What Works: Re: The Busy Trap

Doing what you should be doing on a beautiful hot summer day
(c) 2012 Phil Fox Rose

A June 30 NY Times Opinionator blog post by Tim Kreider called “The Busy Trap” created a lot of buzz among my friends, shared on Facebook with comments like, “If you read only one thing, ever, read this.” (Sorry, Emily.) A thread of professional jealousy made me want to respond to each friend’s enthusiastic share with the snarky comment, “I refer you to my 2009 column ‘How Sweet To Do Nothing,'” but I resisted. And I wanted to find fault with the post, but I could not. Its main themes are ones I touch on regularly, and it addresses them well.

This plague of busyness is a First World problem in the extreme:

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

And Kreider points out that it’s rooted in part in the Puritan legacy of thinking productivity is divine (which observation includes my favorite line from the post):

The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

It’s quite likely that in some future century, folks will look back at this moment in Western civilization and wonder why we burnt ourselves out the way we do.

As I put it in my old column:

The seeds were planted centuries ago with the Puritan work ethic — epitomized by Isaac Watt’s 1700s hymn for children praising the worker bee, which includes the lines:

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

Perhaps the most important message in the Times piece, though, is this:

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen

Different societies and different generations have different ways. When you’re in the midst of one, it’s easy to think this is life. Or at minimum, this is “normal” life. New monastics and others who promote a less materialistic life may seem like they’re presenting something exceptional, something for advanced spiritual types, but it only seems odd because it’s so out of step with our prevailing culture today. It’s quite likely that in some future century, folks will look back at this moment in Western civilization and wonder why we burnt ourselves out the way we do; why we didn’t just take it easier; why we took so many things so seriously that really didn’t matter that much.

The main difference between my work on leisure and Kreider’s is one of perspective. He is writing as part of a series of posts labeled “anxiety,” and is speaking from the perspective of someone caught up in the lack of ability to do nothing. I, on the other hand, find little trouble doing nothing. I’m a natural slacker (though I suppose that term is inherently judgmental.) Doing nothing is a regular feature in my life.

I practice a sabbath: one day a week when I do no work-work (with exceptions — I’m not absolute about it if needs arise).

I spend most mornings and working hours in silence. When I’m in the country and go kayaking or take a hike, I can be offline and out of cellphone reach all day, and that doesn’t bother me one little bit.

Often in the evening and always at night, I leave my phone on vibrate in the kitchen.

Of course, I do things all the time, but when I do something, it is usually by choice.

I think Kreider’s angle as a fellow sufferer is one of the reasons the Times piece is so popular — people identified with the author’s struggle. They see themselves more in his inability to live up to what he’s celebrating than in my ease with it. I see a similar dynamic with the frequent grousing about social media because of the issue of its overuse. To both, I find myself thinking: Just say no. Just set time aside. Just use Facebook as the amazing tool for human connection that it is.

But I can’t help noticing how similar that sounds to saying “just say no” to an alcoholic or addict. Having been on the other end of that one, I have to honor that many others find it near impossible to enjoy doing nothing, or to just be, or to enjoy the fruits of social media without being sucked into compulsive behavior.

So, for two very different perspectives with very complementary conclusions, I encourage you to read both pieces: Kreider’s and mine. I offer myself, on these issues, not as a fellow traveler so much as a keeper of the faith. I can speak to you of the benefits of doing nothing, but more like a monk speaking of silence than a partner in the struggle.

What Works: Pentecost and Boldness in the Holy Spirit

The beginning of Acts 2 reads like a breathless passage from a Hollywood screenplay:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Like so many well-known passages from scripture, I thought I knew this one until I read it closely and repeatedly, and with a group. What emerged in the reading and was clarified for me is that this Pentecost story has a perspective distinct from the passages in John and 1 Corinthians that also talk about the Holy Spirit.

While other passages offer long or short lists of spiritual gifts, the focus here and in some other places in Acts is on preaching ability, or more broadly, being filled with confidence, being emboldened.

I usually think about the Holy Spirit in one of two ways. The Paraclete of the Gospel of John is an advocate, intercessor, counselor and comforter promised to come after Jesus — to kind of make up for his absence.

More often, I think of the Holy Spirit almost as synonymous with God’s Will/the Way/the Tao — or a pointer to it, if that makes more sense for you — the Holy Spirit as a guide, a touchstone to know what path to follow in life situations. Discernment is often aimed at recognizing what you already know the Holy Spirit is telling you.

The understanding of the Spirit here in Acts is distinct and exciting. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) What it promises us is that if the Spirit is in us, we will be able to boldly live out the Good News. Whether this takes the form of speaking confidently of faith, or in taking the leap to follow our calling.

But the understanding of the Spirit here in Acts, while connected, is distinct as I read it, and exciting. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) What it promises us is that if the Spirit is in us, we will be able to boldly live out the Good News. Whether this takes the form of speaking confidently of faith, or of taking the leap to follow our calling.

I used to be terrified of public speaking. I once watched a job, and to some extent a career path, fizzle out because I couldn’t do it. And I tried a few times, but I was so nervous and unsure of myself that I was terrible. For years, this was an embarrassment, and I could do nothing about it.

But when I started working with the subjects of faith and recovery — subjects that were connected to my calling — the fear was just gone. Gone. It was as if I had no fear of speaking at all. Today I look out at an audience of 500 and simply see people with whom I want to share my message. Of course I have butterflies before I start, but that’s not fear; that’s because I want to do a good job.

Though, as I said, the Paraclete of John is a different take on the Holy Spirit, I find a connection in the phrase from John 15:26, “the Spirit of truth.” When I feel grounded in Truth, when I know what I’m talking about and I know that there’s nothing insincere about what I’m saying or how I’m presenting myself, then I am fearless.

Have you had an experience like that? Where a usual fear or hesitance vanished when your actions were grounded in capital-T Truth and in line with your calling? When the Holy Spirit was in you, empowering and emboldening you?


It’s Pentecost this Sunday so just a bit of history, if you don’t mind. Pentecost is a Greek word that simply means “fiftieth.” It was the Greek name used for the Hebrew holy day called Shavuot. It was and is the Jewish festival celebrating the first wheat harvest of the year. It happens seven weeks after the second day of Passover, in other words 50 days after Passover. Thus “pentecost” meaning “fiftieth.” In the first century, Shavuot was one of the three festivals in which Jews travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate at the temple. (The other two are Passover and Sukkot.) This is why, as described in Acts, there were so many foreigners speaking so many different languages milling about in the streets.

There is a symbolic connection between the Christian and Jewish versions of this holy day, too. Jewish tradition holds that on Shavuot, God gave the Jews the Torah, the Law, and they became a nation. Christians consider the coming of the Holy Spirit and the subsequent preaching on Pentecost (Acts says that 3,000 were baptized that day) to be the beginning of the Christian Church.

Since Holy Week originally overlapped with Passover, Pentecost and Shavuot, which are 50 days later, would too except that the Jewish and Christian customs for when Easter and Passover occur, though both based on the lunar cycle, do not always agree. This year, however, they do overlap. Pentecost is on May 27 and Shavuot falls on May 26 – 28.

Many food customs exist for Pentecost and Shavuot, all of them more playful than meaningful. In Judaism, there are foods made of wheat and dairy, celebrating the first wheat harvest. In the Christian world, usually there are nods to representation of the Holy Spirit as flames — so often food that is red or spicy. I’m making Thai red curry with red bell peppers and cherry tomatoes. What are you doing to celebrate Pentecost, or Shavuot, this year?

The image is a detail from El Greco’s Pentecost (1596).

What Works: Building Up Others

In preparing to give a presentation on the structures of faith communities, I was just reading 1 Corinthians 12-14. You may, like me, be familiar with chapters 12 and 13 separately as two of the best-known passages from the Pauline letters. But I’d never put them together along with the following chapter. As a set, they say something very powerful, something which is already a guiding spiritual principle in my life: the essentialness of being of service, of being, at least some of the time, other-directed.

Chapter 12 contains the famous analogy between a community of believers and a body (the Body of Christ.) The word “member” previously referred only to a body part. Using it to mean a person in a group comes from this passage.

Paul lists the spiritual gifts — wisdom, knowledge, etc. — several different ways here, but that’s not what I want to talk about. (Perhaps I’ll get back to that closer to the Pentacost.) The point of the body analogy is to say we each have specific gifts to offer and we need each other’s gifts — complementary and interdependent:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? (1 Corinthians 12:17)

In the middle of this discussion of spiritual gifts and roles in the church, though, Paul pivots into his famous talk on the nature of love:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7)

Like a musical instrument that isn’t played

A spiritual gift that serves only your own spiritual growth and isn’t shared in service to others is like a musical instrument laying on the ground unplayed. It’s not bad; but it isn’t fulfilling its nature.

You hear this passage all the time as a statement on the nature and importance of love. It’s a favorite at weddings. As well it should be. It’s poetic and, as a description of love, it can’t be improved on. It is one of my favorite and most treasured passages of scripture. (Heck, it’s on my Facebook profile and before that was on my Myspace and Friendster and LiveJournal profiles going back over a decade, as one of the defining quotes that guides me.)

But it is also part of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts and actions. In that context, the first part is not just a list of examples; it’s a follow-up on the previous chapter. Paul is saying spiritual gifts must be grounded in love or they’re useless. And he defines love as non-self-centered and non-self-seeking. The constant refrain in chapters 12-14 is “build up the church.” Paul says variations of this at least seven times. After the discussion of love, Paul kinda disses speaking in tongues.

Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:4-5)

Paul is saying spiritual gifts that help only you are OK, but ultimately not important unless they lead to building up others somehow. Personally this hits home about contemplation. If by bringing me closer to God, my contemplative practice makes me more helpful to the community, or if by sharing my knowledge of contemplation with others I help them grow closer to God, then that’s great. If my practice just improves my own spiritual state, though, while that’s OK, it’s ultimately empty if it doesn’t translate into my outward interactions.

To me, this is an answer to the “spiritual but not religious” focus on self-improvement. Why don’t we just pray and meditate at home alone? Why come together in worship? We come together to build each other up. By being other-directed in service to community, and by experiencing the love of others directed at us, we connect to the love which is God.

This selfless sharing of gifts is love, and that love is Christ among us. Paul says later in chapter 14, a spiritual gift that serves only your own spiritual growth and isn’t shared in service to others is like a musical instrument laying on the ground unplayed. It’s not bad; but it isn’t fulfilling its nature.

Are you being of service to others in your spiritual practice? Or do you keep it to yourself, like a musical instrument that no one gets to hear?

One Ha’ Penny, Two Ha’ Penny, Hot Cross Buns

My first ever homemade batch of hot cross buns
© 2012 Phil Fox Rose

Every year, I bring hot cross buns to an Easter brunch gathering of family and friends. Sharing food has always been sacred to me, all the more so when it’s around a spiritual event. I don’t know why I started bringing hot cross buns. We didn’t do it when I was growing up; maybe it’s my British roots, but it just seems the thing to do. (Good Friday is the traditional day, but Sunday is when we gather.) This year, for the first time ever, I am making my own, inspired in part by a recent spirituality of bread baking workshop at my church. Based on the test batch, I think it will work out fine.

The hot cross bun is not complicated to make. At its simplest, it’s spiced bread. Flavor and ingredient-wise, its noteworthy for a few reasons. First, traditionally it’s made with currants, an ingredient unknown in America except in its fellow British baked good, the scone. Second, it sometimes includes bits of candied fruit — the same atrocity that afflicts fruitcake and makes it wildly unpopular. (I prefer mine without, if you hadn’t guessed.) Third, it’s only lightly sweetened, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes.

And of course, most obviously, there’s a big honkin’ cross on the top of it, usually made of white icing.

A pagan past

Behind the description, the hot cross bun carries a surprising amount of intrigue. Even to start to tell its history lands you in controversy. We know one thing: it began in England. When and why, though, is its first mystery. While some disagree, the hot cross bun probably was a tribute to the Saxon goddess Eostre, after whom this Christian holiday got its English name. Eostre was the goddess of light, and her name was given to the month of April, which marked the return of the dominance of light, as well as of birth and new growth. Eostre ties back to the German goddess of the dawn, Hausos, who is also linked to rabbits and eggs. While the specifics of Eostre are based on an account from St. Bede which scholars dispute, the link between the German goddess Hausos, the Saxon Eostre, and the later English name and customs of Easter seems obvious.

(While the English language uses the name Easter and modern German retains Ostern, all the Romance languages and many others use a name based on the Latin Pascha, or the original Hebrew Pesach. In other word, the Christian name for Easter in most languages is Passover. Chew on that one for a minute. A few others use a name based on the Greek Anastasia, which means resurrection. Slavic and Sami languages use other words, though Russian uses Paskha.)

The cross on the bun began as an ancient Gaelic symbol depicting either the four quarters of the moon or the intersection of earth (the horizontal line) and Heaven (the vertical line), the human and divine, the physical and the spiritual. These meanings for the cross don’t contradict its other meaning, they enrich it, and you find them in Christianity, especially Celtic Christianity, sometimes too.

The bun that couldn’t be squashed

Despite its pagan roots, the hot cross bun became so entrenched as a symbol of English Catholicness that when the Protestants took power they actually banned the bun. As with most government attempts to forbid something people want, however, it didn’t last long. A compromise was struck by Queen Elizabeth I, allowing them to be sold, but only during Christmas and Easter.

The fact that the buns are not very sweet — just enough to balance the favors but not enough to taste sugary — is seen as appropriate for Lent. The use of currents rather than raisins, though an accident of location rather than something intentional, furthers this, since currents are less sweet and less juicy. It’s possible that hot cross buns were sometimes made with the same flour used for communion wafers, though this might have been propaganda from the anti-Catholics. I was excited to learn that in Australia they sometimes substitute chocolate chips for the currants, so I made some that way too. (I don’t abstain from chocolate during Lent.) I must say, it felt wrong. Even though the overall effect, despite the milk chocolate chips, was still not sweet, chocolate just seems too… decadent.

There’s a superstuition that you can cement a friendship for the coming year by sharing a hot cross bun, saying, "Half for you and half for me, between us two shall good will be." If you ask me, I’d say that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. But by all means, share hot cross buns with your friends this Holy Week, and consider those friendships holy and protected for the year ahead! If you’re inspired to try home-cooked buns, I’ve included the recipe I used. Have a blessed Easter.

What Works: The Hunger Games — Is Its Violence Appropriate?

I wasn’t going to write about The Hunger Games movie – I’m a huge fan of the books and had no advance screening, so I just went to the theater with everyone else on opening night as a consumer. But I have to share my reaction to concern expressed about The Hunger Games‘ violence which I’ve read in the days following the movie’s release. I was certainly very interested to see how they makers of the movie would deal with translating the book’s extreme brutality against and among children into a movie that children could watch. I am surprised they went as far as they did and think they came very close to the edge. There’s lots of blood, and a few of the children are killed onscreen — but the violence is never gratuitous.

Much of the criticism is from people reacting without bothering to understand, but Bo Sanders’ interesting post in Homebrewed Christianity caught my eye. Essentially, Bo loved the movie, but expresses some concerns raised by the fact that when he saw the movie there was cheering when a “good” character killed a “bad” character. It’s a thoughtful post and the comment thread is heady and interesting. Perhaps if anyone had cheered at the violence when I saw it, I’d have had the same reaction — as I did last year when I wrote about my repulsion at the celebrations over Ben Laden’s death — but I find nothing to criticize in The Hunger Games‘ use of violence.

The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering.

Yesterday I watched a religious war movie that glorified violence. It held up violence done in the name of religion, honor and freedom as something praiseworthy; it nearly said that this killing was good. That is troubling. In The Hunger Games, on the other hand, we see some of the killers as disturbingly amoral, some as products of their conditioning, and in the few cases where violence is performed by one of the “good” people, it is sad and disturbing. The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering. To the extent that the movie (inevitably) toned down the violence in the book, it made a weaker statement. The fact that some people may watch its portrayal of vicarious viewing of violence and vicariously enjoy it is sad but inevitable. It doesn’t mean the moviemakers missed the mark.

I was troubled by one thing I saw at the theater when I viewed it on opening night: the under-10-year-olds brought by their parents. No matter how important the lesson, I think it’s wrong for prepubescent kids to see children getting killed. Especially with their parents’ endorsement. Even older kids and adults who are easily freaked out may be better of not going anywhere near it. I myself had the misfortune to be seated in front of a fiftysomething woman who kicked my seat any time anything tense or startling happened. I’d have been better off with kids behind me.

I’ve written here before about avoiding the fear-mongering of TV news, and shows like 24 which do the same thing with fiction, uselessly filling our heads with things to make us anxious. But that is not to say that we should live in a puffy-clouded world of denial. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We should be upset when we see killing. And exposing oneself to thoughtful portrayals of the wrongs in the world can be an enriching and empowering thing, even if disturbing. I believe The Hunger Games is thoughtful and empowering. What do you think?


Let me add these additional comments about the movie, though they’re not about the subject above, since I didn’t write a review:

I think Jennifer Lawrence was exceptional; most critics agree, with the notable exception of my friend Tom Shone, who apparently was watching a different movie. Elizabeth Banks was great too. The rest of the cast was adequate. I was worried about Woody Harrelson, and he didn’t ruin the movie but a talented and inventive actor could have made the Haymitch character memorable; he is neither. Similarly, Cinna could have been amazing in better hands that Lenny Kravitz’s (and should have been over-the-top gay, which is definitely not the way Kravitz plays him.)

On the oft-criticized camera work, I defer to a friend in the industry, Tim Hickson, who nailed it with, “JJ Abrahms called and told me he wants his genre back.” I realize super-tight close-ups and shaky-cam are supposed to add excitement, but it was over the top.

Finally, the music was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled that instead of loading the movie full of predictable indie pop-rock, they did an amazing thing and brought in T-Bone Burnett to give The Hunger Games music appropriate to its Appalachian setting. It’s a dark, mournful alt-bluegrass delight of original songs written and performed by fans of the books — the Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire and The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand out. I’ve been listening to nothing but the soundtrack for the past week and am nowhere near tired of it yet.

What Works: Starting Anew

Daffodils in the city © 2012 Phil Fox Rose

It seems that every year around this time I’m inspired to write about renewal and fresh starts. That’s not surprising, of course. The vernal equinox (March 20) is just days away and where I live in the American Northeast, the annual cycle of natural rebirth is starting to Spring into high gear. Last Tuesday, I saw my first snowdrops on the ground, on Saturday I came across an apple tree covered in buds, and now suddenly there are day lilies everywhere. This is the time of Easter (April 8), Passover (April 6-14), and the Persian/Iranian New Year (March 20). (I realize not all my readers are in a temperate climate, so forgive that I’m talking about it now. It’s my experience.)

Christianity is full of messages of rebirth, most notably the semi-comical exchange between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3, from which comes the term “born again.” The whole thing centers on the fact that the Greek word anothen can mean “again” or “from above” depending on context. After Jesus says we must be born again/from above, Nicodemus is confused and says,”How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus patiently explains that he doesn’t mean being born again physically, but rather born “of the Spirit.”

I wrote once before about former Intel CEO Andy Grove’s ideas concerning inflection points. Grove says that much of the harm is done not by wrong decisions but by people’s unwillingness later to change direction. Even though they may know in their heart that they’re on the wrong track, they stick to their course rather than admit error. Yet, Christianity offers us — demands of us! — the opportunity to do exactly that. Whether its a full blown conversion, an annual renewal along with the rest of the church community at Easter, or an individual act of confession and rededication at any time, Christians have many ways to turn around (con-vert) and get back on the path at any time.

My favorite definition of anothen, which I think comes closest to its dual meaning of “again” and “from above,” is “anew.” We can start our life anew; we can start a day anew; we can start a conversation anew. Big and small, at life-changing junctures and from day to day, we have the power to begin again.

My own life has been shaped by several conversions. My turning from addiction to recovery not only physically saved my life but, more significantly, set me on a new path of growth and harmony. My baptism, after having been raised atheist, was the result of a spiritual conversion that in many ways grew from that earlier “turning.” And my decision to devote my work life to spiritual projects was another change of direction.

In the column that reran just before this one, I said that if you were stumbling with a Lenten commitment, just dust off and start again. But it’s not just about projects like those. You can restart a day, a conversation or a relationship. If you realize at lunchtime that you’re in a lousy mood and nothing has gone right that day, take a deep breath, say a prayer, meditate for five minutes or walk around the block, then start your day over again. If you are in a conversation and realize you’ve just lied or exaggerated, simply pause, say “Actually…” and correct yourself. Are you in the midst of gossiping? Just stop and say, “Actually, that’s none of my business.”

If you realize you did something hurtful to another person, apologize. Not later. Now. “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (Matthew 5:23-24) If the harm done was against you and you’re nursing a resentment, you can start that over again too: “When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against.” (Mark 11:25) In both cases, Jesus is saying that to be right with God, you need to be right with other people. But he’s also saying that all it takes to make things right is to stop, address the wrong, and move on. Of course, you can’t control whether they accept your apology or regret the harm they did you, but as we say in the recovery world, just keep your side of the street clean.

This idea of restarting is a powerful and often misunderstood spiritual concept. Those who don’t embrace it sometimes characterize it as cheating — as they see it, being absolved of guilt without punishment is unfair. Prior to the 18th century, prisons and penal colonies were mostly for political criminals and paupers. Jails were for accused criminals until trial, after which they were punished if found guilty. A reform movement, prompted in part by Benjamin Franklin and led by Quakers, said that rather than punish the criminal with whipping or death, we could create the opportunity for them to reflect and repent. The terms “penitentiary” and “correctional facility” are still used today but have lost all meaning. Many Americans howl at any effort to create opportunities for reform among criminals, such as providing education, seeing it as coddling and “rewarding” them. Today’s prisons have become little more than the penal colonies of old, but now we warehouse drug users and petty thieves. How terribly far this is from Jesus’ example of saying to the woman accused of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11)!

My favorite definition of anothen, which I think comes closest to its dual meaning of “again” and “from above” is “anew.” We can start our life anew; we can start a day anew; we can start a conversation anew. Big and small, at life-changing junctures and from day to day, we have the power to begin again by simply surrendering our fixed ways, our habits, resentments, anger and attachments, and choosing instead to follow a new path, to turn around, to convert.

Renewal/rebirth/restarting is at the core of Christianity, and most spiritual paths. But we seem to forget it all the time. This time of year, nature is here to remind us. Just look around.

What Works: Being imperfect doesn’t mean you’re bad, just human

WW45-beggar

I broke my Lenten commitment on day one. (Every year, I fast from judging whether beggars are worthy or not — instead of deciding whether each is truly needy, a slacker or con artist, a good street musician or bad, I just give a dollar to anyone asking for money.) On Ash Wednesday, after a difficult day, I trudged right past two people asking for change on my way home, remembering my commitment but in my aggravation willfully denying it. I felt entitled to do the wrong thing because I’d had a hard day. I’m not proud of this, but does it mean I’m a bad person? Does it mean I failed at Lent? No, it means I’m human. The next day, I recommitted and haven’t slipped since.

People enjoy swearing off. And Lent is up there with New Year’s as biggest swearing-off ritual. But all too often the best intentions come up against habit, craving, or just fatigue, the abstainer slips, and then they feel like a failure. Sometimes the self-criticism blurs into self-hatred feeding a downward spiral that takes them to a worse place than if there had been no resolution in the first place.

The missing ingredient is love. All processes that involve self-restraint — whether once a year events like New Years and Lent, specific methods like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, or paradigms like original sin — all must be accompanied by love, a sense of God’s love for us, and a loving attitude towards ourselves. Without love, we are simply “behaving” (or misbehaving) or making some dry calculation of karmic reward and punishment.

A grounded place of love

Love is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about saints’ lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

St. Augustine (my patron saint) famously said, “Love and do what you will.” He means that if your actions are coming from a place of love — a grounded place of harmony with God — then doing the right thing isn’t a struggle. He adds, “let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

As easy as it can be to do the right thing when grounded in love, a person usually can only behave for so long in a state of what is sometimes called “white-knuckling it” — obedience without love — before the mind starts rationalizing giving up and temptations become too attractive. And even if resolve holds for a long time, that doesn’t prove you don’t need love; only that you have a strong will. And that is no life. I’ve been there. I stayed sober for years once without having changed interiorly, without being grounded in God’s love.

This love, this sense of groundedness and connection to God and others, is essential because we will fall short, sometimes in spectacular ways, usually in embarrassingly mundane ones. We are not saints. And actually, by that standard, neither are the saints. Read about their lives and you’ll find plenty of character defects at play. The point is: you aren’t God. So give yourself a break.

And that brings us back to St. Augustine again with the terribly misunderstood concept of fallenness, of original sin. So often felt as a condemnation, instead, recognizing your own imperfection can be a comfort. We all fall short. We all get caught up in temptations and turn away from God. This doesn’t mean everyone is evil, as some fire and brimstone types would have it. It means everyone is human. And being given permission to not live up to perfection, but to make mistakes like every other human, is a pretty big load off the shoulders.

Jesus didn’t rebuke people for personal sins. He reserved his anger for hypocrites and those who disgraced the divine through their actions. But to the individual sinner, he said: Welcome, join me; change your ways but for right now, just have a seat. Jesus was radically welcoming and radically accepting. I’m not saying he didn’t find fault with behaviors, but he didn’t deem a person unacceptable when their behavior was. They were still welcome at his table. In fact, like the parable of the lost sheep, he paid more attention to those who needed to hear his message.

So be understanding of others, and especially in this Lenten season, have compassion for yourself. When you struggle with trying to live up to your best intentions, it is simply a reminder of the extent to which you are not running the show. Look at how hard it is for us even to control some silly little Lenten commitment like abstaining from a treat. And that’s OK. We’re only human. Just dust yourself off, ask forgiveness, and try to do better.

How is your Lenten fasting going? Have you learned lessons from struggling with your Lenten fasting, this year or in the past, or with any other time when you failed to meet your own best intentions. Share your experience here in comments. It will help others to know that none of us is perfect.

This column was originally published on March 25, 2011. So far, I’ve maintained my Lenten commitment to give unconditionally to beggars. But I’m sure I’ll slip into judgement and rationalize breaking it soon. Because I’m only human.

Re: Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus

As the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” by Jefferson Bethke, approaches 18 million views, I will add my response into the clutter. I’ve seen pro-life responses. I’ve seen Catholic exceptionalism responses. I’ve seen atheist and non-Christian responses that agree but then have their own conclusions. I am not interested in getting into theological debate, or in driving wedges between people. I want to make a simple point. It’s the same point I often make to friends who say they’re spiritual but not religious. And to some atheist friends right after they’ve explained why they don’t believe in God.

It is this: What you are calling religion is not what I call religion, and it is not the definition of religion. The God you blame or are angry at or don’t believe in is not my God. You’re experience is real, without a doubt. And I honor that. You are speaking from hurt. Your encounters with religion, as given to you by parents and authority figures, were messed up. And there’s no question that Jesus devoted a lot of attention to denouncing those types of religious behavior and expression. But the religion that hurt you or disappointed you is not all organized religion.

You’re experience is real, without a doubt. And I honor that. You are speaking from hurt. Your encounters with religion, as given to you by parents and authority figures, were messed up. And there’s no question that Jesus devoted a lot of attention to denouncing those types of religious behavior and expression. But the religion that hurt you or disappointed you is not all organized religion.

What we call a religion is made up of three things: belief that there’s something more than this material world; a set of ethics and moral guidance; and rites and shared rituals. Different organized religions put emphasis on one or another of the three, but each is a mixture of them all. Ritual without the spiritual dimension is bereft and can be dangerous. Law without the spiritual dimension is at best difficult to maintain, at times punitive and harsh, and can be offensively hypocritical. What you’re railing against is an experience of organized religion that was empty ritual and harsh hypocritical law. So you’re not criticizing religion; you’re criticizing an expression of religion that doesn’t live up to the definition. I’ve had encounters with religious expressions like that. But I also know beautiful, amazing expressions of religion that are overflowing with love.

While a religion in the broad sense is that combination of spirituality, ritual and law, a religion on the ground is made up of people — fallible, silly, broken people. This is slightly tricky ground, I admit. I’m saying that a group of people who come together to worship God collectively is a divinely inspired thing, and at the same time a jumble of flawed humans who can individually do profoundly stupid stuff.

If individuals do hypocritical or hateful things in the name of a religion, that doesn’t make the religion hypocritical or hateful. Even if the institutional expression of the religion, a church bureaucracy, does profoundly stupid things, that’s still people doing them. We can debate over how much or how little hierarchy a religion should have, but it’s always made up of people. And it is not when leaders are imperfect but when they lack the humility to remember they’re flawed humans that much of the trouble comes.

One more point — an obvious one that some of those who’ve responded have already brought up: it’s easy to mention the wars and division and oppression that have occurred in the name of religion. But if you’re going to try to blame all that stuff on religion, then you also need to acknowledge all the charity, and the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement, and the billions of acts of kindness and compassion inspired by religion.

So, of course there’s lots wrong with organized religions. But there’s lots right too. People like to have black and white answers, embrace some things unquestioningly and denounce others blindly. But that’s not the world. The world is a messy place. And that’s part of what’s so awesome about it. I celebrate your obviously passionate faith. And I agree with many of your complaints. But I choose to focus what energy I have on building up what’s beautiful in love.

What Works: SOPA, PIPA and the Illusion of Control

It was all of 13 minutes after midnight on Tuesday night when I went to look up something in Wikipedia… even though I knew the blackout protest was coming and had posted about it. If you didn’t know what was going on or would like to learn a little more about SOPA and PIPA, with hopefully a slightly spiritual angle, read on. But I want to stress, this is not a partisan issue. As I’ll explain later, the line between supporters and opponents has little to do with party affiliation. As Wikipedia said, in its message about participating in the blackout:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web… although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not.

If you’re not interested, forgive my using this, oh, let’s call it a point of personal privilege. SOPA and PIPA are bills before the U.S. House and Senate, respectively, that aim to fight copyright infringement in the digital sphere. As such, their supporters are portraying them as simply fair. But the bills present a clear-cut dividing line between the interests of big business and the interests of free and vital internet and tech industries. And since a good amount of the public conversation (including this column) is on the internet, that means free speech. The health and vitality of speech on the net is of personal importance. I hope I can explain why it is important to you too.

What’s the big deal about SOPA and PIPA?

In a nutshell, piracy and bootlegging are already illegal. (You’ve seen that obnoxious message from the FBI at the beginning of every DVD that you can’t fast-forward through.) But enforcement is always tricky; rules about appropriate reuse are confusing and not always reasonable; piracy operations are overseas and there is no barrier for U.S. internet users to foreign sites (at least for now.)

Piracy will always exist, just as the poor will always be with us, at least until an entirely new phase of existence is manifest. You cannot “solve” these problems. That’s the trap people fall into. They crave simplicity, black and white answers, a sense of security and control in the face of the messiness of life. Promoters of new laws like SOPA and PIPA always promise people that if they just give up a few little freedoms then life can be less unpredictable, more secure. It doesn’t work and even if it did, it isn’t worth it.

The bills’ supporters are from those industries that make their money off of controlling intellectual property: movie studios, record labels, TV networks, some consumer products companies and the pharmaceutical industry. Also, misguidedly, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce. Its opponents are, well, everyone else, from internet companies to most constitutional scholars. In Congress, this plays out not by party line but by which industries if any the congressperson is aligned with (supported by?). I don’t know how much of the bills’ support is based on lobbyist and donor influence and how much is based on unforgivable ignorance of the technical implications of the bills, but either way, these members of congress are taking a stand as enemies of a free and open internet.

As I said, piracy is already illegal. That’s not the issue. Here is what the bills do that makes them unacceptable:

  • As currently written, both SOPA and PIPA give the Attorney General the right to effectively de-list a website, ordering it blocked from domain name servers and banned from results on search sites like Google. In other words, it would criminalize some linking, undermining the foundational principle of the internet: a decentralized interlinked web.
  • SOPA would force Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites to police all user-generated content not only for copyright infringement but also for conversations that might involve infringing on copyrights, and shut down any posts and discussions that look problematic. This might seem minor, but it is what is called “prior restraint against protected speech” and it is unconstitutional. It also threatens a whole host of internet tools that are freely available and widely used which give users privacy and thus can be used for illegal activity. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation points out, these same tools are supported by the U.S. State Department when used by freedom activists in countries with closed internet policies, like China and Iran.
  • In both bills, copyright holders can get court orders to cut off payment processing and advertising to foreign sites that are accused of copyright infringement. In other words, even though most of the content being shared on a foreign site is legal, if some of it is questionable, an American copyright holder can effectively bankrupt them by shutting off their income stream.
  • Perhaps most troubling is what is informally called the “vigilante provision.” Both bills relieve ISPs from liability when they wrongly block a user or site that is only suspected of possible violations, with no judicial process. The intent is clearly to encourage them to over-police without worrying about violating people’s rights. But with content producers also acting as internet providers (my own home internet connection comes from Time Warner through my cable line), this will be abused to suppress smaller content creators and competitors. And when an owner of intellectual property wants to hurt a competitor, all they have to do is accuse them of copyright infringement and ISPs will censor the accused company’s site as a precaution, since they’ll be punished for knowingly allowing it, but not for violating the free speech of an innocent party. Companies that can afford lawyers can abuse this rule with no downside. From the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism, when you put the power in people’s hands to destroy enemies without risk through accusations, some will abuse it.

That spiritual angle I promised

I promised a spiritual angle; it is this: Piracy will always exist, just as the poor will always be with us, at least until an entirely new phase of existence is manifest. You cannot “solve” these problems. That’s the trap people fall into. They crave simplicity, black and white answers, a sense of security and control in the face of the messiness of life. Promoters of new laws like SOPA and PIPA always promise people that if they just give up a few little freedoms then life can be less unpredictable, more secure. It doesn’t work and even if it did, it isn’t worth it. The way to contain piracy is to arrest the guilty ones you can catch and make it harder for the rest to do their thing. Existing laws cover that. These new bills apply a sledgehammer to the problem, hurting the open internet and your individual liberties in order to make it incrementally easier for rich copyright holders to make bigger profits.

And after diminishing our freedom, SOPA and PIPA probably wouldn’t even do that. The profits of media companies are not being threatened by sites like Pirate Bay. If anything, they’re threatened by physical bootlegging of DVDs and CDs, and more significantly, by the fact that the mere existence of an open internet has changed the rules of the game, making it possible for people to get content from many new sources, and making them less willing, for example, to pay $16 for an album of which only one dollar ends up making it to the artist. These same industries tried to stop VHS players and audiocassettes. But the VHS player revitalized the film industry and made it many times bigger than it was before. And the explosion of ways musicians can now produce and distribute their music is equally exciting. These folks always get it wrong. They want to hang on to what they’ve got and make sure no one else gets any of it. In the process, they want to put this unruly mess called the internet under corporate control, as they think it should be. Let’s not let that happen.

SOPA in its current form was just shelved when the White House announced it would veto it, but PIPA is still moving forward in the Senate, and you can be sure SOPA will be back.

Faithful Departed: Improper Women — Betty Ford (1918 – 2011) and Amy Winehouse (1983 – 2011)

For most of the public history of alcoholism and drug addiction all the way back to Noah, the general impression has been that it is something that happens to men. Women might have gotten “in trouble” with prescription drugs or white wine, but it was men who were drunks. Men were sent to prison; women were sent to mental hospitals. Of course women were drinking and drugging and some of them were getting in serious trouble, just like men. But mostly it was happening behind closed doors. It just wasn’t proper.

In a groundbreaking 1954 article in Good Housekeeping, “Letter To A Woman Alcoholic,” writer Margaret Lee Runbeck appealed to female readers who were struggling with addiction secretly: “If I lived across the street from you and saw you gallantly but hopelessly struggling against your ailment and spoke to you sometimes when you couldn’t avoid meeting me, I’d not dare to tell you what I want to tell you now… I couldn’t tell you that I find nothing in you to despise or ridicule or preach at, for you wouldn’t let me speak about what is your fatal malady. We’d both pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The women’s movement started to change things. Through the 50s, 60s and 70s, as more and more women took charge of their lives and felt freer to express themselves, formerly taboo subjects were being talked about on the bestseller list and TV screens. But there was still a sense that the women doing these things were on the, shall we say, looser side of the spectrum.

A really big deal

Betty Ford used her bully pulpit as first lady to change the conversation. She was a really big deal. God only knows how many lives of addicts and cancer sufferers her actions have saved.

Then came Betty Ford, the first lady of these United States. First, she shocked the world in 1974 by saying out loud that she had breast cancer, something that proper women like her just didn’t do. Proper women would rather die, and did, rather than talk about their breasts even to their spouses and doctors. This one act has led to thousands of women getting checked in time and saving their own lives. Being a young boy, this event only crossed my radar later on.

But in 1982 I definitely took notice when Betty Ford broke tradition again and far more shockingly by publically admitting her alcoholism and prescription opiate addiction, something a proper woman like her certainly didn’t do. Her family had staged an intervention and she had gotten help, but rather than hiding the fact, Ford decided she wanted to create a rehab specifically for women.

While the Betty Ford Clinic has become a punchline of sorts thanks to all the female celebrities who have publicly announced their trips there in this day of too-much-exposure, even that is groundbreaking in its frankness. It is no longer a career-killer for a female celebrity to admit addiction.

Betty Ford used her bully pulpit as first lady to change the conversation. She was a really big deal. God only knows how many lives of addicts and cancer sufferers her actions have saved.

They tried to make her go

Help does not reach most alcoholics and addicts though, even today with all the openness. The addict must accept the help and do their part, and even then, some seem to struggle so much more than others. We had a few examples of female celebrities playing out their addictions in the public eye these last few years, but none more tragic than Amy Winehouse.

Amy flaunted her impropriety. With her tattoos and crazy hair and makeup, she wasn’t trying to fit in. And hers was not a sudden unexpected fall. Winehouse was already struggling with addiction, depression, bulimia and self-harm when we first met her. Forgetting lyrics to songs, canceling gigs due to “exhaustion,” getting caught by paparazzi looking hung over and strung out with cuts and bruises: Some thought she was sad; many secretly enjoyed her blatant decadence. I felt some of both, but mostly I admired her stunning talent as both a singer and songwriter.

Some thought she was sad; many secretly enjoyed her blatant decadence. I felt some of both, but mostly I admired her stunning talent as both a singer and songwriter.

As if she wasn’t already flaunting her addiction issues enough, the apex of Amy’s commercial success came with the 2006 song “Rehab,” her only American top 10 hit, with the notorious chorus, “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said, ‘No, no, no.'” Betty Ford may have built the rehab, but Amy wouldn’t go.

Winehouse was willing to take anything to get out of feeling the present moment, including inflicting self-harm. When she overdosed in 2007, she had a mixture of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, K and alcohol in her system. She did go to rehabs several times and reportedly stopped doing drugs two years before her death, but never managed to kick alcohol. It was simple alcohol poisoning that killed her at the age of 27 — with two empty vodka bottles by her side. It’s a tragedy to lose anyone so young, but I can’t help wondering what Amy might have created had she managed to get and stay sober and live to 93 like Betty Ford did.