the Seven Deadly Sins, which I shall talk about another time.

Let me make something clear: murder and theft are, by and large, selfish acts of a worse kind than adultery or lying. If you steal someone’s boyfriend, he has some say in the matter. If you steal their car, the car really doesn’t care much one way or the other. Yes, often adultery is selfish. But, just as often, it’s something else. But the point I really am making here is that all kinds of “sin” really boil down to one thing: thinking you are more important than someone else. Your needs are greater. You deserve better. Murder or being an asshole in the bar; it starts in the same place: you.

I have found driving in Seattle much less stressful, once I realized that all the other drivers are more important than me. And wherever they are going, it is vital that I get out of their way. Or, at least, that seems to be how they see it. As long as I agree with them, everybody’s happy. But…. Gee, if I start acting like I have a right to be on the road, no wonder they sound their horn, flip me the bird, and scream obscenities! I mean, what kind of a dick…?

But taking from me does not make you more. Taking my things, taking my friend; taking my loved ones, taking my life. This does not make you more; it only makes me less. And imagining that somehow you deserve what I have is simply selfishness. The selfishness of a total dick.

But the point is, I should not have to be less, so that you can be more. Each of us is enough. Good enough. Man enough. Woman enough. Strong enough. Caring enough. Lovable enough. You do not have to be bigger, or stronger, or braver, or prettier, or kinder, or faster than me in order to be enough. What you are IS enough, just as what I am IS enough.

And selfishness, dickishness, makes you less. Less pleasant. Less kind. Less reliable. Less helpful. Less worth knowing.

Less human.

And any kind of act, any ideas that make you treat people as if they were less than you comes from the same place: selfishness. Murder or racism. Sexism or theft. Child abuse or cutting in front in line. All of these things say, “I am better. You are less. To hell with you.” And that kind of dickishness can make a very real hell on earth.

Am I saying that all dickishness is sin? No. But it all comes from the same place. It is a difference of degree, not of kind. It is ignoring the simple human truth that we all want to be treated as we would treat ourselves. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or to be more British, do as you would be done by.

Don’t be a dick.

 

Your Fist, My Nose

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Do as you would be done by, my favorite prescription for not being a dick is a pretty good starting point for considering the restrictions allowed on freedom of action. Another is the old favorite, attributed to any number of sources: “Your freedom to swing your fist ends precisely where my nose begins.”

In a free society, we are allowed to do what we want as long as our actions do not injure others, and because it’s a complex matter, we have laws setting out just what constitutes injury. Punching someone in the nose is easy to understand. Calling someone names is a little less clear. But we do speak of hurting someone’s feelings, so, though sticks and stones are obvious, names can hurt too and there is some allowance in law for that. In general, merely being upset isn’t enough. You have to prove some loss of business resulting in loss of income or some kind of defamation arising from the name calling. That’s why cases of libel or slander are tricky. Interestingly enough, telling out-and-out lies about your opponent in politics doesn’t seem to be grounds for a lawsuit, even if the lies affect the outcome of the election.  It may be that we have different standards in politics. Or it may be that a lot of politicians are dicks.

In any case, in matters of free speech, I think the fist/nose dichotomy is a good one to remember. You might not like what the speaker from the Monster Raving Loony Party has to say on the matter of which end of the egg to open. You may even feel that his inflammatory remarks about people who eat their boiled egg from the Big End put you at risk, as a Big Ender living in a Little Ender community. But before you get up a petition to have Monster Raving Loonies banned from speaking in your town, consider two things. First, has he hit your nose yet? Second, do you want your rights to preach the Big End Gospel curtailed? If the answer to either is no, then let him rave away. You don’t have to listen if it offends you. Remember, I have the right to be offensive, and you have the right to be offended. But as soon as you think that being offended gives you the right to punch me in the nose, we are in trouble. Big Trouble.

An interesting thing happens when the Raving Loony goes from saying that all Big Enders are stupid to saying that all Big Enders should be punched. That is incitement. Then, even if he isn’t hitting your nose himself, he is encouraging others to punch you. And that, quite rightly, is against the law. Especially if, on previous occasions when the Loony has spoken, attacks on Big Enders have followed. In that case, it is not only a right to shut the dick up, it is a duty.

But remember, because some dick is advocating violence against you, this does not give you the right to be a dick yourself. It certainly doesn’t give you the right to punch him.

Now, in general, most political differences are somewhere around the level of what end of the egg to start from. But recently, in many countries, including our own, the question has become one of whether everyone should be allowed to eat eggs at all. There are some politicians who think that if you can’t afford eggs, it’s your fault. Doubtless you are lazy, or you would keep chickens. Never mind that you don’t have the money, or feed, or space to keep a chicken.

There are others who think that there aren’t enough eggs to go around as it is, so outsiders shouldn’t be allowed to come over here and eat our eggs. Never mind that many chicken farmers are immigrants. Clearly, if there weren’t so many foreign chicken farmers, the poor would raise chickens. Never mind that they don’t have the money, or land, or …. Well, you get the picture.

Now the thing is, up to this point, no nose-punching has been involved.

But there are Raving Loonies out there, who are advocating random nose punching, and there are politicians who are getting our public servants to do the punching for them. Police. ICE. Border Patrols.

Now, as part of the social contract that we call citizenship, we all voluntarily give up the freedom to punch noses for the right to be protected from nose punching. What is more, on the basis of do as you would be done by, we extend this right and that protection, to everyone living around us. Because unless equal rights and equal protection are granted for all, no one has rights, and no one is protected. Today the Big Enders, tomorrow the Toast Eaters.

But you know, a curious thing happens when people get elected to high office. For some reason, they begin to think that the principle of do as you would be done by doesn’t apply to them. They turn into dicks. Or maybe they were dicks to begin with, and that’s why they went into politics. In either case, they show all kinds of dickish behavior. They talk down to people. They refuse to listen to the people they are supposed to represent. They change the rules to suit themselves and cheat when they do play the game. They use threats and lies and fear to control people. Some are even so dickish that they use their position to make fun of others for being poor, or weak, or having an accent, or being female, or even being disabled. Picking on people just because you can get away with it is serious Big Dick behavior.

And it doesn’t matter if you are a Big Ender, or a Little Ender, an Egg Sharer or an Egg Hoarder, being a Big Dick is terrible for everyone around you.

In fairness to politicians, I have to say that this is not restricted to them. Middle managers. Heads of Departments. Union leaders. School bullies. Police officers.  Anyone who uses their little bit of power to treat others in ways they themselves would find unacceptable are Big Dicks. It is only a small step between “You’re fired!” and “Off with his head.” That kind of talk tends to lead to, “Up AGAINST THE WALL, Motherf**ker”

Do as you would be done by. Or in the end, people will do it back to you.

 

Fairy Tales

cinderella-with-pigeons-jpgEdward Henry Wehnert,1857

 

Facebook again. Just scrolling through, the way you do. And here is a little semi-animated story. Cinderfella. OK. Let’s watch it.

So it’s Cinderella with a boy instead of a girl. Same things, but role reversal. Ugly step brothers. Handsome young…. Sorry… pretty, young princess. Glass loafers. You get the picture. And then at the end, just as they are about to live happily ever after, comes a blackout and the text, “You would never read this story to your son, so why read it to your daughter?”

Huh.

I look at the top of the post. “Everything that’s wrong with Fairy Tales.”

Well, okay, I get what you are saying, except why wouldn’t I read this to my son? I mean, yes, you can have uplifting stories about hard work and effort, but it’s a fairy story, for goodness sakes. Why shouldn’t a boy have daydreams of a beautiful girl making him happy? Why should he have to be the prince, looking for the girl? In Norway, they have this exact story, called Aspen Asklad. The youngest son who played in the ashes and did the cleaning up. Who did all kinds of goofy stuff, went to the ball and still married the princess. European fairy stories are full of that kind of thing.

Besides which, have you ever read Cinderella? Not the Disney version, the historical one? The one where the ugly stepsisters cut off their toes and heels so they can try and cram their feet into the glass slipper? The one where the wicked stepmother has red-hot iron shoes crammed onto her feet and made to dance until she falls down dead?

You know, the one that was recorded in the mid nineteenth century, based on stories from the late sixteenth century? The one where Princess Cinderella rejoices at seeing her tormentors tortured? I mean, seriously, Cinderella really knew how to wield the whip hand, when she had it.

So really, Cinderella is a story of dicks getting their comeuppance. And Cinderella being a dick herself.

In my experience, kids, for whom fairy stories are intended, generally like the originals. But Disney felt that good little girls being rewarded for their patience was a better message. Which I admit is a pretty stupid idea, but no worse for a boy than for a girl. I mean, isn’t patience and hard work supposed to get a reward in the end? Boy or Girl?

But anyway, the modern retelling of fairy tales is the problem, not fairy tales themselves. Which is why Disney didn’t show the bit where the Hunter in Snow White cuts out the heart of a deer so that he could show it to the Queen and say it was Snow White’s. That Queen was some bitch.

But not all fairy tale heroines are like Cinderella. Take the girl in “I Love You Like Salt” whose father drives her from the house when her two older sisters say they love their father like gold and diamonds, but she just says, “I love you like salt.” Out in the woods she finds food, catches game, builds a house, and raises a garden. Until a handsome young prince gets lost in the woods and is thrown from his horse. Youngest daughter finds him, rescues him, heals his wounds and nurses him back to health. Naturally he wants to marry her, because she is the bravest, smartest, hardest working (and prettiest) girl he’s ever set eyes on. She says OK, but won’t marry him as a commoner (Her dad was a king too,) so they send an invitation to King Dad to come to a feast, and when he arrives they serve him all the good things….. without salt. Blurgh. See?  It’s not enough she gets the Prince, she has to teach her father what a dick he had been.*

There is a tendency to see history from a modern point of view. If you do that, you almost always get it wrong. They weren’t as stupid as you might think. Which is not to say they didn’t do some seriously stupid, screwed up, dickish things in the past. But try and find out what they were, don’t just jump to conclusions based on modern interpretations. For one thing, we expect a poor boy to be able to make it to the White House, right?  But for Cinderella to become Princess, (And therefor, later, Queen) was quite literally revolutionary. Cinderella and Aspen Asklad were subversives! In fact, most fairy tales are.

Because they were tales told by the poor, for the poor, about the poor. Stories where common people won! The Fairy Godmother (Who, really is no more unlikely than the Angel Gabriel) showed Cinderella how to turn rags, mice, and a pumpkin into all she needed to be a princess. And Cinderella, who had never done anything on her own, never been out of the kitchen, took herself to the ball! In fact, if the story had been about a bloke in the first place it would have been seen as a late medieval Horatio Alger rags to riches narrative.

So, please, before you judge the past (or anything else for that matter) find out about it. And don’t just Google it. Go to a library, get the book, and actually find out. You don’t want to do all that? Fine. Up to you. But don’t JUDGE.   

You might gather that I like fairy tales. Well, I do rather. And the older the better. Because they tell us some interesting things about ourselves and our past. For one thing, new research seems to indicate that some of the widest spread stories – the Three Little pigs, Sleeping Beauty, and, yes, Cinderella – might date from as far back as 4000BC.

Older than the Pyramids? Three thousand years older than Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem? That’s pretty darned old. There might be some kind of value in a story that lasts six thousand years.

But there is another reason I kind of like fairy tales. As Neil Gaiman puts it: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” And another thing I like about fairy tales. Somewhere along the line they tend to carry the following message:

Don’t Be A Dick.

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*This is basically the plot of King Lear, by the way. So, you know, Literature.

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The picture, Cinderella and the Doves, is by Edward Henry Wehnert. 1857

I’ve Been Lied To!

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One of my students thinks she might want to be an art teacher, and nothing could make me happier. What makes me particularly happy is that she has clearly learned what the actual goal of being an art teacher is: Changing how people see the world. Let me explain.

She has been teaching a group of elementary and middle school pupils how to draw. A short while ago she was watching a girl, who I shall call Maggie. Maggie was drawing an outdoor scene. The teacher came up and asked her what she was doing.

“I’m coloring in the tree,” said Maggie.

“So I see. What color are you making it?”

“Brown, of course.” Stupid teacher.

“Let’s look out the window at the trees,” said the teacher and took Maggie to the window.

“What color are trees, Maggie?” asked the teacher.

Maggie stared. “They…They’re kind of grey….”

The teacher nodded.

“I’ve been lied to!” said Maggie.

 

Many of us are like Maggie, accepting a view of the world that we are given, without question, and never bothering to really look at the world ourselves, to find out what color the trees actually are. At some point we are told that trees are brown and although we may pass trees every day of our lives, and see them right enough, when it comes to drawing trees, we color them in brown.

Women are weaker than men.

Immigrants are lazy.

Black men are drug dealers.

Liberals want to take away our guns.

Conservatives are all secret Nazis.

You can’t have morals without God.

People of faith are all dupes.

Trees are brown.

 

And the truth is, some trees are brown. Copper Cherries. Scotch Pines. But the trees that actually grow here, the trees Maggie sees every day, are gray. With green patches, because there’s a lot of algae and moss on them. And that’s where things get difficult; when some things are half true, or true sometimes, we accept them as true, without really looking for ourselves.

The reason I was an art teacher, the reason I am an Art Minister is because of what every good artist learns: To be an artist, you must learn to look, really look, at the world around you. You can’t draw what other people have drawn, you can’t paint what you think the world looks like, you can’t really, honestly express yourself before you see. Really see. See honestly. No judgement, no preconceptions, just look and see.

Because the job of an artist is to show what they see. Even if what they see is straight out of their imagination, to show it you must understand how people see it.

And to understand how we all see, we must look.

That’s why children like Maggie need teachers like my student. Art teachers. To teach them how to see, and to realize that, yes, they have been lied to and to understand that it is up to them to see for themselves, so they don’t get tricked again. Because the next thing you know, they’ll be telling you that the sky is blue*, and the grass is green.

And because that lesson doesn’t just apply to art. It applies to everything.

So, not much about not being a dick today. Except that, in a very real way, what my student did, in teaching Maggie to see, is the opposite of being a dick. It’s doing as she had been done by. She taught as I taught her: to see for herself. She treated Maggie with respect, and let her see for herself.

And that is the act of an anti-dick.

 

*Here in Seattle, the sky is grey, more often than not.

 

Don’t be a dick… about Politics.

 

Politics 2

The other day I was scanning my Facebook Timeline and noticed a link that had been shared or liked by someone I knew. The originator of the post was unknown to me. It basically said something along the lines of, “Unlike you stupid f*ckers who disagree with me, I’m going to vote for (Candidate X) because I’m not a pile of burning tires.”  

Not being familiar with the phrase “pile of burning tires,” I followed the link. There I was met with a volley of extremely nasty invective, saying that anyone who disagreed with the writer was a moron, an idiot, and going to ruin the country and probably the world, because reasons.

I didn’t make it past the first sentence, because, quite frankly the writer was calling me names. Because I disagreed with them. Even though they hadn’t actually begun to make their point. Or even knew what I thought.

Now I want to make an important point here: I’m not sure I do disagree with them, not entirely. I’m still in two minds, or possibly in two and a half minds as to how I will vote going forward, and how I shall position myself politically after that. So, if there had been a persuasive argument from the writer, I could possibly have been convinced. But I never got to see why they thought the way they did, because the first thing, well before they started making any kind of reasoned argument they insulted me.

So, in the spirit of Facebook I posted back, “Thank you for insulting me and denigrating my carefully reasoned point of view. It saves me having to read what you wrote.” Within seconds an answer popped up. “You are exactly the kind of asshole who should read this.”

How was that going to make me more likely to read it?

I’m sure you have seen something similar on social media. Someone so convinced of their political beliefs that they act like a dick.

Which leaves me asking this question: did they actually want to convince anyone of their ideas, or did they just want to be a dick on Facebook? Because here is something that seems painfully obvious to me: If you do want to convince someone of anything, you won’t do it by acting dickish! You can either convince someone, or you can be a dick. Not both.

But now there’s another question: Why would you not want to convince someone of your ideas if you think they are important? (And I suppose we can say politics are pretty important. Maybe especially right now.) Well, the fact is, sometimes people are more interested in being right than convincing others. And this seems especially to be the case where politics are involved. And because the first writer wanted to prove how right they were, they started by insulting everyone who might disagree with them. Because, really, the argument they want to have isn’t about the politics. It’s about them. Not, “You disagree with my politics,” But “You disagree with ME, so you’re an asshole!”

Do you see the difference here? Their opinions are right, because they hold them. Not, they are right because they hold certain opinions.

Now this is kind of funny, because the very word politics comes from the Greek polis, meaning “the city.” In ancient Greece, where democracy comes from, the city was the state and the state was the people. So politics is about the people. As a whole. Not you. Not me. Us. The Greeks also had a word for a person who ruled without consulting the polis. Where disagreeing about politics was disagreeing with that one man who was in charge. The kind of person who would say, “You are disagreeing with me,” rather than “You are disagreeing with my opinions.”

The word they used was Tyrant.

So don’t be a dick (or a tyrant) about politics. It isn’t about you. It’s about us. It’s about finding reasons to agree, not grounds for a slanging match on Facebook. Because shouting at people and calling them names isn’t going to convince them you are right.

It’s going to convince them you are a dick.

 

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When I was ten, I was definitely a Pogo supporter. I still think he had a lot of good ideas.

Do Unto Others Part 2

anger

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the causes of people acting like dicks. This is part two.

In Zen they say that anger is like a burning coal you hold in your hand getting ready to throw it at someone. You might well burn them, but who is it burning now? And the longer you hold onto it, the more you get burned.

Still, when you are angry, it’s all too easy to be a bit dickish. Because you aren’t thinking about how the other person would feel, and anyway, you actually want to hurt them. So you say things that would be hurtful if they were said it to you, and so on. At best you end up with hurt feelings and at worst, World War III.

Your workmate who forgot to give you a lift when your car was at the garage, and then phones up and apologizes. And your reaction is to say, “Thanks a lot, asshole. How am I going to get my car back? I need it tonight so saying you’ll take me to pick it up tomorrow is no effing use. You want to drive me to my Anger Management Meeting tonight?”

Now the thing is, he might have agreed to act as your chauffeur if you hadn’t been so nasty. But now he’s angry as well as embarrassed and you are just burned. Nothing good is coming out of this.

And he sure as heck isn’t going to loan you his power saw again.

And yes, I know, sometimes there are justifiable reasons for being angry. Angry about injustice. Angry about crime. Angry about people hurting children. But the funny thing is, people are very rarely dickish when they feel that kind of anger. Maybe it isn’t anger at all; maybe it’s something else. Righteous indignation. Because it’s unselfish anger.

The anger that makes us forget to do as we would be done by is all our own. Up close and personal. Selfish anger.

But the thing about that anger is, it doesn’t even have to be directed at the real source of the anger to cause dickishness.  When you are pissed off about something your boss said, you take it out on the girl giving you your latte. And of course, she thinks (quite rightly) that you are a jerk, and she gets angry too and….

Now, I have done it myself, but I was lucky because I recognized in time that I had been a dick. Here’s the story.

I was walking to work one summer Monday back in 1967. Yeah. Back then. And to be perfectly honest, I was a hippy in that Summer of Love, but an unhappy hippy. The previous Friday I had been beaten up by some thug because he didn’t like my long hair and bare feet. So as I was limping along the side of the road, I felt somewhat aggrieved. And then a car drove past on the other side of the road, and the driver yelled something obscene out the window at me, so I played cowboy and did a double slap draw flipping him the bird two handed.

And the car stopped.

And this hurkin’ high school football player got out and started walking toward me.  

Now a fair question right now is, who was being a dick?

But a better question might be, how is me being a dick now going to make anything better?

Here’s the thing. I could hold onto my anger at the idiot who had beaten me up on Friday, and get the crap kicked out of me again, or I could recognize that this guy, even though he was being a jerk too, wasn’t the reason I was angry. So being rude to him wasn’t going to help anything. It certainly wasn’t going to improve my health. So, I did what I wanted him to do. As he got close enough to hear me, I put up my hands in a kind of “I surrender” position and said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.” Guy stops dead in his tracks and looks at me. “That was rude of me and I apologize,” I continued as he deflates like a punctured balloon, “I had a shitty weekend, and I’m going to be late for work, but that’s no excuse. Not your fault.”

He looks at me and shuffles his feet and glances back at his car… “Uh.. yeah. Erm… well.. You English?”

“Yes. I’m just over from the UK for the summer.” (This was true, oddly.)

“Yeah, well…. We got a lot of these hippy types… erm… (mumble mumble). He stops and gives me a kind of half wave. “Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

I’ve thought about this a lot since then. I admit I’m kind of proud that I got out of it with a whole skin. That I used a little bit of simple behaviorist psychology to save my neck. But much more than that, I remember it as an example of the power of “Do as you would be done by,” even if you are fuming.

Of, if you like – Don’t be a dick.

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The image is an etching by W. Herbert, c.1770

Difficult Question

 Wyeth

Today I want to try to answer the question that really started me writing this blog in the first place. It all happened like this.

I was sitting in a pub – more of a beer shop, really – with my buddy, discussing art as we always did, and morality, which we often did. I was talking about the necessity of not being a dick, when the fellow at the table next to ours said, “Excuse me. I couldn’t help overhearing what you have been saying, and it’s very interesting. But what if I want to be a dick?”

And that, of course, is the Difficult Question. This was my answer:

Well, first of all, let me say, if you want to be a dick, go right ahead. Your call. I can’t stop you. But.

There are consequences to being a dick. And these consequences fall into two types: social consequences and personal consequences. Let’s start with the social ones.

The most obvious reason not to be a dick is that it upsets people. In fact, that’s almost the definition of a dick: someone who pointlessly, deliberately, upsets people. In extreme cases, people get angry. That’s a second good reason not to do it. And because people get upset, get angry, any kind of real communication (by which I don’t mean screaming at each other) gets shut down. All this anger and shouting leads to distrust. The result of this, overall, is to make society a worse place.  This is not good because the things that society gives us like food, shelter, friendship, family, medicine, and video games only happen when we cooperate. Every single thing we have as a society we have because of cooperation. In fact, I would say that if you really, really want society to fall apart, get as many people as possible to start acting like dicks.

But maybe you seriously don’t care if society falls apart. Leaving aside that this would certainly end in your death, let’s look at the reasons that being a dick is bad for you directly.

If you continually act like a dick, or if you just act like a dick one time too many, people will not like you. Your friends will stop talking to you and avoid you. You’ll be on your own. And even if you think you would rather be alone, if you are like most people, you’ll just end up feeling like a jerk for having been nasty to people whom you like. But in any case, you’ll miss out on things. Maybe small things like a good party or a quiet night at the pub, but maybe important things, like a good job offer. Because, let’s face it, nobody is going to recommend you for a job if they know the prospective employer is going to come back and say, “Why did you send me that asshole? He’s a total dick!” And if you have a job, chances are your boss is eventually going to get fed up with you being a pain in the backside, so you won’t have it for long.

Oh, you’re going to be self-employed? Good luck with that if nobody wants to pay for your services because you are such an obnoxious sod.

And then there is the time you go a little too far and somebody pokes you in the snoot. At best you’ll be in a fight, at worse you’ll get the crap beaten out of you. And get this: no one will sympathize. Because you alienated all of your friends, remember? You don’t have to be a dick all the time for this to happen, either. Just once too often is enough.

And just what do you get out of acting like a dick anyway? A few minutes feeling like you got one over on somebody? For sake of annoying people you do something that you personally wouldn’t like? What kind of a jerk are you anyway, that you so need to show off that you can put people down? Is your ego that puny?

Because that’s all anybody ever gets out of being a dick. A temporary feeling of superiority. You got away with being rude. By showing that you can do something that you would never accept yourself, you have shown that the rules of human interactions don’t apply to you.

And that’s it really. The only possible reason I can see for being a dick is that you think that you are somehow better than everyone else. That’s why people steal: because they think they deserve something someone else has. That’s why people drive down the wrong lane and cut in front of traffic, because they are more important than the other drivers, and they need to get somewhere faster than those clowns. That’s why they don’t pay for their round in the pub: everyone should be happy to pay for their company. That’s why they are racists. That’s why they are misogynists. That’s why they are murderers. They’re different. They’re better. They get to be dicks whenever they want.

But the truth is, none of us is better than the rest. We are all equally good and equally bad, equally worthy and equally worthless. Being human is a struggle to find a balance between the desire to look after ourselves and the need to cooperate. Because, the simple truth is, we can’t survive on our own, neither physically nor emotionally.

So, when the fellow in the bar asked what he should do, if he wanted to be a dick, I answered, fight it. And if you lose out to your own ego; go ahead; be a dick. Just remember that not only will you pay for it, so will all the rest of us.

So, please, for all our sakes, don’t be a dick.

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The image is by N.C. Wyeth: Robin Hood and Little John fighting over who gets to crosss the footbridge first. I loved this book as a kid, especially Wyeth’s illustrations. I thought Robin and Little John were the best! Which just goes to show, even heroes can be dicks.