Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Travel Time

I went to Birmingham this week for three days. I am fortunate that I had almost forgotten how un-fun travelling can be, especially travelling for business. I know that I should be grateful; it is a modern miracle that I can get 500 miles in couple hours for a little over a hundred bucks (thank you, Southwest). It's also a peculiarly modern hell that, for all the speed and ease of travel, getting from here to there is a series of stressful deadlines. Any one section of the journey is ok, but stringing it all together demands eternal vigilence. I counted out a dozen connections on this trip:
  • House to car (Did I forget anything?)
  • Car to airport lot (Am I going to get there on time? Did I forget anything?)
  • Airport lot to terminal (Where did I park? When is the bus going to get here? Omigod omigod my wallet where . . . phew.)
  • Terminal to gate (wait in line, walk, wait in another line, walk some more)
  • Gate to airplane (wait in line, make five phone calls while departure time slips, move to another gate)
  • Airplane to another city (exhausted sleep, cramped neck, ten minutes of productive work before someone tells you something about the "off position" -- who came up with that term?)
  • Airplane to another gate (more waiting, phone calls, blaring CNN broadcast of non-news, happy families hugging, and no one to hug you)
  • Another plane to another city (some enormous guy is taking up half my seat, can I get away with finding another seat on the almost-full flight?)
  • Plane to rental car (no, Jesus Christ for the last time I don't need insurance)
  • Car to final destination (where are the headlights on this thing? Where am I going?)
  • Parking at final destination to real final destination (where can I park? How do I get to that building? Yes, they are expecting me. Yes, I'll wait.)

You've put in the better part of a work day just trying to get there. And, for all the stress, nobody particularly seems to appreciate what it took to get there. No wonder all those guys in suits are hitting their CrackBerries so hard. Thank God I'm only in purgatory once a quarter and not every day.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Pardon Libby

Scooter Libby was convicted of various forms of lying (making false statements, perjury, obstruction of justice), although it sounds like everyone, even the jurors who convicted him, were not very happy about it. Nobody can call it justice when one guy faces 25 years in prison for lying about something that ultimately was determined not to be a crime at all.

I understand the necessity of the whole concept of perjury. I know that we need to have strict penalties for not telling the truth on important matters. But it still feels like an abuse of power, when the only crime a special prosecutor can find is that someone got in his way.

I wonder how Libby feels about the whole situation. Clearly he is taking a bullet for the Cheney office, though we don't know if it was merely to avoid political embarrassment for the administration or to cover up something more dastardly. Does he feel like a bodyguard who falls in the line of duty? Are indictments of perjury merely an occupational hazard for a high-ranking administration official? Or does he resent having his life upended by an affair in which he had such a tangential role? Or maybe both? For that matter, I wonder how Cheney feels, having a close colleague take a hard and undeserved fall for his political benefit. (I have no special insight into the Vice President, but I do not assume, as many do, that he is a heartless super-villain.)

The Bush administration is famous for demanding unswerving loyalty from its staff. I wonder if they, in turn, will show an equal loyalty to them. Don't talk to me about political consequences. This administration is the lamest duck we've seen in some time. No doubt they will let the case go to appeal, hoping that the verdict will be overturned and spare them that particular political cross to bear. But soon, before the presidential race heats up too much, they should appease their conservative base and spare this scapegoat. If there's one thing George W. can do, it's blunt candor, and his supporters would only love him more if he looked into the camera and said, "I pardoned him because I thought he got a bum deal. He's a good man and he doesn't deserve this."


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Religious Knowledge vs. Religious Experience

Right on the cover of McNews this morning: "Americans ignorant of religion." Some surveys of basic knowledge of world religions showed that most Americans couldn't name at least half of the most basic tenants of faith -- their own, or anyone else's. Not even being able to name five of the Ten Commandments, or four out of seven sacrements . . . that's pretty disappointing, but hardly surprising. Americans haven't put any value on rote learning of any kind for decades.

Some of the pundits cited in the article blame modern attitudes towards religion, which puts an emphasis on experience and steals focus from real doctrinal knowledge. I have to admit that I think they're on to something. If people base their religion on a feeling of inspiration and hope, but don't have any grounding in explicit principles and rules, it's going to be pretty shallow. It leaves you open to manipulation by demagogues who will twist the religion to suit their own aims. And even if America is a fundamentally secular society, the rest of the world is not, and as we've learned in our recent wars, it pays to understand what the hell people are fighting about.

Unfortunately, nobody agrees on what it would take to fill the gap of religious knowledge. The people who take straight-up religious knowledge most seriously -- by definition, the fundamentalists -- are also the ones who most strenuously object to critical or analytical readings. Ironically, the preachers want you to be able to recite scripture by heart, but not start to question its true meaning, intent, or veracity. And the people with the most interest in open-minded approaches to religion are the ones most likely to brush past the details and gestalt the big picture. "Just groove on the message of Love, baby."

Ideally, we'd like to have the best of both worlds: a religion with flexibility and subtlty, but also with some spine. I am all for people being guided by their own conscience in moral matters . . . but a lot of pain and heartache could be avoided if people just took a few more "thou shalt nots" more seriously. I've been thinking of doing an SKS meeting along these lines: have them write down all the religious rules and doctrines they can remember, and then have them evaluate which ones they really believe in, and how much. What are the rules? Is anything sacred and inviolable?

I believe in rules. Maybe they are rules that you accept on faith from religious scriptures, or maybe they are rules that you carefully evaluate and formulate on your own . . . but there have to be some rules. And we might as well start with the ones that have been around for a few thousand years.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Taking the fifth

This morning, while waiting for a plane, I wrote a post about a transgendered professor at an evangelical college who is now bringing a complain to the EEOC. I thought it was going to be a thoughtful, balanced piece that recognized the plight of the transgendered but was frank and honest about how most people (myself included) find sex changes to be really weird and disturbing.

But I found myself staring at piece, and not really agreeing with it. That happens, sometimes; I'll write an opinion, and before I post I'll realize that it's not right. I guess the truth is I don't know what to make of transgendering. It is, by its very nature, a matter of confusion. The people it affects are confused, or their bodies are confused, and everyone else is confused right along with it.

Anyway, I lost my nerve to take a stand on the matter. I'll just do what most people do, when confronted with a woman who looks like a man trying to be woman . . . mind my own business.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

When the wars are over

At the SKS meeting last night, we talked about what was stressing us out. Talking about other people's problems is usually a relaxing affair, because we generally realize that we're pretty well off with our problems and wouldn't trade them for anyone else's problems. "Phew, I don't have any real problems, thank goodness."

But another thing we noticed was how everyone imagined there would come a time when they would no longer have to be so stressed out. They still believe in Someday. "Someday, when I'm finished with school and I've got a job, I won't have to be so stressed." I'm like the character of Bryan in Avenue Q, marvelling at the naivete of the newly graduated: "Look at that guy, all fresh-faced and not knowing anything . . . he thinks the hard part's over. But it's just beginning."

They all know it's an illusion, too. They wouldn't be coming to the SKS unless they suspected the whole game was rigged, and that a life of endless mad pursuits of one goal after another was, by itself, pointless. And yet they still have faith in it: "Someday it's going to get easier. Someday I will Arrive."

I am no different. Even while I am cramming code into another high-stress project, I am telling myself, "It will get easier soon. Once I get past this project . . . once we master this new product . . . once we get established in this vertical . . . once we have more employees . . . we will arrive." It's probably a healthy way to deal with stress, because of course nothing lasts forever, and this too shall pass, and we can tolerate most anything if we know it's temporary. But fostering the belief that all our struggle will ultimately make us Free . . . that seems like a devil's deal.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Stress test

A couple people responded to yesterday's post about the spiritual significance of stress, and I wanted to clarify my position.

Kenny pointed out that it would be pointless and irrational to get stressed out about things that were beyond your control, and that in fact our real stress comes from not controlling the things we could have but didn't:
If God stepped down and said "Here is an hour-and-a-half's worth of work. I want
you to do it in the next hour," you would not necessarily freak out about it. You would simply say, "That's impossible." Our real fear is that we have been given 45 minutes of work to do in the next hour, and we're not going to make it. That we could have made it if we worked harder, but we just didn't give it our all.

Some stress certainly does come from failing to live up to one's true capacity. That's the point at which stress takes on a moral dimension: I should have done it, but I didn't. In such situations, you not only fail, but you also take the rap for it.

Not all stress is like that, though. It is also possible that you are doing everything right, morally speaking, but that you are still on a course with failure. In fact, I am leaning towards that as my definition of stress: "Stress is the anticipation of failure." Whether it's your fault or not, stress is the result of recognizing the real possibility, or inevitability, of a significant failure.

We still have a lot to unpack from that definition. What's "significant"? What's "failure"? We can only get stressed out about the things that we care about. A significant failure is when we fail to come through for something we care about. So you have to evaluate the things that you care about, and decide if they are worth caring about, in terms of their ultimate value and importance. I'm sure that a lot of stress comes from neuroticism: caring about things that aren't worth caring about.

"Failure" is a judgement that is inextricably tied up in our expectations, and the expectations of others. That makes it somewhat squishy and maleable. Lots of self-help gurus would reduce your stress merely by fiddling with the definition of failure: "Don't see it as a failure. See it as a good experiment. See it as a learning experience." Or, they would caution you to reevaluate your expectations and set reasonable goals: "If you're constantly failing, you're trying to do too much." This, also, is good (as far as it goes) to eliminating the unnecessary or unhelpful stress in your life.

But of course we can't always control these things. We don't always get to choose the things we care about, nor are our obligations neatly packaged in a reasonable, achievable project plan. Our most important cares are the open-ended ones, the ones that make infinite demands: our children, our fellow man, and our God. If we can't raise enough food to feed our families and our children starve, that's failure, no matter how you slice it. And that, of course, is why we are doomed to failure, since we are programmed to want nothing but life and order, and destined to end in death and entropy. That also defines the miracle of grace, the call to embrace the stress anyway. Our caring is called to exceed its proper bounds.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Spiritual Significance of Stress

The last couple of weeks have been stressful. Harry defines stress as "being responsible for things you can't control." Augie had a similar take: "Stress is when you only have an hour to make an hour-and-a-half drive." When the demands of the situation exceed your ability to realistically control the outcome, that's stressful. That's a slightly different thing than pressure, which means that you're working harder than you're comfortable with, but there's still hope of meeting the goal. Pressure can, when carefully managed, be exhilerating. Management gurus generally agree that pressure is good and stress is bad, the difference between being stretched and being crushed.

While everyone agrees that stress is no fun, practically nobody seems to agree on the spiritual value of the experience. An awful lot of spiritual-minded people see the stress levels of modern culture and see a self-inflicted hell. Why, when so many of our material needs are sufficiently met, do we burden ourselves with so much suffering? All that stress only drags the mind into the materialistic muck, forcing millions of people to spend all their time worrying about things that ultimately don't matter. Wouldn't it be better to lower our expectations, live more simply, eliminate the stress, and use that peace and tranquility to focus on divine matters?

In spite of what you might read in Yoga Journal, eliminating stress is not necessarily synonomous with spiritual awakening. Augie, and his Zen teacher Richard Rose, were big fans of stress as agents of transformation. In their view, all accomplishment (including spiritual accomplishment) was limited by one's character, and stressful situations were the true test of one's character. Stress, by it's very nature, puts you outside your comfort zone, forces you to confront your limitations directly, and occasionally leads you to discover that you were capable of more than you thought. So, rather than avoiding stress, which can lead to comfortably numb mere existence, they would consel seeking out stress as a means of disrupting the status quo, defeating false egos, etc.

There are plenty of critiques one could level at both the pro- and anti-stress camps. While eliminating unnecessary stress can be quite valuable, merely as a way of reclaiming wasted time and energy, I doubt you can ever make a case for eliminating all stress. Life itself is stressful. If nothing else, you have to face the fact that someday you will die; stress is built into the game. On the other hand, stress for stress's sake seems equally flawed. Just because I'm pushing myself past my limits doesn't necessarily mean that I'm getting any wiser or stronger. Something else is required.

No matter which camp you fall into, stress is a wake-up call for awareness. In stressful times, you find yourself asking, again and again, "How did I get here? Why is this so stressful? Is this where I should be? Is the goal I'm working towards worth this pain?" If nothing else, it can provoke reflection and critical analysis of one's life. Times of pressure force you to make decisions about your priorities, and you find out just how dedicated you are to your family, your faith, your friends or your career. Perhaps, in the heat of that stress, you will decide that you need to live differently, and move to eliminate stress that is ultimately not worthwhile. You might also decide that it is worth it, and that mightily striving for a worthwhile goal is not only not bad, but the only way to find any meaning at all. When stress comes, pay attention.

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