Thursday, May 6, 2010

Prayer for Secularization

I hope you're praying today because it's the law! After repeated appeals throughout history, from John Adams ("a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer") to reverend Billy Graham, the U.S. finally relented and in 1952 made the first Thursday in May the official day when people are asked "to turn to God in prayer and meditation". C'mon, everyone's doing it.

Growing up as a conservative christian (a.k.a. Jehovah's Witness), I was raised to believe prayer is a private matter between you and your god. If people want to pray on a particular day or sitting on the toilet, that's their business. But to be commissioned by the government? I could have sworn there was some statement about a separation of church and state at one point.... like with the founding of this country... some guy named Jefferson? Even Benjamin Franklin's suggestions for a prayer at the Congressional Convention was met with polite embarrassment and (according to his own notes), “except for three or four persons, [they] thought prayers unnecessary.”

The news is constantly referring to Muslim countries as being religious-based nations. Is this in contrast to the U.S? Well, clearly! It's not like we have God printed on our currency, or have federally recognized Christian holidays, or rules about what can be bought, sold, and consumed on Sundays (the Christian bible's God's day of rest), or have God in the pledge of allegiance to this country, or have public policies (like abortion or gay rights) be based on biblical teachings, or give public funds to private religious (but only Christian) schools, or pray to God at baseball games (the nation's official past-time), or ever give credit to God for war victories. And you can certainly be a non-christian and get elected to public office. Indeed, the U.S. is clearly the most secular nation on earth! So why not add a day of prayer?

Granted, the official decree is that the prayer can be addressed to any god of your choosing, but then what about all those folks who don't believe in God? What about the agnostics who might acknowledge the possibility of the divine, but aren't convinced enough to actually direct prayer towards it? Prayer is just another type of meditative activity instilled in ritual practice that is a part of every religion. You bow to Mecca five times a day, you pray to God at least once a day (of if in a sticky spot... like a foxhole), you walk around the Peace Pagoda three times in each direction; these are all just ways to encourage the individual to reflect. I wish more people did cerebrate on the world at large and their place in it. If people did this more more often, there might be less violence and more compassion for fellow man. But to have it mandated by the government in a specified form on a specified day isn't exactly what our (government defined) religion (and tax) escaping founding fathers had in mind.

I do pray for humanity. But generally it's a direct appeal.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leave Them Their Dignity

When watching The Fog of War, I tried to listen to Robert McNamara's insights on what he learned from his experiences - from remembering the end of WWI when he was two (yes, he swears he remembers) to his participation in Vietnam under Johnson's administration - with an ear for learning versus criticism. Of everything he described, there was one idea that struck me as utterly useful in everyday life, i.e. let them keep their dignity. Basically, when engaging an enemy, give them a chance to do it your way, but be sure to keep their dignity upheld in the process. This method makes for a more likely scenario in your favor. I thought, this is some basic, but very valuable advice.

I'm taking night classes at the community college which has the typical student body of parents, young workers, and a few older folks. Since this is western MA, most of the students are white. In my class, there is only one racial minority... a black man who looks to be in his late 50's to early 60's. And that man loves to hear himself talk. He often starts out as though he's asking a question, but really it's just a lead-in for him to take the floor... for as long as he can spin his tongue. The professor has pulled him aside several times, but it clearly made no impact. Then one day he didn't show up and the whole class murmured their relief. Then 45 minutes into class, he showed up and there was actually an audible, "Dammit" from the back row. I was sitting near the door, so he ended up standing in front of my desk searching the room for a seat. I pointed out that there were several empty ones in the far corner which resulted in his snapping at me that he'd "find [his] own damn seat!" Within minutes of his taking a seat, his mouth started going. It was unbelievable. Even the instructor showed her exasperation. I remembered that he usually went outside at the break (it's a 3-hour class) to smoke and decided that on this break he was going to have some company.

I followed him outside and told him that when I gestured towards the seats, I was trying to help him out. He immediately apologized, but only by getting about 2 inches from my body, requiring me to step back to maintain the usual social body space thinking, "So he's like that." So I took another step back said thanks before moving on to topic two.

"Why are you taking this class?" I asked. "Oh, it's just a diversion to get away from my girls." Since this is a Development Psychology course, we'd all heard many stories about his part in raising his four daughters. I felt pretty sure that he didn't think he needed education on children's development because he already had so much real world learning under his belt, that he could, in fact, teach the teacher a thing or two. So when I heard his answer, I knew my in... "Well, I'm not taking this for a diversion. I need this class and you're taking that away from me." When he asked how, I explained that the time he was speaking was time the teacher couldn't teach. I did everything right... the compliment sandwich ("you ask great questions, I just wish you'd talk less after them, it's cool you're taking this class") and I kept my hands in my pockets. But he got upset. He got in my face. So I explained that I'd been averaging the time he speaks vs. everyone else and had accounted that he took up about 20% of class time just on his needs.

"What are you doing that for? What are you watching me and calculating me like that for?" I explained that he had given me ample time due to all his talking. Then he got really mad and started yelling that if he wanted to take up 50% of the class time, that was his business. I told him, "No, I paid for this class, too, and I didn't pay to hear you. I paid to hear the teacher. So it is my business. Just like it's everyone in the classes business." I saw he was getting excited so I made sure to dig my hands deeper in my pockets. But he started yelling again, so I pulled out the big guns and said, "Do you realize that when you didn't come to class on time today, everyone in the class was grateful. And when you showed up, there was collective sigh."
"What do you mean?"
"No one likes you coming to class because you usurp their learning time."
"Well then I'll just quit the class!" I'll admit, a small part of me leapt with joy at this idea, but knew this was wrong... it was the behavior not the man that needed to go. So I said, "That's not what I'm asking for..." and I got no further because he started ranting about me daring to talk to him like that and telling me how important this class was to him at which point I reminded him that his first response to me was that this was "just a diversion." To which he pointed at my chest and yelled, "You're a liar." And proceeded to rant about how I'm making up words, etc.

I know when to walk away. I raised my hands in the classic surrender position and backed up only to realize that a couple guys from another class had come out to smoke and were watching the scene. One of the kids said, "I have to admit man, class is more about listening than talking." Then he turned to me and said, "I don't think you're going to get anywhere with him." Which was perfect because now it wasn't just me observing his bad behavior. He called to me as I walked away, "Hey, hey. Wait a minute. What. Do. You. Want. From. Me?"
"I just want you to talk less in class. That's it."
He stuck out his hand in a handshake gesture and said, "Ok then."
When I went to shake his hand, he pulled it back and said, "You have to promise me something though."
"What's that?"
"You have to promise to stop being so sassy."
Everything in me wanted smack him upside the head and give him a rundown on patriarchy. But in that same instant, I remembered McNamara's tale and thought, "Give him his dignity. He just had a young, white woman tell him that he's acting socially inappropriate. Let him win this one so you can get what you want." So I smiled, shook his hand and said, "You bet."

I admit, I mumbled under my breath, "Whatever, asshole" as I walked back into the building. But he didn't hear it and we spent the second half in class in educational meditation. The only words he spoke were valid questions that added to the class content. I was getting on my coat by the door as the class was leaving and I stopped him, shook his hand, and said, "Thank you, sir." He nodded solemnly and has blessed us with his silence (except for the occasional question for clarification) ever since.

Always let them keep their dignity.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

God and Earthquakes

This morning I overfilled my water bottle, so dumped some out. But I dumped out too much, so had to refill, then spilled a little more as I closed the lid. And once again I found myself having that moment... the one I have when I take a hot shower, or get into my comfy bed, or drink water from the tap... that moment of utter appreciation that I have these luxuries. I tried to imagine life on the streets of Port au Prince or along the coast of Chile and how the amount that I slopped around getting my bottle filled might have been a day's ration. Then I started calculating all the people who have died recently. There has been what seems like an unusual number of natural disaster casualties in the past year and half.

And suddenly the words of my youth echoed in my ear, "Earthquakes in one place after another!" (Luke 21:11). "Food shortages!" (Matthew 24:7) "Pestilence!" (Luke again). AAAAAGH!

Despite my many years of atheism, the beliefs from my years growing up as a Jehovah's Witness reared their heads like the horns on a certain "wild beast" and made me jelly kneed. For a solid minute, I thought ruefully of my disdain for a higher power and pictured my distress as I watched God take back the world with flames and screaming. Just as I had always pictured it as a child.

But then I got petulant. I considered this kind of god that would create beings just to torture them while they lived, only to kill them in the end if they don't believe in him, when the whole time he has refused to reveal himself. (I guess I should add "openly" for those Christian folks who feel God reveals himself if you just look hard enough.) Well, screw him. If he exists, I don't care. I have no interest in a creature who's less humane than I am. I'd rather die than live under his rule... even if the earth is transformed into a paradise. It'd be like sucking up to the horrible boss to get promoted, only to find yourself miserably working for the bastard on a daily basis. Who needs it?

Then I got my sanity back and remembered that natural disasters have always happened and have been a convenient source of fear that religions have strategically used to rope in the unsophisticated sinner. If, in fact, natural disasters are increasing in power, it's most likely due to climate shifting. Which bring up a higher power of another sort... Earth. But you'll have to check in with Lovelock to get the low-down on this idea.

I need a rest from considering powers beyond my control. It's exhausting.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Love, Intimacy, and Friendship

I have often heard it said that the best romantic relationships are made up of friends who realize at some point that they are attracted to each other and become lovers. It sounds lovely. And reasonable.

But I just can’t fathom it.

The other night, after waking from a nightmare and wishing my boyfriend hadn’t broken up with me so I’d have someone to cry on, I started thinking about my friends and the likelihood that we would ever eventually find ourselves suddenly having chemistry. We'd just be sitting around playing board games and joking with each other and suddenly the air would feel different, our eyes would soften, and... it was a stretch. I mean, when you meet someone, there's pretty much an automatic categorization of the person... would I, or would I not, sleep with this person. Granted, there are people you meet who you may find tremendously attractive, but once you realize their partner feels the same way, initial attraction slides into camaraderie. (At least, for practical folks like me who don't like to painfully pine for unavailable people.) In sum, you either you do or you don't.

I was ready to wash the whole thought pattern as some ridiculous romantic fantasy created by Hollywood, when I remembered my ex’s friends. They were friends all through college, dating other people but never each other when suddenly one day they found themselves to be in love. And just like the movies all said it would be, they are fantastic together. Consummate partners in everything from social obligations to sharing responsibilities for their new baby. The baby. The thing that couples bring into their lives often to save a relationship, not understanding that you can’t have one unless you’re utterly stable because as much as it draws you together, it can separate you if not working like a synchronized swimming team. They did this, and with utter sympathy for the other’s duties. That’s a partnership.

I do wish for that, but I just can’t understand how it happens. How can you not immediately know if you find someone sexually attractive? Is it be possible a friend of mine and I will suddenly realize there’s an intersection in our hearts that we just hadn’t noticed before. How marvelous it would be to fall in love with someone I already love. And trust. And have seen at their worst and love them still. And they'd love me despite all the persnickety details that make new love less shiny. How lucky I would be.