Richard L.

I had a moment of clarity today while talking to my wife. I realized that I have had the same experience multiple times with various Christians.

The title of my post was typical: We will call him Richard L. Richard and I were buds. He lived in Raleigh, and I lived in Chapel Hill, but that didn’t let that keep us apart. I would come to Raleigh regularly to help Rich with the storage shed he was building, ride bikes together, etc. We even went on several business trips together, as we were both members of the same professional trade organization.

My wife had a bad feeling though. She kept warning me that Rich was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rich was the “leading brother” of the particular brand of Christianity that we were involved in at that point in our lives. I must admit that in that role, I found Rich to be a bit difficult. He was authoritarian, for sure. But I stuck with Rich stubbornly. He seemed genuinely interested in having a relationship with me. And, as usual, I had the emotional need for a relationship with another man.

Eventually, Rich completely and spectacularly rejected me. The circumstances around this are strange. One day Rich and I were best friends. The next day he simply stopped talking to me. I later found out, via gossip (which I normally try to avoid, but I was desperate) that Rich had had an affair, and his marriage was in trouble.

At that point, I called Rich and really pressed in. If he was having a tough time in his marriage, didn’t he need someone to talk to? Couldn’t I still help him? Couldn’t I still be his friend? I mean, how else was he going to process what had happened to him?

But, no, Rich would not talk to me. Most of all, he would not talk to me, because by doing so, he would have to confront his feelings. And we can’t have that, can we? Oh, no! In the Christian circles we ran in, if a man came home from a drunken brawl and confessed to an affair, his wife was expected to clean him up, put him to bed, and then continue to love and forgive him after that. All the while, never, ever talking about it. Oh, no! We don’t want to give any glory to Satan. Talking about our sin? How would that help?

Rich was only one example though. I have developed what I called last night a “flinch”. Basically, when I start to become intimate with someone, I want to spew out all of my stuff all at once, warts and all. I am saying: “Are you going to reject me? Go ahead, then. Please, get it over with. Put me out of my misery quickly, please. I don’t want to emotionally invest only to be disappointed again one more time.”

I need to work on that, I suppose.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

Black Like Me

My mother was black.

Well, technically, I suppose she was multi-ethnic. Her father, James Acker, was a young black man when he was shot to death by the police during a shoot out in Houston, Texas. He had just escaped from Huntsville prison, where I was later in the prison ministry for several years. It took my Mom many years to find her father’s grave. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Houston. My mother was seven months old at the time. She never got to meet her dad, who would have been my grandfather.

Back to Mom. She passed for white as a young woman. But her mother, and likely her stepfather, knew the truth. It was the Big Dark Secret.

I met her stepfather several times. Covey Clay was the most evil, racist, ignorant man I have ever known. He terrified me. Most of all because he terrified my mom. Given that my mom was what Covey would have called a “little nigra girl”, and given the attitudes that he expressed to me more times than I can recall, I have no doubt about my mom’s fate as she grew up in that house.

She was raped. Probably daily, or at least very frequently, by her stepfather.

In the light of this knowledge (I only recently figured this out), I can understand my mother better. When I was growing up, she was pretty much crazy. I never had a single conversation with my mother that I was not acutely aware that she was  not all there. (The famous quip from Ace Ventura comes to mind: “The engine is running, but no one is behind the wheel.” That was my mom.)

Periodically, my mother’s dysfunction would take a much darker turn. She would become extremely depressed, withdrawn and moody. Her connection to reality would shred. She would become very delusional, having many conversations with people who were not there. Eventually, she would attempt suicide, but always unsuccessfully. I never understood if she was genuinely trying to kill herself, crying out for attention, or simply out of control of her actions.

In the light of her childhood trauma, much of my mother’s bizarre life makes more sense. My parents repeatedly told me the story about how they met when my Mom was only seven, and my father was only 14. According to both of them, they decided to get married within a few minutes of meeting each other. That seems creepy now. A 14 year old proposing to a 7 year old? That would never pass muster today.

In the light of the times (the Great Depression), and the incredibly dark story of my mother’s racial background, that kind of makes sense. It took my dad 7 years to get her out of there, but eventually he did marry my mom when she was only 14. He was 21.

During their early years together, my mom passed as a white woman. Thus, I was raised racially and culturally white. We were taught as kids to hate one group in particular: Rednecks. Bigots, Racists. Men like my step-grandfather.

Eventually, by the time she died, my mother looked completely African. I almost outed her as a middle aged woman when we were living in Taiwan and my dad was a U.S. Air Force officer. I asked her if her father was black. (I had met my grandmother and knew that she was white.) She was completely flustered by my question. Eventually, she got my dad involved, who insisted that, no, my mother’s father was white. (Which is obviously a lie, given my mother’s appearance by the time she died. Whatever.) Even then, I told my mom I did not believe her. Her distinctly African features were already beginning to emerge.

So how does that affect me? I no longer self-identify as white or caucasian. I am a multi-ethnic person. I am beginning to embrace the African American side of my heritage. I have become much more interested in current African American culture such as rap, hip-hop and the like. I still look pretty much like a white guy, but the black man is leaking out.

More later.

AND??????

One of my dear old friends submitted a comment to my blog post I Am Not A Sinner which ended with:

AND???

In other words, what happened next? Good question. That’s the purpose of this blog post, to talk about the aftermath of my spiritual tsunami. I described the event itself in my earlier blog post (also annoyingly entitled I am not a Sinner, go figure).

Anyway, as I described earlier, I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire concept of religion is rather preposterous. The idea that the Creator of the universe with all of its wonder has an intimate relationship with me, in which He (She? It?) monitors my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. I mean, really.

After all, every spiritual experience I have ever had has been completely subjective. Can I really trust my own experience? I knew all too well how thoroughly I am capable of deceiving myself. I therefore decided to chuck the entire question of God as a meaningless, silly question with ultimately no answer at all.

Fundamentally, I finally understood that I am alone in the universe. That life actually has no purpose, meaning or significance. That I am, as the old song says, merely Dust in the Wind.

Now, that sounds depressing. Let me tell you: For me it was incredibly liberating.

An interesting side effect: I became much more humble. I know what you are thinking: There you go bragging about being humble.

No, not really.

You see, I now understand how truly broken I am. And how fundamentally I really know nothing. Nothing at all.

That’s the thing about doubt: Once I understood, I mean really understood at a gut level, that I really don’t know anything for sure, then my faith collapsed, and I became humbled.

Interestingly, faith made me kind of an asshole. I heard a piece on NPR once about a woman who wrote a novel in which the main character was someone she described as:

A white, wealthy, middle aged, conservative, Christian man who thinks he’s good but he’s not.

And why was he not good:

Because he had empathy for people like him, but no one else. People of his gender, race, religion, culture, social status, sexual orientation and political views. God forbid that he would ever talk to or treat a homosexual, feminist, Democrat, or such like a human being.

That was me. For me, faith was a form of hubris: I was completely and totally convinced that I was right, that there was an ultimate truth, and that I could know it. That I had the line on the truth, straight from the mouth of God.

That hubris has collapsed. In the process, I began to do things very differently.

Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was in San Francisco, I found myself sitting down on a park bench with homeless guys, and hanging with them for a while. I had some incredibly sweet conversations with really decent men, who were simply homeless. I have been homeless too. My momentary success, and apparent financial wealth, have simply served as a barrier between me and the homeless. Once I remembered how much we struggled when we were living in Texas during the 80s, I knew: I am not different from them. I am the same. Only our circumstances are different.

The barriers fell away. I became open to people I have never even considered talking to. Like a young, black, homosexual hairdresser from Vallejo who I met on the Muni. We became fast friends, exchanged emails and are still communicating. Before my tsunami, there is no way that I would ever become friends with someone that different from me. No problem now.

And of course there is my most important relationship: My marriage. At first, my wife resisted my spiritual journey. She wanted me to remain a Christian! However, I persisted. Now she constantly tells me that I am, by far, more loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and sensitive than I have ever been. She would not go back to the old Jeff, that’s for sure!

The key, at least for me, was understanding that there actually is no purpose. That life has no ultimate meaning. That the quest for understanding and significance is another form of delusion. That all we have is this present moment, the very breath that I am taking as I write this.

This moment. Now. There is nothing else.

So, how shall I then live? Optimize the moment. Which for me is simple: Be as loving, empathetic, sensitive, and such as humanly possible. Allow my feelings to express themselves. If I am sad, allow the sadness to wash over me. Understand that it is simply a feeling. Like the weather, it will pass. And then there will be another feeling in that moment. And so on and so forth in a constant progression of moments.

Will I survive in some way when I die? I have no idea. The issue does not bother me though. I suspect that the software just stops running. That won’t be so bad. I certainly won’t be there to care about it.

Ultimately, in a few thousand years at most, I will be utterly forgotten. And then a few billion years after that, the Earth will be destroyed (by the Sun if nothing gets it first). If our species has not escaped from this rock by then, every single thing that every human being has ever known will be lost forever. And that includes me.

Shall I then by any action of mine affect the lifespan of the universe? Shall I somehow change the fate of all mankind? Doubtful.

I can then be free. I am free of religious delusions. I understand now at last who I am and what this life is all about. And that pleases me.

More later.

Empathy

Empathy is an interesting thing. It causes me to behave in a way that seems at first glance to be against my own self interest. But it is?

I have been pondering this. Empathy is at the core of what makes us human. We are so social, as social as any creature on the planet. And we are fairly unique in having empathy.

One guy I love to listen to is Jeremy Rifkin, who talks about empathy a lot. As Rifkin points out, empathy is something we are quite selective about. We tend to have more empathy for some folks than others. In the beginning, humans really only had empathy for their own family group, and regarded all other humans as hostile. (Paleolithic humans still live in pretty much this same way today.) These humans had tremendous empathy for their own family members. But for others, not so much.

Enter religion. As Rifkin points out, religion gave humans a way to expand their empathy set: By identifying another creature as being part of my religious group, I get to have more empathy for that person. I have seen this play out in my own life and the life of my family. For example, there was recently a flood in our area, and some folks we knew lost everything. My wife and I know these people because of religious affiliations from the past. As a result, we gave them clothes, food, etc. Another family down the street who was not in our religious group, we did not even care to look in on them.

So, this family is inside our empathy set, which is defined, at least in part, by religion.

Given that empathy causes me to give away things I need and make other sacrifices, the question is: How did empathy arise in human consciousness? I think I have an answer for that one.

Assume a proto-humanoid male is in the rain forest in some ancient time. He has an interesting mutation: He has developed what Rifkin calls “mirror neurons”. That is, when he sees another creature who he identifies as being like him who is having some kind of experience (say intense pain), his neurons light up in exactly the same manner as the creature who is suffering. In this way, this individual experiences (to a certain extent) the suffering of the other creature.

This causes our male humanoid (we will call him Lim) to suffer more than other humans around him. But he is also able to relate to the experiences of other humans better.

One day he comes upon a female. She is badly hurt! Her ankle is seriously twisted and bruised. She cannot walk at all. Worse, she has been stranded here for some time. She is very hungry, thirsty, and tired.

He finds that he feels some of her distress as well. He ponders what he has done when he has been in a similar situation. Suddenly, he has a remarkable idea. He will bring her food! So he goes to a place where he knows there are some ripe berries, and uses a large leaf to carry a bunch of these back to the female. She hungrily devours them with great joy.

Then he goes to the river and after some fumbling finds a hollow gourd that he fills with water. Again, she receives the water gratefully.

Finally, he lies down beside her and cuddles with her for warmth. In this manner, they fall asleep together.

The next day, she is feeling much better. She finds that she likes him, so they have sex. She continues to enjoy his company, so she stays with him, and they have several children, which inherit this odd mutation. Because these young children are able to exercise this new-found ability to form empathetic bonds, they make exceptionally good mates, and they easily find a partner, and in turn reproduce again.

And so on and so forth, until the entire human race runs on empathy.

Remember this, please: Evolution encourages one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Whatever improves the chances of reproduction (including the rearing of competent, viable adult offspring who can in turn reproduce) will be selected by evolution. Thus, although empathy seems to be against my best interests (in the sense of material belongings, time, etc.) it dramatically improves my chances of reproducing. In this way, the development of empathy is fairly obvious.

More later.

Hallelujah Diet

As I have written previously, my wife and I were (and arguably she still is) Christian. As such, we proved vulnerable to a scam known as the Hallelujah Diet, the creation of a 79 year old Baptist preacher  turned fad diet creator named George Malkmus. When my wife was very seriously ill, she sought the advice and counsel of Tim and Anita Koch at the Hallelujah Acres center in Lake Lure, NC. We spent a great deal of money to send her to that place, and for a time, we faithfully followed their advice.

In my view (and I think my wife agrees, although she is welcome to comment), the Hallelujah Diet made her condition worse, not better. Probably most of the wasting that occurred in her could have been avoided if she had not been advised to eat such a radically low calorie / low fat diet. And worse, the advice got even more damaging and harmful the more serious her got. It’s kind of like these people can’t figure out the definition of Einsteinian Insanity: Not only do they want you to keep doing the same thing when it’s not helping, and you are getting worse, they want you to do it even more! Thus, when she started getting a lot of nausea, lightheadedness, etc., they advised her to reduce her calorie intake even further, and limit her diet entirely to juice!

Probably the worst effect of things like the Hallelujah Diet is that it distracts you from the real issue: In this case Seratonin Syndrome. We spent huge amounts of wasted time, money and stress chasing a dietary solution, when the answer was there all along in my wife’s meds!

I told my wife that I don’t just want to sue these people: I want to go down to Lake Lure, NC and put my foot up their ass. However, I will calm down eventually.

More later.

Transformational Thinking

The Human Consciousness Programm perhaps could be compared to the personality, but the HCP also includes all of the autonomic stuff, like sensory processing. I was playing with this a bit today while walking. I do a 2 mile loop most days with my dog, Diogee. While we were walking, I was playing with my sensory perception functions. Like switching awareness to the visual: Focus on that for a while, and notice how I can focus on different things, and how other things fade into the background when I do so. Similarly, switch my awareness to my hearing, and notice how I can focus my attention on a bird. Or there! That’s Diogee walking beside me. Or the sounds of my own footsteps. Or the sounds of my own breathing. And now switch to the emotional state. Ahhh! I have some anxiety going on. What is that about? OK, I need to pay some bills.

Again, thinking about thinking, as broadly as possible, and especially if I include things like emotions and sensory awareness in the generic term “thinking”. All while engaging the “Watcher”, or unbiased, nonjudgmental observer, as the yoga crowd likes to call it. The part of me that can observe myself.

I was pondering how similar this approach is to Christianity in many ways. For example, while I utterly reject the idea of sin, listening intently to my own thoughts makes me acutely aware of my own dysfunction. I definitely know that I am far from perfect, which is certainly consistent with the idea of sin. Also, the act of reprogramming is very similar to repentance. After all, the Greek word translated as “repent” in the NT literally means to turn down another path, or to change your mind. Repentance never really worked for me very well, though. I have analyzed why it didn’t, and near as I can tell, due to the cultural issues within Christianity, I was focused on the wrong things. Like sex, once again.

I was immediately told after I got saved about how bad sexual lust is, and how I should never, ever masturbate. This from all of my male Christian single friends. I, like the lemming I am, immediately take a solemn oath with my buddy to never masturbate again, ever. Broke that one within 24 hours, with great condemnation. This thing had me balled up for years, during which I made no real progress spiritually. All this negative energy about masturbation and male heterosexual desire, generally.

Eventually, I figure out that all of my male single Christian friends were masturbating just as much as I was, and were all just as condemned. And the message from the pulpit only made it worse! I was actually invited to seminars where I could be set free from masturbation!

Of course, that’s all bollocks. Masturbation is something I should keep private but certainly not condemn myself for. It is a harmless and healthy release, after all. And sexual desire is a great thing overall. I wouldn’t be here without it! So deciding that a basic autonomic response like sexual desire is somehow “sinful” doesn’t help me at all. Although I have no doubt that my male single Christian friends were well-meaning, they were obviously just as deluded as I was, and the culture was keeping them just as immobilized. This example is one of the most glaring, but there were many others.

In order to help me spot things that are broken inside me, I basically set up a watcher to keep track of my emotions and to tell me if I am feeling anything negative, like resentment, sadness, sullenness, loneliness, or fear. Once I spot that, I go after what’s driving it. Generally, given enough time and thought, I can figure it out. Almost always, there is some form of selfishness or greed behind it. Like insecurity over Ruth leaving me. That’s really my selfish little greedy desire to keep her with me. Fear over the impact on my life if she were to leave me, etc. Not wanting to have to endure the pain, discomfort and stress of a break-up. And so forth.

Solution: Understand and accept that Ruth can leave me if she likes. She is perfectly free to do so, and there is nothing that I can do to directly prevent it. I do not own her, regardless of what the Marriage contract might say. Would it be painful if she left me? Definitely. Would I survive? Very likely. Would it make the slightest difference in the lifespan of the universe? None at all. And, after all, I don’t even know if I am going to take my next breath. So how does creating a stressful emotion like insecurity help either me or Ruth? Am I not simply detracting from both our joy, peace and happiness by surrendering to a parasite emotion like insecurity?

And it’s all about stressing about the future, anyway. Which, again, does not exist. Worrying about the future is meaningless. (Not to say that I do not need to be responsible and make plans: I do. That’s different from fear, worry or stress, though.)

How then shall I live? First, by loving Ruth as unselfishly and purely as possible, I will be a person she wants to be with. My insecurity and persistent need to be constantly reassured sure as *&^# won’t do that! Instead, I will cultivate an attitude of quiet, humble confidence. I will aspire to be a person who will lend to her joy, peace and happiness. I will enjoy the present moment that I am spending right now in her presence, and cherish the journey that brought this amazing creature to me.

So, by carefully and methodically listening to my own thoughts, I am trying to become a better person. Inherent in that process, though, is a sense of humility. The more I get inside my head, the more aware I become of my own imperfections and need to be more empathic. How broken and selfish I am. And, hopefully, I make some progress in the quest to become more selfless and empathic in the process. Again, a similarity to taking on the mind of Christ from the Christian perspective.

Of course, there is no end state. This process will keep going on for the rest of my life.

More later.