Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankfulness and Tragedy

The one theological idea that has had the greatest impact on me over the past few years is that one is not supposed to pray to God “from whom all good things flow” because it implies that there is another God from whom bad things flow. The idea itself is simple enough, but the extensions and implications stagger me: God sends not only good things, but also bad. The same God that gives you life and joy also gives you loss and pain.

Of course, right? Isn’t that the whole deal with monotheism, that “alpha and omega” idea? Granted, but this idea (and I wish I could find the rabbi that taught this, or remember which book I read it in) takes it a step farther. If we want to thank God for the good things in our lives, in this season of giving thanks, we have to thank God for the bad things as well.

That’s not a simple idea; are you able to be grateful for the bad things in your life? And I don’t mean in that “there’s a lesson or hidden upside to it” way, as if there was a pre-emptive karmic cost for the good things in life, or God were a sadistic gym teacher that believes the only way you can truly grow into an adult is if he makes you cry. I mean being truly grateful for the bad parts of life, in and of themselves. I try, but I’m not always sure I’m strong enough.

It’s a slippery slope, to be sure. If you’re not careful, you start sounding like the most out-there of far-out fundamentalists, either abdicating all responsibility for the events in your life to some divine power or becoming a sacred masochist, thanking God for this opportunity to suffer further because you deserve it. So what, then, is the proper middle ground?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been having a lot of Back to the Future/Groundhog Day style fantasies, imagining what I would do differently if I could relive my life with the knowledge I have now. Or what advice I would give to a younger me. The question quickly encounters a frightening time traveler’s dilemma: I’m pretty happy with my life right now, and wouldn’t want to make any major changes. What could safely be changed that would end with me still here, in my current situation, with just some fairly superficial improvements?

Should I have gone to an Ivy League school? My career would definitely have taken a different direction if I had, especially if I retained knowledge of future events. But a different career path means I wouldn’t have wound up at my current job. Without this job I wouldn’t have moved to LA, which means I never meet my wife! How much would I be willing to change my past knowing it would almost certainly mean losing her?

Not much, and when seen from this perspective it becomes easier to be grateful for all the steps in my journey that brought me here, both good and bad. I didn’t enjoy breaking my arm in 4th grade, but that was one of the steps that brought me here. It’s not an experience I would repeat, but it’s one of the things that brought me here. Looking at it that way, I’m glad I broke my arm!

But then you get to the major traumas, the big pains. I look back at some of those and ask myself, would I be willing to endure that again to get to her? That’s where it gets hard, because I honestly don’t know what the answer would be. Would I do the things that led to years of pain and therapy again knowing that She waited on the other side, or would I avoid those moments and risk losing the good things I’ve got?

I don’t know. I wish I did, but it’s not a question I can answer. All I know is I’m grateful I’m here now!

In the time between writing this and posting this, I had another of those moments. One of the soul-wrenching, life-changing, “am I strong enough to deal with this?” moments. Even as it was happening I was wondering, what future joy could possibly be worth this? Will I ever be able to look back and be thankful for any path that included this? On the other hand, it’s only because of skills learned to cope with previous heartbreak that I’m getting through this one relatively intact.

Each pain preparing you for the next, bigger one; is this what it takes to learn gratitude?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Read Matt Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone. This is so disgusting. The problem in our country is now, more clearly than ever, not Republican v. Democrat or Black v. White or Straight v. Gay, it's Rich v. Poor. No not even that; it's Rich v. Not-Rich. They're more than happy to bleed anyone "lower" than they are, not just the lowest of the low. And increasingly it's becoming a Predator/Prey relationship, or at least a scavenger.

It's interesting, though, to hear who complains about "class warfare" - the ultra-rich and those who think they can become or want to toady to the ultra rich. We plebes don't look at it as class warfare, we look at it as "I'd like to keep my house, please", or "I'm trying to pay off my debts, but it's too hard to stay even, let alone pull ahead."

I know I'm not the first to have this idea, but we've really recreated the aristocracy in this country, based on wealth instead of blood. But still, the best predictor of future wealth seems to be how much your parents had, so it's not strayed far from blood. I can't believe people put up with it! I guess it's the same problem as every other time in our history; we the not-downtrodden-but-merely-lower-in-resources feel powerless to truly change the system in a meaningful way, and those people we select - elect - to defend our interest pay lip service to us and tax cuts to our "rulers".

I'm angry. I'm angry and I don't know what to do about it. Send a polite letter to my Senator, or even, heavens forbid, an impolite one? Yes, surly this is the act upon which nations turn. Go protest on a street corner for the amusement of passing traffic and the benefit of the news stations? There was a time in our country when that worked, but then that generation took power of our country and defanged the tool that helped put them there.

Words of revolution would seem appropriate, but those get you put on special lists if they're even understood.

It gives me a lot of sympathy - no, understanding - of those who use violence to enact change. Not the revolutionary or the terrorist, but the ones that actually got in trouble for it. It's not that they're violent people, it's not that they want to cause pain, it's that they can find no other effective means for getting heard.

I want a new political party, one that grows out of the same sentiment the Daily Show tapped into and the growing disgust with both sides of our current political "spectrum". One that cooperates in more arenas than just the political. If the problem's in Washington DC, fine we'll go there; if the problem's with a particular bank or corporation, we'll focus our efforts that way.

Anyone know how to start one?

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I'm reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God and it's got  me thinking about perspective. More specifically, about how the meaning of a story changes depending on whether you're at the beginning, watching its writing, or at the end, listening to it being told and retold.

My answer to the question of Free Will vs Predetermination used to be, "When are you asking me?" I irritated a couple of teachers by trying to explain my theory that when I woke up this morning I had complete freedom of will to wear whichever shirt I wanted to, but now that choice is set and immutable. Perspective. This morning I had free will, now it is a fixed decision. It sidesteps the question of whether I always was going to choose this shirt, but from a practical standpoint, from the perspective of the one making the choice, the difference between actual freedom and the illusion of freedom is minuscule.

This led me to miracles. The word "miracle" gets pretty abused, from all sides. We identify as "miraculous" things that are really fairly commonplace and easy to explain, and discount as "trivial" things that, even as we learn more about how they work, are truly amazing. That's what I love about biology; life isn't miraculous because it's inexplicable, it's miraculous because it works at all. And the more we learn about the hows and whys of it, the more awestruck I am by the complexity and simplicity of it all.

So perspective. A lot of the debate around miracles focuses on whether God (or other supernatural force of your choice) could commit some action which violates or supersedes the laws of nature. For me, though, this is a matter of our perspective, looking at things from the end of the story. If nature is God's creation, then the natural laws are also of God's making. The question of whether God could break these laws, then, is moot because these are God's laws, either self-imposed or the working conditions under which God created the universe. It's less like asking the umpire to cheat on your behalf, in other words, and more like asking the inventor of baseball why it's 3 strikes instead of 7. The game could have been designed that way, but it wasn't; the game we're playing only gives you 3 strikes per plate appearance, gravity is (mostly) a constant, and living things age in one direction only.

From our perspective as characters in the story, looking backwards, these natural laws seem fixed and ordinary. If we could have seen creation over God's metaphorical shoulder, we would see their miraculousness.

There's a parable that certain key objects were formed at the time of creation, and held waiting for the moments they would be needed. Jonah's giant fish and the ram Abraham sacrifices in Issac's place, for example. I like this "Bill & Ted" -esque explanation of miracles. It's the same trick good writers do in an extended series (in any medium): toss a ball in an apparently arbitrary direction early on, ignore it for several chapters, then turn and catch it, seemingly out of nowhere, right when it's needed most.

In real life, though, we can't tell, from our perspective, whether the ball was thrown deliberately by someone trying to help us, or if we were just fortunate that it was there when we needed it. The difference, as with free will, is minuscule - from our perspective. The miracle is not that the thing occurred - we can explain that easily enough - it's that it happened at all, and at just the right time.

The only reasonable response, then, is gratitude. Not necessarily to anyone or anything, but simply gratitude that it happened at all. There is a continually growing body of research showing many emotional benefits to expressing gratitude: our ability to empathize improves, dependence on material items decreases, negative emotions effect us less severely, and, most of all, positive emotions are experienced more strongly. The decision is ours, whether or not to be grateful or just write things off as the vagaries of fortune.

It's all a matter of perspective.