Truth Be Told

 

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Here we stand, we human beings, nearly two decades into the third millennium. Yet as futuristic as that sounds, we are still such a superstitious lot.

We still seek certainty where there is none. We cling to stories that tame our fear of the vast unknown into which we were born. We continue to retell ancient myths that offer up decisive explanations for the great mysteries of existence.

How did time and space come into being from apparent nothingness? How did life arise from inanimate matter? What is conscious awareness, and how did it first dawn within the mind of a human being? What occurs once we have expelled our final breath? And what is the meaning of it all?

The uncomfortable truth is that no one knows. No one has ever known. Not the most brilliant scientist. Not the most enlightened theologian.

Perhaps, if we survive to evolve beyond our evolutionary infancy, we will access a higher state of Knowing. But as a collective experience, that remains a sweet dream.    

And so we have crafted our stories to answer the unanswerable, and created religions that reinforce a faith in those stories as concrete truths.

I get it. The ineffable nature of the cosmos, the serendipity of life and death, and our lack of control over it all can be daunting to the human mind.

But in the twenty-first century, the old stories serve only to divide and endanger us. They are severely out of step with a world aching for equity among all its citizens, a world in which human misconduct can literally engulf our children in the flames of catastrophe.

Has the time not come to surrender mythical accounts of creation and instead embrace the wondrous mystery of it all? Has the time not come for a set of moral guidelines designed for the denizens of an advanced civilization capable of annihilating itself?

Has the time not come to ground our understanding of the world in evidence-based knowledge and to make peace with what cannot yet be explained?    

Stated simply, we need new scriptures.

By we, I mean the Christian world in which I was raised, although I believe the ideas expressed here could be of equal value to the followers of any myth-based creed.

We need scriptures today that were not written from a pre-scientific understanding of the world, translated innumerable times over the centuries, and edited with political and economic pressure from popes and kings. And the need becomes more urgent every day.

Imagine, then, scriptures that no longer attempt to answer the unanswerable, but instead inspire us to honor the dazzling mystery of creation.

Imagine scriptures that embody the message of universal love that we, in fact, believe Jesus and other mystics, past and present, to have preached.

Imagine scriptures that compel us to behave as stewards of the earth, recognizing that our own survival here depends upon it.

Imagine scriptures that honor men and women as equal in value.

Imagine scriptures that empower us to be fearless. Fearless in a world of diverse colors, cultures and expressions of love. Fearless in accepting the inexplicability of our existence and the inevitability of death.

Imagine scriptures that recognize and celebrate the immeasurable contributions of science to our knowledge of the creation.  

Imagine scriptures that no longer ask us to suspend our vitally needed rationality. In order to emulate the life of Jesus and his acts of kindness, for example, do we really need him to have been born of a virgin, or to have risen from the dead? In order to possess a moral compass to guide our actions, do we really need the literal existence of a heaven and hell?

I can imagine it, this testament for the third millennium. I invite you to share your thoughts in return.    

And please check back for my next post, which will further explore the central idea expressed here as it applies to issues in our twenty-first century world.

Joni

Stop, Forrest, Stop

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Remember this iconic scene from the movie Forrest Gump? After undertaking an epic run across America that attracted a band of followers, Forrest stopped running. He simply stopped. In the middle of US 163 through historic Monument Valley. No compulsion to explain. No need for approval. No fear of judgment. No embarrassment. No ego.

Forrest Gump is a sublimely humble fellow. Most of us other humans find it harder to keep the demons of the ego at bay. Obstinacy, defensiveness, the desire for control, the impulse to judge others and—underlying all the rest—fear. Fear of being judged, fear of rejection, fear of isolation, and perhaps ultimately, the fear of death.

These manifestations of the ego are the ultimate buzz-kill, standing as a barrier to joy. They are also toxic to human communication and connection.

But what if we could simply stop?

What if we were able to recognize, for example, the sensation of defensiveness when it starts to arise in a conversation, and simply stop? Stop, constrain our knee-jerk reaction, and then perhaps even disempower the demon by naming it. Hmm, I’m feeling just a little bit defensive right now.

In the midst of arguing a position, what if we were willing to stop? Stop, roll up our sleeves and sit down at the table.

What if we were willing just for a moment to drop our fear of being wrong? What if, in allowing ourselves to hear and absorb new input, we were actually willing, like Forrest Gump in the middle of the desert, to reverse our direction?

Instead of stubbornly defending—and often even doubling down on—our own position at all costs, what if we were actually willing to change our mind in the light of new information?

Effective communication obviously does not require us to change our minds. But it does compel us to give sincere consideration to new input. And if that input is both factual and compelling, then emulating Forrest Gump is not only right but empowering.

It seems, however, that facts do not necessarily change our minds, thanks to a faulty thinking phenomenon called confirmation bias (also known as myside bias)—our tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more vividly evident than in American politics right now, where the rejection of science and reason has become commonplace. In Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his daughter, Sara Gorman—a public-health specialist—are especially concerned with persistent beliefs that are not just verifiably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous.

Compounding the pitfalls of myside bias is another phenomenon called the illusion of explanatory depth. This is our tendency to believe that we know way more than we actually do.

But there is a flicker of hope here. In a study conducted in 2012, participants were asked to rate their positions on specific issues depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with proposals presented on those issues. They were then asked to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each proposal. At this point, most people ran into trouble. And when asked again to rate their views, they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

In other words, they discovered themselves able to stop.

The cognitive scientists who conducted this study suggest that if we—or our friends, or the pundits on CNN—spent less time preaching and more time trying to understand the actual implications of policy proposals, we would realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. “This may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

So imagine if we were indeed willing to stop.

Imagine if we were willing to be wrong. Imagine if we were willing to change our minds when changing our minds is appropriate. Imagine if our leaders and representatives were willing to do that.

Ironically, this willingness to stop is an expression of strength. And its reward is an experience of empowerment.

Oh, and by the way, Deepak Chopra tells us that going beyond the ego is also the path to bliss!

Have a blissful day!

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/cognitive-bias-president-trump-understands-better/?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

 

 

 

Liberals Are From Venus, Conservatives From Mars

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Oh, those bleeding heart liberals! They just don’t get it!

Oh, those fear-mongering conservatives! They just don’t get it!

Why does it seem so impossible to get through to political others, whether we ourselves happen to lean liberal or conservative?

As it turns out, recent research has revealed that liberals and conservatives may be hard-wired for different ways of thinking. While additional studies are needed, the evidence gathered thus far has been peer-reviewed and found to be noteworthy enough for publication, according to the fact-checking website, factmyth.com.

Briefly, here is what the research has found. People who identify as politically liberal tend to have an enlarged brain structure called the anterior cingulate gyrus, the part of the brain responsible for taking in new information. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend as a group to have a larger right amygdala, the area of the brain that processes fear.

How are these differences to be interpreted?

First, they appear to correlate with the results of personality studies in which conservatives rate higher in areas of stability, loyalty, discomfort with change, a preference for clear answers, and the incorporation of religion into their decision-making, while liberals rate higher in terms of openness to change, tolerance of ambiguity, comfort with complexity, and a desire to base decisions on new information, particularly scientific information.

Similarly, the new studies correlate with a previous study highlighting differences in the moral profiles of liberals and conservatives. While liberals tend to value equality, fairness and protecting the vulnerable, conservatives emphasize patriotism, group loyalty, respect for authority and moral purity.

As psychiatrist Gail Saltz points out, being liberal or conservative is not a black or white distinction, but rather a bell-shaped curve. And, it would be interesting now, as she also suggests, to better understand the brain structures of the growing number of independents in America.

Another important point still to be addressed is the old question of nature vs. nurture. Are we born with brain structures that determine our political leaning, or do particular ways of thinking—encouraged by our upbringing—stimulate the enlargement of particular structures?

Whatever the answer to that question, we know that the brain is endowed with neuroplasticity—the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells. When we become an expert in a specific domain, for example, the areas in our brain that deal with that skill set will have grown.

It seems possible, then, that we can, in fact, shift our views on particular social and political issues or encourage others to do so. But how? What does the new research suggest about how Venetian liberals and Martian conservatives can talk productively to one another?

We must first, of course, refrain from crafting arguments to support our position that insult the morality of our political opponent. But, beyond that, the arguments we craft should be grounded not in our own moral values, but in the morality of our opponent.

For example, a study done last fall found that liberals were unmoved by arguments for military spending that invoked conventional patriotism, but tended to increase support for the issue when asked to consider how the military creates equal opportunities for minorities and the poor. Likewise, conservatives found as argument for same sex marriage that was based on patriotism more convincing than one based on equality and fairness.

As summarized by Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford University and coauthor of the study, the takeaway from the study is pretty straightforward. “When you fit the moral undergirding of an argument to people’s underlying moral values, it’s more persuasive to them. And this results in political persuasion on issues that we would normally think of as issues where it’s impossible to move people.”

If this topic has piqued your interest, I encourage you to read some of the wonderful articles I referenced in writing this blog. I have provided links at the end of this post. In particular, I recommend a short and very digestible video by Dr. Gail Saltz, entitled Liberals vs. Conservatives: A Neuroscientific Analysis at either of the first two websites listed below.

Enjoy!

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/new-studies-show-liberals-and-conservatives-have-different-brain-structures

http://factmyth.com/factoids/liberals-and-conservatives-brains-are-different-on-average/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/liberals-and-conservatives-brains-solve-problems-differently_us_56f00b95e4b09bf44a9dd89f

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/syrian-refugee-moral-psychology_us_564b7fcde4b06037734b5c40

http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/02/26/brain-plasticity-how-learning-changes-your-brain/

 

The Hijacking of Jesus

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WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? Remember that inquiry from the 1990s? Adopted as a personal motto by Evangelical Christians, it was intended as a reminder of the moral imperative to act in a way that demonstrated the love of Jesus.

What ever happened to it? Is it possible that many believers discovered themselves unwilling to surrender behaviors that were not at all aligned with what Jesus would do?

When did Jesus come to be the prophet of people filled with fear-based anger and hatred? And when are those who sincerely strive to follow the teachings of Jesus going to stand up and disclaim those whose words and behaviors would cause him great grief?

Not disclaim them as human beings, of course, but as claimants to the title Christian.

This is baffling to me.

It should be said that I am not a follower of any one spiritual teacher. Yet, I follow the message of love wherever I find it, and hold that message in the person of Jesus especially close.

And so I say, rise up all you true-hearted Christians! If you believe that Jesus rescued you, then now you must rescue him. Rescue him from those who would use a false alliance with him to advance an agenda of divisiveness, bigotry and fear.

I know that there are many already engaged in this rescue effort. I have heard your voices. I count many of you among my friends. But I await a glorious chorus of Christian voices decrying the hijacking of Jesus and his message of love.

We need Christians—and good-hearted people of all faiths—who concern themselves not with political labels like Democrat, Republican, conservative or liberal, but with the simple inquiry, what would the great teachers of love do?

The answer may not always be simple. Life in the twenty-first century is complex. Yet, to paraphrase blogger John Pavlovitz, it is time for people of faith to insist that “religious liberty” compels them to feed children or curb gun violence or combat cancer or engage in any number of life-affirming efforts, rather than withholding wedding cakes and policing bathrooms.

Ironically, Muslims in America today are struggling for the recognition that Islam and Islamic extremism have nothing to do with one another. Likewise, I hope to see the Christian community in America rise up to draw that same distinction between true followers of Jesus and the extremists who misuse his name.

Wishing you peace.

Image from une jeune fille, the blog of Angélique Pledran

Our Last Best Chance

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“But, Pooh,” Piglet asked, “what will happen to The Hundred Acre Wood?”

“Well, Piglet, if the earth gets too warm, it may disappear” Pooh said sadly.

“That’s too scary to think about,“ whispered Piglet.

“I know,” said Pooh thoughtfully. “But we have to be brave. We have to think about it. And we have to talk to grownups about it. There is still time for them to help.”

“Okay,” said Piglet, hopefully, thinking how lucky he was to have a best friend like Pooh.*

*         *         *

Piglet is right. Climate change—with its potentially catastrophic impacts—is the scariest challenge we have faced since the Cold War spawned the threat of nuclear warfare. But, with nearly unanimous agreement among global climate scientists now, the existence and causes of climate change are no longer in doubt. We can only bury our frightened heads in the sand at great risk to the future of our children.

We do have to be brave. All of us. Conservatives and progressives alike.

There is indeed a window of opportunity remaining to do something about this crisis. But that window grows dangerously smaller with each day of inadequate action on a global scale.

So once we’ve summoned our inner warriors, and we’re facing down the demon, then what? I would urge each of us to take three steps.

First. Get your hands on a book entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by journalist Naomi Klein, or watch the feature documentary available on Amazon.

Oh, dear. I can hear my conservative friends gasping at that title! So, yes, the book does put forth the thesis—with a host of compelling studies and examples—that addressing climate change will require fundamental changes to the ideology and architecture of our consumption-based, profit-motivated economies. Still, I urge you to consider the merits of this idea. It may, in fact, represent our last best chance to achieve global climate security.

Second. We must elect leaders, top to bottom, who acknowledge this crisis and have the courage to take strong and immediate action to address it.

This means leaders who will stand up to the fossil fuel industry in its resistance to every action that could stem the tide of a crisis that endangers us all, particularly our children. Leaders who will be unafraid to close tax loopholes that allow big corporations to avoid sharing the enormous cost of transitioning to a secure energy future. And, leaders who will work with other nations to address this common threat.

Third. Right now, each of us can examine our own carbon footprint—from the vehicles we drive, to the speed at which we drive them;  and from the energy we use in our homes to the energy required to transport the products we buy from global markets to the stores where we shop.   Most of us can probably reduce our footprints considerably. And there are plenty of resources online to guide us in that effort.

If our leaders are doing their job, furthermore, then whatever sacrifices are to be made will be shared proportionately by all who can afford to make them, rich and not-so-rich alike.

Here’s, then, to a secure and healthy future for Amaya, Motley, Nathan, Landon, Ebonie, Elijah, Kayla, Samara, Aaliyah, Dereck, Ogie and all the other children in my life…and in yours!

* I’ve borrowed the dear characters from A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to share this important message. Their dialogue is mine, although I also borrowed the phrases and spirit of conversations heard in The Hundred Acre Wood.

Portals

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I have never sat at the feet of a Zen master. Have never been to India. Have never even been inspired to do the work required to reap the transcendent benefits of meditation.

But I did awaken one morning in a sleeping bag not far from the wheel of a covered wagon on the high plains of Montana. I awoke to the scent of sagebrush and the twilight glow that adorns the eastern sky before the break of day. From my snug berth at ground level, I watched an old cowboy pour coffee into an old tin cup from an old tin coffee pot as his small campfire crackled softly in the predawn stillness.

I did hear the ringing of an axe blade as it rent a cottonwood log in the breathless air of winter in the Little Rocky Mountains. And I’m certain I heard some ethereal strain of music in a snowstorm that swept down suddenly over Snowy Range Pass in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Wyoming one early summer day.

No, I have never sought a particular spiritual guide or a singular path to nirvana.

But I have been swept up by the scent of autumn leaves in Maine and the loamy fragrance of decay in the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest. I have lain amidst the sweet tawny grasses on a hilltop in North Dakota and drifted away on clouds that graced a cerulean sky above me.

And I was spellbound by the plumes of smoke that rose in satin streams from a sage stick in my hand on a grassy bank in South Dakota. As they curled around unseen currents, a prairie breeze swept across the vale, fanning the embers of the sage, transforming the gentle plumes into a billowing cloud of smoke, and carrying its incense deep into my soul.

I have dreamt the sweetest of waking dreams by the enigmatic flames of campfires on the shores of wild lakes and by many a homespun hearth. I have felt drawn by twilight skies to cross some inscrutable boundary into another world. And many a time I have felt the soft rays of sunrise penetrate my being with a knowledge that knows no words.

I call these experiences portals. And through them, through the profound sense of connectedness that is their gift, I see the nature of the cosmos as one. For many, the definition of the word love seems elusive. Yet what is love if not that experience of connectedness, of ultimate union, of oneness?

The natural world, of course, is not the only place that portals may appear. Perhaps you find them in the lofty grace of a cathedral. Or perhaps, in fact, in meditation. And music can inspire transcendent moments in infinite ways.

Perhaps, in the end, I do practice meditation. A form of meditation known as mindfulness. And that is a path I would prescribe for anyone.

Joni

The Day the Music Died

Just recently, I learned that a book was published in 2013 entitled Little Girl Blue—the Life of Karen Carpenter, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of her untimely death. While I have not yet read the book, it has inspired me to share a few thoughts of my own about this iconic vocalist. If you are a fellow admirer, enjoy.

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Amidst its baffling patchwork of lyrics, the song American Pie contains one phrase that has never been a subject for debate. For songwriter, Don Mclean, the day the music died was February 3, 1959—the day that the world lost Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson in a tragic Midwest plane crash.

For me, the day the music died was twenty-four years later, almost to the day. February 4, 1983 was the day that Karen Carpenter collapsed from heart failure related to anorexia nervosa.

Karen, with her incomparable voice, had had me at hello. And the Carpenters together provided the soundtrack of my twenties.

What was it about that voice? What is it still? One reviewer put it this way: “Karen Carpenter’s voice is that mixture that grabs you, holds you and forces you to connect, to engage. She is speaking just to you, taking you to places only you and she have known. She sings like she’s your friend, in a private conversation, confessing her fears and hopes just to you. She’s instantly familiar, as if you’ve known her all your life.”

And in placing her on a list of the 100 Greatest Singers published in 2010, Rolling Stone said this of her: “Impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate, Carpenter’s performances were a new kind of torch singing, built on understatement and tiny details of inflection that made even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes.”

It was just that personal. Almost shockingly intimate. And the effect when I listen today is just as immediate as it was when she was singing live. For me that intimacy is enhanced by the fact that I can relate in some ways to the angst of her life—an early sense of abandonment, the related longing for the love of a parent, and an overachieving drive to win that love and approval.

And there is this, too. Over the years, some have speculated about the sexual orientation of both Carpenter siblings. Richard, of course, went on to marry and father five children. Karen, on the other hand, was the quintessential tomboy who went on to play the drums and fail badly at relationships with men. Whether or not any of that is revelatory will likely never be known.

Despite the deepest relationships of my own life having been with women, I have never been one who wished myself into thinking that every women I admired was gay. Yet, I have always felt that one of the many ways in which Karen Carpenter felt that lack of control over her life that led to her anorexia could easily have been the impossibility of expressing closeted feelings for other women.

Growing up in the same conservative era as she, I was twenty-seven years old before I was able to respond to those feelings in myself. Karen, who was raised in a far more repressive family than my own, was not much older than that when she died. I have no vested interest in this having been true of her. It simply adds another possible layer of vulnerability to her unhappy life.

We will never know how life may have unfolded for Karen Carpenter and her brother if she had emerged in time from the ravages of anorexia. But, if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Karen’s vocal talent continues to be acknowledged as among the best ever. In recent years, numerous Carpenter tribute bands and remarkable Karen sound-alikes have appeared on the global music scene, and are playing to large and appreciative audiences.

Perhaps my favorite sound-alike, however, is Anna Gusmo, a blind Filipino woman who made her way around the internet recently. Her low-key performance of You with her partner, Gary—who, by the way, can sing—is just lovely. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyR2kHhuAfM